Violence, home, and community in Toni Morrison's 'Beloved.'.
In a process of personal and social transformation, Beloved's spaces and times change through geographical and structural movement and through storytelling. Narrative processes are linked to spatial formations and communal configurations. Morrison's simultaneous working through of history and memory by describing bodies and social structures makes the novel useful not only for projects of remembrance and revision, but also for building new social configurations of family and kin. The role the ghost-daughter's body plays as a site for memory, desire, and history has been discussed in depth by many critics, but she/it is not the only embodied site in the novel at which memory and desire meet. The dwellings and places the characters move through and escape to become at times fixed containers of memory and desire, and at times spaces where boundaries between selves are softened, making possible the gatherings and joinings necessary for emancipatory struggles. When softer, they provide emotional and physical sustenance and can be built onto, accommodating gatherings.
Because the novel is a meditation on transformations of body and soul, it is necessary to mark the process of how spaces become hardened as well as how they may be softened again. Places in Beloved are made hard discursively and architecturally, marked off by the law, by walls, or by armed guards. They can also be open or be made open: fluid, dynamic, and partially or temporarily invisible to the law. What is important, however, is not recognizing or describing a space, or categorizing it, but charting the interactions between spaces and charting the processes of their hardening or softening.
The demands of self-protection and home make it impossible to rely entirely on "open" spaces, for they carry their own vulnerabilities. The rented house 124 Bluestone plays a crucial role in marking the possibilities and limits of transformations of spaces Morrison's characters inhabit. Possibilities, and the shutting down of possibilities, develop through interactions and processes. For example, the pre-apocalyptic 124 Bluestone (before Sethe takes the handsaw to her children) is a softened space in which the African-American community of Cincinnati meets and exchanges information and food. The post-apocalyptic 124 (after "the Misery") has become hardened, albeit ironically more "alive" in its resentment of intrusion and change. Through Denver's going out into the community and the exchange of food, she and the home become open to change and community intervention. The story contained in Beloved unfolds this process of memorialization and change, a process too complex to be easily diagramed or mapped. The story itself, as complex and unavoidable as weather, embodies a system and process by which houses, which are born out of violence and (repeated) trauma, which preserve memory and history, can be transformed into homes where violence need not be the only source of connection. Against and alongside the relations annealed by violence and domination, new affinities emerge, held together through exchanged material and spiritual sustenance.
Furthermore, when the home or the community becomes so hardened that passing from one to the other is difficult, if not impossible, then these spaces lose some of their power as catalysts for larger social transformations. Because chattel slavery, colonization, and racism penetrated every moment in U.S. history, there is a sense in which all homes are haunted by violence and trauma. To paraphrase Baby Suggs, there isn't a home in the U.S. (and perhaps America proper) not haunted by a "Negro's grief." It is Morrison's insistence on this widespread haunting that makes Beloved a useful place to investigate the troubled history of domestic spaces. The home is a place where horror becomes embodied, and where sustaining human connections can be found. The very walls and doors of the house can stymie interventions by the community, or facilitate them.
The four places I discuss in this essay offer different methods, outcomes, and possible configurations of community. No one is the way. Each community is contingent on how it came into being, and how it must be dismantled to make space for new configurations. In all four there is a notion of escaping to new space or clearing new space. The limitations, whether they are enforced by the law or whether they are the result of defining exclusions - like skin color, or blessedness - demand clearings and transgressions. These crossings both release violent reactions from the enforcers of the boundaries and constitute open spaces that were previously uninhabitable. There is no one method, no utopian configuration that guarantees paradise or freedom from possession. But there are worse places and worse ways to be possessed. We make the rough choice between the place we know and the future. Furthermore, we must choose to risk connections to others that soften boundaries. Safety and protection of the real sweet home do not lie in constructing an iron facade, but rather in a porous and open space. The most open of spaces, however, also offers the greatest danger of incursion. The Clearing, for example, is a place in flux and transition - a place from which one may decide to move forward to the future or be moved back and fixed by the past.
Morrison describes these moments of transition between hardened and softened moments in apocalyptic terms, as though a time of great undoing might wipe the slate clean for a release from history and the formation of a paradise forever outside time. However, these apocalyptic moments do not bring with them final judgments or paradise. History moves through apocalypse, but does not end. And the pre-apocalyptic past is constantly revisited, always potentially relived.
Morrison's historiography provides a way of escaping the notion of millennial progress. By eliminating the possibility of an end-time, she makes us pay attention to history, not as an already-written story condemning us to act and suffer in roles assigned to us by a damaged and damaging past, but as an unfinished process and a working through of traumatic events and daily, repeated violences. Instead of offering a configuration of utopian space, sustainable in isolation, she offers a warning that spaces can change, over time or suddenly, and that the key to sustenance is in links to others, to communities. Creating spaces in which to live is always a process, and never a state. In this way Beloved serves as a theoretical model for understanding the role of communities and spaces born out of and in reaction to raced and gendered violence, a story of the re-covery and uncovering of somewhere to rest, plan, and act, a place to call home in a strange, and haunted, land.
Sweet Home, the quasi-utopian plantation where Sethe is a slave, offers one critique of the (im)possibility of "home" within the institution of chattel slavery. Sethe attempts to create a space for herself in this home through small, unnoticed interior decoration. Her efforts, though superficially consoling, fail, and in their failure point to the real barriers facing Sethe in self-actualization and home-making. When Schoolteacher takes over, he begins his violently dystopic project of "domesticating" the Sweet Home slave community. We learn about Sweet Home - the farm in Kentucky where Baby Suggs, Paul D, Sethe, and Halle were all slaves - in snippets. The story of life there is fragmented in Morrison's narrative, but it coalesces into two communities bound to the same landscape: the Sweet Home under Mr. Garner's rule, and the Sweet Home under the rule of Schoolteacher. The two Sweet Homes need to be examined in relation, for what is apparent in Schoolteacher's mastership is latent in Garner's.(1) Though the two men have different styles, they share the grammar of chattel slavery. The community is bought and brought together by Garner, and it is he who provides its name. But like Baby Suggs's bill-of sale name, it is merely a label. The name Sweet Home suggests a utopian community, and yet for the slaves it is less than that: Garner's "enlightened" slavery possesses the individuals, extracts their labor, constrains their movements, but doesn't savage or starve them. Sweet Home is for Baby Suggs a "marked improvement" (139) over the physically damaging and emotionally crippling plantations that wrenched most of the life from her.
For Mr. Garner the farm is a model of good "ownership." His policy of containment allows the slaves to exercise some selfhood, but by allowing this contained humanity, Garner's model farm places his slaves in a false position of community. He presents himself to the other white Kentuckians and to the white abolitionist Bodwins as an enlightened slaver - one who is not threatened by the manhood of his slaves and who patronizes them with his outstanding care. In fact, he flaunts this manhood: They are" 'men every one.' "He" 'bought em thataway, raised em thataway'" (10-11). The manhood of his slaves sets him apart from the other owners and makes Sweet Home a most valuable farm - "Mr. Garner acted like the world was a toy he was supposed to have fun with" (139). Yet not only does Garner pay the price for his fun - a small hole in his head (that is hinted to come from jealous and disgruntled neighbors) - but his toys pay the price for him. His vision is enterprising, and his property is worth more because of it; he gains more and better work from his slaves. By not allowing them off his property without his company, he guarantees that his manhood is reinforced by theirs and not rivaled: "Mr. Garner's order for them not to leave Sweet Home except in his company, was not so much because of the law, but the danger of men-bred slaves on the loose" (140-41), and "deferring to his slaves' opinions . . . [did] . . . not deprive him of authority or power" (125). In the end, this allowed manhood does not change the basic relationship of owned and owner.
