Memory and Collective Remembering as a Tool of Psychological and Historical Recovery/Healing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

The last few months saw my love and connect with fiction flag due to  various professional and personal commitments.  The only prudent way to rekindle that old fascination was to go back to what I had loved, or thought I had loved, with the aim of re-discovering what had been best about it in the first place. Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Light in August, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart were some of the books on the list. And of course, there was Morrison’s Beloved – a book I remembered as much as for the sensations it evoked, as for its imagery and word power.

And then I began writing about these books. I suppose, ironical as it may seem, but my first essay is as much about historical recovery through memory in the Beloved, as it is about recovering my own affections and attachment with novels, that had been lost in the humdrum of the last few months.

And so, here I was, bathed and fed after a tiring day at work, working on the first of the ideas that had stayed with me while I read it. There are two parts to it that I would want to touch upon. These are:-

(a) the motifs of historical recovery through memory and the

(b) role played by the community in the process of  (psychological) healing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

book cover 1

For ones who haven’t read the book, the story upon which the novel is based is an 1855 newspaper clipping describing the tribulations of a runaway slave Margaret Garner, who, in order to escape the servitude of slavery, murders her own children. In the novel, Margaret Garner becomes Sethe, who similarly murders her third daughter, Beloved, while slave catchers come for her. Even though this singular incident forms the core of the narrative, the novel richly abounds in a multitude of voices – that of Paul D (Sethe’s friend and eventual lover), Baby Suggs (Sethe’s deceased mother-in-law), Denver (Sethe’s daughter), and later Beloved herself. Each of these characters add to and amplify the central narrative. In the manner in which the voices engage and interact with each other illustrates the call and response pattern African American oral tradition[1]. Morrison, through the employment of the post modernist trope of multiple perspectives, raises difficult questions like “What was it like to live the life of a slave?”, “Can a mother kill her children?”,”Can a child kill her mother?”, “What role does community play in ameliorating the deleterious effects of a traumatic historical event in the mind of an individual?” and so on.

The novel is set in Cincinnati, Ohio. The year is 1873. Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, resides at 124 Bluestone Road with her daughter Denver. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law has already expired, while her two sons Howards and Buglar have left the house, haunted by the ghost of Beloved, the daughter Sethe had murdered eighteen years ago. The ghost is spiteful, not evil. Sethe and Denver manage to coexist with the ghost of the baby, which is dispelled by the coming of Paul D – an ex-slave who had known Sethe from their Sweet Home days. Sweet Home deceptively refers to the plantation where Sethe, along with Paul D and five others had lived as slaves. With the coming of Paul D, the dynamics of 124 Bluestone Road undergoes a shift. Sethe is compelled to engage with some of her most traumatic memories. The baby ghost is dispelled. However, the ghost returns now, in the form of a twenty two year old girl – the same age that Beloved would have been, had she lived – and is taken in by Sethe and Denver. Beloved’s presence, along with Sethe’s admission of what she had done eighteen years ago precipitates Paul D’s departure. Sethe, Beloved and Denver are soon united by a fierce bond of affection, before Denver realises that Beloved is slowly, steadily devouring Sethe. Sethe quits her job, and wholeheartedly involves herself to appease and satisfy Beloved. Denver witnesses Sethe’s slow annihilation and decides to moves out – to reach out to her community that had severed ties with Sethe in view of the infanticide she had committed. She gets help from the Black community to rid her mother and 124 Bluestone Road of Beloved’s presence, eventually rescuing her mother from Beloved who vanishes.

The novel adopts a deliberate non-linear narrative (as opposed to a linear one), in an attempt to illustrate dislocated/disfigured mental landscapes to foreground the importance of memory as a potent agency to organise, make sense of, and find meaning in the labyrinth of those very dislocations and disfigurements.

