Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved is a unique work of literature in its distinct focus on commemorating the trauma of institutionalized slavery in America, an often overlooked part of history. Morrison translates the trauma into literature through addressing the inspiring and heart-wrenching story of the ex-slave, Sethe. At its core, Beloved communicates the often neglected traumatic realities of slavery and the psychological trail of impact it leaves on individuals. Thus, the memories of the slaves are depicted as omnipresent and a deep challenge to the human consciousness. In the novel, Morrison merges the past and the present together through storytelling. The transmitted narrative gives rise to a collective oral tradition about the past and provides former slaves the opportunity to define themselves. Yet storytelling also awakens the painful realities of the past, which prevent many individuals from moving on. Morrison’s ubiquitous use of recounting the past in Beloved demonstrates the complex and dynamic relationship between the past and the present. Through the widespread use of storytelling techniques, Morrison puts forth the idea that passing a traumatic and difficult narrative is a concrete, self-reflective tool to cope with pain, preserve history and ultimately facilitate emotional fulfillment.
Denver uses rational thinking to indicate that it is odd that Sweet Home is spoken about so frequently even though it seems to be a source of suffering for everyone. Denver does not understand why Sweet Home plays such an integral role in the present if they seemed so eager to “run off” and leave the past behind them. The recurring storytelling of Sweet Home illustrates a central theme within Beloved— the inescapable impact of past experiences over the present-day lives of the individuals. Sweet Home may physically be in the past; however, emotionally it consumes the present. Denver cannot fathom why such a place would be called ‘sweet’ or even ‘home.’ Typically, the notion of ‘home’ is associated with the positivity and love surrounding a personal location. This seemingly ironic description of the plantation points to the dual relationship the ex-slaves have to Sweet Home. Through defending the relevance of Sweet Home to the present, Sethe comes to internalize that although it was a cruel place full of traumatic experiences, it also contained a sense of community and companionship— they were “all together.” As literary scholar, Ashraf Rushdy, in Daughters Signifying History explains, “Denver is the filtering ear for Sethe’s process of self-discovery.” Denver actively listening to the stories of Sweet Home facilitates Sethe’s ability to see beyond the trauma and discover the small gifts from her past.
This concept of storytelling as a valuable remedy for emotional troubles is expanded upon when Sethe tells Beloved stories from her past: “Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was painful…But as she began telling about the earrings, she found herself wanting to, liking it…it was an unexpected pleasure (p. 69).”
This passage elaborates on the the theme of the past controlling the present. Sethe wishes to avoid connecting the past to the present through “storytelling,” yet Beloved gains a tangible “satisfaction” from the tales. More intriguing, Beloved’s enjoyment and gains appear to transfer back to Sethe. This particular example unravels the multifaceted abilities within Beloved’s character. She helps Sethe heal by forcing her to reconcile her past with her present, yielding Sethe “unexpected pleasure” in what has previously disturbed her. In doing so, Beloved enables Sethe to use storytelling as a medium to acquire a distance from the narrative, detach Sethe from the pain and become an audience for her own story. However, more skeptically, Beloved’s thirst for the traumatic stories and embracement of the past manipulates Sethe into bringing resisted and unwanted memories back to the present. In this instance, like scholar, Juda Bennett says, “Morrison highlights the tension between the desire to turn away and the need to face bravely those stories that threaten our sanity yet require our attention, stories that are full of pain and yet also hold the promise of working through the pain.” Beloved’s character manifests the fundamental tension that lies within storytelling; it can be both troubling to open old wounds yet an immensely therapeutic process to make sense of the past. The transmission of Beloved’s “satisfaction” to Sethe’s “pleasure” epitomizes the transformative essence of effective storytelling and accordingly the emotional fulfillment that can result.