Though the men of Sweet Home are allowed to "invent" and "defy," act without permission, "buy a mother, choose a horse or a wife, handle guns, even learn reading if they wanted to," they are allowed to do so only as Garner's property and within the bounds of his property: "One step off that ground and they were trespassers among the human race" (125). The lesson is one bitterly learned by the slaves of Sweet Home. Paul D and Sethe learn that, despite the particular method of ownership that Garner employs, this kind of personhood lay in the hands of the "definers." Garner named them men because it served his purpose. Sixo, while he takes full advantage of whatever space and flexibility Garner offers, never mourns for him as anything other than a master. Halle learns to work within the Garner system and buys his mother out, and though he does what is necessary and possible within the context, he also understands that, in the final analysis, Garner, though "soft," speaks the same language as Schoolteacher. As they discuss their new master, Halle tells Sethe, "'It don't matter Sethe. What they say is the same. Loud or Soft'" (195).
The shift between masters is, however, fundamental in an understanding of how Sweet Home functions within the larger discourse of slavery. The transition between management styles, and from a logic of property to a logic of properties, is marked by Sixo's justification for stealing the shoat. Sixo has stolen and eaten a pig when Schoolteacher begins to restrict the diets of the slaves. He argues with Schoolteacher that, because he is Schoolteacher's property, eating the pig is improving that property, making it work the fields and the farm better. This answer is acknowledged as "clever," but its authority is denied: ". . . Schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers - not the defined" (190). Not long after this scene, Sethe comes across the Schoolteacher instilling the lessons of properties in his pupils. He has the students divide and line up Sethe's human and animal characteristics. When Sethe learns from Mrs. Garner(2) the "definition" of the word characteristic, her unsettling interpretation is confirmed. According to Mrs. Gamer and Schoolteacher's lexicography, a characteristic is" 'a thing that's natural to a thing'" (195). Schoolteacher's questions are asked in order to naturalize his definitions. Schoolteacher describes a set of properties as "natural" and ascribes them to the disturbingly human bodies he has before him. The "experiment" the pupils/nephews perform on Sethe (which Schoolteacher condones) shows them playing out these contradictory descriptions on her body. She is the udder they drink from and the sexual body they work their pleasures on - adjusting her characteristics to whatever shape their fantasies demand. That is, the white schoolboys'/nephews' fantasies of "animal characteristics" are played out on Sethe's too-human body. Under Schoolteacher's tutelage, the pupils learn to turn people into animals. Property is property because of its assigned properties. Once the definitions are founded on what is" 'natural to a thing,' "they are not alienable, transformable, or escapable. There is no possibility of being bought out of slavery - there is no out, anymore. The only choice of escape left is to leave the boundaries of Sweet Home and pursue the "Magical North."
In Sweet Home Sethe performs small acts in an attempt to claim her world: "The salsify she brought in to Mrs. Garner's kitchen every day just to be able to work in it, feel like some part of it was hers, because she wanted to love the work she did, to take the ugly out of it, and the only way she could feel at home on Sweet Home was if she picked some pretty growing things and took them with her" (22). In a way, Schoolteacher's coming frees the Sweet Home slaves from feeling any possibility of "taking the ugly out" of their lives or "wanting to love" their work. If the ugly were taken out, even briefly, then it would be possible to ignore the truth of the situation, the truth that Schoolteacher made clear by revealing his truth - one "that waved like a scarecrow in rye. . . . they were steer bulls without horns, gelded workhorses." This truth gives Paul D, Halle, and Sethe the strength to plan, because they know Schoolteacher "[i]s wrong" (125). Without being able to know what being free might mean, they risk the known for the unknown. Of course, the harsh lesson of freedom in the "Magical North" is that it offers little to combat the racist institutions, whether in the form of chattel slavery or the brutal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law.
When Sethe crosses over to freedom after her escape from Sweet Home, the possibilities of love are transformed. The connections between mother and child had been under threat, torn and broken by the flux of ownership. When she sees her children at 124 Bluestone," 'look like I loved 'em more. . . . Or maybe I couldn't love 'em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love.' "We know that Sethe loved her children in Kentucky, but this outpouring is the sign of freedom. While in the Clearing taking stock, she comes to assent to Paul D's definition of freedom as a place "where you could love anything you chose - not to need permission for desire" (162). While she had loved Halle at Sweet Home, she had been given permission to love him. She had loved her children because she had been allowed to raise them. Freedom as the place where love is possible becomes the inspiration for Baby Suggs's preaching - preaching that goes directly against "her same old ways." She reclaims her family relationships and reclaims her relationships to her God, and to her place in the community. None of these "ways" was possible at Sweet Home, despite her being clothed, warm, fed, and not beaten (146).
Sweet Home is the reference point through which Sethe makes her decisions about the future. It is also the place that they "belonged to" (9) and that "belonged to them" (11). For Denver, it is a site of exclusion. She challenges their attachments to each other and to the past by asking the crucial question," 'How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can't stop talking about it?'" (13). Sethe's answer shows how the past is operating - as a haunt. Sweet Home" 'comes back whether we want it to or not'" (14). This is as true for the readers as it is for Sethe and Paul D. The invasion of the present by Sweet Home shows how the communities constructed in the past haunt the communities of the present. They serve as sites for common purposes, sharing, and a reference point against which to measure progress. For Sethe, no matter what the present is like, it is not that past. Denver is locked out, forced to see herself as an outsider. Without the reference point, she knows only her own worse place as the one she is in now.
Each generation in Beloved makes its escape to a more "livable" place. Sethe's mother, who was brought from "livable" Africa to the unlivable plantation, makes the first journey. She too leaves a daughter behind. Sethe, in her refusal to leave her children in the worse place, attempts to send them across to the other place. Denver is left out. As Paul D and Sethe slowly tell their histories, binding the two together, Denver's jealousy leads her to a misplaced alliance with the past that is not the Sweet Home past - shutting her out. Paul D's coming, then, begins the process of bringing the stories together, and this process eventually allows Denver to make the escape from her worse place to a better one.
Thus, the community that is constructed by slavery, Sweet Home, serves the contingent purpose of binding together Sethe, Paul D, Halle, Baby Suggs, Sixo, and the Pauls. Its limitations and boundaries are created and maintained by the white people in whose interest the language of slave masters works. The Definers define this community. Yet within these constraints the slaves form a counter-community and plan to escape together. However, when seven "Buts" (226) disrupt their "perfect plan," this community is decimated, and the necessity of abandonment again comes in to play. Those who make it across the river become the blessed, whose position as such sets them outside the community of the unlucky.
The most difficult adjustment a community must make in this book is not to exclude the blessed, since the consequences for doing this are disastrous for both the blessed and the community that shuns them.(3) Relatedly, the consequences of believing oneself blessed and "taking it for granted" set one apart and beyond the rest, for being blessed is something that must be seen in terms of the larger community. At Sweet Home, when Sethe meditates on her "blessings," she sees that they are insignificant in the face of the forces that take children and make them property: "Sethe had the amazing luck of six whole years of marriage to that 'somebody' son who had fathered every one of her children. A blessing she was reckless enough to take for granted, lean on, as though Sweet Home really was one. As though a handful of myrtle stuck in the handle of a pressing iron propped against the door in a whitewoman's kitchen could make it hers" (23).