Making Sense

Linda Krumholz in The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved[2], writes that Beloved re-conceptualizes American history by interrogating the phenomenon of slavery by reconstructing the phenomenon and its effects through the ‘rememory’ of many of its characters, chief among them, the protagonist, Sethe. Such reconstruction serves a two pronged agenda: firstly, it describes the emotional and psychological effects of a historical phenomenon on “sixty million and more” via carefully sketching a range of characters – Sethe, Denver, Paul D, Stamp Paid and Schoolteacher – dwelling in their psyche and granting them enough verisimilitude, depth and/or emotion that makes them representative of an entire people in a particular historical epoch, and secondly, it draws parallels between individual and historical processes of psychological recovery.

The former becomes significant as it illustrates the capacity of ficitonalised narratives of a particular historical phenomenon to fill in the ‘blanks’ in historical narratives, by uncovering how individuals and communities subjected to slavery ‘felt’ and the implications of this on their psyches. Marilyn Sanders Mobley in Memory, History and Meaning in Toni Morrison’s Beloved[3] argues that Morrison uses memory to explore psychological and emotional effects of slavery on the psyche of black people, and further expands what has already been described in the slave narratives to an intensely felt personal account. It could be extended that by fictionalising the slave experience she makes it all the more vivid, morally poignant, open to examination, and accessible to readers.

Narrative Tension

One of the sources of narrative tensions in the novel is the ways in which it informs the reader of the “psychological baggage” carried by most of its characters, major or minor. Memory, then, becomes the tool to explore and investigate such baggage. Satish Aikant writes that “memory expands the historical sense by incorporating not only ways of knowing but also ways of feeling”[4]. Shall that be Sethe with a chokecherry tree on her back, that not only serves as a tangibly horrifying reminder of the extent of dehumanisation, cruelty and torture she has been subjected to, but is also symbolic of the weight of the past she carries on her back. Baby Suggs, though dead when the novel begins, is from the beginning to end, a seen and felt presence in the narrative. Amongst the many images of her that pervade the text, one of the most impactful ones (apart from the one at the ‘Clearing’) is that of an old, crippled woman, lying in bed, hovering amidst the the memories of a uneasy, unfair life. She is

Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone…Her past had been like her present – intolerable – and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used...” (p 4)

 

chokecherry tree

Sethe, played by Oprah Winfrey in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 adaptation. Image Courtesy 

Paul D, one of the most important characters in the book happens to be a “travelling man”, carrying “a ‘rusted shut’ tobacco tin” in his chest. Of all the men at Mr Garner’s Sweet Home Plantation, he is the one who inadvertently turns up at Sethe’s home. He is locked in his own guilt, alienation and shame from the psychological scars of slavery. And then there are characters like Stamp Paid and Ella, who ferry slaves, runaways and the likes of Sethe, often helping them, and “listen for holes – the things fugitives did not say; the questions they did not ask. Listened too for the unnamed, unmentioned people left behind”. Relatively minor characters like Stamp Paid and Ella, because of the lack of dense details augmenting their characterization, serve the purpose of representing a larger, generic milieu of individuals, struggling against the weight of a devastating past when they were subjected to slavery. By using memory as a trope Morrison explores and represents the collective mental landscapes of whole people, the “sixty million and more” who were subjected to the experience of slavery.

Individual & Collective Psychological Recovery

Coming to the issue of psychological recovery, the Freudian term Nachträglichkeit, literally translated as “belatedness”, ‘deferred action’ or a ‘retroaction’[5] becomes significant. Freud formulated that the process of engaging with a traumatic memory not only translates to connecting with the past, but also entails re-possessing forgotten experiences, or repressed, traumatic memories. The chief aim of repossession of repressed traumatic experiences is believed to be therapeutic. That, by recollecting a repressed, traumatic experience, and thereby meaningfully engaging with it, and understanding its full purport, mitigates the deleterious effects the traumatic event had had on one’s psyche, as well as the dispels the detrimental effects of repression. Having discussed how the novel is representative of the residual psychological trauma of slavery among those who were subject to it, I will attempt to extend the argument and address the parallels of psychological recovery between the individual and the collective in the ensuing paragraphs.

