Michael's Reviews > Beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison
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's review
May 22, 10

bookshelves: 1980s, goodest-reads-2010, literature
Read from January 26 to February 02, 2010

Horror fiction is as difficult to define as any literary genre, but it often follows the same structural pattern: things start off normal (at least in the context of the story), then slowly horrific or otherworldly elements begin to creep into the story. These elements continue growing, continue taking more and more control of the characters' lives, and become more of a driving force behind the characters' actions. Finally, the climax arrives, wherein we discover whether the characters will succumb to this horror or whether they will somehow triumph/escape from it.

This is a theme that runs through just about every horror film ("Drag Me to Hell," "Hellraiser," and "From Hell" as three examples with one word in common), and also much of the best horror literature ("The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Yellow Wallpaper," "Frankenstein," "Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?" most of Stephen King's canon, and, in an inverted manner, "Blood Meridian"). Plenty of exceptions don't follow this structure, but it's very common in what is accepted as horror literature. And, an actual outside force can be the horrific element, like in Stephen King's "It," or the horrific could be the descent into madness, like in "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Now that I'm done waxing eloquent on horror fiction, I'm going to tell you about a lovely, frightening ghost story called "Beloved."

Sethe lives with her daughter Denver, and with the ghost of a baby that died before she'd even given it a name. Sethe posthumously named the baby Beloved, from the one word carved into the baby's headstone.

Paul, a man who was a slave on the same plantation as Sethe a decade ago, shows up one day and begins living with the two--well, three--of them. The ghost of Beloved interferes when Paul and Sethe are getting it on in the kitchen, and this causes Paul to go into a rage that chases the ghost of Beloved away. For a very brief period of time, it looks like everything will be okay.

Then, on the way home from a carnival, the three come across a pretty woman, immaculately dressed, who is sitting by the river. The woman doesn't seem to know where she is, and is starving. So, they take her back home with them. It doesn't take long for Denver to realize the woman is Beloved, the ghost of the baby having somehow found itself a new body. But for Sethe and Paul, this realization is much more gradual.

As the story goes on, we learn more about the past: the plantation Sethe came from, the lives they lived before finding their way to freedom, and the death of Beloved. As the story goes on, we begin to realize that both the past and the present are more disturbing and venomous than they seemed at first. In order to keep this review relatively spoiler-free, I'm not going to say much more about the story.

I will say, though, that "Beloved" follows the horror format that I discussed earlier. The horror that underlies the whole story is a combination: first, the supernatural element of Beloved's ghost. But, more frightening than the ghost itself is the growing sense that Beloved is simply the past haunting the characters and driving them crazy, while also driving them away from each other. The third part of the combination is the horror that was catalyst to both these other horrors: slavery. Slavery is the underlying horror, the first domino, the reason for impending madness and for angry ghosts.

"She cut my head off every night. Buglar and Howard told me she would and she did. Her pretty eyes looking at me like I was a stranger. Not mean or anything, but like I was somebody she found and felt sorry for. Like she didn't want to do it but she had to and it wasn't going to hurt. That it was just a thing grown-up people do--like pull a splinter out your hand; touch the corner of a towel in your eye if you get a cinder in it. She looks over at Buglar and Howard--see if they all right. Then she comes over to my side. I know she'll be good at it, careful. That when she cuts it off it'll be done right; it won't hurt. After she does it I lie there for a minute with just my head. Then she carries it downstairs to braid my hair. I try not to cry but it hurts so much to comb it. When she finishes the combing and starts the braiding, I get sleepy. I want to go to sleep but I know if I do I won't wake up."

Sometimes within paragraphs, the time shifts. We go back to Sweet Home, the plantation where Paul and Sethe met; we shift to Sethe's escape from slavery. These shifts help to create the sense that the past can't be separated from what is now occurring. The past is almost a prison, claustrophobically surrounding the present and giving the sense that Sethe is almost forced into her actions by the horrors of her personal past, and the horrors of slavery.