Though Paul D's escape from Alfred, Georgia, a space hardened in the extreme by violence and objectification, Morrison provides even here for the possibility of escape, although in the situation of intense abjection, an escape involves even more risk and requires greater reliance on connection to a community. In the carefully timed, concerted actions of the chain gang locked down in underground cells, Paul D and the other prisoner/slaves of Alfred, Georgia, show that the choices made by individuals can be transformed into emancipation.
Even within this most bleak of situations - joined by the best hand-forged iron in Georgia - a community emerges. As boundaries of the men's own bodies have been violated by the physical and mental tortures of "the cage" and the relentless "mule work" of the quarry, a system of resistance develops among the forty-six. Not only do they send messages and warnings down the line so that others may take up the slack or help a sick prisoner elude the guards, but they also - through the "Hi Man" - discover the workings of the limits to their movements and survival. The Hi Man's status arises mysteriously, and is purposefully elusive and vague. It is important that the guards feel that they are giving the signal. But Paul D "believed to this day that the 'Hiii!' at dawn and the 'Hooo!' when evening came were the responsibility the Hi Man assumed because he alone knew what was enough, what was too much, when things were over, when the time had come" (108). The Hi Man, like Baby Suggs, works the limits and boundaries and undertakes the responsibility for working them.(4)
And it is the Hi Man who, during the torrential rains that threaten to wash the world clean of the prison camp, initiates the escape. Paul D takes two crucial lessons away from the experience. First, the mechanism that binds them together may have originated in a ritual of white power, but it can be used to escape that power. As all the prisoners rise up out of the cells which are collapsing in the flood, they communicate to each other through the chain. Each link sends the code that lets the men know "when the time has come." Second, while in this dangerous landscape, "the chain that held them would save all or none." Escape necessitates a transformation of the mechanisms of oppression as well as the recognition that "one lost, all lost," so there must be an element of trust maintained by members of the community (110). No one of these things alone would have made the escape possible, and without the Hi Man to judge the proper moment for the communities to rise up out of their "graves," then this transformation, this small apocalypse, would not have happened and Paul D would not have regained even the portion of his head that allows him to "operate[,] the part that helped him walk, eat, sleep, and sing" (41). As in all the apocalyptic moments of the novel, this one does not end history. Like Sethe's, this apocalypse releases Paul D from one story, one narrative path (the narrative of the life of a slave), and propels him into another one. But even Paul D's breaking out of the story written for him by the conventions of racialized slavery does not secure him peace. He continues to endure history.
Further complicating the metaphor of Paul D's escape is the recognition within the narrative that there comes a moment when the chain must be cut off; concerted choices made by individuals can produce emancipation. Still, there must be a mechanism for the crossing over to freedom that not only does not damage and deny the bond, but also ensures the possibility of release from the chain that produced the bond. The underlying reinforcement of this notion is the mutual recognition that at a certain moment everyone may have to complete the journey on his or her own. When the chained men reach the camp of the Sick Cherokee, they can un-chain with the help of tools provided by the Cherokee, a band who "removed themselves" from history by retreating into the Blue Ridge Mountains (111). Paul D thereby joins a widening community, crossing racial lines and allied through victimization and resistance to the prevailing systems of enslavement and removal. The white expansionist and racist community that surrounds and attacks the Cherokee and the enslaved provides the momentum for the alliance the necessity for trust, strategic actions, and sympathy across the definitions that mark them as different.5 This stage of Paul D's journey northward is enabled by the Cherokee, who both sever the chains and provide necessary knowledge about how to navigate the larger world. The Cherokee band's self-exile from the larger destructive American scene of disease and devastation is, like the escape from Alfred, Georgia, an act against the history that is being written for them. For the forty-six this act requires a shared fantasy, an imaginary utopian configuration. They stumble in the direction of blossoming trees, the "Magical North" (112).
After the escape Paul D finds direction by subverting the "power" of the chain, trusting to mutual goals (often made mutual by forces outside the community), and then responding to an increasing range of possibilities by joining in new and transitory alliances. The process of removing the chain is a crucial step toward a widening sphere: Paul D's journey to the "Magical North" reveals a place that is "better" but not - as imagined - benevolent and welcoming. His escape from "the box" continues until "Beloved" breaks open the "tin" box in his chest where he has kept the fragments of memory which link him to a past and to some of the "lost," like Halle. In the moments of escape, there is a pragmatic leaving behind of those who cannot make it. It is one of the grim realities of these narratives.
Those lost haunt each of the characters of the book. Baby Suggs's husband and she have an agreement that, if there is an opportunity to escape, it must be seized and that this obligation and necessity supersede their responsibility to each other. This complex interplay between interdependence and individualism provides insight into movements that are based exclusively on either individual or group emancipation. For those who escape under these circumstances, the places they inhabit will be haunted. Those escaping measure their movement not only by triangulation (taking sightings off distant markers) but also by dead reckoning (marking the distance they have traveled). Their journey to a better place is also marked by a reckoning of the dead. As they lay plans according to a distant star or follow movement north of the blossoming of trees, they plot their route by knowing and marking their distance from the past. The going, for Paul D and the enslaved, is the reverse of their coming: He and the others move back toward the "livable" place.
Sethe describes the Clearing as "a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared that land in the first place" (87), and she remembers it as a "blessed place" (89). It a space outside the political and cultural domain of the white people who constantly disturb the black community of Cincinnati. Soon after her moving to Cincinnati, Baby Suggs goes to the Clearing to preach her gospel of imagined grace - "the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. . . . if they could not see it, they could not have it" (88). The Clearing provides a place for "every black man, woman, and child who could make it through" to love themselves and each other in a way not sustainable in the constricted and categorized world of white Cincinnati and white America (87). Within the Clearing, connections and emotions are possible that are unendurable beyond it.
Baby Suggs sings a litany of loving all the pieces that make up the body because, in the Clearing," '. . . we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare grass. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it'" (88). What Baby Suggs is able to accomplish by encouraging imagined grace is "spaces" created by the singing; what she cannot accomplish is an actual extension of the Clearing into the yonder world. After "the Misery" she loses her own faith in the imagination and its ability to aid in realizing grace. She comes to believe (and it is this belief that robs her of the will to be in the future) that "there was no grace - imaginary or real - and no sunlit dance in the Clearing could change that" (89). Within the Clearing Baby Suggs's grace must be imagined, because phenomenally it does not exist. But even so, it works change, though not the sudden, transcendent change that the Clearing, through her preaching, promises. The clear and boundless freedom to love and dance in the world cannot be extended by the imagination alone.
In some ways, the narrative that Morrison writes is an investigation of the power of the imagination and its failures. The imagination provides an escape and alternative to lived reality, but that escape often is not realized, until the world is forced to make adjustments. The real heart of the question is how to get the world yonder to make the necessary adjustments and open up the necessary spaces.
Sethe comes to this wide-open space to figure out what to do with her past. In this first struggle over which world, the past or the future, Sethe will inhabit, Beloved strangles Sethe. Sethe is caught up in the "enchantment" of the Clearing, and misreads the touch as Baby Suggs's healing hands. Just as she concludes that she has to "share it" with Paul D, who had "beat the spirit," Beloved's ghostly fingers shift from massage to suffocation, and the battle over Sethe's life begins. Will the past feel its way into the future as "healing hands" or a suffocating grip?