As the novel begins, we are taken straightaway to “spiteful 124 Bluestone Road” (Beloved, p3), and introduced to Sethe and her daughter Denver, coexisting with the angry, begrudged ghost of the child Sethe had murdered eighteen years ago. We also get a sense of being confronted with an insular, claustrophobic world cut off as much from its brethren or community, as it is from the past/time.  It does not take long to realise that Sethe is the agency that has caused this severance.

Not only does she insulate herself from ‘remembering’, she also ensures that Denver remains insulated from the past. Sethe resists remembering, as the process of recollecting memories of experiences of slavery entail engaging with the humiliation, de-humanisation, denial of motherhood[6] and worst of all, the episode of infanticide – a process that is are very painful. However, what becomes significant is that what is forgotten, or repressed, does not necessarily ‘go away’. The past lurks as the spiteful ghost, and later comes back in the form of a beautiful young woman risen from the stream behind 124 Bluestone Road. At one level both these motifs symbolise the ill-effects of repressing and resisting the memory of traumatic experiences.

The novel also makes it pertinent whether Sethe’s resistance to remembering is a phenomenon unique only to herself? Whether Denver, while losing her hearing faculties doesn’t share a willful reluctance to engage with a painful stimulus (the knowledge of her mother committing infanticide)? Whether Ella, who had likewise killed her child and yet “…didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present”, shares the reluctance to remember? And finally, whether Beloved is not only the ghost of Sethe’s guilt, helplessness and shame that she resists remembering, but a collective resistance to remembering a painful time personified? Beloved, then, at a wider context, is everyone’s ghost. The novel transcends the boundaries of personal tragedy to include the tragedies of a whole people, the “sixty million and more”, and draws parallels between individual and historical psychological process of recovery. Thus when Sethe says,

If a house burns down, its gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.

           She is not only referring to personal memory of an isolated event forming part of a (fictionalized) individual past. She translates how individual experiences form the fabric of collective memory, and how memories persist in the collective realm long after individuals are gone. The standing illustration of this is the ghostly presence of Baby Suggs that pervades the novel. Even though she is dead when the novel opens, her presence is evoked again and again through the recollection of various characters. Shall that be Sethe’s ‘rememory’ of her on the day she arrived at 124 Bluestone Road “all mashed up and split open” (p 159), or Denver hearing Baby Suggs speak to her, in one of those defining moments in the novel when she decides to step out of the house to salvage Sethe from being annihilated by Beloved. Denver silently asks Baby Suggs,

 

            But you said there was no defense.

            “There ain’t.”

            Then what do I do?

            “Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.”

and what she receives is Baby Suggs’s knowledge and wisdom, despite the fact that she had been dead a long time ago.

Two important points become significant here: firstly, Morrison, through the motif of “recurrence of memory” challenges the notion that the end of institutionalized slavery brings about a real freedom from it. Secondly, she foregrounds the importance of engaging in sort of ‘collective remembering’ to ameliorate the psychological remnants of a painful experience.  Thus, the past for Morrison isn’t a compartmentalized, fragmented entity – what is compartmentalized and fragmented is an individual’s reconstruction of the past. It is here that the importance of collective engagement with the past by using the trope of memory, with the objective of arriving at a fuller picture of “what happened”, forms the rubric of historical recovery.

I shall come to the role, representation and significance of community in the overall dynamic of the novel at a later section; what becomes important is to realize that the dialectical characteristic of remembering and resisting to remember have been explored in the novel and forms much of the narrative tension in the novel.

