Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Reconstructing the Past through Storytelling and Private Narratives

Employing strategies typical of postmodern fiction and a narrative style that derives from the African oral tradition, Toni Morrison structures Beloved as a postmodern counternarrative that “reconstructs” the experience of slavery from an intimate perspective. In fact,

Morrison has spent her career questioning the very premises of history and historical writing, particularly as they pertain to African Americans and the representation of African-American history. The goal of her fiction… has been not just to recover details of African American history, but to choose which details are useful for “the village” or the community in the struggle to create a past that can enable African Americans to have, in the words ofBeloved,a “livable life” in the present and future. (Peterson 202)

An instance of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction” —which treats fictional and historical récits as highly conventionalised ideological and linguistic constructs that rely on a plethora of past texts— this work questions and blurs the boundaries between history and fiction. Actually, in Beloved Morrison endeavours to “show [that] fiction [is] historically conditioned and history [is] discursively structured, and in the process [the author] manages to broaden the debate about the ideological implications of… power and knowledge” (Hutcheon 68). Beloved “both re-introduce[s] historical context into metafiction and problematize[s] the entire question of historical knowledge” (54-55). It is then in this sense that Morrison’s novel evinces “une attitude intempestive” for it questions, draws attention to and proposes an alternative to a definite conception and use of history and linear time. Her work adopts a definite stance against history as an ally of ideology and institutional power. And by means of formal strategies such as hybridisation, intertextuality and the use of a plurality of narrators or Bakhtinian-like polyphony, Morrison succeeds in making patent the discursive structuring of history while questioning both historical knowledge and representation.

Morrison conceived Beloved in the 70’s. While editing the Black Book, she came across a newspaper clipping entitled “A visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child” published in the American Baptist in 1856 1. Taking the newspaper clipping that records Margaret Garner’s infanticide as a starting point, Morrison threads this complex narrative. A striking detail is Morrison’s explicit reference to the historical source that informs her novel, which has the double effect of making the novel self-reflexive as to its origins and calling into question the issue of historical representation. The clipping is first mentioned when Stamp Paid shows Paul D the newspaper clipping on Sethe’s crime. At that moment, Paul D articulates a straightforward reflection on the ideological nature of historical documents and sources, and on the relationship between control over historical records and the representation of the silenced and ex-centric.

Paul D slid the clipping out from under Stamp’s palm. The print meant nothing for him so he didn’t even glance at it. He simply looked at the face, shaking his head no. No. At the mouth, you see. And no at whatever it was those black scratches said, and no to whatever it was Stamp Paid wanted him to know. Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary —something white people would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps (155-156).

Sethe’s lover intuitively knows that the “official” version of history —shaped by an ideological masternarrative— conditions the content of the paper clipping. He therefore refuses to accept such a representation of Sethe for he is convinced that “definitions belong to the definer —not the defined” (192). The “facts” recorded in the newspaper clipping have been subjected to a process of selection and control that determines the official recording of the event. “Facts are not given but are constructed by the kinds of questions we ask of events” (Hutcheon 71). Facts do not exist per se but are rather constructed by the discursive encoding of events, which is largely determined by a given ideological edifice such as a teleological and monolithic conception of history. In an anachronistic way Morrison uses the issue of the paper clipping to rise questions concerning the representation of slaves in historical accounts and records.

There is still another important issue raised by Morrison’s anachronistic use of newspaper clipping, namely, the nature and validity of historical documents and sources. How can the past get to be known if all documents and records are ideological and linguistic constructs ? This poses an epistemological problem. Knowledge of the past largely depends on cultural discursive representations as well as on ideological master narratives that provide the framework for historical writing. Nevertheless, the problem lies not so much in the ideological nature of historical records but rather in their claim to providing an exhaustive, finished, homogeneous and truthful account of events. To put it in other words, totalizing cultural representations conceal their ideological and biased nature under a veil of objectivity. In this sense, Nancy Peterson states that

the danger of narrating a monumental history lies in creating a master narrative in which there is no space to articulate any local narratives that run counter to it : a historical master narrative has a grand resolution whose outcome has already been decided, and so individual players are unimportant except as they contribute to this final already-determined conclusion. Individual lives, outside of such a grand narrative, however, are much more chaotic, contradictory and unpredictable —which creates a necessary space for resistance, agency and counternarratives (209).