Sethe continues to use storytelling techniques to give Denver a better understanding of the present. She can clearly understand that Denver maintains a more distant relationship to the past, exemplifying the distinct differences between generations of slaves. Therefore, Sethe must explain to Denver, “Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory…. Places, places are still there (p. 43).” This idea of “rememory” debunks Denver’s assumption that the past is simply transitory. Rather, it emphasizes the significant and potentially permanent role that past experiences exert on the present. “Rememory” highlights a cyclical quality of memories; they seem to be recreated, as opposed to merely observed from a distance. This phenomenon implies that one can listen to a story frequently enough and eventually reconstruct the event as if it happened to himself. Rushdy elaborates on this concept: “These ‘rememories’ not only exist outside the agent’s mind but are available to anyone who enters the sphere of the action.” In light of this comment, it is more understandable why Sethe prohibits her daughter from visiting Sweet Home: she may fear that Denver, after hearing all the stories, will be confronted with traces of her mother’s past, which will have been integrated into her own memories and consequently relive Sethe’s traumatic experiences. We see here the intricate connection between the past and the present. As such, Sethe must strike the balance between revealing too much of her past and keeping her daughter too far in the dark. When this balance is struck, storytelling can be a valuable mechanism for which Denver can come to terms with her past and begin to relate to her present.
Denver uses storytelling as a mechanism to further strengthen her connection to her history and therefore, excitingly jumps into the narrative of her birth when prompted by Beloved: “Denver stopped and sighed. This was the part of the story she loved. She was coming to it now, and she loved it because it was all about herself…Denver was seeing it now and feeling it— through Beloved. Feeling how it must have felt to her mother. Seeing how it must have looked. (p. 91)”
As she relays the story, Denver essentially morphs into her mother. She transcends beyond surface level storytelling and emotionally and physically places herself into the depictions. Perhaps Denver loves this story so intensely because as the central character, she views herself as an integral part of the past, giving her a strong foundational connection to her family’s history. Sethe’s story of Denver’s birth becomes so entrenched in Denver’s brain that it evolves from a story she has heard many times to a personal memory. Denver transmits the story as if she was her mother, feeling all the implications of what occurred. Further, the detail in the story of Denver’s particularly auspicious location of birth on the border between the North and the South, signifying freedom and slavery, reveals her ambiguous position between Sethe’s dark past and her own potential future. Although Denver was born in a precarious time for Sethe, she was born at the hands of a benevolent woman, Amy, who represents one of the few lights from Sethe’s past. This juxtaposition of the positivity of Amy and the dangers of the birth further demonstrates the complexity that lies within Denver’s understanding of self through storytelling. Until the story of her birth, as scholar Linda Krumholz in The Ghosts of Slavery says, “Denver’s relation to the past is primarily historical rather than personal…without knowledge of her mother’s past, Denver must remain in isolation from history….” The story of her birth both gives Denver an intimate connection to her history, and narrows the perceived emotional gap between Denver and her mother.
After hearing unsettling stories about her husband, Sethe finds herself frustrated that she cannot control her own thoughts, thus exemplifying the unsettling aspect of storytelling. “[Sethe] shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can’t hold another bite? (pp. 82-83)”
The personification of Sethe’s brain as a “greedy child,” is reminiscent of Beloved’s incessant thirst for stories. Here, Beloved becomes a metaphor for the uncontrollable nature of thinking and the psychological damage it can cause a person. As much as Sethe desires, she cannot overcome the consuming nature of her memories and they continue to exert power over the present. Likening her brain to something of a “rebellious” nature indicates that she feels betrayed by her own self. Essentially, her inner-thoughts become her biggest opponent and fear. Although storytelling and memories cause Sethe much anguish, storytelling itself may provide the tool to heal some of Sethe’s psychological wounds. Literary scholar, Brooks Bouson, in her book Quiet as it’s Kept, states that when done in a constructive manner, memory allows the slaves “to take back the ‘authority’ and ‘power’ by telling the story.” Storytelling most notably empowers Sethe with the ability to communicate a narrative that she wants others to know. By the nature of storytelling, Sethe can determine which details are relevant and worth sharing. Indeed she has much control over others’ knowledge of the past, yet she remains a victim to her brain which constantly reminds her of all that she wishes to forget. This embodiment of her brain presents the paradigm for which storytelling can be understood. Storytelling gives individuals a concrete way to grapple with sources of pain and achieve authority over oneself.