Historical Recovery

The novel also illustrates two very important processes related to historical recovery through memory in the course of its progression. Firstly, at an individual level, it establishes that by employing the instrument of repression, traumatic experiences don’t “go away”. Rather, it is only by actively engaging with the past, seeing it, critiquing it, understanding it with clarity and moral gumption that one may holistically heal oneself of its effects. Secondly, the process does not occur in isolation. Isolated, Sethe continues to struggle with the manifestation of her traumatic experiences in the form of the ghost of the ?crawling baby and thereafter Beloved herself. But the inadvertent arrival of Paul D at Sethe’s doorstep opens a vista wherein she is not alone anymore. Until then, Sethe’s had severed herself and her daughter from the past – part of this lay in her guilt from the infanticide, while the other may be attributable to the worst kind of memories she carried from her life at Sweet Home – but Paul D’s coming heralds a shift in the dichotomy of remembering and not wanting to. It is here that she realizes that

though she could remember desire, she had forgotten how it worked; the clutch and helplessness that resided in the hands; how blindness was altered so that what leapt to the eye were places to lie down, and all else – doorknobs, straps, hooks, the sadness that crouched in corners, and the passing of time – was interference.

          To Sethe, who believes that “the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay”(51), such awareness is important. Paul D’s presence facilitates the collectivised reconstruction of a common problematic mental landscape which provides an airing zone for their memories to slowly and steadily, come out in the open, and the marks the beginning of the healing process.

If the ‘lonely and rebuked ghost’ represents repressed memory, Paul D’s arrival marks a counterpoint in the narrative. He dispels her away. Paul D and Sethe have a common pool of memories to draw from – they both have been part of the same story. And now Paul D returns to “place his story next to hers”. This coalescing of ‘stories’, or ‘individual narratives’, that Sethe and Paul D engage in, say, like Paul D recounting the story of “Halle witnessing” the Garner cousins taking away her milk, or of the “iron bit in his mouth”, or Sethe reconstructing the scene of the infanticide, marks a pivotal point in the narrative.

That after such intensely felt disclosures, the narratives they had each held, not only of each other, but that of themselves, undergoes a subtle, yet significant shift. Both these characters, one of whom (Sethe) was trapped in questions like “Would it be alright? Would it be alright to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?”(48), and the other carried a “rusted tin box in his chest”, are consciously made aware of their resistance to the past; they are also made aware, from each other, that “saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from”, signifying relapse into pain caused by engagement with the memory of terrible events. However, the fuller moral purport embedded here lies in the awareness that such engagement is not only therapeutic, but necessary as well, as Sethe observes, “nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past”(86).

Such a shift in ways of engaging with the past is what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a “reaccentuation” of the past (in this case, the past of slavery) to arrive at newer ways of understanding the same reality, thereby deriving newer meanings in the classic narrative. It is this expansion of meaning which foregrounds itself from a therapeutic standpoint.

What is the Point?

One may wonder as to what is the whole “point” of it? Of remembering, recollecting, making sense of it but to what end. It is here that the motif of ‘individuation’ becomes pertinent. I would go back to the Freudian term Nachträglichkeit, which not only entails engaging with the past, but also subsumes re-possessing the part of the past that has been forgotten or repressed. It would be here that I would expand the meaning of the term to surmise that re-possessing the past by active engagement through the trope of memory also involves re-possessing the self, or part of the self that had been lost, or repressed with a particular experience. It is through reclaiming the repressed past that one may attempt to reclaim the past self that had also had been repressed.

It becomes pertinent to highlight an important aspect about the “twenty eight days of unslaved life” (p 111) that Sethe lived before Schoolteacher and three others came for her. We are told that “bit by bit, at 124 and in the Clearing, along with others, she had claimed herself.” The text further expands, mentioning, “freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another”. That Sethe was physically ‘free’ at this juncture is obvious. However, claiming ownership of that freed self, entails a more difficult journey than even the one Sethe had undertaken while escaping from the Schoolteacher’s Sweet Home.

