KFed's Reviews > Beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison
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Apr 13, 10

bookshelves: graduate-school-reading-year-one, 2010, favorites

Is Beloved a Great Novel? Certainly it is a very good one, holding as it does the unique distinction of being one of the few eminently popular 'serious' novels that appeal equally, which is not to say universally, to casual, serious and professional readers alike. But is it Great? Is it one of the greatest? Or isn't it?

I ask because I get the sense that Beloved's status as a/(the?) Great (American) Novel tends to garner a range of support less unequivocal than that of, say, Moby Dick, or works by some of Toni Morrison's contemporaries, particularly those not alienatingly postmodern. (Philip Roth and his American Pastoral come to mind.) This seems to be further evidenced by the range of preliminary responses to reading Beloved that Goodreads readers write of the work, dissimilar from many other similarly-lengthed, similarly eminent contributions to the genre: much hesitation, a bit of skepticism, and after the fact of finally having read it, a not insignificant amount of "That's it?"

Clearly Goodreads can't be said to be representative of any cultural totality. Clearly, too, many of these responses are in the shadow of the unreasonably high expectations we all no doubt bring to the work, of our inability to hold the text itself apart from the mass cultural covering of its supposed greatness.

Yet I wonder if we can't also make use of this trend. Asking if an individual reader finds Beloved great is, in one sense, asking if that reader found it culturally valuable -- 'important' -- no matter whether or not they actually 'liked' it. It is also, in another sense, asking that reader to contend with a bit of heavily loaded social vocabulary. 'Great,' after all, is coded with distinct, though related meanings: the 'great (American) novel' of the (American) cultural imagination tends to be a long, heavy one (great in its features), sprawling and deft in its handling of vast networks of ideology (great in its 'vision'; great in its technical accomplishments), imminently historical and equally sociological (greatly applicable), and, by and large, compellingly and gripplingly written, though not unchallengingly so (greatly entertaining). I should point out that I'm not just talking about novels thought to be awesomely good, but rather novels thought to be necessary, in a superlative, all-conquering sense: great versus the great. Novels that give you the feeling of having something to reckon with. By that measure, it's no wonder that Moby Dick, Ulysses, and The Brothers Karamazov tend to populate so many "Books to read before I die" lists; their accomplishment in having been written gives us, the reader, a sense of accomplishment for having read them.

One could say the same of Beloved -- I certainly would -- and yet it is kind of an anomaly, such that one might realize that 'Greatness' is also quite political. Beloved is short -- a tad shorter than the similarly great, though not really coded as 'Great American,' Sound and the Fury. It's dense -- denser than that similarly 'beloved' feminist intervention from across the pond, Mrs. Dalloway. It incorporates, represents and reckons with a painful national history -- much more directly than do any of the above. To top it off, its protagonist is a black (strike one) woman (two), and if the 'great American novel' is expected to speak to the experiences of 'all' of us, it would seem that using figures from the social/historical margins would make representing any national totality a difficult case.

This strikes me as more or less the point. The protagonist Sethe, in terms of her demographic identity, represents few of 'us,' Americans. Yet, if the entirety of what we understand to be American Modernity and the subsequent ideas of national identity that remain with us today truly do rest on the foundations of American slavery and its after-effects (the Reconstruction and its laws, lynching culture and its resonance with a history of American violence, constructions of white ethnicity and the parallel politics of immigration, industrialization, domestic migration, etc etc etc) -- and I would argue that they do -- then, in this sense, Sethe is a universal protagonist: she is all of us.

And yet she is none of us, for Morrison never allows us to forget the particularities of Sethe's narrative, the specific social and historical circumstances that engendered her specific fate. Beloved both is and is not about such totalities: is and is not about the broadness of America, of slavery, of blackness, of femininity, of black femininity. It is and is not about Sethe, the individual, herself.

What I mean is this: What makes Beloved so important, so 'Great' -- even if it is sometimes difficult, even though it is not perfect, even if, at face value, it does not fully participate in broad national totalities as a marker of its 'Greatness' -- is the force with which it asserts the permanence of this legacy to a broader American identity, without sacrificing historical individualism. She resists allowing the reader to position Sethe as an archetypical American protagonist and build upon her person some broad sense of American identity, for this mirrors exactly how slavery worked, does it not? -- building American democratic identity upon the reproductive, slave-producing bodies of black women. Get my point?

What haunts Sethe is indeed what haunts all of us. Yet it seems not to haunt all of us, finds itself obscured more in the minds of some than of others. Certainly it does not haunt us all in equal measure. Again and again, Toni Morrison, in prose dense, difficult and beautiful, seeks to remind us of why it should.
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Reading Progress

04/13/2010 "And now, for the fourth time..."

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Pinky Great review--no meta-quotes around that "great," either...

Your reading of this Morrison novel is really compelling, but I particularly like the way you lay out some of the complex suggestive implications of that term in literary reception.

message 2: by KFed (last edited Apr 13, 2010 09:23PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

KFed You're too kind; thank you.

Yeah, I have such little free time to review what I'm reading these days (because of school) that I tend to save up for when I've really got something to say.

And 'great' is so complicated, I've realized. This was really just an excuse to talk about it.

message 3: by Bram (last edited Apr 14, 2010 06:28AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram This is fantastic, Kameron. I love the scope of this review and your willingness to delve into the topic of 'Great' fiction (both in America and in a more universal sense). For me, this is a topic that never gets old, despite its inability to offer up any hard and fast truths.

