Supernatural Realism in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

NB. This was written years ago during my undergraduate studies. Please be warned much of the material here is unreferenced and of varying degrees of usefulness/coherence.

‘The best art’ according to Toni Morrison, ‘is political’ and, she argues ‘you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.’

Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, which has been described as one of the most important texts to emerge out of the African American literary tradition, is certainly true to the writer’s call for a politicized aesthetic, in that it does not exist solely in an aesthetic sphere but is intertwined with and entangled in larger cultural and political patterns.

While the text’s brilliant formal and linguistic complexities, and it’s fractured, yet beautifully flowing narrative, make Beloved not only an original novel but also an enthralling one, what A.S Byatt has described as ‘the exact beauty of [Morrison’s] singing prose,’ should not divert attention away from Beloved’s political message and wider vision. Similarly, the almost mythical elements of the story, which have led many critics to focus on its ‘supernaturalism’, should not obscure the realism at the heart of the novel. Beloved, in examining questions of slavery, race and gender, demands that the reader recognizes the full political weight of the stories it weaves together. In Henry Louis Gates words, Beloved invents and articulates ‘a language that gives voice to the unspeakable horror and terror of the black past.’

In confronting this past, Morrison, like many African American novelists, deals with the need to forget. In fact, the last page holds the recognition that ‘this is not a story to pass on’, yet, paradoxically, as Morrison explains, there is at the same time ‘a necessity for remembering the horror’ in a way which is not destructive. Her novel, leading the reader towards both a reconstruction of the unspeakable and the recognition that it is unspeakable, is, at the most essential level, ‘a way of…making it possible to remember’.

Pointing out the irony of the fact that while white writers are distancing themselves from historical concerns in the name of post-modernism, black writers are descending deeper into them, Morrison argues that this attitude towards the past as vital, precisely because of the positive/negative New World image of America as ‘the innocent future…where the slate is clean’ where ‘the past is always erased’, either absent or romanticized. ‘This culture,” she concludes “doesn’t encourage dwelling on, let alone coming to terms with, the truth about the past.’

In Beloved, the past is not only impossible to erase, it cannot be beaten back – both pervasive and intrusive, it lives in the present, and can never be fully banished. Even when the community as a whole confronts Beloved – the past embodied – they soon “forgot her like a bad dream”, yet, though she is “disremembered and unaccounted for”, she is never dead – “her footprints come and go, come and go” – the marks left by the “unspeakable horror and terror” of slavery can never be truly removed, and as Beloved indicates, they should not be forgotten.

Morrison has argued that while ‘rushing away from slavery’ was essential, because it meant moving from bondage into freedom, it also meant a move away from the slaves themselves. In her novel, she attempts to ‘re-inhabit those people’, to place slavery back in the heart of African American political and literary culture.

In order to do this, she goes back to the print origins of black literature, to the slave narratives that constitute an inaugural moment in the African American literary tradition. At one level these narratives are political, designed to further goals of the abolitionist campaign, but at the same time they are personal, autobiographical in form and theme. In one sense, they constitute a linear charting of a journey from slavery to freedom that is, paradoxically, both singular and representational. On the one hand, the narratives tell an individual life story, but they can also be seen as representing the journey of a race, telling part of the story of those who remain unnamed.

Morrison defines the goals of the narratives as twofold; to give a historical, personal yet representational account of slavery, and to persuade the reader that black people are human beings. However, the slave narratives were silent on some issues. As Morrison argues in Site of Memory, it was difficult to tell the whole truth about slavery, to expose all of its horror, without alienating or offending the White middle class readership that had the power to effect political change. Perhaps as a result of this silence, there is an absence in these narratives of what Morrison calls ‘interior life’, an absence which demands a process of ‘literary archaeology’ in which the writer must ‘journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.’

Beloved, in it’s reading back to the first Afro-American writers, can be seen as making a new contribution to the African American slave narratives, revising the genre in order to make the truth of the experience of slavery accessible to readers to whom it is often remote, repressed or ignored historical fact, fulfilling Mikhail Bakhtin’s claim that ‘every age re-accentuates in it’s own way the works of it’s most immediate past.’