Paul D brings with him new information about the past which simultaneously resurrects and changes it. Sethe's "knotted, private, walk-on-water life" slips back into thoughts of the future. For her, the difficulty is "managing" the new past and the new future, which threaten the stillness and out-of-timeness of her life. To "figure it out," she goes to the Clearing. Sethe seeks "some fixing ceremony" (86), a commemoration which would place Halle in the past so that she could finally turn to the future. While in the Clearing, she realizes that the haunting by the ghost has not helped her "solve" anything because it offers only a stay against time, not time itself. The revelations about Halle and Paul D's love for her threaten to break up the solid and static moment she has lived in for years. She is trapped between the competing desire to be attached to Beloved and her misery, and her desire to be part of a living family and community. Thus the Clearing - the place of enchantment and release - is also a place of dangerous flux, and Sethe's quest to find "peace" in the Clearing presents us with alternative visions (97): a peaceful rest for the past or a death-like peace in the timeless present.
At the foot of Baby Suggs's rock, in a scene strangely reminiscent of the sacrifice of Isaac, the sacrificed daughter exacts her demands. Denver wrests Sethe away from the choking fingers, and a bizarre dynamic among the three is established. Their distinctness is lost and their identities confused in a way that prefigures the final chapters: They are "three women in the middle of the Clearing, at the base of the rock where Baby Suggs, holy, had loved. One seated, yielding up her throat to the kind hands of one of the two kneeling before her" (97). The strange blurring of the daughters confounds. Which has the kind hands? Which the choking? The three begin at this moment the alteration of sacrifice, pain, and pleasure that will shape their immediate future.
Denver and Sethe are bound to Beloved. "They stayed that way for a while because neither Denver nor Sethe knew how not to: how to stop and not love the look and feel of the lips that kept on kissing" (97) The three are fixed into a tableau without narrative movement or dialogue. In the Clearing, the space that was "wide-open" and blessed, where it was possible to love, is the place where the boundaries of selves are dangerously vague, where the separations are transgressed by a love that knows no bounds, and threatens suffocation.(6) When Sethe emerges from the Clearing, this moment becomes a "tiny disturbance." By passing through the Clearing she is able to "figure out" her attachments to the past, Halle, and weigh her desires for the future - a whole family, love, Paul D, and Denver (99). Sethe arrives back at the house planning the meal she will fix, planning the future she will have. Sethe feels blessed, just as she had when she first arrived at 124, as though she alone could sustain the world.(7)
The house which Sethe and her family escape is owned by white abolitionists and rented to Baby Suggs. Nevertheless, Baby Suggs and Sethe create in it a space the interior of which is designed to promote warmth and provide sustenance, both to the family and to the community. Momentarily, the house is successful in providing a protected space for the community to gather with the family. But when the yard is invaded by slavery's institutional forces, triggering Sethe's desperate actions, the house becomes both an unapproachable and inescapable space - hard. While the present of the novel is located in 124, the house is haunted by the specter of reliving the past. Incursions into the yard and house by the past, whether brought by Paul D or Schoolteacher, cause breakdowns. Some of these breakdowns result in a hardening of the line between the yard and the world, some in an increased permeability.
The house and its relation to the community change drastically from when Baby Suggs lives there alone until the time of Paul D's arrival. Located in disputed territory, 124 Bluestone is caught between the claims of past scripts and the imagined possibilities of a new story. The past lives in the house, haunts it, and shields itself from being unwritten, re-written, or forgotten. The relationship of the characters to the past is conflicted, because it is pleasurable to remember connections through reminiscences, such as the caresses of Beloved and the memories of Sweet Home that "rolled themselves out in shameless beauty" (6). These memories, however, do not account for the pain that emanates from the house's being a site for the contested past, and a site wholly absorbed by the past - suspended, caught up in a protracted and "perfunctory battle" (4) with a ghost that saps all the energy of the living. Sethe's resistance to re-living the past has cast her into a kind of limbo, with no judgment and no forgiveness. In this way, Beloved is about joining together the stories of the past, making it impossible for them to be relived, and writing a new story into being.
124 Bluestone is both a good place to escape to and a "way station" on that journey (163). For Baby Suggs and Sethe it is the better place at the end of the journey, bought by Halle's labor, and perhaps life, and by Sethe's suffering. The cost of such a journey is dear, because the institution of slavery makes it so, and it is the ex-slaves who must pay. Garner's payment of Baby Suggs's settlement fee is added on to the debt that Halle must pay. Nevertheless, Baby Suggs acknowledges the value of the place where she is. Knowing that value, she turns the house into a beacon calling for and helping with the freeing of other black people:
124 had been a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised, soothed. Where not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where the lamp burned all night long. Strangers rested there while children tried on their shoes. Messages were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon. (86)
124 is the nerve center and the heart of the black community. To insure that it will be the kind of space that will be open, Baby Suggs changes the structure of the white-owned house by making the kitchen indoors "like a cabin." Baby Suggs, who draws the community together with her preaching in the Clearing, maintains her doctrine of openness, grace, and love for every black woman, man, and child.
But her efforts to bring home her "scattered" family fail; slavery's systematic erasure of identity is too thorough for her to combat alone. So Baby Suggs opens her house and her heart to the whole community. The people take advantage of this, but her efforts are stymied by the invasion of this space by white people trying to return Sethe and her babies to the unbearable past. Her efforts are also stymied by the house's relation to the community; despite Baby Suggs's efforts to transform it into a cabin, it remains a "house with two floors and a well" (137). Her very generosity makes them furious. The blessings and Baby Suggs's sharing of these blessings set her apart even as they brought the community together in her yard, or at the Clearing. Baby Suggs works limitations - she "didn't approve of extra. 'Everything depends on knowing how much,' she said, and 'Good is knowing when to stop'" (86). Like the Hi Man she enacts this wisdom to the benefit of the community. And she is uneasy with the spontaneous celebration that erupts at Sethe's arrival.
At the party, the pies made by Baby Suggs are added to by the donations of the community, until there is too much food eaten and enjoyed. The four pies with which the feast begins are made from Stamp Paid's gift of blackberries, but they soon become eight. This generation of food, brought by the whole community and eaten to excess by the whole community, suddenly becomes a source of violent reaction, forcing a breakdown in solidarity. The community, though itself the source of the food, shapes it into a story about rivaling divine miracles and prideful generosity:
Loaves and fishes were His powers - they did not belong to an ex-slave who had probably never carried one hundred pounds to the scale, or picked okra with a baby on her back. Who had never been lashed by a ten-year-old whiteboy as God knows they had. Who had not even escaped slavery - had in fact, been bought out of it by a doting son and driven to the Ohio river in a wagon - free papers folded between her breasts (driven by the very man who had been her master, who also paid her resettlement fee - name of Garner), and rented a house with two floors and a well from the Bodwins. . . . It made them furious. They swallowed baking soda, the morning after, to calm the stomach violence caused by the bounty, the reckless generosity on display at 124. Whispered to each other in the yards about fat rats, doom and uncalled-for pride. (137)
Suddenly, the very openness and generosity, which demanded a structural change in the white-owned two-story house, become the source of Baby Suggs's isolation from the community. The "talking low" which had occurred within 124 is transformed into whispered resentments:
Too much, they thought. Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy? Why is she and hers always the center of things? How come she always knows exactly what to do and when? Giving advice, passing messages, healing the sick, hiding fugitives, loving, cooking, cooking, loving, preaching, singing, dancing and loving everybody like it was her job and hers alone. (137)
Of course, the simple answer to the question "Where does she get it all?" is from the community. It is their own generosity that has provided the excess of food. But they see Baby Suggs as a locus of blessings, of realized dreams - getting her family out, getting out herself. Even though she turns her blessings into gifts for the community and provides a space for the necessary work of getting others out, the fact of these blessings creates a separation between her and the community. Though she tries to rebuild the house she has received to be a cabin, it stubbornly remains a two-story house - and hers alone. From this separation, violence is enabled.
