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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

The Ghosts of History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

“The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life – every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.”(247)

Toni Morrison, Beloved

I read and created unit plans for four novels last year, including Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and Beloved by Toni Morrison. All of these texts were mind-boggling for different reasons, but only Beloved was truly explosive.

When I think of cutting-edge, experimental writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf that mastered new narrative styles and were ahead of their time, Toni Morrison also comes to mind. In fact, the novel fits right into conversations about the evolution of narrative styles like limited omniscient narration and free indirect discourse. When my students asked me if the novel is magical realism, or a ghost story, or historical fiction, I responded with ... I don’t know, maybe?

True wordsmiths like Morrison create complex and slightly elusive plot lines and inspire conversations and interpretations for hundreds of years. The greatest literature goes beyond great plot. It’s all about how the writer delivers the plot to their reader.

Beloved raises the same type of question as The Scarlet Letter: why, in 1850, did Hawthorne write about America in the 1640’s? Or The Unvanquished: why in the 1930’s did Faulker write about the South in the 1860’s? They both wanted to know: how can the stories of our ancestors help us better understand the country we live in? Why is Sethe’s story important now? How can it change how we see things? What got lost in the pages of history and slave narratives? How do the souls of the dead and tortured still haunt us and make us who we are today?

“Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” (Beloved, 42)

We always ask important questions about the modern relevance of literature, but in this case, there is an incredible link between how Sethe deals with the past and how Morrison tells Sethe’s untold story. Morrison brings both Sethe and Beloved back to life just as they try to bring themselves back to life after being enslaved. It’s a magical resurrection and we get to see more than suffering and dehumanization, we see rebellion, pride, and the rebuilding of a self, a haunted house, and a nation:

“And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.”(Beloved, 104)

Beloved functions like a firework: terrifying, but then beautiful. It’s really one long poem with metaphors, similes, and playful syntax that also immerses itself in the reality of the past and the consciousness of the characters. It is a story of what happens when we forget the past, when we try to kill it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. It comes back to life with a raging power. The story of slavery is like an unwanted and discarded package left in your parent’s attic to gather dust. It’s sad that it went unopened for so long, but when we finally unpack it and unfold it, the strength, courage, and resiliency hidden inside comes into view and changes everything:

“No one knew the downright pleasure of enchantment, of not suspecting but knowing the things behind things.”(Beloved, 45)

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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