However, while the connections between Beloved and the slave narratives are clear, there are also clear differences. The most obvious difference is of course the fact that, unlike the slave narrative, Beloved does not attempt to persuade the White reader of the slaves’ humanity. In fact, it can be seen as primarily addressing Black people, and so, while it tells an ex-slave’s story, like the narratives, its purpose is radically different. For example, while Henry Box Brown, in his narrative says he will not ‘harrow the feelings of my readers by a terrific representation of the untold horrors of that fearful system of oppression’, Beloved confronts those ‘untold horrors’ and finally gives them words. Like the ghost-child who demands to hear the stories, all the stories, Beloved refuses the idea that there should be a point in the story ‘beyond which she will not go’. As a revised slave narrative, Morrison’s novel speaks through the presence of absence – it fills in the gaps, but this does not mean that the reader is simply “given” the story, from beginning to end. The healing process of “rememory” takes time, the missing parts of the story are pieced together slowly and painfully. And ultimately, as details such as the red ribbon of an unknown, unnamed girl suggests, we can never know the whole truth.

Lynn Hunt has defined history as ‘an ongoing tension between stories that had been told and stories that might be told.’ In some ways, this can also be taken as the definition of the relationship between a novel’s reading back and the genre it is reading back to, as in Beloved, where Toni Morrison has said that she was ‘trying to fill in the gaps that the slave narratives left’ – seeing the stories that might be told in the stories that had been told, in order to recuperate what is absent ‘looking to find and expose a truth about the interior life of people who didn’t write it’. The novel thus retrieves aspects of slavery that actually exist within the slave narratives but often remain hidden, so as not too offend popular taste. The ‘job’ of Beloved is, then ‘how to rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate’. Presenting it’s readers with a past which is often repressed, forgotten or ignored, it emphatically rejects ‘the struggle to forget’ – although it is, in Morrison’s words, ‘important to survive’ -as ultimately fruitless.

As Marilyn Sanders Mobley has argued, while the slave narratives sought to be eyewitness accounts attempting to persuade White readers that slavery must end, Beloved exposes the unsaid, the psychic subtexts that lie both within and beneath the historical facts. In it’s reconstruction of a reality that is no longer memory, it switches modes, alternating between realism and supernaturalism in order to fill in the blanks of the past. To quote Carl Plasa, ‘if Beloved is a story about a ghost it is a story which itself has a ghostly status or existence, haunting…the gaps and silences of the tradition on which it draws, seeking release.’

Time

This ‘ghostly status’ is reflected in Beloved’s structure. While the slave narratives are typically in the first person, frequently beginning with the three words ‘I was born’ and describing a sequence of events that basically follow chronological order, Beloved is written in the third person, presenting a range of diverse, fractured perspectives, while at the same time disordering the linear narrative with dislocations and displacements of memory.

Through this fractured, purposefully convoluted plotting, Mobley argues, the novel brings a complexity to the property of literature Kermode called the ‘secrecy of narrative’ by which stories develop through withholding and gradually releasing information to the reader, as Beloved’s story moves through a series of stops and starts complicated by the characters (especially Sethe’s) desire to ‘disremember’ the past – not trying to erase, because that is impossible, but trying to remember only what is bearable.

This leads to a complex fragmentation of time that in parts shapes the novel, and is only emphasized by the shifting perspectives of the various characters, whom we can only truly understand through their memories. Yet these memories are like enemies to them as every day is a battle to beat back the past. However, Beloved shows that the past will not be forgotten: it breaks out of Paul D’s tobacco tin, it rolls out before Sethe’s eyes in ‘shameless beauty’, disjointed, breaking into pieces which readers must slowly put together.

The deliberately halting narrative of the main story is emphasized and echoed by a series of flowing interior monologues, which have often been described as the most poetical passages in the novel. These monologues, each an obvious part of the whole, each accentuating and reflecting the other, are a contrast, in their continuous, effortless, even incessant outpouring, to the fragmented plot. Sethe, Denver and Beloved’s unbroken thoughts/dreams add to the sense of immediacy and poetical lyricism, as well as suggesting what Mobley has called the ‘seamlessness of time’ within the text.

This is especially the case in Beloved’s monologue, which is repetitive, cyclic, sometimes a dense passage, and then divided into one line sentences, in the form of a poem. It doesn’t stop and doesn’t start, and in parts has no punctuation: an endlessness of words and spaces.