The part of the self that is being laid claim to here must be understood as part of the self that was lost to slavery. It could also be part of the self that underwent an intense negation because exposure to experiences such as being led with a bit in the mouth, witnessing murder, torture, sale of a family, being whipped, chained, housed in an “underground box”, being catalogued in terms of “human” and “animal” characteristics, or forcibly “nursed” by white boys when one’s breasts held milk for a baby. The purport is this: slavery not only causes grave physical, emotional and psychological damage to its victims, but it also leads to a loss or negation of the self because of the unimaginable humiliation that it heaps upon an individual. This humiliated, wounded self is lost to an individual in order to preserve other parts of his/her personality and aid him/her in coping with his/her environment in the aftermath of a trauma.

It is here, in regard to reclaiming the self through reconstructing a painful past, which causes an expansion of conscience, that the dialectics of memory and repression are most potently and incisively explored by Morrison.

Understanding Sethe

Sethe’s character becomes Morrison’s instrument of such exploration. Madhumalati Adhikari in The Female Protagonist’s Search for Wholeness and Toni Morrison’s Discourse in Beloved[7] draws attention to a sense of rootlessness pervading Sethe’s life all the way since childhood. Born of a slave mother, Sethe is brought up by a surrogate mother, Nan. Consequently, she had forgotten “the same language her mother spoke”. On being made familiar with her mother’s mark, Sethe requests her mother to brand her as well. This, in a sense, signifies a search and desire for identification. That her request is responded to by a “slap” thwarters this desire. Her loss of her mother tongue too is an oblique indication of her rootlessness. Later, when she does gets her “own mark”, and her own “chokecherry tree”, she realises the full extent of dehumanisation that such a mark causes. This, along with Schoolteacher’s words, “definitions belonged to the definers, not the defined”(239) further impedes, if not thoroughly obliterates her efforts towards autonomy and self-definition.

It would be interesting to analyse the infanticide and its full meaning in context of an individual’s struggle to if not realize and possess the self, then to at least preserve it. Stephanie A Demetrakopoulos, in Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women’s Individuation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved[8] draws attention Morrison’s examination of motherhood in its most denied form: the mother enslaved. When Sethe says,

Anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children.(251)

she is making an admittance that she sees the best of herself in her children. And yet, there she is, with a chainsaw, committing an act, which is as destructive, as it is redemptive. Sethe kills her daughter, and intends killing her other children as a way of preserving her “best self”. I will discuss the ethics of such an act in the next essay. But here, for now, the fact that she kills the daughter first is also significant here. To kill her daughter first is to kill her own best, self-gendered fantasy of the future. For Sethe her children are better off dead and their (and through them, her) fantasy future protected from the terrible reality of slavery. In essence, it is the desire for self-preservation that prompts her to act the way she does in the shed.

However, two points become pertinent here: firstly, that by acting of her own conscious will, Sethe inverts the subject – object dichotomy in the novel. She makes a choice – something that slavery disallows its victims. Thus, through her act, she inverts this equation and turns it on itself. Ironically though, the accompanying guilt and alienation from her community poses significant questions regarding the ‘cost’, psychological, emotional and social, of such an intense act of self-assertion.

Sethe, however, must be seen as a representative figure. Her travails, her shame, guilt and pain along with that of Halle, Paul D, Baby Suggs, are representative of the “sixty million and more”. Thus, the quest for the self too then maybe extended to a wider paradigm of racially subjugated people who are denied any form of identity or self under the system of slavery.

A Return to Memory

I would want to return to the trope of memory and argue here that by engaging with her past experiences, Sethe slowly attempts to not only re-possess repressed memories of painful events, but she also tries to reclaim a part of herself that lies buried with experiences too painful to remember. I would also draw attention to the language employed by Morrison, to construct these ‘rememories’ and investigate the damaging effects of slavery on black people and their ways and methods of coping with it. The language of Beloved abounds in ‘silence, euphemism and circumlocution’. Morrison ‘demaximises’[9] plots, characters and language to unearth the silenced voice of black slave women in particular and that of black people in general, in search of meaning, self-definition and wholeness. The language then becomes the language of remembering, re-possession and re-definition, punctuated by silences, holes, gaps and spaces. The language also subsumes oral narrative techniques – repetition, a shifting narrative voice, the blending of voices and an episodic framework[10] – which further heightens its powerful depictions of the implications of slavery and the rituals of healing that were employed to ameliorate it.

