Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, was one of the most respected American writers of the past half century. Her work is also part of a broad phenomenon in which African American literature (especially that produced African American women writers) has come to be recognized as one of the most vital and exciting forces in contemporary American culture. Morrison’s work is marked not only by its intense engagement with important social and political issues, but also by its literary complexity and sophistication. In addition to her work as a novelist, Morrison was a prominent literary and cultural critic whose work brought important new perspectives to American intellectual life.
A graduate of Howard University and Princeton University, Morrison worked as an editor and teacher before establishing herself as an important new literary voice with novels such as The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981). Beloved, a work of genuine artistic brilliance that addresses some of the most profound (if unpleasant) issues in American history, is possibly Morrison’s most important work. It was followed by two other novels, Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) that also directly engage with African American history. Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise have often been regarded as a trilogy.
The Literary Art of Beloved
Beloved is an extremely complex work of art that employs a number of sophisticated self-conscious literary strategies. Moreover, these strategies powerfully interact with the content of the book to make a statement about slavery and its effects the impact of which potentially exceeds any that might be achieved through a direct “scientific” account of the historical facts. Indeed, in the depiction of the attempts of Schoolteacher to construct a scientific description of the behavior of slaves, Morrison suggests a direct relationship between scientific uses of language and the ideology of domination that made slavery possible. Morrison’s own highly literary language then serves as a counter to the dehumanizing scientific discourse employed by Schoolteacher and his pupils. In many ways, then, Beloved is a highly literary work that responds well to analyses of its technical strategies. At the same time, Morrison’s book, whatever its formal brilliance, derives its power from the importance of its historical context and from its intense engagement with that context. Morrison’s major project in the book is to provide reminders of the genuine horrors of slavery and of the immense human suffering that institution entailed. The significance of this project clearly cannot be appreciated by purely formalist analysis. Moreover, Morrison’s depiction of the human consequences of slavery radically undermines any nostalgic attempt to see the antebellum South as an idyllic paradise free of the alienation they associate with modern industrial capitalism.
Probably the most obvious literary strategy employed by Morrison in Beloved occurs in the construction of the plot of the book, which relies on the distinction between story (a sequence of events in chronological order) and plot (the events of a novel in the order in which they are presented. In Beloved, this presentation involves a great deal of artistic intervention and restructuring of the action in nonsequential order. The fictional story of Sethe and her children is based on the real historical experiences of Margaret Garner, a slave who escaped from a Kentucky farm in 1856 and crossed the Ohio River to take refuge in Cincinnati. Recaptured there by slave hunters, Garner cut the throat of her young daughter to prevent the young child from being returned to slavery. In transforming these events into fiction, Morrison changed a number of the details to enhance the impact of her narrative. Perhaps most importantly, she relates the story not in chronological sequence, as might a conventional historian, but in a highly complex and nonlinear form. The plot, in fact, functions as a kind of puzzle, with bits and pieces of the story gradually falling into place as the reader makes their way through the book. Meanwhile, rather than present her narrative from the single objective point of view typical of most conventional histories, Morrison narrates different parts of the story from the perspectives of different characters, allowing readers better to appreciate the human dimension of the events she is describing rather than simply seeing them as a sequence of “facts.”
Morrison’s complex narrative can sometimes be disorienting, or even confusing, but even this confusion serves a positive function. Morrison herself has suggested that the sudden shifts and changes that her readers must negotiate in reading the text are intended to give readers something of the flavor of the experience of the original slaves, snatched from their homes in Africa and then transported inexplicably into slavery in America (“Unspeakable” 228). In addition, Morrison’s disavowal of chronological sequence challenges the kinds of linear models of history typical of Western culture. In that sense, her plot structure clearly shows the influence of alternative cultural perspectives, including both African and African American oral storytelling traditions. On the other hand, nonlinear plots are also typical of the modernist literature of the West. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Beloved is its effective combination of elements and techniques from the African American oral tradition and from European and American modernism. Interestingly, the plot of Beloved, in which readers gradually discover the elements of the plot in nonlinear fashion, is particularly reminiscent of the work of William Faulkner, whose technique is sometimes referred to as “plotting by discovery.” Of course, Morrison’s echoes of European modernism (and especially of the white Southerner Faulkner) may seem ironic, but it is not really surprising given the fact that Morrison wrote her master’s thesis at Cornell University on the work of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, though the combination of elements in Beloved, along with its consistent use of what might be described as magic realism, tends to make the novel appear more postmodern than modernist.