I feel like, instead of reviewing the book as I usually do, I've been brainstorming for a report. That wasn't my intention, so I'll actually say some evaluative stuff now. This book is every bit as good as it's supposed to be. The writing is poetic and haunting, the characters all fully fleshed out, and plenty of the imagery is unforgettable.

This is considered by some people with even more sway in the literary world than myself to be one of the great books of the 20th century. From the limited pool of books I've read, I'd have to agree with this assessment. This is one you should read.

Which leads me to my final digression: why do so many of the covers for this book make it look like chick lit? On Goodreads, I picked a cover that works with the subject matter, but the actual copy I own makes me think of doilies and fancy china, not ghosts, anger and madness.
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Reading Progress

01/26/2010 page 74

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Aerin (new)

Aerin Beloved is another on the list of "books high school lit class ruined for me, and I need to go back and reread." Great review.

Michael Thanks! I would've totally hated Beloved in high school, so I can empathize. I'm grateful that my teachers ruined so few of the classics for me...actually, looking back, that's just because I never did the assigned reading.

The only ones I read (and, thus, ruined) were Julius Caesar and To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest of the assigned reading I read years later when I damn well felt like it. In the end, I'd much rather enjoy Hamlet than be able to look back on an 'A' in high school English...

I hope no kids read this, or I may get some angry messages from parents.

message 3: by Aerin (new)

Aerin Oh, I read everything I was ever assigned, because I was A Good Little Student that way. It ended up screwing me over royally as far as lit-appreciation goes! The only books I read for school and actually ended up liking were A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies, but that's because they're both so dark and awesome that even overzealous teachers couldn't ruin them.

Michael Yeah, I loved Lord of the Flies. I was assigned it in sixth grade, finally read it in my first year of college. I loved the movie even before that, though.
That movie freaked me out.

An ex-girlfriend told me many years ago that A Separate Peace was awful, so I've never read that one...then again, she also told me to read Requiem For a Dream, which I will never recommend to anyone other than maybe someone on heroin. So I should read A Separate Peace?

message 5: by Aerin (new)

Aerin A Separate Peace reminds me of Ender's Game, in that it speaks specifically to teenagers, and people who first read it as teenagers tend to find themselves more moved by it than people who read it later in life. (Also, because both books have a significant homoerotic subtext, but that's neither here nor there.) But yeah, I'd still recommend it. It examines adolescence in a really dark and unflinching way, and it's this great and fucked-up tragedy.

Michael Great fucked-up tragedy? That sounds right up my alley. Homoerotic subtext in Ender's Game? Whoa.

I totally didn't notice that. I Just remember him being a badass little kid that conquered aliens. I guess I didn't think too deeply about that book.

I'll keep an eye out for A Separate Peace...oh, and I finally have a copy of The Handmaid's Tale. Stoked. That's probably going to be the next book I pick up.

message 7: by Aerin (new)

Aerin There's that naked shower fight scene in Ender's Game that is the most obvious example of it. A Separate Peace is set in a boys' boarding school, and the friendships are a little... intense. It's not extremely obvious in either book, though.

Oooh, and The Handmaid's Tale is one of my favorite dystopias ever, and Atwood is my favorite author. Hope you enjoy it!

Michael I'm reading it on your recommendation, and I almost picked up Cat's Eye...but I thought starting with something a little less huge would be good. After finishing Little, Big, I haven't wanted to read anything over 300 pages. Ohmygod, don't read that book.

message 9: by Aerin (new)

Aerin Cat's Eye is my favorite, but it's a very personal book for me, and I know others might not relate to it so strongly. Handmaid's Tale is much more accessible, I think.

Little, Big's been on my to-read shelf for awhile, but now I can't remember why - if someone recommended it or if I just thought it looked interesting. In any case, its length has kept me from picking it up in the past. Your review was very convincing - maybe I'll just forget about trying it.

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