For twenty-eight days Sethe experiences this paradise, this utopia, this house fully alive with no need to "take the ugly out." She has friends over; she is bathed and tended for the injuries she has sustained on her journey; she can love her children properly; and she can converse as part of a larger black community about matters of national as well as personal importance - such as the Fugitive Slave Act. The moment of destruction for the utopia happens with the confluence of two events: One is an invasion from the outside, and one a disruption of the community fabric. That 124 is set apart from the community because of its blessings and "reckless" generosity makes it more vulnerable. The invasion of 124 by the white people of Sweet Home, who are trying to re-cast Sethe and her children into their role as slaves, results in a paroxysm of violence.
When the four horsemen approach Sethe's house, the usual system of warning has broken down, after and through the party to celebrate Sethe's arrival and the survival of Denver. Stamp Paid later interprets this double lapse:
He was going to tell him [Paul D] that, because he thought it was important: why he and Baby Suggs both missed it. And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead; why nobody sent a fleet-footed son to cut 'cross a field soon as they saw the four horses in town hitched for watering while the riders asked questions. Not Ella, not John, not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma'am's tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them,
and he'd always believed it wasn't the exhaustion from a long day's gorging that dulled them, but some other thing - like, well, like meanness - that let them stand aside, or not pay attention, or tell themselves somebody else was probably bearing the news already to the house on Bluestone Road where a pretty woman had been living for almost a month. Young and deft with four children one of which she delivered herself the day before she got there and who now had the full benefit of Baby Suggs' bounty and her big old heart. Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special, blessed in some way they were not. (157)
Prophecy and the reading of the signs have failed in this instance. Stamp Paid and Baby Suggs are looking in the wrong direction, not attending to the signs. However, the more severe breakdown is the lack of solidarity - something born out of jealousy of others' blessings, and by naming those blessings and that generosity "pride." So the blessed can be excluded from the community of the less blessed, not yet blessed, or never to be blessed. Perhaps it is damaging to emancipatory movements that individuals' successes in escaping or avoiding harm isolate them, putting some into a safer space. This place enables a new exclusionary boundary to be erected. If someone moves into that new territory, then the community has two choices. Either make the boundaries flexible enough - cut off the chain that has bound them together, and allow the connection to exist on a metaphoric level - or reassert the group identity based on being the unblessed, the oppressed, cutting the blessed individual out of the loop.
Ironically, being outside the community leaves Sethe and her family open to assault by the enforcers of the system of oppression that created the situation of being unblessed for the entire community. This leaves Sethe at once part of the community - because she has now been robbed of her blessing - but also outside of it, doubly unblessed. She is ostracized because of the actions she takes in the face of the assault that was in some part enabled by the community's failure to include her. The correct reading of the signs and a response to the threat from white people must be above the notions of desert or the system of signals will fail, endangering the blessings achieved by the concerted efforts of that same community. The community must work toward emancipation and toward the maintenance of emancipation, taking into account different attainments of grace - not risking those blessings attained to ensure an equality of oppression, an equality of suffering, and an equal portion of pain.
124 is transformed from the vibrant, "buzzing" nexus of the community to a house isolated from the outside and constricted from the inside. Once caught in the flux of life, the midst of journeys, communications, and sharing, 124 is hurled out of time to become a fixed, timeless world trapped on the border of death. The house is filled to such an extent with the spiteful ghost that "there was no room for any other thing or body" (39). The openness, the lack of constrictions and restrictions that made 124 the way station and message center, is reversed by the apocalyptic moment. The achievement of this apocalypse is a world out of time, fixed and fixing for all its inhabitants. When Sethe attempts to kill her children rather then see them brought back into slavery, Morrison clearly points to Revelations - four horseman come riding down the road and enter the yard (148). The day of reckoning comes in the form of a tremendous violence, the flowing of blood, and a disruption of the maternal relationship that suggests the upheavals of Judgment Day. The unleashing of Sethe's wrath is like that of the God of righteousness. She has been betrayed not only by the evil of white people and the world they rule, but also by the pride of her own people, who turn their backs and worship false idols.
After Sethe's actions, she enters a living death, signified by her blood-coated dress, which stiffens "like rigor mortis" (153). She awaits a resurrection, tries to propel her family to the other side, but the apocalypse fails to secure this paradise. The world has become a bad, unnatural place. Horrible upheavals of the natural occur, and Sethe sets out to destroy history as white people have written it. Her chosen people - her "'best things'" (272) - will not be required to live out the history assigned to them. The claims of the past must be shattered. Sethe tries to "out hurt the hurter" (234), to disrupt the narrative by employing the outrageous: love in the form of a handsaw. "She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe" (163).
Again, Sethe has rewritten her destiny, escaped the role assigned to her and her children, but at what cost? Sethe's choice has propelled them out of history into a "timeless present." But she must ask the question," 'How bad is the scar?' "She says that it was not for her to know what could be worse, only to escape from what was known as worse. In her recollection of the events to Paul D, after he proclaims her act of mistaken identity, of not knowing "where the world stopped and she began," Sethe counters," 'They ain't at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain't got em. . . .'" Paul D again counters, "'Maybe there's worse,'" to which Sethe replies," 'It ain't my job to know what's worse. It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible'" (165).
And it is terrible. Her daughter is dead, her sons run away, and Denver is trapped in a kind of other world with Sethe. But Baby Suggs "could not approve or condemn Sethe's 'rough choice'" (180). The choices of all the mothers have been rough. And the boundaries of property and the possibilities of "imagined grace" in which she had faith are violated and repudiated in one moment: "The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn't count. They came into her yard anyway" (180). Baby Suggs's new and last prophetic message to give to the world - now shrunk to Sethe and Denver - is "that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. 'They don't know when to stop'" (104). The lesson that they could "come into the yard" at will is a devastating one for Baby Suggs, since she had re-structured the space rented to her and transformed the Clearing into a place where grace could be imagined. As long as white people set the limits, African American attempts to transform their houses, their communities, and their minds into safe, open spaces remain subject to a reassertion of the narrative of slavery.
The world is so imbued and shot through with white power that color remains the only harmless thing. Paul D calls Sethe on the danger of internalizing the definer's definitions: "'You got two feet, Sethe, not four'" (165). She may be enacting the role described by Schoolteacher and written down by him with the ink of her own making. The jungle created by white people, the evil created by slavery invades even the most carefully attended barriers. The "fence with a gate that somebody was always latching and unlatching in the time when 124 was busy as a way station" is "pulled down" by white boys who "yanked up the posts and smashed the gate leaving 124 desolate and exposed at the very hour when everybody stopped dropping by." Once exposed and isolated from the community, the house that was once the lamp on the hill has become "a breastplate of darkness" (163). The safety secured for its inhabitants has cost not only lives, but the future as well.
