Mount Olive College
(En)lightening the Dark Vision: Redemption through Storytelling in
Toni Morrison’s Beloved
At first, we were genuinely bewildered at the idea of writing about teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Where to start? After all, Beloved has many trans-generic qualities: is it a Gothic, specifically an American Gothic, a ghost story, a slave narrative, a novel of eventual redemption by the use of stories? Actually, it is all of the above – and more. What, we asked ourselves, do students need to know about Beloved? What strategies might help unlock this very complicated narrative?
Morrison uses common Gothic elements to explore themes of repression and oppression, and the act of storytelling in the novel then functions as a means of laying the ghost, and with it the past, to rest. In order to teach Toni Morrison effectively, students must first be aware of the influences, traditions and history behind Beloved. Once an understanding of the Gothic, the conventions of ghost stories and the myriad functions of storytelling have been presented, the real work starts. One of the most effective ways to teach Beloved is to emphasize its many different intertwining layers, which is how we have taught it.
I. Beloved as American Gothic
Students must understand that from its inception, Gothic fiction has often been written by authors with a marginalized presence in British and American literatures; they must also understand that this is one of the reasons that Morrison uses the Gothic. The genre can be read as an expression of social, sexual, and political realities that have been pushed to the margins by the Great Tradition view of English fiction. Students must understand, through a brief lecture, the idea behind the Great Tradition view of literature; once the Great Tradition has been understood, in opposition to the Gothic, it should be relatively easy for students to see both how Morrison uses the Gothic and how Beloved fits in this framework. Instead of the more typical and conventional Gothic approach, particularly the older European Gothic tradition, Morrison uses the Gothic to discuss issues of race and oppression, both of which are marginalized topics in more conventional views of literature. Instead of an aristocracy and crumbling castles, blood dripping from pictures, giant armoured gloves crashing down on wrongful heirs, threatened maidens and evil monks, the American Gothic emerges from a distinctively American history. No crumbling castles exist in America, nor does a decadent landed aristocracy; instead Morrison substitutes the institution of slavery, essentially an archaic form of despotism, and the Southern landowners who live and prosper from the sweat of their slaves. A good discussion question at this point asks students to consider what is distinctive about the American Gothic, centering on how a society lacking the Gothic landscape can adapt the Gothic form. If in other words, this form depends on the landscape of a European tradition, then how can Beloved fit into this genre? Perhaps a better question is can Beloved fit into a genre when it seems to depart from so many of the conventions?
Although both the slave narrative and the ghost story are important sub-genres, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is essentially an American Gothic novel. One of the more important critical works that students should read is Leslie Fiedler’s seminal study, Love and Death in the American Novel, which defines American literature in terms of the Gothic, the defining trope in American literature. “It is the gothic form that has been most fruitful in the hands of our best writers: the gothic symbolically understood, its machinery and décor translated into metaphors for a terror psychological, social, and metaphysical” (xxiii). Further, Fiedler cogently argues “In our most enduring books, the cheapjack machinery of the gothic novel is called upon to represent the hidden blackness of the human soul and human society” (xxii). Although Fiedler is discussing American literature in general and not Beloved specifically, Morrison is certainly discussing the hidden evil in society, and if students are to understand how this novel works, students must have a thorough grasp of all the above elements, through a combination of lecture, discussion and close reading. A ghost and a haunted house do fall somewhat into the category of “cheapjack machinery,” and like few others, Morrison’s novel uses gothic conventions, cheapjack and otherwise, to “project certain obsessive concerns of our national life: the ambiguity of our relationship with the Indian and the Negro” [sic]
(Fiedler xxii). In the hands of Morrison, the gothic form is the perfect vehicle to reveal a dark vision of American life – “a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation” (xxiv). It should be quite clear to students that Fiedler’s definition dovetails perfectly with Morrison’s themes. Students should be able to discuss in what ways within the novel the hidden blackness and the literature of darkness to which Fielder refers collide with a land in which affirmation plays such a positive role. Students should recognize that Morrison’s novel is more dark than light and that the affirmative sections, such as Sethe’s short experience with community serve to highlight Morrison’s concern with the hidden blackness of American society. One excellent discussion question, in fact, centers on the role community pays with the novel and how that experience is constructed.