The alternative to monolithic historical accounts Toni Morrison proposes is to privilege and celebrate a plurality of private and anachronistic local narratives —which in historiographic metafictional works are articulated by the ex-centric. In Morrison’s view, historical monolithic accounts dealing with slavery should be replaced by a series of local or private narratives that need to be told and retold once and again in order to reconstruct and come to terms with the past in a liberating way. To unveil the tricks, silences, lies and traps of the official historical “récit”, the richness, diversity and variety of private narratives is what, according to Morrison, needs to be recovered, remembered and told and retold in a continuous flow. Morrison’s anachronistic and “untimely” approach has the result of incorporating the past —which has been revised by means of the crafty re-articulation of private narratives— into the present. And it is by means of this method that Morrison redefines the present as providing the much needed space or geography where to reconstruct the past in a liberating way.

Morrison actually adopts an anachronistic approach to writing and style inasmuch as Beloved draws its decentering and decanonising quality from the blending of the nineteenth-century traditional slave narrative and African storytelling. Hybridisation or the blending of genres constitutes the forceful framework that makes possible an authoritative questioning of historical records and a viable alternative to traditional historical writing. Morrison revises and definitely alters the nineteenth-century traditional slave narrative characterized by its seemingly objective stance and detachment in the treatment of subject matter. But the striking silences and absences present in this kind of narrative seriously contradict their seemingly objective stance and monolithic approach.

Following the conventions of storytelling and employing the stream of consciousness technique, Morrison upsets the typically linear structure of slave narratives, and makes the narrative line drift from past to present. Linearity is here replaced by narrative spirals and circles. To structure her revisionary narrative or counternarrative, Morrison resorts to African folklore and the conventions of African oral literature—which, viewed from a Western perspective, can be said to rely on anachronistic strategies. Marion Kraft considers that, in this sense, Beloved, and Morrison’s overall literary output,

partake of both African and European traditions that in America have been transformed into new ways of artistic expression, and it is precisely this interrelation of diverse cultural legacies on which the richness of the African-American literary tradition is based. Thus, the Black text affirms the difference and at the same time deconstructs the notion of binary oppositions such as those between politics and art, the individual and the community, orality and literacy (Kraft 23).

Morrison’s explicitly and consciously applies non-Western formal strategies that include “the oral tradition, storytelling as performance, tonal language, call and response, music and the ‘speakerly text’” (28). Nevertheless, as Rafael Pérez-Torres states, “the decentered and residual tradition of storytelling within Beloved is mediated through the complex and decentered form of the postmodern novel” (108). The postmodern mediation of African storytelling is shown in the author’s employing local —as opposed to “grand”— and private narratives as a means of negotiating the past. Each story told constitutes a fragment that collides with or complements another story. This play and negotiation of local and fragmentary narratives —which evinces Morrison’s anachronistic attitude— will, in turn, eventually comprise a partial overview of the black experience of slavery. And most important, the multiplicity of stories prevents the text from acquiring the closed, totalizing meaning that characterizes official historical accounts.

The anachronistic attitude that revolts against a linear conception of time is here present in the different voices coming from various past time frameworks that reach the present —which is the present of performance— with the result of redefining the past, the present and what can be termed as a given community’s “memory. » Morrison’s use of the neologism “rememory” is interesting for it combines the words “memory” and “remember,” which can also be interpreted as “re-member”, i.e., to gather the constituent pieces of the past together. That is what Sethe’s act of “rememory” and storytelling is all about : gathering the pieces of the past together. The telling of stories starts when Beloved arrives at 124 Blue Stone Road (or Blues Tone Road) ; the presence of the former ghost triggers acts of “rememory” that are to be analyzed within the framework of the community’s collective effort to reconstruct the past and build a meaningful sense of self. But the past is too painful to be told entirely and at once ; it must be partially remembered, told and listened. Storytelling became a “way to feed [Beloved]. Just as Denver discovered and relied on the delightful effect of sweet things had on Beloved, Sethe had learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt” (59). Fragmentation —present in the narration, theme and use of symbols— is Morrison’s main strategy to deconstruct monolithic historical accounts of the experience of slavery, and to unveil the contradictions, multiple layers and the rugged “texture” of the past. The privileging of fragmented and plural perspectives in Beloved then responds to the need to reassemble the past in a heterogeneous, democratic way celebrating difference and openness. Even at the price of disconnecting, fragmentation is a means of avoiding the textual closure and homogeneity typical of grand narratives, and above all a strategy of survival for the “truth” is too dangerously painful and complex to be completely unveiled in a single act of storytelling by a single storyteller.

In Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle, Gurleen Grewal states that “organized by fragments coming together, the novel is about healing the self and uniting the traumatized individual and the community… The narrative represents fragmented bodies, psyches, stories, and memories gradually becoming whole through telling” (104). The past is remembered in fragments, stories are told in fragments and lives are led in a fragmentary way too. Psychic and spiritual fragmentation defines the characters’ lives. Families are scattered and split up. The past of most characters are a collection of bits and scraps that need to be gather together —Paul D for instance thinks Sethe is the only woman that can gather his pieces together. Physical fragmentation is also present in the novel : Beloved fears the actual fragmentation of her body. And Sethe’s wedding dress, made out of numerous bits and pieces of different cloth, can be considered as a symbol representing not only the structure and narrative style of Beloved but also the psychic lives of the characters. The characters’ act of “rememory” somehow succeeds in tying the fragments of the past together but it avoids turning into a homogeneous and definite narrative.

In Beloved, each storyteller has an audience at two narrative levels : the various characters at the textual level and the reader/listener at the extratextual level. Each character takes turns to perform the roles of storyteller and audience ; in narratological terms, each performs alternatively the functions of narrator and narratee. The reader can be considered as the recipient of the “macrostory” that encapsulates all the “microstories”. The narrative levels are nevertheless not clearly divided. Whenever there is no identifiable audience at the textual level for a given act of storytelling, the reader becomes an active auditor/listener. The text thus evinces a typically postmodern multiplication of narrative instances and a multiplicity of narrators and narratees that exchange roles. As Philip Page states, the novel’s concern with the past as revealed through storytelling shows “the lingering internal problems of recreating a self in the shadow of the horrors of the past. The process of self-recovery requires the telling of one’s story, the listening to one’s telling, and the listening to other’s similar tellings. The fragments are fused in the process” (154). Actually, fragmentation and indeterminacy in the narrative thread call for an active and creative participation on the part of the reader/audience, and the interaction between the storyteller and audience are fused in the process. The fusion of fragments is brought about by the interaction between the storyteller and the audience. In a very postmodern way, the audience must fill in the gaps, holes, silences, elucidate the many absences, and cope with the unstable, fragmented, indeterminate and sometimes chaotic fictional cosmos. Indeed, the audience cooperates in the joint enterprise of re-constructing meaning and it becomes a sort of chorus that participates in the call-and-response songs, in dances and in making sense out of the story told. In The African Continuum and Contemporary African American Women Writers, Marion Kraft rightly states that “the traditional African chorus in contemporary Black women’s novels and other writings is formed by the narrative voice, the voices of the characters and the community (within and outside the text) for all of whom the author acts as a medium in the actual performance” (27).

Beloved definitely makes patent Morrison’s concern with issues connected with historical writing — particularly the relation between fact/history and fiction— and the representation of African Americans in historical accounts. As a ghost Beloved is silence and absence. Once she makes her existence visible as an anachronistic presence —a presence that adopts “une attitude intempestive”— she elicits an alternative way of legitimating and voicing the eccentric stories left out by official historical accounts. Storytelling then becomes the tool used to build an environment that “contains,” secures and nurtures her existence as a text carrying an elusive meaning and crystallising the community’s silenced memory. Beloved, the anachronistic ghost child now a mysterious adult woman presents herself as embodying “l’intempestivité” for she is the actualisation of a past that refuses to be encapsulated by linear notions of time.

  1. 1Beloved is set in 1873, ten years after Emancipation. Margaret Garner/Sethe’s murder of Beloved is set eighteen years before the present of narration, i.e., around 1855 ; five years before the “Fugitive Slave Law” had been passed by Congress.