When Paul D arrives he brings both the Sweet Home past and the future with him. As he enters the possessed house, passing through its bloody veil of light, he disrupts its timelessness and isolation. His coming disrupts the physical spaces of the house. He "broke up the place, making room, shifting it [the ghost], moving it over to someplace else, then standing in the place that he had made" (39). Like Baby Suggs, he tries to adjust the house physically to account for problems that are spiritual and political. He shifts the ghost from occupying the house to occupying a body. Like Baby Suggs's structural changes, Paul D's cannot remedy the facts of the case - whether it is the size of the house, who owns it, or the fact that it is the site of a bloody incident. Before Paul D exorcises the spirit, Denver tries to tell him that the possession is not the source of their isolation - a comfortable fiction Sethe supports. She cries," 'It's not the house. It's us. And it's you'" (14). The displacement provides a temporary respite from the possession. The very same day that Paul D takes Sethe and Denver to the Carnival for a first venture off the property and first social event since the Misery, the ghost takes on its body - the mysterious Beloved.(8) The haunt becomes flesh, and Paul D has no power to displace her. Rather, it is she who "moves" him gradually out of 124, securing her space, taking over the present and shutting out the future.
The past which Paul D brings to 124 demands a new, painful writing of the past. Yet this threading together of stories allows for the fabric of their two lives to be joined into a potentially sheltering cloth in which the past is reworked into the present and into the future. But as is true of all the blessings in this novel that seek to displace the haunting pains of one past, a new kind of haunting emerges. Blessings cannot supplant or displace the terrible; it abides. Paul D "beat the spirit away the very day he entered her house and no sign of it since. A blessing, but in its place he brought another kind of haunting" (96). The story she made up about Halle and Sweet Home was integrated into her present. With Paul D's additions to the story, the past itself is changed. She now finds the memory of Halle's face smeared with butter and clabber. His being broken by the sight of his wife assaulted by teenage boys becomes part of her story. Sethe and Paul D cannot secure the future for each other because neither has yet integrated their whole pasts into their presents. They have not reckoned with the dead or their own deadness. Paul D's is locked in a tobacco box in his chest, and Sethe's demands attention like a spoilt or needy child.
Beloved's takeover of 124 secures its total isolation. As soon as Sethe understands who Beloved is, Beloved's claim on her and hers is total. Sethe no longer goes to work; she attends to Beloved's wishes. Denver - who once stood between her Sweet Home past and her 124 past - tries to make claims on both Beloved as a sister and Sethe as a mother, but she is gradually shut out of the relationship. But first there is a fusion of all three (a moment so pleasurable that the most basic connections to life, like eating, are set aside). In an attempt to take the "ugly" out of the past and to redeem her handsaw love, Sethe expends everything she has to surround Beloved with sweetness and finery. The three ice skate, drink cocoa, dress up in bright colors and ribbons. As though directly contrary to Baby Suggs's dictum, they do everything to excess. Yet the excess proffered Beloved leads to privation for Sethe and Denver. Beloved swallows everything, absorbing them into her ever larger body.
Two possibilities for these pasts are Beloved's two dreams of "exploding, and being swallowed" (133). The past either erupts into the present and threatens to rewrite itself - as in the coming of Schoolteacher to 124. Or it is swallowed and made part of the living in a sacramental way. To combat her fate, Beloved possesses Sethe and Denver; their identities become increasingly dispersed only to coalesce around Beloved and her whims. In the four chapters that form the lyric heart of the book, Sethe and Denver lay claim to Beloved; Beloved lays claim to Sethe; and finally (in the fourth chapter) the pronouns slip from person to person until the boundaries are effaced. The Is and yous and the subjects of the sentences are barely distinguishable, no longer separated grammatically or typographically. These lyric-voice chapters conclude with a joining - "You are mine, you are mine, you are mine" (217) - and the possession is complete. The haunt has achieved its purpose of crowding out all other possible imaginings. Sethe's, Beloved's, and Denver's relative positions in time are lost; their separate histories, their private thoughts, their terrible stories, and their bodies are fused, leaving Denver and Sethe possessed by all the dead and lost, all the Beloveds. And when Beloved possesses all she knows to want, she "invented desire" (240).
While 124 "exhausts" itself in total isolation, Paul D sorts through the fragments of Sethe's story, the newspaper article, Stamp Paid's view, and his own knowledge of Sethe. It is through him and through Stamp Paid's aborted visit that the black community first hears about Beloved's arrival. 124 and the community are still estranged, but the goings-on are acknowledged. It is for Denver to break up the estrangement. For her 124 was the whole known world. It is also her own worse place. Until she can imagine that the future could hold no worse for her, she cannot form her plan to leave the yard. Denver's fear, which is the fear she learned from her mother, is that the past will write itself into her future. And yet not to risk her own apocalyptic moment of resistance to a repeating past is to risk losing her mother and eventually herself. Sethe and Denver exist within an entropic system headed toward collapse: The past is obliterated and the present is starved; Beloved's strength is growing, and Sethe's and ultimately Denver's size is diminished. Only in this situation will Denver risk going "out there where there were places in which things so bad had happened that when you went near them it would happen again. Like Sweet Home where time didn't pass and where, like her mother said, the bad was waiting for her as well" (243-44). The vortex that Denver fears is precisely the vortex that Sethe approached and denied, hurling her instead into an inescapable relationship with her own past. The rough choice that Denver must make is between risking entrapment in a narrative written by the white power structure, a fate ready and waiting for her, and being swallowed up into a closed and exhausting relationship with that past that has marked and nourished her - as she drank her own sister's blood.
The other abiding spirit, that of Baby Suggs, reaches Denver with her final prophecy. The solution to the dilemma is no solution at all. It is to "know"(9) that there is no absolute "defense" against the claims of a competing and brutal narrative that may cast you in the role of victim. Armed only with this knowledge, Denver must "go on out of the yard" (244). Baby Suggs had learned that the yard, while it seems protected and protective, is itself no defense. For Baby Suggs, hell isn't others; others are the only defense. When Denver leaves the yard and approaches Lady Jones, the teacher of the "unpicked" (247), she sets into motion a process that brings sustenance to 124, and begins to re-integrate Denver into the larger community through a network of generosity.
Denver's ventures out of the yard re-link 124 to the black community. She is "strengthened by the gifts of food" and now has two "lives," her "outside life" and her "home life" (250). The story cannot end until these two lives are re-integrated. This re-integration happens through a confluence of events - Denver's commitment to working for the Bodwins outside 124 and outside the black community, far into the "whitepeople" world, and the convergence of black women to exorcize the ghost. Once the house and its inhabitants are brought back into the compass of the community by Denver's escape, the boundary established on the day Sethe hurled the world out can be re-negotiated. The reclamation of 124, like the escape from Alfred, comes through a concerted effort.
Ella, the practical woman, leads a group prayer at the edge of the property. Participants "bring what they could and what they believed would work" (257). Denver waits to go out into a risky world, one in which the "bad places" wait to re-write you into their story. A white man is again coming into the yard, and surrounded by an army of women, he enters it. Sethe sees the past reaching out to pull her back in. This time, however, she doesn't disrupt the narrative by hurting her own - what was made vulnerable and hurtable by the enemy - instead she strikes out at Mr. Bodwin, the unwitting abolitionist, who understands how he is seen by whites as a "bleached nigger," but is unaware of how he is a "man without skin" to the ex-slave, Sethe. She repeats the apocalyptic moment, but here reverses the role of destroyer/unproducer and creator/producer, putting Bodwin in the role of victim. Denver steps in to disrupt the whole unfolding narrative - which threatens to cut the filaments that she has woven between herself and the world outside. The world to which she has chosen to be connected is clearly not without risk, or without "tests and trials." Denver has taken over the writing of her future and crossed out of a yard that hemmed her in, creating space in which to make connections.