Another critical work that students must be familiar with is Chris Baldick’s excellent “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, in which he characterizes the Gothic tale as
A tale [which] combine[s] a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening decent into disintegration . . . typically, a Gothic tale will invoke the tyranny of the past (a family curse, the survival of archaic forms of despotism and of superstition) with such weight as to stifle the hopes of the present (the liberty of the heroine or hero) within the dead end of physical incarceration (the dungeon, the locked room, or simply the confinements of a family house closing in upon itself) . . . we could just say that Gothic fiction is characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay. (xix-xx).
Further noteworthy elements of the Gothic include the deterioration of the architecture reflecting the deterioration of the main character, particularly as the characters become more enthralled and more torn between the poles of fear and desire. Supernatural encounters both real and disruptive are also de rigeur. Suspension of rationality, as the atmosphere is what is important, and acute passions and homicidal emotions which play off against reason are also quite common. An Evil atmosphere, one that drips with menace and the fear that the menace may win, is especially important as one of the relevant themes is the character’s helplessness in a hostile universe, the alienation from God and fellow human beings. Once students have read and understood these two critical points-of-view (at least), they should understand how Beloved is structured as an American Gothic novel.
Obviously, to Baldick, the idea of enclosure in its physicality defines the Gothic; it is the touchstone of the Gothic effect, and for his definition, an architectural structure is necessary. The sense of enclosure, however, functions on more levels than physical and is apparent in the sense of emotional and mental claustrophobia. This particular idea of the Gothic as isolation and enclosure informs Morrison’s work, particularly the trope of enclosure and the idea of a fearful inheritance in time, for is this not what Sethe struggles with? Certainly, the Gothic sense of enclosure that Morrison works with mirrors the physical sense of claustrophobic physical entrapment – what else is 124 but a haunted house, a claustrophobic, isolated, enclosed space where the Past plays and replays with no sense of closure? The baby ghost, too young to understand her mother’s action, dominates the space of 124. Sethe lives in this space, which defines her life because she has no one else in her life but her daughter Denver and her tormenting memories. She is alienated from the townspeople, the people with whom she had a brief and transitory semblance of community; Sethe has twenty-eight days of this community before the envy spawned from Baby Suggs’ party results in Sethe’s friends and neighbors’ decision to keep Sethe in the dark concerning the presence of the slave-catcher. Sethe cuts the throat of her child and attempts to kill her other children and herself rather than return to Sweet Home and Schoolteacher. After she serves her sentence, Sethe has practically nothing to do with the townspeople. Her alienation from the community certainly adds to the claustrophobic sense of emotional and physical enclosure so important to the Gothic. In addition, Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law, has died, her husband is almost certainly dead, and her two older children have been driven out by a vengeful baby ghost. Thus, Sethe is trapped in 124, trapped in the experiences that have shaped her: the theft by Schooteacher’s nephews of the milk her nursing child needs; the “tree” upon her back, a physical, ever present aide-memoire to her past experiences; the tormenting memories of spreading her legs at the tombstone to buy an engraving for her daughter’s headstone, and, of course, the ultimate memory of the baby blood oily on her fingers. The Gothic is a fiction in which the importance of the past contests any hope for the future. The Gothic enclosure motif mirrors Sethe’s inability to break away from her life as a slave because until novel’s end Sethe is trapped in that fearful inheritance of time and space. The unrelenting focus on how the “sins” of the past inform and define the present, warping it out of hope into despair, the claustrophobic sense of entrapment and emotional imprisonment, the constant resurfacing of rememories: all of these elements dictate the use of the Gothic as the defining lens through which Beloved may be used. As Sethe says of her own mind:
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? . . . But my greedy brain says, Oh thanks, I'd love more . . . my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don't want to know or have to remember that. I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age and sickness not to speak of love. But her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day. (83)
If students are to understand how Morrison’s novel works, again, the connection between Sethe’s obsessive rememorying and the way the Gothic grasps and uses the Past, as well as the function of the ghost story must be well articulated. This is where Baldick’s view on the claustrophobic effect of the Gothic is so useful – the idea of the Gothic as driven by enclosure should be easily recognized. One discussion question that often sheds some light on Sethe’s tortured inability to leave the past alone concerns the students’ own experiences with troublesome memories that seem to dwell in their brains. When students can relate Sethe’s inability to turn to the future because she is trapped by her memories and the Pat, they are well on the way to understanding the essential components of Beloved. Most students will have a good understanding of the average ghost story, and very little lecturing on this subject should be necessary. What they may not understand well is how Morrison is using the idea of haunting to express the continued presence of the Past into not only Sethe’s life, but into our present day lives.