Of course, the seriousness of Beloved’s engagement with history would seem to set it apart from Fredric Jameson’s influential vision of postmodern literature as unable to engage critically with history. Kimberley Chabot Davis, though, argues that Beloved should be read within the context of postmodernism, perhaps thereby revising our understanding of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon. In particular, Davis concludes that Beloved can establish a dialogue between postmodernism and African American traditions of social protest that might help us to see that postmodernism might have more potential for critical engagement than Jameson believes.
In addition to the complex plot structure, Beloved uses a great deal of figurative, connotative language, often taking particular advantage of the potential multiple meanings of language. For example, a key image that runs throughout the text is that of “possession,” but Morrison carefully builds upon the multiple meanings of this word. In Beloved, “possession” may mean ownership (especially the ownership of slaves), it may refer to the notion of supernatural possession, or it may mean the kind of possession indicated by the term “self-possessed,” as in Baby Suggs’s suggestion that white people simply “don’t know when to stop” (122). In a similar fashion, the last chapter of Beloved repeats three times the declaration that Beloved’s story “was not a story to pass on” (323–24). At first glance, this declaration seems to refer to the fact that the story is so horrific that it should not be retold, that Sethe, Paul D, Denver, and the others involved in it need to put it behind them once and for all in order to get on with their lives. Yet this meaning seems directly to contradict the whole project of Morrison’s book, which is to assure that stories like this one are not forgotten. Moreover, the triple repetition of this passage suggests that we should look at it with special care. Indeed, a closer look reminds us that to “pass on” a story can also mean to decline to tell it or listen to: in short, to ignore it. The declaration can also mean that the story should not be allowed to expire or be forgotten, since to “pass on” also means to die. Indeed, early in the text Sethe suggests just this sort of meaning in relation to stories from the past when she tells her daughter Denver that some things from the past simply disappear from memory, or “pass on,” while others can never be forgotten (43). The clear tension between the potential meanings of this final declaration—that Beloved’s story should not be told and that it must be told—makes the declaration more powerful, even as it also evokes the entire history of slave narratives, which have traditionally revealed many of the conditions of slavery while repressing (through censorship, either overt or subtle) some of its more horrific aspects.
The impact of Morrison’s text is often enhanced by literary uses of language that deviate significantly from ordinary “standard” language use. For example, Morrison often uses African American dialects in depicting the speech of her African American characters. She also links her narrative to African American storytelling traditions through the use of colloquial language that flows in the text with oral, sometimes musical, rhythms. Numerous critics (Krumholz, Rushdy) have thus emphasized the importance of oral elements in the narration of Beloved. This technique is probably most obvious in the chapters directly narrated by the characters, as when Sethe begins her section: “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing” (236). Similarly, the later section narrated by Beloved, with its broken syntax and lack of punctuation, reflects through the texture of its language the agony and confusion of the slave experience of which Beloved is a sort of allegorical marker (248–51).
Metaphor is one of the most common types of literary language, but one of Morrison’s more interesting linguistic strategies involves a sort of defamiliarization of metaphor itself. In particular, she sometimes reverses the normal relationship between literal and figurative language in Beloved when she employs in a literal sense words or expressions that are normally used metaphorically. For example, in the first encounter between Paul D and Sethe, he tenderly cups her breasts from behind, giving her a feeling of relief that, for once, “the responsibility for her breasts . . . was in somebody else’s hands.” She thus feels relieved of the “weight” of her breasts (21). Here, both the phrase “in somebody else’s hands” and the phrase “relieved of the weight” would normally be expected to be metaphors for a transfer of responsibility, yet the situation actually dictates literal readings: the physical weight of Sethe’s breasts is indeed in Paul D’s hands. Later, as Beloved’s attentions gradually drive Paul D to take up of residence in one room then another of the house at 124 Bluestone, we are told that “she moved him” (134). Again, one would normally read this expression metaphorically as a suggestion that she had a strong emotional impact on Paul D. But, in context, we learn that she literally and physically causes him to move about the house.