Sethe is still tied to her ghost and to her method of changing the narrative, using a violence we, like Baby Suggs, can neither condemn nor approve. In the first coming of white people into her yard, she turns the violence against herself and her own, but she does not strike out at Schoolteacher. The constraints laid on her are his guns, and the weight of the law. In the second coming, she seeks to re-write her role as object of violence onto the agent, Mr. Bodwin. But part of the problem with this way of getting out of the oppressed position is that the person turned victim may not be the source of oppressive power. Sethe assigns to Mr. Bodwin a role based on the qualities of his skin, disrupting neither the racist modes of thinking nor the white supremacist structures of the larger society.
It is important here to recall that Sethe's killing of the "crawling already? baby" is not the only infanticide in the novel, nor is it the only instance of a "rough choice." The woman who cares for Sethe when she is a child tells her that her mother killed all the babies conceived on the slave ship, as well as those of white men, and that Sethe was not killed because she was a child of love. This is not to say that Morrison is suggesting that the way to escape oppressive structures is this kind of self-destructive behavior. Rather we are bound, to some degree, to act and make rough choices within the narratives that we live. The specificity of historical moments allows for and demands certain and, at times, mixed-up choices. None are choices for all time, and none are apocalyptic enough to end the history in which we find ourselves. But, Morrison suggests, we bear a kind of haunting from these choices that in turn haunts the future. Sethe's mother's choices and her own choices haunt Denver, and Denver must live with the consequences of her mother's choice, but not be absorbed by this past. Her future is another rough choice to get to a "better life" that is not her "other one," the one paralyzed and bound by her mother's choice.
When Denver takes control of the unfolding scene by wrestling the weapon from her mother's hand, she makes it possible for the past narrative to explode, releasing Sethe into a rest, and a small clearing of space in which to live out the rest of her life. Her connections to the present and to the future are tenuous and airy. The possibilities for Beloved's fate were being "exploded" or "swallowed." By this time, Sethe has swallowed many of the pieces of the past. Paul D has taken his memories and made them a part of his present. He and Sethe know each other and know each other's pasts. She can leave him his manhood, and he can leave her humanity. It is all exploded and swallowed. Paul D ends with an assertion about the "need" for a future, and to that end he is ready to join his story to hers. What each has suffered has to become joined with all the other narratives of suffering. How each has escaped has to become joined with all the other stories of escape. The description of the scars has to join with the descriptions of bathings and healings.
The mastering narrative which threatens to cast you in the role of property, or victim, or prisoner can be disrupted by other competing narratives - narratives of escape, of clearing, of generosity. Beloved's disembodiment results in her presence becoming "an outside thing that embraces while it accuses." 124 Bluestone is sold by its white owners. Denver and Sethe will move out. As Baby Suggs reminds us, they will not be moving into a place clear and free of a "Negro's grief," since every rafter in America must be haunted. And we are constantly reminded of how this landscape, in turn, is haunted by the disregarded mounds of the Miami. The land itself is a palimpsest, American history a ghost story. Any attempt to re-structure a rented space is going to be bound by limitations and troubled by layers and layers of lost cultures and lives. In the last chapter of the novel, the story that wasn't to be passed on becomes the story that isn't to be passed on. Familiar faces in photographs are haunted. The familiar footprints into which we walk, which become our footprints when we move off, are the traces of the past that becomes our past. The forgetting that goes on is the loss of the hold of the past. The past itself is always there - it becomes what remains, all the rest. And it is weather, whose power comes from how it surrounds us, makes us adjust our plans, create new plans. We talk about it to people with whom we have no other connection.
Morrison disperses the voices that surround the story of the historical Margaret Garner, imagining them rippling outward until they reach us in the present. Margaret Garner, an escaped slave, in 1856 attempted to kill her four children to prevent them from being taken back into slavery. Only her three-year-old daughter died.(10) In Morrison's representation this moment bears the whole of Sethe's past and her people's past: the terrible losses during the crossing from Africa in the slavers, the minutiae of loss in the everyday life of a slave, and finally the losses sustained when the related are torn from one another through the physical and spiritual violence of slavery. This heavily burdened moment is included in and crucial to every next moment. It haunts the community and Sethe until the future, with its "only imagined grace," can be unfettered. The lost ancestors and the lost children must all be born(e) into the future, not as iron links in a chain, but as sutures that hold the body together in the aftermath of violence. Change is located in that small space, in the slight movement of the body as it loosens the stitch. Change is momentarily visible when the characters move through and make something of the places they have come to be in.
When Baby Suggs preaches in the Clearing to the gathered free blacks, freed slaves, and escaped slaves, the message they hear is radically different from the messages about themselves they hear from white society. Being in the Clearing does not magically release them from oppressive, racist spaces they inhabit and try to make their homes in. But being in that temporary space, hearing a different accounting of themselves, is essential for preparing them to survive, join together, and carry what they learn in the Clearing back into town and into their houses.
In a number of sites in the novel - Sweet Home, Alfred, Georgia, the Clearing, and 124 Bluestone - communities and households are brought together and undone. At pivotal moments each undergoes a transformation that betrays its limits and paves the way for a new configuration. Along the community's and household's guarded edges, and within its relatively open spaces, transformations and undoings occur. Similarly, Marian Anderson's 1939 concert in the open space in front of the Lincoln Memorial after her exclusion from the DAR's Constitution Hall did not cause its walls to crumble or all the various and multiple forms of segregation to disappear. Nevertheless, in a moment, the presence and place of the African American community in the District of Columbia shifted, presaging change and marking out a collective space from which to gain entry, eventually, to Constitution Hall.
Morrison's Beloved is a critique of millennial narratives, the fantasies of utopian escape. But it also shows feminists ways to re-write the narratives that have represented people in clippings, like property, like animals. It shows how these narratives and the spaces within them, if not disrupted and resisted, will re-assert themselves, making people re-live or live in someone else's fantasy. Our own imaginings, our trips to the clearings prepare us to re-cast ourselves as Denver does. And they prepare us to understand struggles for emancipation that different people go through differently. But the stories must be shared and joined, or they become dangerous, self-exhausting, domestic soliloquies in which there are no realizations, no connections, no movement toward a better home.
1. Charles Scruggs discusses the significance of Schoolteacher as the "voice of law" and "perverse rationality." He also locates a biblical reference, Paul's words in Galatians (3:23-25): "Now before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wheretofore the law was our schoolmaster. . . . But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster."
2. Lillian Garner is an ineffectual mitigator of the brutal institution and the figure of good and thoughtless intentions. While she works alongside Baby Suggs to feed and clothe the Sweet Home community, Baby Suggs's crippling pain is and must be invisible, while Mrs. Garner's illness is visible and accounted for. The growth on Lillian's throat eventually silences her completely, even in the face of her sadness about the treatment of Sethe at the hands of Schoolteacher's pupils. She weeps when she hears that they forced Sethe to let them suck her breast milk. Her weakness, physical and spiritual, makes her the foil for either Garner or Schoolteacher. She succumbs easily to sentiment, and yet cannot recognize the full import of the emotions she perceives. While Schoolteacher is restructuring the management of the farm, she protests weakly. While Garner is not threatened by what the larger white community thinks or by its expectations, Lillian is. She cannot conceive of life at Sweet Home without a white master. After her husband's death, she calls in her brother-in-law and two boys (his nephews) to play the role of white master to her role of white mistress. The jewels she gives to Sethe are bright and glittering, but they are of little value. Her consolations and weak protestations are just as valueless. In fact, she exercises so little authority that Sethe's disclosure of the brutal and perverse behavior of the pupils results in Sethe's being further brutalized.