Ghost stories are often considered a subset of Gothic fiction; by definition, ghost stories are a form of literature in which the Past is also a dominant presence. As most of us know, ghost stories have a long history, and, like the Gothic, have waxed and waned in popularity throughout the years. Ghost stories reflect a Gothic sense of entrapment in the Past, as the ghost was once living and is now dead. The ghost who haunts 124, the ghost of Beloved, Sethe’s murdered daughter, is the spirit of a two year child, whose throat Sethe cut to save her from a life of slavery. She is an extremely troublesome presence, behaving as a poltergeist, wreaking havoc, driving Sethe’s sons out of the house. She also functions as the Gothic Past exemplified, a presence that Sethe can neither resolve nor dismiss, a manifestation of both her guilt and her inability to let the Past go. A fruitful forum for discussion centers on whether we are to understand the disruptions in Sethe’s home as actual ghostly manifestations or as a metaphoric and symbolic depiction of Sethe’s state of mind. In more simple turns, is this a haunted house story, with a ghost, or not?
Another aspect that students should understand to flesh out the Gothic Past is the historical background of Beloved; although the novel’s chronology is fluid, to say the least, and the events are revealed through the disjointed and unchronological memories and stories of Sethe and Paul D, it is clear that the story starts somewhere around 1855 and ends after 1873. It starts, in historical and geograpghical terms, in the ante-bellum South and ends in the post-bellum North. In between, intertwined with the stories, lies the slave experience and Civil War in all their horror, in which consideration of Beloved as a Gothic tale reveals a kind of demonic history text, an alternate vision of America. Examples too numerous to list of the violent and degrading history of slavery and its aftermath comprise the main historical background of the novel; unsurprisingly, the novel provides an extremely discomforting reading experience, moving out of the present, where slavery is, for the most part, safely buried in the past, to a time when such was not the case. The subgenre of the slave narrative, one in which slaves endlessly attempt to escape, only to find that their past as a slave is not so easily discarded, plays directly into the confining role of the past. Whipped, violated, beaten, and heavily pregnant, Sethe nonetheless does escape, only to be confronted by her supposedly dead past in the shape of Schoolteacher, who has come to drag her forcibly back to the Past where she is defined as less than human. Paul D attempts escape six times, and one of the reasons he travels constantly is in a futile attempt to outrun the past. This dark vision of the American Past pursues not only the characters but also the reader through the more harrowing sections of Beloved. In order for students to understand what Morrison is doing in Beloved, students should not only have an understanding of the basics of slavery and the American experience of slavery, they should also read either Frederick Douglass’ or Harriet Jacobs narratives. Adding an actual slave narrative to their coursework will increase their understanding of Sethe’s very complex story.
In The Gothic Tradition in Literature, Elizabeth MacAndrew notes that "Gothic fiction gives shape to concepts of the place of evil in the human mind" (4). Beloved, by revealing the many evils of slavery, functions in this manner; the preoccupation of the Gothic with the past, the narration, which melds past and present into one fluid continuum, the sense of an unbearable darkness and being hopelessly trapped in Baldick’s fearful inheritance in time all work to define Beloved as Gothic.
Despite the enthrallment in the Past, and the sense of unbreakable entrapment, Beloved also functions as a novel of redemption as well as Gothic horror. While the function of storytelling does harrow the reader, it also provides a way to integrate the past in a healing way. The ghost story is fundamentally an oral form, designed to first evoke and then manage the horror it imagines. In other words, the telling of ghost stories is a way to both confront that which we cannot confront and, with various narrative techniques of enclosure, to manage that same threat so we can go back to the natural, the real or orderly. Read this way, the ghost-story form is a way of coming to terms with the horror of history. In order to more fully explore this process, we will now consider the notion of storytelling itself—an act that, like the ghost story in particular, has both dangerous and redemptive potential.