In this foregrounding of the dialogic rather than monologic characteristics of memory, Morrison challenges the western notion of linear time, as the narrative twists and turns through memory, rather than allowing a straightforward recollection process. Beloved does not begin at the beginning, and it certainly does not ‘stop’ once it reaches the end, for the story goes on and on. As in folktales, Morrison says ‘whoever is listening is in it and can shape it and figure it out. It’s not over just because it stops. It lingers and it is passed on…and somebody else can alter it later.’

Trauma:

This process of piecing together memory brings up another angle of Beloved’s realism as the novel engages the reader not just with physical, material consequences of slavery but also with psychological consequences. Some critics have pointed out that this gives Morrison’s text a connection to the trauma novel as she illustrates the paradox of traumatic experience, which is that it is not properly experience at all. What is described as trauma initially occurs ‘too unexpectantly to be fully known’ as Cathy Caruth says, so that it is ‘not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly.’

Trauma is thus defined by ‘the literal return of the event against the will of the one it inhabits’. On one level, this is Sethe’s story, in her struggle to beat back the past, but in the novel’s wider vision, it is also the reader’s story, as Morrison’s text traces the steps of it’s characters back to Sweet Home in ‘rememory’, as what is ‘disremembered’ becomes whole once more. Beloved’s ending, its final call for silence and forgetting is, as Mobley argues, not that at all. Rather, it’s subversive irony struggles with the trauma of impossible, consciously ‘disremembered’ memories and the necessity of remembering them, the necessity of passing them on. Trauma, Caruth explains, forms an ‘oscillation between…the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of it’s survival’. Beloved, in one sense, can be seen as reflecting this contradiction.

Postmodern:

Judtith Thurman has commented that ‘[Morrison] breaks the glass [of the past] and recomposes it in disjointed and puzzling modern form’ so that we ‘struggle with its fragments and mysteries’ often ‘startled by flashed of [our] own reflection in them.’

This quality in the text reflects it’s postmodernism in offering the reader a variety of perceptions; it’s deep-rooted ambiguities allowing widely differing, even opposing interpretations. Nancy J Peterson has argued that ‘a historical position in post modern culture necessitates the recognition that history is a text composed of competing and conflicting representations and meaning, a recognition that precludes any return to a native belief in transparent historical representation or even realism.’ In Beloved Morrison presents this recognition in brilliant multiplicity.

Blending the Real and the Supernatural:

Perhaps the most obvious instance of Beloved’s postmodern quality is seen in it both ‘reconstructs and illuminates’ the slave narratives, to use Kari Winters’ words, as, while it remains firmly rooted in the truth of it’s story, in the ‘unspeakable’ reality of slavery and in the autobiographical slave narratives, it is, at the same time, drawing on the unreal – the magical, the mythical, ultimately, the supernatural. This ‘daring indifference to the rules of realistic fiction’ as Thomas R. Edwards has called it, is perhaps the main source of Beloved’s originality as it ‘goes back into history and behind history into the materials of myth and fantasy.’

In fact, Beloved has often been described as proposing to be a ‘ghost story’ about slavery. This characterization underlines some of the problems surrounding Morrison’s ‘extraordinary act of imagination’. While it is essentially directly linked to realistic fiction, through the slave narratives and through it’s own structure, it is also set apart from realism in using elements that can only be described as supernatural.

Some critics have maintained that the novel combines both white and black literary traditions, reading back to African American slave narratives, while including elements of European American female Gothic tradition. In one sense, there are similarities between the supernaturalism of Beloved and the European American Gothic tradition in that the novel seems to exploit many of it’s conventions, as Carl Plasa has pointed out, Kate Ferguson Ellis description of the characteristics of Gothic novels with ‘their houses in which people are locked in and locked out,’ and concern with ‘violence done to familial bonds that is frequently directed against women’ does seem applicable to Beloved.

