Beloved is not only Sethe's daughter come back to life and wanting vengeance, she is also the spirit of slavery, a spirit of only wants and needs. When Beloved is asked where she came from, she describes the horrors of a slave ship. (Morrison dedicates the book to those who died in the slave trade: 60 million and more). She wants Sethe, needs her, needs to devour her. She is mine, she says again and again.
Throughout, we are faced with the moral implications of what Sethe chose (based on the real case of a Margaret Garner who killed her child rather than send that child into slavery). Faced with it, Sethe is proud, proud to have the freedom to have made a decision about the welfare of her children, even if it meant an early trip to the grave for one of them. She refuses to be ashamed. Her very defiance fuels the spirit. Paul D expresses his disbelief:
This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn’t know where the world stopped and she began. Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paid wanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed. It scared him.
“Your love is too thick.”
“Too thick?” she said…"Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
“Yeah, it didn’t work, did it? Did it work?” he asked.
“It worked,” she said.
“How? Your boys gone you don’t know where. One girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard. How did it work?”
“They ain’t at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain’t got em.”
“Maybe there’s worse.”“It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible.”
Slavery is worse than death. To live stripped of who you are is worse than death. When Paul D says in response, "You got two feet, Sethe, not four," we also know that the daily struggle as a slave was to remind one's self that one HAD two feet, not four.
This is in some ways also the story of Sethe - forced into an action that The Other would never understand. But she is free, so free that she is losing grip on herself. It's hard to describe how enraged I became reading this novel. I deliberately haven't actually written about the novel much, because I think it needs to confront you where you are, on its terms.
There is beautiful, evocative language in this novel. There are moments that remind me of the way MaMa talks, supernatural events that I think would be likely to happen out in the country. Dialogue that reminds me of my grandparents: in response to MaMa questioning PaPa if he knew how to fix a broken washing machine that he had taken apart, "what I know is that another man put it together."
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
But there is also hard, graphic language here. The horror of what is chronicled (and for those who are squeamish, I won't mention any more details). And the frightening thought that some crimes are so horrible, some events so evil, they remain in a place between life and death, waiting to strike out at the living.
The title, Beloved, is of course ironic. The book is about the journey of a people who are anything but beloved: treated as animals until they start to behave like animals, where the only freedom is to act on nothing but pure instinct, and they must fight for their dignity. It's about 400 years of being anything but beloved and the consequences of that. But it's also about being beloved to yourself. That in the darkness, it begins with you. As Paul D tells a woman who believes she has lost everything and who is in danger of losing herself: “You your best thing, Sethe."