This pain that is associated with storytelling is alluded to later on in the narrative when Morrison writes, “All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching… (p. 248).” The language here is deliberately convoluted, unpunctuated and told through a stream of conscience. Yet perhaps the confusing nature of the passage connotes Morrison’s message that time is perceived as one fluid continuum. The characters in Beloved exist in a reality etched so deeply with trauma that time appears to stand still. Time decisively consolidates into a singular focal point that perpetuates and transforms the nature of storytelling. In this tale, the narrator, who is not explicitly revealed, recalls a horrific voyage on a slave boat from Africa in which she was “crouching” below the deck, without room to move. She feels enslaved by her own memory, and thus is “always crouching.” She is physically trapped by her past and bemoans the state in which she is forever paralyzed. Stemming from her survival instinct, she is constantly aware of her surroundings and is “watching others.” Her memories confuse the past with the present and create one connected reality. Writer, Clifton Spargo, in Trauma and the Specters of Enslavement in Morrison’s Beloved, explains the purpose of this understanding of time; “we are forced to ask what we ought to make of a past that lives anachronistically beyond its proper moment.” Through intertwining the past with the present, Morrison suggests that the two work in tandem and are, in fact, inseparable. The repeated manifestation of the stories force both the characters within the story and the readers to investigate the specters of the past, which often become relevant to the precise moment in which they are rediscovered.
At large, Beloved underscores the empowerment that lies in preserving personal histories specifically through oral transmission. Morrison elaborates on her intentions in writing Beloved: “The fact is that the stories look as though they come from people who are not even authors. No author tells these stories. They are just told—meanderingly—as though they are going in several directions at the same time…The stories are constantly being retold, constantly being imagined within a framework.”
Morrison deliberately chose the digressive stream of conscious framework for this story in order to parallel the nature of storytelling in general. The muddling and almost disorientation between the past and the present in the novel characterize the authenticity of the oral stories between Sethe and her daughter. Although the “several directions” can connote Morrison’s ambiguous and chaotic intentions, here it is precisely the opposite. Morrison uses the aimless “meandering” to reiterate that the ideal is not to be a robotic storyteller, but rather to appeal to natural human emotions. The narrated tradition allows the individuals to “imagine within a framework” and transmit stories in meaningful ways, rather than mindlessly relaying details of the past. Storytelling is both a fascinating and empowering tool which equips ex-slaves, who were previously robbed of any level of control, to claim ownership over the details of their history. Aside from those hearing the stories themselves in the novel, Morrison composes her novel in such a way that her readers feel as if they are now a part of the tradition, with the obligation to propagate the story forward. As such, Morrison preserves the histories of the characters not only through the content of her novel, but through the manner in which it is communicated.
In conclusion, Morrison demonstrates the intricate relationship between the past and the present and the compound role that storytelling has on individuals. Although Sethe does not appear to be psychologically prepared to confront her past demons, she is forced to do so by the appearance of Beloved. She engages with her trauma and copes through storytelling. The novel ends with the narrator reflecting on the storytelling process itself and says “this is not a story to pass on” (p. 324). Morrison seems to recommend that certain personal histories belong to the past and should not be retold, nor re-experienced. Yet it is deeply ironic that Morrison clearly decided that this story is worth passing. This paradox suggests that this story cannot simply be passed on, disguised as a mundane piece of literature, considered and eventually forgotten. Instead, the story must be told in a manner which reveals the larger meaning behind its facade. This interpretation advocates for a strong opposition against slavery and articulates the value of communicating stories regarding painful tragedies. While it may be emotionally straining at first, storytelling can be a therapeutic way to honor the past, cope with the present and ultimately claim agency over the future.
- Rushdy H. A., “Daughters Signfying History: The Example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” American Literature. Vol. 64, No. 3. Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 567-597.
- Bennett, Juda. “Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative.” African American Review. Vol. 35, No. 2. Indiana State University, 2001, pp. 205-217.
- Krumholz, Linda. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review. Vol 26, No. 3. Indiana State University. 1992, pp. 395-408.
- Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet as it’s kept : shame, trauma, and race in the novels of Toni Morrison. Albany : State University of New York Press, c2000.
- Spargo, R. Clifton. Trauma and the Spectors of Enslavement in Morrison’s “Beloved.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1. University of Manitoba. 2002, pp. 113-131.
- Andrews, William L., and Nellie Y. McKay. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: a Casebook. Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books, 2004.