By Chet Yarbrough
Toni Morrison reminds one of Faulkner in her story “Beloved”, in both a negative and positive way. “Beloved” is a difficult book to grasp in a first listen; like “Absalom, Absalom!” it begins by mystifying the listener and then draws one in with a desire to rehear–to understand its meaning and import. Morrison reveals the reality of being black in America while Faulkner sees black from the reality of being white in America.
“Beloved” like “Absalom, Absalom!” is filled with a multitude of characters that live in pre and post-civil war’ America with differing remembrances of things past. Morrison views slavery through the eyes of a black matriarch while Faulkner sees through eyes of white slave holders, white abolitionists; and singularly, a black man who appears to be white. Morrison copies Faulkner’s use of characters that remember the past differently; reflecting personal and unique perceptions of reality. The goal of both authors is to reveal a more complete truth.
“Beloved” is like a song with a refrain that reveals the terror and hope of being black in a prison of white jailers that exercise control over most aspects of life. Morrison’s ethereal writing and voice soothes auditory sense while searing conscience; i.e. elegant phrasing and allusions tell horrific stories of being Black in mid-19th century America. One hears and imagines a black mother having to make a Hobson’s choice to murder her daughter or let her be taken by a brutal slave master. A listener of Morrison’s story becomes a part of a black family and begins to understand how, and why, escape from reality is through superstition and magical belief.
Beloved is a character that takes the place of a ghost in the house of the “Hobson’s choice” mother, Sethe. The ghost is Sethe’s oldest female child; a child that Sethe murders before her family can be re-captured by a brutal slave-master called Schoolteacher. Sethe flees from the slaver but carries the consciousness of her filicide to her mother-in-law’s house in Ohio, the house at 124 Bluestone Road. Her mother-in-law is Baby Sugs, a freed slave that has taken Sethe’s two boys into her home when they could not be taken care of by Sethe’s broken family. Sethe is pregnant with her last child, Denver.
Like “Absalom, Absalom!” understanding “Beloved” does not become clear until one is deep into the novel. Clarity begins with the introduction of Paul D, a friend of Sethe’s from 20 years earlier–when she escaped Schoolteacher.
Sethe flashes back in time to tell the story of how she is raped by the slave master and his nephews and how Sethe escapes when she finds no refuge, either from her husband that is broken by the rape or her owner that refuses to defend Sethe from retaliation for having exposed Schoolteacher.
Flashing back to the present, Denver is now a teenage girl; she knows the story of the murder of her sister and envisions the ghost of her dead sister living with them at 124. Denver fears her mother because of her sister’s murder and distrusts Paul D because he is a stranger, and because the ghost Denver loves-disappears when Paul D arrives. Paul D becomes Sethe’s lover.
The story gathers magical belief with the arrival of a young woman who insists on being called by only one name, Beloved. Beloved becomes a physical replacement for the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter. Paul D is seduced by Beloved and learns of Sethe’s filicide; he moves out of the house because he cannot bear the truth of either his infidelity or Sethe’s Hobson’s choice.
Morrison offers an understanding of a black family’s experience of slavery; not just its physical brutality, but its psychological consequence. She adds a Black dimension to Faulkner’s truth in “Absalom, Absalom!” But, as in Faulkner’s writing, a listener’s patience and attention is demanded to gain some understanding of its author’s meaning.