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.