I'd meant to write a review of this book as well as other recent reads but have been sidetracked by non-Goodreads life (if you can believe it). I sort of dislike getting into reasons why I gave something 4 rather than 5 stars despite the fact that I've spent a good deal of energy on this website doing precisely that (Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, Moby Dick, and Macbeth come to mind), because my rating system has evolved to the point where I only give 5 stars if a book affects me in some personal, je ne sais quoi sort of way (on top of being brilliant in every other respect). The nature of the 5-star system is that 4-star ratings tend to look pretty negative when applied to certain books, but I guess I feel that if I'm not prepared to put a book on my 'favorites' shelf, I shouldn't give it 5 stars. Stringent, I know.

All of this is simply an introduction to my rather banal reason for bestowing this book with 4 stars: I felt that the narrative of this book was brilliant, moving, and deliciously complex with regard to real human emotions...but I also found the prose style to be too similar to Faulkner, despite the fact that this is a writing style that I very much like and respond to. But it was sort of distracting, particularly with regards to the unannounced shifts in time period. Morrison seems to have more regard for her reader and wants to make sure they can follow along, which again is probably a good thing, but I couldn't help feeling like this also translated to something that felt like mass-appeal Faulkner. I'm not sure why I feel the need to defend these missing stars so much* because among other things, it often makes me feel like I'm heavily criticizing something that I actually really, really like--that's definitely the case here. I really like this book, and my criticisms are exceptionally minor.

*I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I feel (somewhat irrationally) like I'm letting down someone I like and respect who believes the work to be absolutely brilliant and for whom it is something incredibly special. I know that I can often feel disappointed when someone I like and respect dismisses or slights something I hold very dear (Tolstoy!), so I guess it makes me feel uncomfortable to be on the other side of this--not that I'm suggesting you either like or respect me :)

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Wow. Fascinating.

message 5: by Brad (new) - added it

Brad KFed wrote: "And 'great' is so complicated, I've realized. This was really just an excuse to talk about it...."

Glad you found the excuse, KFed. This is an excellent meditation on the use of great (not to mention beloved); I struggle with my own use of the term, but this you put into words what has merely been swirling around in my synapses. Good stuff.

KFed Bram, I think you raise excellent points. And of course I like you, you dweeb. I like Tolstoy, too. Now, if you don't show up to reunions, you'll have reason to be worried.

On Morrison/Faulkner, yes, that's very true. It's no coincidence when considering Morrison's style to note that her dissertation for her PhD in English was on Faulkner and Woolf. I wonder if recalling Faulkner in this specific book was deliberate, especially given the centrality of racial questions to Faulkner's work. I wonder if she was either trying to reengage the conversation on race using this familiar thread, or to sort of reclaim the conversation as a black figure, using but ultimately attempting to appropriate and rescript Faulkner's language in order to have it function within blackness rather than simply about blackness. Either way, sure, it can get tedious. Faulkner's work definitely occupies the category of books I deeply admire but don't deeply love.

On the star-system front, I've been known to give 5 stars to books that didn't rock my world on a deeper personal level but struck me as essential -- 'great,' you might say. I also tend only to review books that I find significant, no matter how good/bad they are.

I'm realizing, as I train to become a professor, that I have to start thinking about books in this multi-tiered way -- on the levels of personal enjoyment and/versus broader cultural importance and/versus some other degree of usefulness. I happen to think Beloved fares well in all 3 regards, but it occurs to me that this makes it sort of an anomaly.

message 7: by Bram (last edited Apr 15, 2010 06:28AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Great, great post. I didn't know that about Morrison's PhD work, and your speculations on the intentional connection to Faulkner's style already make me want to reappraise the prose.

I'm realizing, as I train to become a professor, that I have to start thinking about books in this multi-tiered way -- on the levels of personal enjoyment and/versus broader cultural importance and/versus some other degree of usefulness.

As someone outside of academia, I haven't thought about this much, but everything you're saying re: stars/evaluations makes complete sense to me. I often struggle with rewarding stars for classics that I find less than engaging, and since I don't feel like I can make any legitimate claims about the book's importance without further study, I've simply decided to go with my subjective response. This is particularly limiting, however, when I consider how much I'm influenced by current life conditions, previously or concomitantly read books, and a general lack of appropriate knowledge needed to place a given book in its larger sphere of cultural, historical, or literary importance.

All of which is to say that I wish I could follow your literary path vicariously (I guess I can somewhat via Goodreads).

To get back to Beloved, one thing that I love about the book (and your review for discussing it so well) is Morrison's ability to keep the story personal, as well as her unwillingness to give in to feel-goody universalism. Every time it seems she might head down this broad path, she slaps us right back into reality with regard to the specific racial actualities in the book. I have a suspicion that this is the primary reason that the book can elicit such strong negative reactions from people (all of whom, from my admittedly limited looking-around, seem to be white). Morrison doesn't give white America the 'out' (of racial reconciliation/hopefulness) that many people are probably expecting from this personal story. She's always reaching deeper into what feels like real experience, as painful as it may be to read and contemplate. And despite eschewing cumbaya universalism, Morrison's still written a book that resonates with millions and millions of people, which I think speaks to the Truth that's embedded in her work--people can feel that these people, these emotions, these scenarios, are real in a way that perhaps only fiction can elucidate.

KFed I think that's a great, great reading of the text. Why not just make it part of your review?

And, hey, I actually think that opinions on books that are lacking in the broader historical/literary context are equally valuable, for exactly their ability to hue closely to the text itself.

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