Beloved by Toni Morrison

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Although I do not like reading violent stories, one of my favorite books has such a poignant message that I love it regardless, or maybe because of, the brutal facts is illustrates.

In Beloved by Toni Morrison, the ghosts of slavery live on, even though it is the year 1873. In one sense, Beloved is literally a ghost story: former slave Sethe and her daughter, Denver, are haunted by the ghost and apparition of Beloved, Sethe’s daughter. However, the true ghost haunting 124 is more significant, for the ghost is not a tangible person, but rather memory. Even eighteen years after her escape from slavery, Sethe is haunted by her past.

When Paul D, one of the slaves Sethe worked with at Sweet Home, re-enters her life, they all must come to terms with their memories. This challenge manifests in the memories of things as simple as color as they struggle to see the world beyond black and white. Further, the tree Sethe carries on her back is a conflicting reminder of both the good memories with her husband (whom she loved) and the horrendous abuse she encountered while at the tree-lined yet cruel Sweet Home.

Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, understood how to overcome the ghosts of memory, for she told the black community of Cincinnati to love their hearts.

“Here…in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stoke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! … And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you go to love them. The dark, dark liver – love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than the eyes or feet. More than the lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (page 88)

And yet, that seems to be exactly what Sethe and Paul D cannot do. Paul D can no longer reach his heart, kept inside him like a tobacco tin (page 113), and instead of loving her own heart, Sethe invests in loving her children, even when they are absent.

For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, [Paul D] knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one. (page 45)

By telling the heart-wrenching story of just one family of escape slaves, Toni Morrison captures, in Beloved, a part of the black American collective memory (Sixty million and more). Like Sethe (and yet so unlike her), a horrible past haunts America’s past. This book is violent, but it is ultimately universal. The message is one we all need. It’s a reminder to all of us of the power of self-love, self-esteem, and friendship:

“You your best thing.” (page 273)

No, this is not a story to pass on (page 274-275). While the collective memory of slavery, and the common bond shared, remains below the surface, the people must learn to live and love themselves despite the past.

As Sethe escaped slavery, a young white girl rubbed her raw feet.

“It’s gonna hurt, now,” said Amy. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (page 35).

How true that is, on many levels.

Have you read Beloved? What themes stood out to you?

Thoughts On Rereading

It’s now been two weeks since I finished this reread of Beloved. I loved it just as much upon this reread (which I think was probably the sixth time) as I did when I read it years ago. It had been about five years since my last reread.

Thanks to the reading list I found in my closet a few weeks ago, I know now that I read Beloved for the first time over the course of two days, the summer before my senior year of high school. I also reread it a few times before and during my college years, including a semester in which I studied it and wrote a paper in a class. My paper was pretty unsatisfying, simply because I realized partway through that my writing could never do this book justice.

There is so much meat in Beloved that I cannot possibly capture it, not now and not back when I tried to write about in school. I doubt that any reader can capture the depth of Beloved in one single read, or even, in my case, in six reads. Beloved is meant to be reread to be understood and loved, and that depth is one of the reasons I love it.

What book do you love to reread?

It’s interesting that each reading emphasizes something different for me. Because I read my personal copy of this book for a class, I’d circled and highlighted key phrases, obviously seeking out the key components of a theme. It’s almost amusing to read it now, because every single paragraph has multiple markings, and that seems to take away the purpose of the emphasis. Nonetheless, I loved revisiting it in my copy. I noticed different things, but those issues were still present.

Do you mark up your books? I only did when I was writing papers about them.

Reviewed on September 17, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I never re-read books, but I think this is one of the few books that really needs to be re-read. I didn’t enjoy reading it, but once I read the study guide, a few more reviews and thought provoking posts like this one I grew to appreciate it a lot more. It is creeping up my favourite book list and I’m sure it would enter the top 50 if I re-read it. One day I’ll try it again. I can see why you love it.

  • I haven’t read Beloved. I do like rereads though. My taste varies. I love rereading Dune and Hitchhikers, but also classics like A Man For All Seasons and Utopia. I don’t mark the pages but I do put a little postit note there and then put a little note on the postit note.

  • I absolutely loved Beloved, too, and will be rereading it for sure. Yes it is harrowing but it is gorgeous. This and Song of Solomon are two of my most favourite books of all-time. In fact, I’m rereading The Bluest Eye very soon (for a challenge as well), as that one I’d forgotten much of what happened.

  • I loved Beloved. I read it as a freshman in college when I had to write a paper on it. I’m glad that I was forced to read it for that reason. Toni Morrison is brilliant but I would not have seen that brilliance if I had given up on the book, and let me tell you, in the beginning I was so lost.

    I hadn’t been in the habit of re-reading but I have started re-visiting some of my faves here and there. Sometimes they are exactly as I remember them but often they read completely differently.

  • I’ve never read Beloved, in fact I only discovered Toni Morrison this year (I knew she existed, I had just never read any of her stuff!)! But the two books of hers that I’ve read have really impressed me; one of the things that I really like about her is that her books pretty much beg to be read over and over again – to me, that is the sign of a great book! After reading your review, I’m really looking forward to Beloved!

    As for books that I love to read over and over again, they tend to be comfort reads: Harry Potter books, the Jasper Fforde Thursday Next series, and of course anything by Jane Austen!

