Toni Morrison's Beloved: ghosts of a brutal past

In the final instalment of her series on the novel, Jane Smiley on why Toni Morrison’s Beloved - a sensational story of slavery and racism in America - has endured

It is clear from Morrison's dedication ("Sixty Million and more") that she intends to embrace the social document potential of the novel, as, indeed, any novel that treats injustice and its effects must do. This acceptance of the novel's power to shape opinion actually frees her to do anything she wants artistically - novelists who are careful to avoid social questions tend to limit their subjects to personal relationships or aesthetic questions that seem, on the surface, to be perennial, though in fact the novelist is usually simply avoiding the social and economic implications of what he or she is saying. For Morrison and most other writers of the 1980s, though, everything about the novel, from plot to style to characterisation, that had once seemed fairly neutral was seen to be fraught with political implications. Like Tolstoy, who also embraced the novel as a social document and openly used it to express his opinions, Morrison had a theory - a vision of slavery and black/white relations in America - that was in some ways old-fashioned, but still inflammatory and unresolved. The task was to remake the old story in a compelling way, and also to separate her own telling from that of earlier writers, especially Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Beloved is not as easy to read as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is easy to get used to, and once the reader begins to distinguish among the elements, they fall into place quite clearly. As it opens, Sethe, in her late thirties, is living with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver, in a house that the neighbours avoid because it is haunted. The time is the early 1870s, right after the first wrenching dislocations of the civil war and its aftermath. Sethe and Denver live in an uneasy truce with the ghost until the arrival of Paul D, one of Sethe's fellow slaves on her former plantation in Kentucky. Paul exorcises the ghost, but then a mysterious female stranger shows up. She is 20 years old and strangely unmarked - she has no lines in her palms, for example, and her feet and clothing show no signs of hard travelling. She calls herself "Beloved ", and Sethe and Denver are happy to take her in.

Sethe, Denver, Paul D and every other character in the novel live simultaneously in their present and in their history - the chapters of the novel alternate between the two stories: that of the growing contest between Sethe and Beloved; and that of Sethe's life on the plantation, her escape, and the traumatic events that followed her crossing of the Ohio River and her appearance at the home of her mother-inlaw, Baby Suggs. A crucial, revealing and in some ways impossible to assimilate event takes place about halfway through the novel - Sethe's former owner shows up with some officers to recapture the escapees, and Sethe attempts to kill her children. The two boys and the newborn survive, but she succeeds in slitting the throat of the two-year-old.

Everyone is astonished and appalled by this turn of events (which Morrison discovered in an old newspaper account of the period). Baby Suggs is never the same again; Sethe is shunned by her fellow citizens; Denver grows up isolated and suspicious. Morrison is careful, though, to indicate that while this is a pivotal event in the lives of everyone, it is not the climax, or the worst thing to have happened to Sethe and her loved ones. The climax of the historical narrative is, in fact, the night of the escape, when several of the escapees were hanged and mutilated, while the present-time narrative builds to Denver's decision to separate herself from what is apparently a life-and-death struggle between Sethe and Beloved, and to go out and find work and friends that will help her save herself.

One of the reasons Beloved is a great novel is that it is equally full of sensations and of meaning. Morrison knows exactly what she wants to do and how to do it, and she exploits every aspect of her subject. The characters are complex. Both stories are dramatic but in contrasting ways, and the past and the present constantly modify each other. Neither half of the novel suffers by contrast to the other. Especially worth noting is Morrison's style, which is graphic, evocative and unwhite without veering toward dialect. Even though Morrison rejects realism, using a heightened diction and a lyrical narrative method returning again and again to particular images and events and adding to them so they are more and more fully described, the reader never doubts the reality of what Morrison reports. Just as Sethe recognises Beloved toward the end of the novel, and knows at once that she has known all along who she is, the reader is shocked at the sufferings of the black characters and the brutality of the whites, but knows at once that every torture and cruelty is not only plausible but also representative of many other horrors that go unmentioned in the novel and have gone unmentioned in American history. Harriet Beecher Stowe was accused in her time of exaggerating the cruelties in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and she replied that in fact she whitewashed events to render them publishable. Morrison is her heir, in the sense that she dares to discuss and publish more (though certainly not all) of the truth.

Beloved has held up quite well over the years, despite Morrison being as much a product of her time as any other novelist. The novel seems, for example, more current and compelling than The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One reason for this is that racist attitudes in the United States change very slowly, but another is that Morrison is far more subtle in her exploration of her ideas than Kundera is. Morrison depicts every incident with such concrete expressiveness that the reader takes it in willingly as truth. She is also entirely matter-of-fact in her assertions - equally so about the presence and identity of the ghost as about the character flaws of the whites. No aspect of the novel is presented as speculation, and so to read on, the reader suspends disbelief. In this, Beloved works something like The Trial or The Metamorphosis. With a tale, the reader is asked to suspend disbelief completely and at once. If she can't do it, she won't read on; if she does do it, she is in the mood to accept everything the author asserts as true. The bonus of the tale form, for Morrison, is that she is also tapping into a vital store of black folklore that feeds her style as well as her story.

Beloved is one of the few American novels that take every natural element of the novel form and exploit it thoroughly, but in balance with all the other elements. The result is that it is dense but not long, dramatic but not melodramatic, particular and universal, shocking but reassuring, new but at the same time closely connected to the tradition of the novel, and likely to mould or change a reader's sense of the world.

· 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley is published by Faber at £16.99

Contributor

Jane Smiley

The GuardianTramp

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