This 1987 novel by Toni Morrison might be her most “beloved.” It also might be the richest, most complex, most difficult, and most rewarding of her works.
Often categorized as “magical realism," it can also be read as a historical novel, a fictional slave narrative, a socio-political study, a psychological novel, a gothic romance, a re-enactment of Biblical myth, or a mythologizing of African American experience in universal terms.
Historically the characters and their stories represent the African American experience of slavery and its aftermath. Like the traditional slave narrative, it recounts Sethe’s escape from captivity to freedom, but its main focus is her post-slavery quest for liberation from the psychological and social legacy of slavery and achievement of full selfhood, independence, self-worth, and dignity as a human being.
The novel’s roots in history include the actual story of an escaped slave mother who murdered her own child rather than have her recaptured, a story that Morrison researched in newspaper archives. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beloved_(novel). Its roots in slave narrative can be traced to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Jacobs confesses that at one point she thought she would rather see her own children dead than to suffer the indignities and cruelties of slavery. The myth of the Terrible Mother can be found in pagan traditions of the Earth Mother or Great Goddess, a personification of Nature, who not only gives us life but also takes it. A monotheistic parallel can be found in the Old Testament Jehovah who not only saves and protects his “chosen people” but also punishes them, sometimes with death and destruction, a la the great flood.
Mythological and religious references abound in this story of the murdered child, Beloved, who returns to haunt and “possess” the mother who killed her until the “devil child” is finally exorcized and purged by suffering, perseverance, love, family, and community.
At one level the story represents Sethe’s guilt and atonement for the murder of her child (or, in other terms, her psychological illness and recovery), but the historical and mythic contexts lift it to another level, in which Beloved represents the burden of slavery carried, not only by the fictional Sethe and her family, but by all African Americans, a burden that must be lifted before full “salvation,” psychological health, and ethnic pride can be fully achieved.
This story of redemption likewise rises to the level of universal myths of birth and creation, fertility, quest, death and resurrection, sacrifice and salvation. At the same time it addresses a contemporary social and political debate over the extent to which individual behavior is the result of genetic, biological, psychological, social, economic and political circumstances and the extent to which it is the result of free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Though Sethe’s act of infanticide can be explained in terms of her brutalization in slavery and the psychological damage she has suffered as a result, the novel does not let her off the hook as an individual responsible for her own actions. We might be tempted to judge her “not guilty by reason of insanity,” but the novel holds her accountable and insists that she undergo a necessary penance before she can achieve both moral and psychological “at-onement.”
In the end, in a work that is filled with images of fertility, birth, and creation, Sethe experiences a kind of moral and psychological death followed by resurrection and rebirth.
Similarly, the novel suggests, African American culture and community, having suffered the destructive effects of slavery, will be reborn into health and vitality. For all the horror and tragedy that the novel depicts, it is a redemptive narrative that offers hope to all individuals and communities, of whatever ethnicity, who have been victimized, brutalized, and terrorized by history.