In such passages Morrison renews worn and clichéd metaphors by causing us to look at them in new and different ways—as Wyatt puts it, to do a “double take” (478). Morrison directly opposes the literary language of her text to the language of science. Schoolteacher’s brutal humiliation of the slaves in his charge is in fact presented very much as a matter of language, the notebooks in which he records his observations about slave behavior serving as a central image of his domination of the slaves. Indeed, Schoolteacher himself is very well aware that his control of language and its “proper” use is a key to his control of the slaves on Sweet Home Farm. Thus Sethe, who had personally made the ink used by Schoolteacher to make his notes, directly identifies his notetaking as a central element of his brutality. “I made the ink,” she tells Paul D in their crucial encounter at the end of the book. “He couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (320). Meanwhile, in a key scene, the slave Sixo cleverly defends his theft of a pig from the farm on the grounds that he needed the meat for his nutrition and thus for the improvement of Schoolteacher’s property, thus echoing an episode in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in which a slave wins emancipation by successfully defeating his master’s argument for slavery (Douglass 83). But, in Beloved, freedom is not so easily won: Schoolteacher beats Sixo anyway, as a reminder that “definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined” (225). In response, the defiant Sixo turns away from the use of English altogether, refusing to endorse the language of his white masters.
Slavery, Capitalism, and Beloved
Beloved centers on the phenomenon of slavery in the American South in the nineteenth century, but much of its commentary remains relevant to the modern capitalist world of today. Indeed, there are a number of ways in which the commentary in Beloved goes beyond the slave South. For one thing, the book is carefully constructed to indicate that the techniques of oppression associated with slavery were not limited to the American South. The physical and psychological abuse suffered by characters like Sethe and Paul D (and by the black Americans on whose real-life stories these characters are based) ends neither when they move spatially into the “free” North nor when they move temporally into the years after the “emancipation” of the slaves in the Civil War. For another thing, the race relations on which Beloved focuses may be more relevant to the class relations that are so central to modern capitalism than is immediately obvious, especially in the United States, where the complexities of class society are inseparable from the question of racial and ethnic differences.
Much of the commentary in Beloved is specifically economic—and in a way that remains relevant to today’s world. For example, both capitalism and slavery involve the overt exploitation of one group in society for the economic benefit of another, so it is clear that the two phenomena are related by structural parallels, if nothing else. One should not, of course, forget the very real and literal suffering of American slaves as individual human beings subjected to confinement, torture, brutalization, and humiliation as central facts of their everyday lives. And it is important to recall at every point in discussing Beloved that even the book’s most abject events are based on historical reality. But the extension of the suffering of Morrison’s characters beyond the spatial and temporal bounds of the slave South suggests that their experience may have broad, almost allegorical, relevance to American society as a whole. Morrison carefully extends the slavery motif beyond strictly racial bounds as well, introducing into the text a band of renegade Cherokee Indians (who help Paul D escape from imprisonment in Georgia) and the escaped white indentured servant Amy Denver (who crucially assists the escaped Sethe in childbirth, establishing an interracial bond that provides a direct reminder that many white workers lived in a condition of virtual slavery in the nineteenth century as well). These suggestions of a broader relevance in Morrison’s depiction of slavery acknowledge that the quite literal treatment of human beings as property in slavery makes slavery a particularly overt example of the commodification of human beings that occurs in more subtle ways in capitalist society. Indeed, Morrison calls a great deal of attention to the way slaves were often regarded merely as aspects of the economic system, not only because their labor was crucial to the operation of the agricultural economy of the American South, but also because they were quite frequently bought and sold, used almost as a secondary form of currency. Slaves were, in short, valued not only for the uses to which they could be put as farm laborers and household servants, but for their exchange value, for the price they could be expected to command on the open market.
In one crucial scene, Paul D and his friend Sixo attempt to escape from slavery on Sweet Home Farm but are recaptured by a group of white slave catchers. Sixo is brutally murdered because of his stubborn defiance of these captors, while Paul D is shackled and taken back into captivity. On the way, Paul D overhears the white men discussing his market price, and he understands for the first time that he is primarily valued by his white masters not for the work he can do on the farm, but for the price he can command at sale. In a moment of realization of his status as a commodity, Paul D learns the “dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future” (267). Moreover, he learns that he will probably be sold soon (for about $900) so that the farm can use the money to purchase two younger slaves to try to rebuild the farm’s “stock” after the recent escapes. Slaves, in short, are exchanged much in the mode of cattle, with no attention to their needs (or abilities) as individual human beings.