  • I remember when first read Beloved, my high school teacher talked about how leading students through the novel had really changed her own perceptions of it. Before teaching it to high-schoolers, she had always focused pretty exclusively on Sethe, but her students brought her to a deeper appreciation of Denver as an important character as well. I remember one scene in particular, where Sethe and Paul D. are reminiscing, almost fondly, about Sweet Home, and Denver asks something like “If it was so bad, why do you still talk about it like you love it?” That really pointed up to me the complicated relationship the adults have with their pasts – the way they were wounded so deeply, and yet find so much meaning in the small moments of connection they had there. And also just the way in which they haven’t yet articulated a new world for themselves, one outside of slavery – so all their reference points, stories and legends are still very bound up with that time. But Denver represents a sort of transitional figure, one who is receiving the stories of ex-slaves but coming of age in a much different world.

    Anyway! I love this novel, too. It’s probably time for me to re-read it. And I’m about to revisit some other old favorites when a group of us do a group read of Mrs. Dalloway and other Woolf novels. I can’t wait!

  • Lezlie, and AK, when you read it the first time, don’t try to understand it all at once. It is an experience.

    Jackie, I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t “rate” books. The longer they simmer in my past, the more I like them (usually). I hope you do reread it, but I’m obviously a big fan of this book!

    Bella, I didn’t know there was a book for Man of All Seasons. I wasn’t crazy about More’s Utopia, but I’m glad I read it once.

    claire, I know I read Sula and The Bluest Eye but I don’t remember much/anything about them, so I should probably reread. I should probably try Song of Solomon too because I heard it is also incredible.

    Nicole, I think that is why I loved being an English major! I got to find the gems in all these great books. Now, of course, I just try to enjoy them, but I still enjoy the search for gems.

    I was afraid to reread this one for many years because I worried that I wouldn’t like it. I shouldn’t have worried!

  • Steph, I do hope you do read Beloved. It’s not meant to be understood at first. But I think the confusion relates to the state of mind of all the characters. Ah, so well done in my mind.

    I thought I loved rereading Harry Potter. But this is my second time rereading the series, and I’ve stalled on book 5. It’s a tragedy, but I think I’m tired of Harry Potter. Maybe I just haven’t waited long enough.

    Emily, That aspect stood out to me a lot this time around: Denver’s question, and her “in-between” stage of life. I kept seeing that conflict in Sethe’s thoughts and conversations too: she wanted to love the memories of her husband, but then felt guilty because that was all at Sweet Home. Ah, I wish I was back in class, sometimes.

    I may need to read Woolf along with you guys. I may have before, but I don’t remember. It was back in the day when I wasn’t paying much attention, I was just reading to turn pages.

  • I have a copy of Beloved all ready and waiting to be read, so I know I will get to it eventually. And I am ok with books being kind of confusing in the beginning, or at least I am when it’s Toni Morrison writing. I read A Mercy earlier this year (which was compared A LOT to Beloved, probably because they both look at slavery) and it is similar in that the beginning of the book doesn’t really make much sense until you’ve reached the end. Oh, but how I loved A Mercy. It befuddled me, but I still enjoyed it, and can’t wait to read it again!

  • This is such a painful and yet beautiful book. It’s one I’d like to re-read too for sure. Another one I’ve been meaning to re-read is Middlesex – it’s my favourite novel and it’s been way too long!

  • Haunted is a good word for this story. We read some Toni Morrison in my women’s literature course in college, and that was right around the time the move version Beloved came out. So our teacher had us see the movie as an assignment, and I was blown away by the story. I read the book shortly after. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember it being a book I’d re-read.

  • The Bluest Eye is the only Morrison book I’ve ever read. I liked it but I didn’t really love it.

    I don’t re-read very often. It either has to be a VERY good book, part of a series so I can re-familiarize myself, or something I read as a kid and would like to revisit.

  • Steph, I’m so glad to hear that you loved A Mercy! I still haven’t read it, so now I’m looking forward to it.

    Dawn, I think it’s easy to see why it’s been challenged: it’s quite violent. But hey, let’s not kid ourselves: slavery was violent!

    Nymeth, I’m a big fan of rereading this book, obviously!!

    Anna, I can’t imagine a movie of this book! It’s the wonderful language that I love!

    Ladytink, I read Bluest Eye and wasn’t emotional drawn in as I was with this one. I just love this book! I reread a lot (or at least I love to!)

  • Sethe in a sense represents America. She was fettered and haunted by a past so dark that it hovers over all aspects of her life. It’s a timeless American classics because it captures the worst of slavery.

  • I’ve been wanting to read Toni Morrison for a while, but I’m not sure where to begin. Is Beloved a good starting point? It sounds quite intimidating, to be honest!

  • Great post. I read this book more than five years ago and the images it still haunt me. It truly is violent yet beautiful at the same time. This post has inspired me to re-read it.

    Tuesday … don’t ever be intimidated to read Toni Morrison. All her novels are great stories that move quickly. Yes, there is an extra layer of symbolism buried beneath the surface, but you don’t have to fully understand it to enjoy the books and take something meaningful away from them.

  • tuesday, Book Club Guide says what I probably would have: don’t be intimidated. I think Beloved is a good start. I’ve read a few others but they don’t have the universal message that Beloved does re: slavery, American history, and love. Then again, I just don’t think I loved the others because I always compared to Beloved. I’m sure they were good too.

    The Book Club Guide, definitely a book to reread! I love it.

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