However, the Gothic elements are complicated in Morrison’s text, as the status of the ghost-child is itself in question. This is no simple ghost story, even at the most basic level – the ‘ghost’ is ambivalent, open to various interpretations. As Shlomith Rimmon Kenan notes the text ‘oscillates between two alternatives in an insoluble ambiguity.’ Beloved dissolves into fragments, both a supernatural being, fleshed out from a ghost, and a natural being, a fugitive who mistakes Sethe for her lost mother. This is Elizabeth B. House’s argument, as she sees Beloved as ‘not a supernatural being…but…simply a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery’ whose story can be pieced together from her interior monologues. According to House, the monologues reveal that Beloved, haunted by the loss of her African parents during their journey to slavery, convinces herself that Sethe is her dead mother. Beloved is, in her argument, real.

Pamela Barnett takes the opposite view, arguing that Beloved is ‘more’ than a ghost-child, supernatural yet ‘other’, what she describes as a menacing hybrid of European American and African American cultural traditions, as a succubus, a witch, and a vampire spirit, sustaining itself through metaphorically draining Sethe’s vitality.

Putting these arguments to the novel further complicates its Gothic elements. Although Beloved clearly does contain elements of the supernatural, but if we take these opposing arguments into account we must leave the possibilities open – so Beloved herself is both ghost and real, both Sethe’s daughter and the spirit of all those who died on the journey to slavery. In one sense, this is reflected in the text as a whole. What is ‘supernatural’ in Beloved returns us to reality. For example, in Barnett’s argument, the text turns the trope of vampirism into a recurrent motif, linking sustenance to violence and oppression, as Beloved grows stronger and more controlling through Sethe and Paul D, feeding off her victims’ memories. Through this trope of feeding and empowerment, human beings become the source of sustenance, and the link to the institution of slavery becomes clear – the supernatural metaphor of vampirism is used to draw the reader back into “unspeakable” reality.

Beloved is thus ultimately set apart from the typical form of a ghost story in that Morrison, as Edwards points out, ‘provides no corner from which to smile skeptically at the thrills we’re enjoying’ – the “thrills” of myth and magic are rooted in real “horror and terror”. Similarly, whether or not Beloved is natural or supernatural, the ‘ghost’ in this story is as human, as real as the other ‘solidly realistic’ characters.

The supernaturalism in Beloved is an integral part of the novel, however, because in
re-working the typical ghost-story, Morrison is simultaneously reading back to the slave narratives, the elements of the novel which are ‘unreal’ cannot be said to be merely narrative devices, creating tension or suspense or drawing the reader further into a magical, mythical world. Rather, they are balanced and countered by the often horrific reality they lead the reader back to, as Morrison in her own words, ‘blend[s] the acceptance of the supernatural and a profound rootedness in the real world at the same time’.

Discredited Knowledge:

This use of the supernatural can be illustrated by Barbara Christian’s argument that Morrison, in configuring Beloved as “an embodied spirit, a spirit that presents itself as a body” deliberately distances her novel from the context of Gothic tradition, and instead positions it in relation to “the African traditional religious belief that Westerners call ancestor worship.”

Barbara Christian’s argument underlines the ambiguities of the very idea of something called ‘supernaturalism’. After all, the division between the supernatural and the natural can be seen culturally determined. What might be called superstition and magic is for Morrison ‘just another way of knowing things’ an alternative epistemology discredited only because those who subscribe to it have themselves been similarly negated historically. As Toni Morrison argues the ‘discredited knowledge that Black people had’ was ‘discredited only because Black people were discredited’.

Ultimately, Beloved’s brand of supernaturalism is unique because it insists on reality. It is significant that Morrison has said that what she considers her “single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie”. Of course, Beloved is, essentially, fiction, and fiction is obviously distinct from fact. In fact, fiction is often defined as opposing fact, being somehow ‘untrue’. As Morrison says, “it claims the freedom to dispense with what really happened’”. Yet, the story of Margaret Garner which Morrison’s novel is based on is a true one and the slave narratives which form the basis for much of the novel are equally (unspeakably) real.

Morrison’s work might, as she says, fall into “the realm of fiction called fantastic or mythic or magical or unbelievable” in the minds of some, however, her use of supernatural or unreal elements can also be seen as accentuating the reality of her subject. The border between what is “true” and what is not is purposefully blurred – as Morrison says, “the crucial distinction” for her is not that between fact and fiction but between fact and truth because “facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”

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