THE epigraph to ''Beloved'' is from the Bible, Romans 9:25: ''I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.''
Toni Morrison is at her best in her fifth novel “Beloved”. Her writing reflects her versatility and technical and emotional range to an unlimited extent. It is in fact a treasure that can acquaint the readers with the era after the end of the Civil War.
This novel is set in the period of so-called Reconstruction. During that period black, both emancipated slaves and others who had paid for their freedom had to face horrors of the time. There was a great deal of random violence let loose upon blacks. There are flashback scenes in the novel of a more distant period, when slavery was still being practiced in the South.
The setting of the story is divided: the rural part near Cincinnati and a slave-holding plantation in Kentucky. The irony of the reference is that the plantation was named Sweet Home. From this home the slaves had fled 18 years before the novel opens. The setting and the narrative are highly descriptive and minutely detailed.
Although there are many stories in the novel, the main, the central story revolves around Sethe, a woman in her mid- 30’s. She lives in an Ohio farmhouse with her daughter named Denver, and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. It is important to say here that along with other stories “Beloved” is a ghost story. The farmhouse where Sethe lives is named after a ghost, the spirit of Sethe’s baby daughter, who had her throat cut in terrifying circumstances 18 years before. At the time of her unnatural death, the baby daughter was 2 years old. The name of the child is not disclosed, but the readers and Sethe think of her as Beloved. “Beloved” is on her tombstone. Actually, Sethe wanted “Dearly Beloved” to be engraved but she could afford to pay for only one word. The payment was 10 minutes of sex with the tombstone engraver.
Sethe has to live with agonizing memories. The little baby’s ghost harbors immense rage. It breaks mirrors, makes tiny handprints in cake icing, smashes dishes and manifests itself in pools of blood-red light. With the opening of the novel, we find that the ghost is in full possession of the house. The ghost has driven away Sethe’s two young sons. Having passed all her life in slavery, Old Baby Suggs has finally bowed before death. Sethe lives with her memories, most of them bad. The neighbors have ostracized their family, so Sethe’s teen-age daughter, Denver, plays with the ghost, for she is not allowed to play with anyone from the neighborhood.
The presentation of the ghost is not aimed at frightening the readers. It has been presented with magnificent practicality, like the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw in Bronte’s novel “Wuthering Heights”. Sethe believes that the presence of the ghost is good; after all it is her own adored child’s ghost.
With the arrival of Paul D., a former domestic of the Sweet Home, this grotesque balance of the house is disturbed. He was a Sweet Home man, a male slave of the house. The owner, Mr. Garner, treated his ‘property’ well, he trusted them, and he called his male slaves ‘men’, unlike the neighbors who wanted all male blacks to be called ‘boys.’ After the death of her husband, Mrs. Garner brings in one of her male relative who is known as “the schoolteacher”. This person considers blacks no better than animals.
The schoolteacher brings his two sadistic and repulsive nephews along. After that, the slaves try to escape. They go crazy, and as a result are murdered. Somehow, Sethe escapes with a lot of difficulty. Her husband has to face a lot of hardships during his unpleasant adventures along the way.
The novel “Beloved” can be called a kind of ironically supreme fiction which describes American Slavery in its detailed form. The slavery is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised. The slaves have no rights at all: they are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their brothers and sisters. It is a world in which people simply disappear.
The slave-masters begin to believe that they are superior to the people who they subjugate. The novel reveals that how people behave when they are given absolute power over other people. Secondly, the superiors make a cult of the inferiority of those they suppress. Even Sethe is also accused of this superiority complex.
The scenes of headless black bodies, bodies hanging from trees, bodies being burnt, bodies locked in woodsheds for purpose of rape, or bodies floating downstream are there in plenty. It is not surprising that the black children see whites as men “without skin.” There are random incidents of a few whites who behave with some decency. Amy, a white young runaway helps Sethe in childbirth during her flight to freedom, reminding the readers that 19th century was tough not only for the blacks, but also for the underprivileged and downtrodden whites.
Toni Morrison has maintained a kind of balance, not making all the whites awful and all the blacks wonderful. The story is written in an antiminimalist prose: it is by turns rich, graceful, whimsical, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point. Raja sir