II. The Oral Tradition in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
In the introductory essay for her novel, Toni Morrison tells us “to render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way” (Morrison xix). Placed in this context, slavery is so horrific that it is outside of language as a “personal experience.” We can only get at the experience of this “peculiar institution” by way of a collective telling, recognition of a community’s experience.1 While Margaret Garner’s individual story emerges in the space of Beloved, the greater story is one of community and the reintegration of that ostracized, beaten, shameful “self” into the larger communal space of healing, shamelessness, compassion and the ability to be loved.
Because it cannot be rendered in personal terms, the very idea of slavery’s brutality is incomprehensible to the human mind. We become desensitized to the violence and horror that language cannot contain. Time and again students respond positively and compassionately to the novel Beloved, even when their response prior to reading it is “Oh, no, not another slave narrative.” Students often feel inundated with information on the histories of slavery and they feel removed from it, but through Morrison’s manipulations, Margaret Garner’s story sensitizes the reader’s mind. Suddenly, the reader becomes receptive to a different version of the telling. This receptiveness comes from the novel’s unique ability to incorporate the power of oral narrative into the often dehumanized or dead letters of the written word.
Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller,” in his collection Illuminations, offers clear definitions for understanding the role of the storyteller and the function of oral tradition.2 Because of its content and language, Benjamin’s essay continues to be relevant and easily accessible for students, offering them an understanding of the craft of storytelling and a vocabulary for discussing the genre. Benjamin explains the history of storytelling even as he charts its demise in the modern world. Storytelling serves multiple functions in that it is both the writing/telling of history and also a communal binder and marker of continuance. It is also a communal experience because one cannot tell a story in isolation; rather, to tell a story one must have a listener. The listener must also be engaged in the process because the listener can be called upon to (re)tell the story. To tell a story, the storyteller incorporates both his/her own lived experience as well as the experience of others: “In fact, one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way” (Benjamin 108). The utility (of experience) is in its ability to be shared, exchanged, to break through the isolation of individual selfhood such that the hearer of the story actually makes the teller’s experience his/her own.
According to Benjamin, “the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding” (86). Lacking the ability to communicate experience, the storyteller is thus becoming a rarity. In this way, Benjamin is useful to our reading of Beloved because he offers a way to understand the muteness or incapability of the characters to tell or hear the stories. 124 Bluestone Road is an “uncounseled” place. The characters are lodged in a textual space of a stagnant story. Experiences are not being exchanged; rather, 124 Bluestone Road finds itself in complete isolation. Benjamin uses WWI to exemplify the loss of communicable experience: "Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battleground grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?” (84). The soldiers are silenced by trauma because the horrors they witnessed are not “stories to be passed on.” Predating WWI, the freed slaves of Ohio’s Bluestone Road find themselves in a similar situation. They have lost in freedom what they were to have gained more fully: speech.
124 Bluestone Road: A Stagnant Story
Paul D, as potential storyteller, is the first in decades to cross the yard and enter 124. When Paul D approaches the “spiteful 124” he brings with him not only love but also the baggage of the past—stories that must be heard, but in their telling bring pain and suffering. He is also characterized by his role as listener. Paul D is the epitome of the collector of stories. He is the journeyman or the troubadour that listens and then retells: “There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep—to tell him that their chest hurt and their knees did too. Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other” (Morrison 20). Only when he meets Sethe again does he assume the role of teller, having found a woman with shared experiences that he believes can listen to his tale. Paul D questions telling Sethe his story: “I have never talked about it” he says. “Not to a soul. Sang it sometimes, but I never told a soul” (85). But the act of telling Sethe his story seems for a moment to offer liberation, an opportunity to open his “tin box.”