Beloved also emphasizes that slaves were often regarded as breeding stock, a woman slave often being treated merely as “a brood mare purchased to produce human capital” (Keenan 60). And this emphasis is quite true to history. As Hazel Carby points out, the slave woman’s “reproductive destiny was bound to capital accumulation; black women gave birth to property and, directly, to capital itself in the form of slaves” (24-5). In this sense, the process of “labor” through which infant slaves come into the world becomes a sort of pun on the way capital in general is produced by the labor of workers. The sexuality of slave women thus becomes a mere mechanism for the production of capital rather than a potential source of genuine human relationship, contributing to their alienation in a radical way. Understanding this phenomenon well, the white neighbors scoff at the policies of Mr. Garner, the former master of Sweet Home, who had allowed his slaves to marry rather than simply mating them like animals to produce the maximum number of new slaves (267).
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the slaves in Morrison’s book find it difficult to establish meaningful personal relationships among themselves. Indeed, Beloved extensively explores the way the commodification of slaves contributes to their alienation. Knowing that they might be sold at any moment, slaves in the book find it quite difficult to feel at home anywhere. Moreover, they find it quite difficult to conduct meaningful personal relationships because they know that anyone to whom they become emotionally attached (including their own children) might be taken away from them, sold to a distant owner and never seen or heard from again. Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs thus thinks of her life as like a game in which people she loves are moved around like checkers, subject to sudden and permanent removal from the board. She hardly remembers most of her eight children or their six different fathers, all of whom have been merely temporary presences in her life: “Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, bought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized” (28).
In a similar way, Paul D knows that it is dangerous in a slave economy to become too attached to anyone or anything. He thus develops a strategy of trying to love everyone and everything a little, but not to love anything so much that its removal will be too painful. This strategy of universal (if limited) love represents a potential gesture toward the kinds of communal relationships that informed the traditional African societies from which American slaves were originally removed. But for most of the book the emphasis is not on the universality of Paul D’s love, but on its muted quality, on his inability to establish a deeply meaningful connection with anyone. In this sense, the attempts of the reincarnated Beloved to seduce Paul D (and thus to impede the connection between Paul D and Sethe) can thus be read as an allegorical representation of the way the legacy of slavery continues to make personal relationships difficult for former slaves. Meanwhile, the relationship that is nevertheless established between Paul D and Sethe in the course of the novel is particularly crucial because it suggests that the two former slaves, by learning to love and trust one another, have at least partially overcome the alienating effects of the past.
For Mbalia, in fact, “solidarity” is the major theme of Beloved, which details the possibilities for resistance to oppression through collective action by the African people (89). Morrison thus introduces into her text a number of positive images of interpersonal communication and cooperation as a counter to the alienation experienced by the slaves. These include the network of former slaves and sympathizers who work together to help Sethe and other slaves escape from the South and who later continue to function as a cooperative community in the Cincinnati area after the nominal end of slavery. The scene early in the book in which Paul D, Sethe, and Denver attend a carnival suggests a more private form of solidarity, as does the later scene in which Sethe, Beloved, and Denver function for once as a real family during an outing in which they go ice skating in “a moment of Utopian unity, of mythic resolution” (Keenan 76).
The central example of meaningful contact between individuals in the book is the connection between mother and child, often powerful despite the fact that under slavery the mother and child might be separated at any moment. Sethe, for example, describes her children as parts of herself, apparently feeling—in direct defiance of the alienating strategies of the slave system—that she has the right to take their lives because those lives are inseparable from her own. As Renee Lee Gardner argues, despite the immensity of Sethe’s sacrifice in killing the infant Beloved, there is a possibility for seeing a certain “personal and political redemption” in this sacrifice, through which Sethe asserts her own agency against the forces that have so maimed her life (203).