The role played by community in administration of collective therapy also foregrounds itself with the progression of the novel.

The novel opens in the middle. Sethe, in her isolation may only grapple, repress and make unsuccessful attempts of “keeping the past at bay”. The arrival of Paul D and Beloved force Sethe to confront her past in the incompatible role of mother and slave. This is succeeded by Sethe’s process of redemption and atonement – during which she attempts to appease Beloved, while she forces Sethe to suffer again and again all the pain, guilt and shame of her past. She is isolated at this juncture, from her community, her daughter, and most importantly, from herself. The third part is Sethe’s ritual “clearing” in which “thirty women from the community” arrive at her doorstep to with the objective of dispelling the destructive, devouring ghost of Beloved. It is here, that Sethe ‘rememories’ a previous trauma, but this time, unlike the last, she aims her hand at the white man, and not at her child.

Morrison foregrounds the role played by the community in bringing full circle the healing process. In fact she establishes Afro American rituals predating Freudian psychoanalytical techniques of “free association” to overcome memories of traumatic events. Linda Krumholtz writes, “the psychoanalytical treatment involves unedited associational speech that is meant to elude the unconscious censors; transference of emotions onto the analyst, and finally an acting out or narrativizing of the trauma in order to free the diverted energy and to reintegrate (to some extent) the ego and the libido. The metaphor of “clearing” suggests the process of bringing the unconscious memories into the conscious mind, and thus negotiating and transcending their debilitating control”.[11]

In fact, Baby Suggs’s “clearing” more aptly signifies the role played by community in the ritual of healing. Baby Suggs’s epistemology, it must be underscored, is diametrically opposite to that of Schoolteacher. While Baby Suggs stresses upon an intuitive, affective, inward looking method of understanding, Schoolteacher focuses on logic, rationality and organisation of things as represented through his emphasis on making neat lines in notebooks. We also see Schoolteacher rationally construing the “animal and human” characteristics of Sethe. We are drawn to understand that knowledge is used to propagate power, and thereby maintain those power equations. However, the absence of a moral centre, as seen in Schoolteacher’s scientific methods opens it to scathing criticism, the novel attempts to make. The combined effect of a system of knowledge employed to propagate power, being bereft of moral considerations, precipitates the worst kind of injustices that form the narrative fabric of slavery.

Baby Suggs’s epistemology stands opposite to hegemony, certainty and the methods of using knowledge as a tool to propagate power. The cultural specificity of knowledge, multiple possibilities of interpretation and reliance on subjectivity to arrive at fundamental, personal moral truths that ameliorate the scathing psychological after effects of slavery form the characteristics of healing administered at Baby Suggs’s Clearing.  Baby Suggs relies on the spiritual and subjective basis of pedagogy to propagate a deeper, intuitive understanding among all those who come to the Clearing to heal themselves of the wounds of slavery. The role of the community and the motif of ‘collective remembering’ thus become very conspicuous hereon.

Likewise, at the end of the novel, wherein we witness the collective will and effort of “all thirty” women of the community dispelling the ghost, and ridding Sethe of Beloved underscores the fact that it is not only through individual remembering, but by engaging in a collectivised reconstruction of a past trauma, can those very individuals undergo psychological healing.  We also realise that the ghosts of Sethe’s guilt, pain, suffering, humiliation and helplessness that are being dispelled here is symbolic of that of an entire community.