3. Scruggs analyzes this episode through what he calls Morrison's play on the epigraph: "I will call them my people which were not my people." He sees the black community's "defensive pride" as the reason they do not warn Sethe, and sees that this impedes them from becoming a "people." His argument follows his teasing out of connections between the novel and Augustine's (and Paul's) ideal city based on caritas, not earthly, imperial authority: The interaction of the legal, "man-made" city and Sethe and Morrison's invisible city, he contends, is "based on common understanding and caritas, balanced between individual respect for communal ties and communal respect for individuality" (97). Scruggs is particularly interesting when he discusses how the community must be "vital," "fluid," and "protean" - in a state of constant creation - invisible, but perhaps becoming visible. He also points out that in 124 the utopian and dystopian meet (101); however, he suggests that Morrison is radically revising a tradition by having her city founded by a woman (". . . in Western cultural traditions, how many women found cities?"). Since Carthage, founded by Dido, is also the city of Augustine, it seems that there are perhaps connections between Sethe and Dido and their self-directed vengeance and destruction. After all, Dido's beautiful city, built after her flight from violence, goes to ruin, and she burns herself up to protest Aeneas's departure from her house.
4. Shirley Stave ignores the role of the Hi Man in the escape. She argues that "what is crucial about this salvation is that each person is his own savior and the savior of his brothers - no hierarchy is imposed on them; no one of them is less or more significant than the others" (55). The Hi Man need not suggest a hierarchy, nor need his actions suggest that he is the only savior; it is possible to have leaders and communities without hierarchies, each person stepping up at the right time.
5. Sethe's alliance with Amy Denver, the abused, escaping daughter of an indentured servant, is another example of cross-race connections. Several authors have examined Amy Denver's position in the novel vis-a-vis her experience of oppression and her white privilege. Amy Denver upsets the easy categories set in place by racialized mechanisms of oppression as they unfold in the narrative. However, Perez-Torres suggests that "commodity and exchange serve as the only form of interaction between blacks and whites in Beloved" (692).
6. For a discussion of the dissolution of the stable "speaking" I, see Schopp 362ff. For discussions of the relationship between Sethe and Beloved and motherhood and mother love in Beloved, see Liscio, Davies, and Stave. Other critics who have explored the body in Beloved, including the maternal and sexual, are Henderson and Ledbetter. Most critics relate Sethe's bodily experience to history. Sally Keenan relates myth, history, and motherhood as she discusses the tension between the mythic and the historical. Sethe's mythic story is "paradigmatic of the power of myth and cultural identification to mobilize and vitalize political and cultural consciousness." According to Keenan, ". . . that moment of idealized unity [the skating scene] cannot remain locked in stasis, or in the endless repetition of one story, and will inevitably dissolve into new formations, new histories" (77).
7. Morrison's "dilemma of the rescued," a reading of Robinson Crusoe found in the introduction of Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, from the point of view of a Friday rescued, is in Beloved the dilemma of the escaped, the blessed. Their relation to the whole community - and especially to those who are in fact the lost, the missing, the drowned, the hanged, the burnt, and the abandoned - is troubled. The unblessed need the blessed to help them secure a Place in the Clearing, work the train, pass the messages, and ferry them across the river. Yet the happiness of the blessed borders on the intolerable, since the possibility of a failure of cohesion between the blessed and the unblessed leaves the blessed at the mercy of white people and their laws. Sethe's revolution of fortunes comes about when her links to the community have been weakened by the very fact of her good fortune. The mechanism of this revolution will be discussed in the section about 124 Bluestone. Suffice it to say that this kind of weakening threatens a return to Sweet Home for the escaped.
8. I concur with Osagie's reading of the "complementarity" of the differing readings of Beloveds "true" identity, either as Sethe's daughter's ghost or a "captive from Africa" (see House). For a discussion of the "ghost," see Horvitz and Rigney. Other critics relate the fleshly ghost to a West African figure, the ogbanje, a demon/child who seeks to be born again and again, and is therefore marked by the mother so that it will be recognized on its return.
9. Susan E. Babbitt's article provides an interesting reading of Drucilla Cornell and Morrison. She explores the relationship between questions of knowledge and questions of identity (and subjectivity). According to Babbitt, epistemological questions occur within conceptual frameworks, and transformations in understanding and knowledge cannot be "acquired any other way than by bringing about certain conditions or ways of being. . . . Individuals . . . have to act and be in specific ways in order to proceed as human beings" (16-17).
10. For a full discussion of the Margaret Garner story, as well as both Morrison's and Harder Beecher Stowe's fictional representations of slave mothers, see Wolff.
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Benhabib, Seyla, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, and Nancy Fraser. Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. New York: Routledge, 1995.
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Bowers, Susan. "Beloved and the New Apocalypse." Journal of Ethnic Studies 18.1 (1990): 59-77.
Broad, Robert L. "Giving Blood to the Scraps: Haints, History, and Hosea in Beloved." African American Review 28 (1994): 189-96.
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Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Davies, Carole Boyce. "Mother Right/Write Revisited: Beloved and Dessa Rose and the Construction of Motherhood in Black Women's Fiction." Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities. Ed. Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 44-57.
Finney, Brian. "Temporal Defamiliarization in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Obsidian II 5.1 (1990): 20-36.
FitzGerald, Jennifer. "Selfhood and Community: Psychoanalysis and Discourse in Beloved." Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 669-87.
Guth, Deborah. "The Blessing and a Burden: The Relation of the Past in Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved." Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 575-96.
Henderson, Mae. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text." Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1990. 62-86.
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hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End P, 1984.
Horvitz, Deborah. "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved." Studies in American Fiction 17 (1989): 157-68.
Keenan, Sally. "'Four Hundred Years of Silence': Myth, History, and Motherhood in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Recasting the World: Writing after Colonialism. Ed. Jonathan White. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 45-81.
Ledbetter, T. Mark. "An Apocalypse of Race and Gender: Body Violence and Forming Identity in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Postmodernism, Literature, and the Future of Theology. Ed. David Jasper. New York: St. Martin's, 1993. 78-90.
Liscio, Lorraine. "Beloveds Narrative: Writing Mother's Milk." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 11.1 (1992): 31-46.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Osagie, Iyunolu. "Is Morrison Also Among the Prophets? 'Psychoanalytic' Strategies in Beloved." African American Review 28 (1994): 423-40.
Otten, Terry. "Horrific Love in Toni Morrison's Fiction." Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 651-67.
Pearson, Carol. "Coming Home: Four Feminist Utopias and Patriarchal Experience." Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Marleen Barr. Bowling Green: Popular P, 1981. 63-70.
Perez-Torres, Rafael. "Knitting and Knotting the Narrative Thread: Beloved as Postmodern Novel." Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 689-707.
Sargisson, Lucy. Contemporary Feminist Utopianism. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Schopp, Andrew. "Narrative Control and Subjectivity: Dismantling Safety in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Centennial Review 39 (1995): 355-79.
Scruggs, Charles. "The Invisible City in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Arizona Quarterly 48.3 (1992): 95-131.
Stave, Shirley A. "Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Vindication of Lilith." South Atlantic Review 58.1 (1993): 49-66.
Taylor-Guthrie, Danille. "Who are the Beloved? Old and New Testaments, Old and New Communities of Faith." Religion and Literature 27.1 (1995): 119-29.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "'Margaret Garner': A Cincinnati Story." Massachusetts Review 32 (1991): 417-40.
Nancy Jesser teaches in the Division of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. This article is drawn from her book-length project "Troubling Worlds: The Transformation and Persistence of Violence in Contemporary Feminist Utopian Narratives."
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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