Here the book’s central metaphor is breast-feeding; Sethe’s urgent drive to get to Ohio so that she can bring her milk to the infant daughter who has preceded her there serves as an important example of quite literal and direct human contact. The material nature of this contact again suggests Marx’s analysis of human society and of the primacy of the need for necessities like food in social relations. The brutal taking of Sethe’s milk by Schoolteacher’s pupils at Sweet Home Farm thus stands as the book’s most powerful and direct image of the interference in communication between slaves that is central to the system of slavery.
Of course, the alienation of individual slaves from one another can be seen as part of an intentional “divide-and-conquer” strategy on the part of their owners: by making it difficult for slaves to establish and maintain strong interpersonal ties, the white owners help to assure that the slaves will not band together to revolt against their masters. It is for this reason that conditions on Sweet Home Farm under the regime of Mr. Garner are particularly horrifying to many of Garner’s neighbors. By allowing slaves to marry and to conduct other forms of close personal relationships, Garner potentially provides the slaves with a source of communal bonding that might lead to rebellion. Indeed, the eventual mass escape from the farm seems to vindicate those who see Garner’s ostensibly enlightened policies as leading inevitably to trouble.
The fragmentation in the communal lives of slaves brought about by the divide-and-conquer strategies of slavery corresponds to numerous other ways the lives of slaves were radically fragmented due to conditions in which they were forced to live. For example, Barbara Omolade notes that a slave woman was often treated as a “fragmented commodity,” the different parts of her body being assigned to different tasks: back and muscle for field work, hands for more delicate service like childrearing, and sexual organs for the sexual pleasure of the white master and as “his place of capital investment—the capital being the sex act and the resulting child the accumulated surplus, worth money on the slave market” (365). In Beloved the most radical example of such bodily fragmentation occurs in a scene in which the reincarnated Beloved begins to feel that her body is literally flying apart and that one day she will wake up and “find herself in pieces” (157). But the ex-slave Sethe clearly experiences this sort of fragmentation as well, exacerbated in her case by the “scientific” attempts of Schoolteacher to measure and record the characteristics of the separate parts of her body. Again, however, Morrison provides a positive counter to this fragmentation of the bodies of slave women. In a crucial scene near the end of the text, Paul D offers to bathe Sethe, and she wonders if the parts of her body will hold together as he bathes them one by one. Paul D reassures her that they will and that the connection between Sethe and himself will help her to reconnect the fragmented parts of her psyche as well (320–22).
Beloved and Gender
Beloved focuses most obviously on issues related to race, but (as in all of Morrison’s work) gender issues are central to the text as well. Morrison’s treatment of slavery in the book concentrates on the special forms of oppression suffered by women slaves. By extension, Morrison also suggests the special difficulties encountered by black women in American society even outside the bounds of slavery. At the same time, Morrison indicates that prevailing stereotypes of masculinity pose special problems for black men as well. On the positive side, Morrison explores potential solutions to the problems she delineates in the novel, suggesting in particular the contribution that feminine energies can make to this project. Indeed, Morrison’s own text, which employs a number of modes of discourse that have been identified as feminine in recent feminist criticism, can itself be taken as a direct demonstration of the possibilities for feminine subversion of traditional patriarchal attitudes.
Morrison has specifically characterized her career as an attempt to explore the kinds of experience that black male writers have failed to encompass in their work. For example, she once said in an interview with a white male that “I always missed some intimacy, some direction, some voice. Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright—all of whose books I admire enormously—I didn’t feel they were telling me something. I thought they were saying something about it or us that revealed something about us to you, to others, to white people, to men” (Ruas 218). In Beloved Morrison seeks to uncover private and intimate aspects of slave life that have been suppressed (for various reasons) in both conventional histories and slave narratives like Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And she does so partially by employing a mode of writing that has much in common with discussions of feminine language in the work of French feminists, such as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva.
Paralleling the identification by both Cixous and Kristeva of musical language as distinctively feminine, elements of song often creep into Morrison’s text, as various characters recall songs that they have heard at various earlier important periods in their lives. Further, Beloved echoes the emphasis (especially by Cixous) that feminine language is related to the special sense of connection that women have to their bodies, a sense that arises from primal memories of infantile Imaginary Order fantasies of fusion with the body of the mother. On the other hand, Beloved emphasizes that these sorts of private psychological experiences cannot be separated from the social world. In particular, the book suggests that for slave women the experience of slavery might impede the easy acceptance of one’s physical body that Cixous identifies as quintessentially feminine; moreover, it suggests that the legacy of slavery includes the propagation of certain stereotypes about black women that might perpetuate this alienation of black women from their bodies well beyond the nominally end of slavery.
