Black slavery isn’t an uncommon topic for writers. Most of the twentieth century American literature is dominated by acclaimed novels satirizing, or criticising forthright, prejudices against blacks. Of course it has contributed significantly in mobilizing the masses against this fairly common discrimination apart from the fact that it has produced some unforgettable literary gems. William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison are writers that aren’t going to be wiped off our memories very soon. Which brings us to the absolute genius of a book called Beloved.
Beloved is much more than a story about the horrid impact of black slavery on its victims. It is a process of humanization, or rather, the re-humanization (since the Civil War had already made people aware of basic human rights for blacks) of victims of slavery and prejudices. It is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, who killed her two-year-old daughter when slave owners came to recapture them under the Fugitive Act of 1850. It follows the lives of Sethe, who has escaped slavery (the fictional counterpart of Margaret), her younger daughter Denver and Paul D., a fellow slave-worker who eventually becomes her lover. It follows their lives after the escape and the lingering impact that slavery has had on them. The larger focus of the novel, however, is on justifying Sethe’s act of killing her two-year-old daughter, Beloved, which has predictably earned her apathy of her neighbours and caused her two sons to run away and her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, to die in extreme despondence. The act, which on the outset questions the very sanctity of motherhood, is, through the course of the novel, made into an act representative of a mother’s love.
How Morrison approaches the humanizing of a seemingly cruel act is what makes her truly worthy of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. Rather than blatantly lashing out at the practice of slavery, she employs magical realism to depict Sethe’s character. Beloved is made into a ghost who comes back to haunt her, and how that affects Sethe and her hitherto garbed feelings of guilt helps the reader engage better with her character psychologically. There is also strong symbolism in the pregnant appearance of Beloved in the climax juxtaposed with the terribly shrunken figure of Sethe’s; since Paul D had wanted to have a baby with Sethe, and Beloved had coerced him into making love to her, the imagery could stand for Beloved snatching away what was supposed to be Sethe’s (Beloved’s stomach is reminiscent of a baby-bump). It is also the ghost that helps get the neighbourhood that had rejected Sethe to come together to her aid. The fantastical element of Beloved, paradoxically, helps readers relate psychologically and emotionally to Sethe and all the characters she comes in contact with, making their experiences much more palpable, poignant and believable.
After all, it is no mean feat to get people to empathize with women killing their own daughter isn’t it?