When a close friend bought a couple of books at delightfully cheap prices from College Street, Calcutta, I had to consume some inexpensive literature. And one of them, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, turned out to have been on my to-read list since before. Being a Nobel Prize winner, she certainly had to be an impactful writer in terms of exploring the politics of a literary work, but what I explored and indulged into while reading was the deeply personal prose of Toni Morrison.
Beloved is at once an insight into nineteenth century American slavery and its aftereffects, as well as a haunting experience of filicide, a mother killing her own daughter in order to save her from the stranglehold of slavery. Thematically, the book is all shades of grey, diving into the exclusivity of a Black voice and experience. It doesn’t set the question of race away from the killing of Beloved, the eponymous dead baby who returns as a beautifully grown adult girl in a surrealistic horrific twist.
Rather, Morrison makes the reader understand the decisions of Sethe (Beloved’s mother) with a complex intermingling with race and slavery, and a mother’s extreme actions in order to save her child from something worse. Morrison was inspired by the popular, true account of an African- American slave Margaret Garner, who fled the clutches of slavery across Ohio after killing her children in the 1850s. The Abolitionist movement had managed to criminalize slavery in a few regions of North America by then, which made many African-Americans flee to those regions in search of freedom.
The metaphorical levels of the story create a beautiful complex thread where almost every person, event and object is connected though in a fragmented way. The house where Sethe and her family live in becomes a character within the story, having been possessed by ghostly spirit that is believed to be Beloved’s. The house becomes nauseous and an entrapment for its members until Paul D, a companionate slave of Sethe’s in the past becomes a relieving addition to her life. It is only after his presence that the mysteriously physical form of Beloved enters their lives as a vengeful daughter killed by her own mother.
The narrative remains unresolved with respect to the spirit or the physical form of Beloved through the narrative structure that goes back and forth to create a unified continuum of time, in order to stimulate the reader’s interpretation. At a much deeper level, Beloved remains to be a tale of love, obsession, possession, insanity and maternal strength and suffering.
A film adaption of this 1987 book was also made starring the iconic Oprah Winfrey as Sethe. But the book is a perfect read for those who would want to interrogate into racially historical narratives blended into intense drama, deifying it with the status of a classic.
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