In response, Beloved seeks to overcome this alienation. As Jean Wyatt notes, the book places a great deal of emphasis on forms of experience normally excluded from “Western cultural narratives,” including the experiences of childbirth and nursing (474). Moreover, several passages in the book openly embrace the physicality of the feminine body. In one scene, Denver recalls the advice given her by her Grandmother Baby Suggs to overcome the abusive expropriation of the feminine body that had been the lot of slave women:
“Slaves not supposed to have pleasurable feelings on their own; their bodies not supposed to be like that, but they have to have as many children as they can to please whoever owned them. Still they were not supposed to have pleasure deep down. She said for me not to listen to all that. That I should always listen to my body and love it” (246).
The emphasis on feminine physicality in Beloved often focuses on bodily fluids, reinforcing an emphasis on images of water and other fluids that are central to the entire text. These images may involve the crucial Ohio River that Sethe and her fellows slaves must cross in order to enter the free North or the breaking of Sethe’s water as she is about to give birth to her daughter Denver as she begins to cross that river. Indeed, the text’s images of water and other fluids (especially Sethe’s breast milk and her daughter’s blood) are quite often associated with the experience of motherhood. One of Beloved‘s most important instances of water imagery occurs when Sethe first sees the reincarnated Beloved and then immediately produces a copious an uncontrollable flow of urine that the text specifically identifies as a kind of symbolic reenactment of the release of amniotic fluids before childbirth: “Like flooding the boat when Denver was born. … But there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now” (61).
Morrison’s extensive use of water imagery recalls Cixous’s argument that water is a central feminine image. Cixous describes the woman’s text as “a lively combination of flying colors, leaves, and rivers plunging into the sea. . . . We are ourselves sea, sand, coral, sea-weed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves” (“Laugh” 260). Such water imagery, of course, is common to Imaginary Order fantasies of the feminine. It is perhaps no accident that Freud described the experience of his “oral” stage (somewhat analogous to Lacan’s Imaginary) as an “oceanic feeling.” Water imagery is also prevalent in the brief, but crucial, chapter narrated late in Beloved by Beloved herself. Seeming to merge with an ancestor who had come over from Africa on a slave ship, Beloved identifies the lack of water (despite the fact that the ship itself is in the midst of an ocean) as one of the more oppressive elements of the long sea journey. Images of floating in water are also prominent in this chapter, which involves a number of fantasies of fusion of the kind typically associated with Lacan’s Imaginary Order. These fantasies are somewhat vague, and it is not always clear whether Beloved is fantasizing a fusion with her mother Sethe or with her symbolic ancestor on the slave ship, but then such generalized fantasies would be consistent with Beloved’s allegorical role in the text.
Stylistically, this chapter—with its lack of punctuation, its nonstandard syntax, and its flowing, musical rhythms—is the section of the book that corresponds most clearly to French feminist ideas of feminine writing. Indeed, its appearance in the text might be described as an irruption of the semiotic of the kind discussed by Kristeva. But, if the semiotic (or Cixous’s écriture féminine) is in fact related to a recovery of the infant’s experience in the early stage dominated by the Imaginary Order, then one would of course expect Beloved’s own discourse to correspond quite closely to these notions of feminine language. After all, Beloved was killed while she was still quite young. Her development was thus arrested while still in the Imaginary Order stage and she would be expected to retain a special access to the feelings and experiences associated with that stage. Meanwhile, Lorraine Liscio suggests that Morrison’s text as a whole can be usefully comprehended within the context of Kristeva’s notion of the revolutionary potential of semiotic language: “Morrison’s focus on the preoedipal mother/infant daughter bond offers a subversive modality meant to disrupt the symbolic white schoolteacherly language that kills” (35).