Conclusion

Beloved becomes Sethe’s “clearing” or healing ritual. Morrions illustrates through Sethe’s journey – all the way from coexisting with a spiteful baby ghost, to being devoured by Beloved, and thereafter being rid of her, until the end, wherein she is raising her hand, as if, to strike another white man – that the end of institutionalised slavery does not necessarily imply an end to its horrific after effects. Sethe had lived a ‘free’ life for eighteen years. But her freedom was only physical, as mentally she carried the guilt of infanticide and the shame and humiliation of slavery. It is only through the process of engaging with her past, actively, consciously and collectively, that the effects of slavery can be undone. Memory and collective remembering thus become the most important motifs of the novel, that aid Sethe heal herself of her past.

Remembering, however, is not only restricted to reconstructing events. It also entails repossessing the past, and more importantly, repossessing part of the self that had been repressed, or lost to a traumatic event. Such repossession forms a logical step towards individuation and self definition. Sethe’s journey, then, is not only about healing her from feelings of pain and guilt, but also towards self definition and individuation. The latter then is the most important part of psychological recovery.

Morrison also draws attention to the power of individual psychological dynamics paralleling wider historical processes. Sethe ought to be seen as a representative figure, just as her pain, guilt and shame are representative of the collective baggage of slavery. Likewise, Beloved ought to be seen as everyone’s ghost. Thus, any movement towards ameliorating, or dropping such baggage must entail the collective/community playing a significant role in the process of healing. Morrison, through her employment of African American oral narratives interweaves a sense of community throughout the novel. At times, such as during the beginning of the novel, when we are taken to an insular, claustrophobic 124 Bluestone Road, the community is most conspicuous by its absence.

Coupling the trope of memory and community gives rise to the concept of collective remembering that serve as moral and psychological anodyne to the scars of slavery. Morrison also adds layers to our understanding of the historical event of slavery by fictionalising it and sketching the deeply-felt mental landscapes of individuals subjected to it. She thereby expands the historical discourse by individualising, personalising and imbuing it with the psychological vis-à-vis emotive state of characters like Sethe, Paul D and Baby Suggs. But her narrative techniques and the language she employs for this also entails necessary gaps and holes to invite the reader in filling them with their own emotional responses.

Lastly, even though the novel ends with “It was not a story to pass on” (324), the underlying purport is clear. Not only should such a story be passed on, but passing it on also subsumes the act of revisiting it, reconstructing it just like Sethe reconstructs her story, and most importantly remembering it, and keeping it alive in individual and collective memory.

I hope you found my short essay insightful. I am currently working on two important ideas: the first one discusses the ethics of a morally reprehensible act like filicide, while the other discusses generative aspects of violence in Faulkner’s Light in August.

References/For further reading:-

[1]  See Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. A Different Remembering: Memory, History and Meaning in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison, 1998. Beloved, Ed Harold Bloom, Pp 18

[2] Krumholz, Linda. The Ghosts of American Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. African American Review 26 No. 3 (Autumn, 1992):395 – 408

[3] Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. Loc cit.

[4] Aikant, Satish. Memory, Text and Subtext in Beloved. A Reader’s Companion, Ed. Ayesha Irfan, Asia Book Club, 2002. Pp. 215

[5] Plasa, Carl. Toni Morrison, Beloved.New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Pp 135

[6] Refer to Stephanie A Demetrakopoulos’s Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women’s Individuation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, African American Review 26:1, 1992, wherein she surmises that one of the worst effects of slavery was that it reduced Sethe to a ‘the mother denied’, as can be construed incidences like her milk being taken from her and she being compelled to kill her children as the only way to resist becoming a slave again, or letting her children become slaves again.

[7] Adhikari, Madhumalati. The Female Protagonist’s Search for Wholeness, Toni Morrison’s Beloved – A Reader’s Companion, ed Ayesha Irfan, 2002. Pp 158 – 163

[8] Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ed Harold Bloom, Viva Books Pvt Ltd, 2007, pp 69 – 74

[9] Nancy K. Miller, “Emphasis Added: Plots and Possibilities in Women’s Fiction”, Showalter. Pp 341

[10] Krumholz, Linda. Loc cit. Pp 81

[11] Linda Krumholtz, Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

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