June 1, 2011

Beloved by Toni Morrison - Ghost Story or Psychological Thriller? [review by starlight]

"Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can't hold another bite?"
This is not a story to pass on. At least, that's the refrain of this dark tale of life after slavery. It really is a story that should be passed on, because it seems as though we've forgotten the horrifying brutality of slavery in America. If the novel ends by saying that this is not a story to pass on, it begins by dedicating itself to the "sixty million and more" black slaves brought across from Africa, a few million of whom died on the journey across. Many stories of freedom focus on the stiff upper lips, the singing in the fields, the heads held high against all adversity, despite every misfortune thrown against them, and the awaiting of a brighter future.

Morrison's story is much darker than these. She focuses on the rape, the murder of children, the demeaning treatment of men and women alike, the comparison of slaves to animals and the horrible living conditions. Her characters deal with the trauma from being treated like they weren't human beings, being bred like animals and losing their "offspring" to their oppressors. These characters learn their worth in dollars, giving them no control over where they will go or what demeaning work will be forced upon them. To love is to risk losing the beloved. Even twenty years after the abolishment of slaves, Sethe (sεθə in IPA) still has to ask, "Would it be all right? Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?"

Beloved can be read as a ghost-story (though by no means a straight-forward one) or a psychological thriller. Something is haunting Sethe, and whether the ghost of her baby or the guilt for her own actions, the haunting is spiteful and venomous. This is a story about the trauma of the past living on in the present, and it is a story to pass on, it's just not a story to carry around in your heart, letting its trauma cause you pain. The tragedy of Beloved is that if you could just let it all go there's so much in the world of freedom to live for.

---Spoilers beyond this point---

To take Beloved at face value, it is a ghost story, no two ways about it. What I'd like to argue is that there is room for an interpretation of the story as a psychological thriller, despite some claims of that being an impossibility. I'm going to argue that Beloved is a manifestation of Sethe's guilt - not just Beloved the baby ghost terrorizing the house, but also the woman who terrorizes her mother and sister, nearly destroying what makes them them.

The obvious objection is that Beloved can't be a hallucination because she interacts with more than one person, including characters whose perspectives we have access to. Well, actually, shared hallucinations are psychologically possible and documented, and known as folie a deux. So my interpretation of Beloved is that Sethe, dealing with the trauma of having murdered the crawling already? baby, has psychotic hallucinations of the baby's ghost haunting the house. I see no reason why the children growing up in Sethe's world, and Denvor in particular, having never really left the home, can't be suffering from shared hallucinations. Her mother has put a lot of stress on her life, she is incredibly isolated and even intentionally anti-social, and she is deeply afraid that whatever snapped to make Sethe murder the crawling already? baby could snap again. She is afraid of her own mother killing her.

There are only two other people who really got to "see" Beloved, and both of them have their own guilt. When he looks at his life, Paul D feels both righteous and ashamed. Stamp Paid feels guilty that the community shunned Sethe and her family after the infanticide, and could have seen the manifestation of his guilt too. The whole community is on the fence as to whether they saw Beloved at all or whether it was a case of mass hysteria. Some denied that anyone was on the porch when Sethe came at Mr. Bodwin with an icepick.

So what do you think? Is this theory at all supportable, or can we only read Beloved as a supernatural fantasy story?

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