French feminists such as Cixous and Kristeva might suggest that Morrison’s experimental writing practice, with its numerous violations of traditional literary decorum, is automatically subversive of patriarchal authority. But Morrison importantly supplements the subversive potential of her style through her focus on powerful feminist content. Much of the oppression described in Beloved is specifically related to gender and sexuality. Indeed, Morrison suggests that slave women were valued more for their sexuality and reproductive capabilities than for their work as servants or field laborers. Thus, Paul D recognizes that Schoolteacher was willing to track the escaped Sethe all the way to Cincinnati because of the high value of slave women of child-bearing age: “her price was greater than his; property that reproduced itself without cost” (269). The treatment of slave women as breeding stock is one of the central themes of Beloved, which calls attention to the dehumanization of slave women brought about by this practice.
In this sense, Morrison describes an element of slave life that has been extensively documented in slave narratives and conventional histories. But Morrison follows through on the implications of this motif in ways that most of her predecessors have not. Noting, for example, that the children produced by slave women were quite frequently fathered by their white masters, Morrison specifically calls attention to the fact that the sexuality of slave women added to their value not only because they could produce additional slaves, but also because they could provide their white masters with sexual pleasure. It has long been conventional to describe the whole phenomenon of slavery as a metaphorical rape of the slave population. But Morrison forcefully points out in Beloved that quite literal rapes were an everyday occurrence in the lives of slave women. Indeed, Morrison has emphasized to Marsha Darling in an interview that she wanted in the book to make sure that readers were forced to confront the horrors of slavery “in the flesh” rather than from the more comfortable distance of metaphor (Darling 5). Beloved contains numerous examples of the literal use of black women as sexual slaves. After the young Sethe observes the gruesome death of her mother by hanging, another slave woman reveals to the girl that the mother had earlier given birth to several children as a result of forced sex with numerous white men. Similarly, the woman Ella recalls her earlier life in slavery when she was once kept locked in a room for more than a year by a white man and his son who tortured and sexually brutalized her.
Importantly, this sexual abuse of black women does not end with the nominal termination of slavery. For example, there are rumors in the contemporary (1873–1874) Cincinnati of the book that a black girl had recently been held for years as a sexual slave by a local white man. Moreover, even when black women are not literally raped they are often forced to submit to unwanted sexual advances in order to survive. Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs had thus once agreed to have sex with a farm boss for four months in order to be able to keep her latest child with her—only to have the child sold away the next year. And, in what is probably the book’s most poignant example of this sort of sexual commodification, the destitute Sethe is forced to have sex with a stonecutter in order to pay him for carving the word “Beloved” on the headstone of her dead baby daughter.
Sethe remains traumatized by this experience, the memory of which remains “more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil” (5). But for Sethe, the most painful memory of sexual abuse involves the crucial experience on Sweet Home Farm when, in a kind of rape, she is held down by one of Schoolteacher’s “pupils” while the other nurses from her breasts, still flowing with milk for her infant daughter. Schoolteacher, meanwhile, looks on and takes notes on the event, making it all the more humiliating for Sethe. Humiliation is, of course, the very point of the taking of Sethe’s milk, which is done in retribution for the recent attempted escape of several of the Sweet Home men. When Sethe complains to Mrs. Garner about this humiliation, she is beaten savagely by one of the pupils as a punishment for her “indiscretion,” leaving her back permanently scarred.
The brutality of the rape of black women by white men in Beloved allows Morrison to counter the myth that slave women submitted quite willingly to sex with their white masters. As Hazel Carby points out, this myth of the sexual acquiescence of slave women (which still colors stereotypes about the sexual promiscuity of black women to this very day) can be attributed to male historians and sociologists being reluctant “to condemn as an act of rape what is conceived in patriarchal terms to be sexual compliance” (22). Indeed, Morrison’s text has a great deal in common with much feminist criticism in its focus on the deconstruction of negative representations of women. Thus Keenan points out that Beloved makes a powerful statement against the traditional stereotyping of black women:
“If black women have been historically captured between representations of themselves as lascivious whores and emasculating matriarchs, images that derive directly from the enslaved condition of their maternal ancestors, then Morrison’s vision of the stories of mothers and daughters under slavery can be seen as undoing those deadly cultural myths” (Keenan 53).
