In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, does her style add value and complement the story?
Many readers find the experience of reading Beloved bewildering and confusing. Daniels refers to “Toni Morrison’s intense and challenging narrative,” (5) and refers to “the bewilderments of the novel’s beginning.” (5). Unsurprisingly, Daniels accounts for this confusion and bewilderment by reference to what he calls, “The shifting points of view and the multiple pasts of the narrative. “ (5) However, this essay will argue that Morrison’s’ style is an integral and vital part of the novel’s message and it is in the style and in the reader’s reaction to it that the real meanings of the novel emerge. Without Morrison’s style, Beloved would be a lesser novel and much less interesting and important than it is.
On a simple level, and most superficially the bewilderment that the reader feels acts as a stimulus to read on, because experienced readers know that an author deliberately withholds information to build up suspense and, therefore, in order to understand and make sense of this intriguing and confusing narrative we must read on. The bewilderment at the start – which will last for a long time in this novel – is a strategy to arouse the reader’s desire to make sense of this broken, fragmentary story.
Secondly, Morrison makes extensive use of flashbacks. This stresses how the characters in their present lives are haunted by the events of the past, the legacy of slavery, and Sethe’s act of murdering Beloved. Sethe herself is also haunted by the night of the escape or attempted escape from Sweet Home and her long uncertainty about exactly what happened on that night; something that Paul D vividly remembers, but would rather forget. So many of the characters cannot escape the past because they are haunted by guilt about their actions or genuine uncertainty over what happened. And this is cleverly conveyed through Morrison’s use of flashbacks.
Thirdly, part of the novel’s theme is Sethe’s attempt to forgive herself about what she did to Beloved and to try to re-build her life and her sense of self and happiness. What Daniels calls “the shifting point of view and the multiple pasts of the narrative,” (5) are the fragments of memory and the broken pieces of Sethe’s life, from which she is attempting to “reformulate [her] identity” (32). In this sense the novel’s style is an essential part of Sethe’s story: it is an attempt to convey, through style alone, the fragmentary nature of her memories and personality; the difficulties the reader faces in making sense of the novel equate to Sethe’s ardours attempts to become a complete human being again.
The point of view in Beloved switches constantly and suddenky, sometimes from one sentence to the next. In the very first chapter we hear the voice of Sethe – “counting on the stillness of her soul, she had forgotten the other one”; to Baby Suggs (who confusingly is dead in 1873 when the novel begins) - "Baby Suggs didn’t even raise her head”; to Paul D, - “he looked at her closely y then”; and even includes Denver – “Again she wished for the bay ghost”. This has the effect of bewildering the reader but might also be seen as a way of conveying the different effects on different individuals of the effects of slavery. We also gain fuller impressions of each individual character. Furthermore, the variation in point of view allows the reader early to understand through Paul D, what happened at Sweet Home on the night of the failed escape – something that has haunted Sethe for years: what exactly happened was witnessed by Paul D..
Finally, it has been argued and Morrison has admitted in interviews (Corey, 33) that the novel’s style is, above all else, an attempt to deliberately discomfort the readers. Corey admits that “Multiple plot lines, shifting points of view, and complicated chronology all contribute to the haunting effect of this novel. (31) But the argument goes further: Corey writes about “Morrison’s stated desire that her novel create discomfort and unease in order to confront her readers with an unfamiliar reality.” (31) The unfamiliar reality of the experience of being a slave and subject to violent whims of white people who consider you non-human, in the way that Schoolmaster does, and who inflict terrible physical and psychological suffering on you. From this perspective, Morrison’s style is not just a superficial adornment to keep the readers guessing; rather it is a deliberate attempt to disturb and shock by its strangeness. As Corey concludes:
Beloved presents readers with the shocking otherness of the slave experience, with their complicity in this tragedy, and with the consequences of attempting to set aside or forget this aspect of our national history. (32)
Thus it can be seen that the style of beloved does not simply add value and complement the novel, it is an essential part of the novel’s meaning.
Corey, Susan. ‘’Towards the Limits of Mystery – The Grotesque in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.’ Pages 31 – 48. Reyes-Connor, Marc Cameron. The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. 2000. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press. Print.
Daniels, Steven V. ‘Putting “His Story Next to Hers”: Choice, Agency and the Structure of Beloved.’ Pages 5 – 24 in Bloom, Harold. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. 2009. New York: Infobase. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved.1987. London: Chatto and Windus. Print.