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Beloved: The Haunting Past of America

Some people cannot remember anything for weeks, months, or even years. This condition is called amnesia, “the loss of memory as a result of brain injury or deterioration, shock, fatigue, senility, drug use, alcoholism, anesthesia, illness, or psychoneurotic reaction.”1[1] Especially, when amnesia is a psychoneurotic reaction, it can cover even the patient’s entire life. Toni Morrison, in an interview, said that not only an individual but also an entire nation could be diagnosed as (psychoneurotic) amnesia. Discussing Beloved, she explained what she calls a “national amnesia.”

I thought this [Beloved] has got to be the least read of all the books I’d written because it is about something the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, black people don’t want to remember, white people don’t want to remember.2[2]

The memory of slavery that nobody wants to remember had to be written, and the unspoken stories had to be told and remembered. No matter how it hurts to “rememory” the past, Toni Morrison had to write about it, and she did. She had to give a voice to the “Sixty Million and more” slaves and names to those who had been buried nameless.3[3] She said, “It was an era I didn’t want to get into – going back into and through grief,” yet she had to, because America has been still haunted by the past of slavery and burdened by the weight of the memory. Through Beloved, Morrison brought up the repressed memory again and woke up America from a “national amnesia.” In this essay, I shall discuss how Morrison evokes the haunting past of America in Beloved so that no one runs away from the past: first, by giving voices to the slaves, especially, Margaret Garner; second, by arousing a …

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…itz, “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved,” Studies in American Fiction, 17 (1989), 157. Although, from a vampire, succubus, to a pre-Oedipal child, various ways of seeing Beloved is possible, Horvitz’s definition is more comprehensive. On the vampire, succubus theme, see Trudier Harris, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991). The definition of a pre-Oedipal child gives a great deal of insight to see the relationship between women characters. See Jennifer Fitzgerald, “Selfhood and Community: Psychoanalysis and Discourse in Beloved,” Modern Fiction Studies, 39 (1993), 669-87.

9[9] The unconscious is a controversial concept. I used this term in a more figurative way. It is like a huge storage, in which we throw away everything that we do not want to remember or accept.

Essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved – Sethe’s Act of Filicide

Sethe’s Act of Filicide in Beloved

Shortly after the publication of Beloved, Toni Morrison commented in an interview that Sethe’s murder of Beloved “was the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it…. It was the only thing to do, but it was the wrong thing to do.”1[1] Does this remark prove the moral ambiguity of the infanticide, as Terry Otten argues?2[2] Yes, it was right but wrong, and wrong but right. However, the most important thing is that “It was the only thing to do.” Sethe had no choice. If there is anything wrong, it must be either, in Paul D’s words, her “too thick” love, or the inhumane institution of slavery. However, as Sethe answers back to Paul D, for her, “Thin love ain’t love at all” (164). For Sethe, there is no such thing as “thin” love, and it is true. Her love is not “too” thick but “so” thick that she would kill her own child rather than see the baby live as a slave.

Another interview in 1994 makes it even clearer that Toni Morrison has been sympathetic to Sethe from the start. She talks about Margaret Garner, whose story gave Morrison the inspiration to write this novel. Sethe’s story is almost identical with Margaret Garner’s.

I had an idea that I didn’t know was a book idea…. One was a newspaper clipping about a woman named Margaret Garner in 1851…. she had escaped from Kentucky with her four children. She had run off into a little woodshed right outside her house to kill them because she had been caught as a fugitive. And she had made up her mind that they would not suffer the way that she had and it was better to die. She succeeded in killing one; she tried to kill two others…. That the woman who killed her children love…

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…she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years…. Her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make up for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her their child, a boy, with her – only to have him traded for lumber in the spring of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. The child that she could not love and the rest she would not. (23)

She could not claim any child as hers. Being someone’s property, she could not and would not love her children.

7[7] Eric Jerome Bauer, “Beloved: The Paradox of Freedom,” It is almost annoying to read such a naïve opinion based on “too abstract” humanism, but it is worth thinking of what makes the opinion possible.

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