Importantly, Morrison also counters the tendency to see women simply as passive victims of male violence. There are, in fact, numerous examples of feminine resistance in the text. The taking of Sethe’s milk and her subsequent beating do not humble into submission. Instead, they merely increase her resolve to escape and to get her breast milk to her baby daughter, who has already been taken safely to Cincinnati. And the book’s central event, Sethe’s killing of that baby daughter to prevent her from returning to slavery, is also clearly an act of resistance, however horrifying and morally ambiguous. Many of the examples of feminine resistance in Beloved echo Sethe’s refusal to allow her children to be slaves. There are at least two examples of women who attempt to regain control of their own bodies by refusing to mother the children produced by forced sex in slavery. Sethe’s mother “throws away” the babies fathered on her by white men, and Ella refuses to nurse the baby born after her year in captivity, allowing it to die. Meanwhile, the girl held as a sexual slave in Cincinnati apparently kills her captor and escapes.
Morrison also explores the impact of sexual subjugation on black men. For one thing, she notes in Beloved that men are also treated as sexual objects under slavery, frequently being ordered to couple with black women in order to produce offspring, or even being rented out to stud on neighboring farms (165). Men are also sometimes subjected to rape, as when the black men on the chain gang with Paul D in Alfred, Georgia, are forced to perform oral sex on their white guards at gunpoint (126). In addition, Morrison suggests that black men feel sexually frustrated and humiliated not only by their own treatment by whites, but also by the treatment of black women as sexual objects for the pleasure of white men. Thus, when Sethe’s husband Halle observes the taking of her milk by Schoolteacher and his pupils, Halle himself is so shamed that he goes insane. Finally, black men sometimes take out their frustration and humiliation on the black women rather than on the white men. Thus, when Paul D proclaims that he has never mistreated a woman, Sethe responds that he is perhaps the only man in the world who can make such a claim (80).
Before the arrival of Schoolteacher, slave women on Sweet Home Farm are not sexually used by the master Mr. Garner, who also treats his slave men more humanely than most slave owners in the South. Among other things, Mr. Garner’s relatively enlightened policies mean that his five young, unattached slave men are not put out to stud in order to produce more slaves. As a result, with no young women on the farm, they copulate with calves as the only outlet for their sexual impulses. This turn to bestiality, of course, suggests the dehumanizing consequences of slavery and seems quite natural given that the men themselves are essentially treated like cattle, despite Garner’s supposed liberality. Meanwhile, when the young Sethe first comes to Sweet Home Farm, all of the farm’s slave men entertain fantasies of raping her, though they manage to resist this temptation (12). On the other hand, dehumanized themselves and conditioned to think of black women as breeding stock, the men believe that “the jump . . . from a calf to a girl wasn’t all that mighty” (32).
Beloved also notes that slave men often felt contempt for the slave women who were used for the sexual pleasure of white men. Late in the text, the old ex-slave Stamp Paid reveals to Paul D that, during his days as a slave named Joshua, his wife Vashti was appropriated for nearly a year for use as a sexual object by the son of his white owner. During that time, Joshua had no sexual relations with his wife and hardly spoke to her. When Vashti returns after the son tires of her, Joshua, feeling that his own manhood has been undermined, contemplates murdering her. Again, however, Morrison points toward potential forms of resistance to such impulses. Joshua channels his anger in positive directions, changing his name to Stamp Paid (indicating that he has paid his dues) as a sort of declaration of independence, then gaining his freedom and working tirelessly to help other slaves escape to freedom as well.
Joshua’s activities, crucial to the black community in Cincinnati, indicate the importance that Morrison places on communal solidarity among blacks as a response to the difficulties thrust upon them by white society. Often this solidarity involves meaningful sexual relationships between men and women, as when the defiant slave Sixo feels the pieces of his fragmented selfhood being reassembled through the love of his “Thirty-Mile Woman” or when Paul D and Sethe resolve to face the future together and to help each other overcome the wounds of the past. But cooperative relations among women are also crucial to Morrison’s vision of communal solidarity. Sethe is able to give birth to her daughter Denver only with the help of the escaped white indentured servant Amy Denver. And a key scene in the book occurs when Ella and the other black women in the Cincinnati community where Sethe lives band together to try to free her from being haunted by Beloved’s ghost.
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