In the final instalment of her series on the novel, Jane Smiley on why Toni Morrison’s Beloved – a sensational story of slavery and racism in America – has endured

IIt is evident from Morrison’s dedication (“Sixty Million plus”) that she plans to embrace the social document potential in the novel. As any novel that deals with injustice and its consequences must, it is also clear. The novel’s power of shaping opinion is what Morrison accepts. Novelists who try to avoid social issues tend to restrict their subjects to aesthetic or personal questions that appear to be permanent. In reality, they are avoiding the socio-economic implications of what they say. Morrison and many other 1980s writers saw that everything about the novel, including plot, style, characterisation, which had seemed neutral, was now fraught with political implications. Morrison, like Tolstoy who also accepted the novel as a social text and used it openly to express his views, had a theory – a vision about slavery and black/white relations within America – which was in some ways outdated, but still inflammatory, and unresolved. It was her task to tell the story in a new and compelling way. She also had to distinguish her telling from earlier writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Although Beloved may not be as simple to read as To Kill A Mockingbird, it is very easy to grasp and the elements begin to fall into place. It opens with Sethe in her late 30s living in a haunted house with her daughter Denver, 18. It is the 1870s right after the devastating civil war and its aftermath. Sethe, Denver and the ghost live in an uneasy truce until Paul D, one Sethe’s fellow slaves from her Kentucky plantation, arrives. Paul exorcises ghost. But then, a mysterious woman appears. She is 20 years of age and appears to be unmarked. For example, her palms are free from lines, and her feet, clothing, and feet show no evidence of hard travel. Denver and Sethe love her and call her “Beloved”.

Denver, Sethe and all the other characters of the novel live simultaneously in their current and their history. The chapters alternate between Sethe’s and Beloved’s stories. Sethe’s past on the plantation, her escape and the traumatizing events that followed. Sethe also visits the home of Baby Suggs, her mother, in law. Halfway through the novel, Sethe’s ex-owner arrives with some officers and Sethe tries to kill her children. The newborn and the boys survive. Sethe, however, manages to cut the throats of the two-year old.

Everybody is shocked and appalled at this twist of events, which Morrison found in an old newspaper account. Baby Suggs and Sethe are no more. Sethe is isolated from her peers. Denver is suspicious. Morrison is careful to point out that, while this is an important event in Sethe’s life, it is not necessarily the climax or the most tragic. The historical narrative’s climax was actually the night of the escape. Several of the escapees were hanged up and mutilated. While the current narrative builds to Denver’s decision to seperate herself from the seemingly life-and-death battle between Sethe and Beloved and to go outside and find friends and work that will save her.

Beloved is both a wonderful novel and a treasure trove of emotions. Morrison is clear about what she wants and how she can do it. She makes the most of every aspect of her subject. Complex characters. Both stories are dramatic, but in different ways. The past and the future constantly alter each other. The novel’s two halves are not in conflict. Morrison’s style is particularly noteworthy. It is vivid, poetic, and unyieldingly dialect-free. Morrison is not a realist. Instead, he uses a stronger diction and a lyrical narrative style returning to specific images and events over and over again, making them more complete. This allows the reader to be certain of the reality of the information that Morrison provides. Sethe recognizes Beloved towards the end and is able to tell that she knew her identity all along. However, the reader is stunned by the horrors of the black characters as well as the brutality of whites. But, the reader also realizes that each torture and cruelty is plausible and representative of many other horrors not mentioned in the novel or in American history. Harriet Beecher Stowe was once accused of exaggerating the cruelty in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She replied that she actually whitewashed the events to make them publishable. Morrison is her heir because she dares discuss and publish more of the truth, though not all.

Beloved has been able to withstand the test of time, despite Morrison being a product her time as any other author. The novel, for example, seems more current and compelling that The Unbearable Lightness in Being. The United States’ racist attitudes change slowly. But, another reason is that Morrison is more subtle than Kundera in exploring her ideas. Morrison presents every incident with such a vivid expressiveness that the reader will accept it as true. Her assertions about the ghost’s existence and identity, as well the character flaws among the whites, are also factually correct. The novel does not contain speculation and the reader is free to continue reading. This is where Beloved works like The Trial and The Metamorphosis. The story asks the reader to suspend all disbelief immediately and completely. If she cannot do it, she will not continue to read the tale. However, if she succeeds, she is ready to accept all that the author has said as true. Morrison finds the benefit of the tale format to be that it allows her to tap into a vital black folklore library that will feed her story.

Beloved, one of few American novels that uses every element of the novel format and fully exploits it, is balanced with all other elements. It is dense, but not too long, dramatic, but not melodramatic. It is particular and universal, surprising and reassuring. The novel is new, but it is also closely tied to the tradition of the novel. This makes it a good choice for anyone who wants to change their worldview.

· 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley is published by Faber at £16.99You’ve read 5 articles in the last yearArticle counton


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