VIRTUAL BOOK CLUB: A discussion of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’

By Georgia Bower, Lucy Enright, and Mariana Carvalho

After a month of missing in-depth literary discussions, I reached out to two friends from my course and started a virtual book club to fill the void. Inspired by a mutual love of Toni Morrison, and in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, we decided to read Beloved. Morrison wrote powerful essays on racial prejudice and the discriminatory canon, such as ‘Playing in the Dark’ and ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken,’ and made her mark as a monumental literary figure and activist. 

From Morrison’s speech titled ‘A Humanist View’

After a shamefully long time of figuring out how to use Zoom, we began with a key question: What does Beloved represent?

Georgia: Beloved is both a symbol of the trauma of slavery, and a manifestation of Sethe’s personal guilt, which becomes clearer towards the end, with the battle of wills between Sethe and Beloved. The interplay of these elements: the character-based psychological insight, and the larger contextual scale, is so important.

Lucy: I think it’s more about the repeated notion of mothers not being able to get too attached to their children, which happened for so many years.

Mariana: Like Sethe’s milk as a poignant image of motherhood, and it being stolen.

Georgia: The language of possession is prominent, what with the repetition of ‘mine,’ and the historical context that Margaret Garner was accused of theft by slave owners for killing her child.

We moved onto the subject of water imagery and how multifaceted it is, with bathing imagery and connotations of renewal and freedom, but also given the death toll of the Middle Passage which is included at the start.

Lucy: Rain is what liberates the chain gang because the rain creates the mud that they push out from. It’s a description of nature and black people in America fighting against one oppressive force.

Then we delved into a topic all English Literature students love: naming.

Lucy: The ending emphasises naming, ‘everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name.’ Names throughout are really interesting, like ‘Beloved’ – it signifies more about the lover than who’s loved.

There were times when I had to put it down, it’s tragic, but what we need to do is confront it and read it. 

Georgia: It also grounds it in the past tense, as ‘Beloved’ is engraved on the dead baby’s grave and the novel is so clear about the importance of processing the past. Sethe wanted more written on the tombstone but she realised that ‘Beloved’ was what mattered. It’s heart-breaking.

Mariana: There were times when I had to put it down, it’s tragic, but what we need to do is confront it and read it. 

Then we discussed Morrison’s use of internal focalisation when describing the infanticide from a slave owner’s perspective, for juxtaposition.

History is told from a predominantly white perspective. Beloved is looking at the perspective which is silenced.

Mariana: It reflects the white-centric narrative which surrounded Margaret Garner’s case and mirrors – how history is told from a predominantly white perspective. Beloved is looking at the perspective which is silenced.

Georgia: The last two pages repeatedly state: “this is not a story to pass on” which alludes to the pattern of slavery being deemed ‘unspeakable.’ This needs to be dismantled. The ending brings back imagery of the figure crouched in the dark of the slave ship, and the idea of being forced to take up a smaller space, as American history has confined the discussion of slavery to.

Lucy: Those final pages are a good example of Morrison taking away the reader’s ability to focus solely on the characters and neglect the context of it. 

Mariana: I watched an interview about people writing to Morrison asking why she only wrote about black characters and I was like “People actually asked her that? Really?”

Lucy: Who’s asking white writers why they only write about white characters?

Next, we considered techniques Morrison uses to disorientate readers. We analysed examples of syntax such as ‘your back got a whole tree on it,’ referring to Sethe’s scar which resembles a chokecherry tree, and Morrison’s use of synaesthesia when describing the scent of death on red roses becoming louder.

To close, we looked up various book covers for Beloved. Mariana pointed out how many of them are red, as a reflection of how integral red is to the novel as a colour associated with trauma, linking to the pervasive stain of the infanticide, and the horrific violence of slavery.

Image: Cliff via Flickr

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