True story: I’ve never read Toni Morrison’s Beloved until now. I started it the first year of my MA program, but I just never finished it. I’ve always felt a little ashamed, but I managed to push it aside. Enter my “read ALL the books on my shelf!” project and some good, old-fashioned public shaming from one of my students. Yes, one of my students shamed me in class when I admitted I hadn’t read it. It was good-natured. She just really loved Toni Morrison.
Sethe is a woman who ran away from slavery and took her freedom to Ohio, where she lives with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs and daughter Denver. But even though she is free, she is haunted by memories of Sweet Home, the place she left behind, and the unnamed little girl who died when she first came to 124. There is no name for this girl, except a one-word epitaph on her grave, which simply reads “Beloved.” This idea of what it means to be “beloved” defines the novel, it defines the women, and it encapsulates the story. It is a story of slavery, of race, of selfhood, of woman, of betrayal, of redemption. In short: it is a story of America.
I read Beloved slowly and carefully, letting it seep into my bones and devastate me time and time again. Is what Sethe did betrayal or the ultimate sacrifice? You decide. Is Beloved really real, or is she a simulacrum of the girl who died? Again, you make that call. Morrison plays with narrative in rich and interesting ways to create a book that is both fully within our grasp and playfully dancing out of it. It’s a book I feel that I will be revisiting again and again.