We study history in order to understand the past, particularly its traumas, so we will not perpetuate them; yet how can we avoid our mistakes when we hardly acknowledge the impact of the ones we have already made? If the past months have revealed anything, we see the wounds that still seep from our country’s side, wounds that many were convinced had been closed—or did not exist at all.
That, in part, is what makes Toni Morrison’s Beloved so horrifying. On one hand, it’s an eerie and tragic ghost story; on the other, a look at slavery that is far more brutal and honest than any history book. Both perspectives combine to create a brilliant, harrowing classic of American literature, one whose truth we must acknowledge. *Those who have not read the book, be warned: there are light spoilers ahead.*
Beloved begins with Sethe and her daughter, Denver, who live in a house tormented by a malicious specter. The rest of the family, Sethe’s two sons and her mother, have either died or fled. Their isolated existence is interrupted when Sethe’s old lover, Paul D., comes to visit—a reminder from the past that disrupts the fragile balance of Sethe’s mind. Traumas seep back into her consciousness, and a mysterious young woman arrives, upending the house with her presence. Surrounding all of this is Sethe’s own history, and the story of her escape from slavery during the Civil War. This is where the true nightmare lies.
Morrison uses several different “brands” of horror throughout her narrative. In the first few chapters, we encounter a spirit who bathes the house in red light, destroys objects in poltergeist-like fits of anger, and drives family members away with its hovering, supernatural darkness. When this spirit materializes into the young woman (coincidentally named Beloved, just like Sethe’s lost daughter), the horror becomes psychological, an unspoken war between Sethe and her physical guilt. The novel's most chilling “brand” of horror is what occurred during the Civil War, and it rears its head gradually. The impact of slavery, of having your identity robbed from you, has wounded Sethe’s mind, and the memories are revealed to the reader in nonlinear sections. Worst of all, the death of her daughter, a revelation so disturbing that Morrison’s prose does not describe it directly, is related in impressionistic fragments.
That scene holds the source of the novel’s horrific power; all other events revolve around it. We are told through several different perspectives of Sethe’s escape with her children, her arrival at the house, and the day her despicable master finds her. Driven mad by despair, Sethe plans a final escape for her family, deciding that death is better than bondage. She kills Beloved as the master approaches. Repulsed by the scene, he decides she isn’t worth taking back and leaves her. Sethe escapes physical capture, but her ostracization and the curse of Beloved’s reappearance become their own prisons.
Morrison’s narrative has moments of hope, and all does not end in utter despair, but she also makes no excuses. The horror and degradation of slavery are on full display without theatrics or catharsis; there is only the frank nightmare. Choosing a supernatural theme also makes the terror more tangible and crafts a very literal metaphor in the specter of Beloved. She shows that these atrocities were never resolved or repaired, and never can be. As Sethe feeds further into her guilt, providing Beloved with fine clothes and food until she is gigantic, Sethe herself begins to dwindle to the point that she almost destroys herself. Even after the novel’s climax, during which some conflicts are resolved, Morrison never suggests that Sethe has escaped. The nightmare continues, even—and especially—today.
Of course, memories tormenting people in human form are not exactly a real phenomenon, but the events that inspire the metaphor are very real. I remember slavery and the Civil War taught in school as things that have been “fixed,” belonging so deep in the past that we as a society are no longer responsible. Beloved demonstrates the extreme damage that this kind of thinking causes. We are seeing its effects now: if we place blame on people who have already died, then we can’t possibly make the same mistakes—it can never be so bad again. Morrison wrote her novel thirty years ago, and its power has not waned. When all the supernatural elements are stripped away, she leaves us with a bone-chilling reminder that our real ghosts have not been exorcised, and our wounds are left unstitched. Can we still learn something from this? We must hope so. Until then, the wound gapes, and horrors leak through.