While Paul D seemingly rids 124 of its “spiteful” presence, the elements that he brings to add to Sethe’s story are practically unbearable. Sethe thinks, “God damn it, I can’t go back and add more” (83). Sethe fears the process that will be set in motion by allowing another’s experience (Paul D’s) to penetrate and add to her own. She takes up the act of imagining when she considers what may come next from Paul D’s lips:
And if Paul D saw him and could not save or comfort him because the iron bit was in his mouth, then there is still more that Paul D could tell me and my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don’t want to know or have to remember that. (83)
For a moment it appears that the act of sharing experiences and tellings will begin again. Paul D demands too much of Sethe though, so she prevents it. Her action stops the possibility to integrate her story with Paul D’s and an opportunity to share an “exchange of experiences” when she places her hands on Paul D’s knee, a non-verbal cue to express the listener cannot take more in: “Paul D had only begun, what he was telling her was only the beginning when her fingers on his knee, soft and reassuring, stopped him” (86). She thereby renders Paul D mute and unable to complete his story. Not allowing Paul D’s voice temporarily stops the exchange of experience. Instead, Paul D “would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut” (86). Clearly, Sethe’s story can be made “bearable because it was his as well—to tell, to refine and tell again” (116). However, she will not allow it to be spoken or integrated to hers in the beginning of the novel.
Denver also has an impairment that renders her helpless in story creation at the novel’s start. Her version of Paul D’s “rusted-shut tobacco tin” heart is her choice to go “deaf.” She stops the storytelling process by not being a willing listener or recipient to the story of Sethe’s murderous act. Remembering her experience outside 124, Denver thinks of her classmate’s (Nelson Lord’s) question about her mother: “‘Didn’t your mother get locked away for murder? Wasn’t you in there with her when she went?’ It was the second question that made it impossible for so long to ask Sethe about the first…. She went deaf rather than hear the answer” (123). Denver “walked in a silence” for two years (121). “Even when she did muster the courage to ask Nelson Lord’s question, she could not hear Sethe’s answer, nor Baby Suggs’ words, nor anything at all thereafter” (121). She lacks the ability to integrate their experience with hers. Instead, she chooses to hear “nothing at all” (123).
But despite these silencings—these attempts to block the story of the past—Paul D’s arrival does initiate the storytelling process anew (although in its fragmented stages). Sethe has had no audience except Denver. With Paul D, Sethe begins to recount her stories, and we glimpse the promise of community, dramatized by their lovemaking. But just as love gives way to deepened alienation, their shared story becomes in fact too life-giving: the figure of Beloved arises from the waters. The dangerous potential of gothic storytelling is crossing the boundary between story and reality, giving the repressed a way to return by “speaking” it into existence. The return of Sethe’s murdered daughter is the eruption of the horror of American history in the textual space of the novel—a history that is defined by lack of self ownership. With Beloved’s arrival the only story that can be told and retold is one of horror. Finding a place to hold her memories, or even an attempt to deny them is now impossible for Sethe. The entrapment of 124 thus becomes more severe. In other words, she moves from entrapment in silence (the stagnant story) to entrapment within story.
Beloved’s return continues to fuel the storytelling process and in her emergence we see both the positive and negative aspects of storytelling. The duality of storytelling is that both silence and sound can be positive, but also dangerous. When Beloved arrives, she hungers for stories and calls upon Sethe to tell them. A participatory listener, Beloved asks for the stories she wants to hear—she exerts a power move by choosing the story, not allowing the teller to decide. Sethe discovers “it became a way to feed her” (69). Stories provide nourishment for Beloved, and in that sense stand in for, and perhaps replace, the stolen milk. But like the milk, the stories are in some sense part of Sethe, even part of her body. Therefore, Beloved’s hunger for stories is ultimately transformed into a greedy desire for Sethe’s whole self; listening becomes an act of consuming.
Denver, too, participates in this cycle/hunger for storytelling. She loves hearing the story of her birth and both hears and tells it over and over. In the act of telling her birth story, Denver seeks to create an identity for herself. Beloved, thereby, becomes Denver’s bildungsroman as she learns the power of narration. The act of telling a story is one of creation and imagination—the construction of a reality. Through taking up the role of teller, Denver holds the tools to create a self—a separate identity from Sethe and 124. In the community of two (Sethe and Denver) prior to Beloved’s arrival, Denver’s only role is to be a listener. She is a novice collector, collecting stories from her classmate, Nelson Lord, her brothers, and Baby Suggs. Until Beloved, she does not have a listener to tell her story to. In addition, she has lost her ability to hear, further distancing her from the storytelling process because she is removed from her place as listener as well. In fact, removing herself from the role of listener and not being a teller, Denver is in a hopelessly static story without the means to grow. She is deaf-mute. To construct a self, she must separate herself from Sethe. She must become a teller. As teller, Denver adds to the stories she has been gathering and by doing so she makes them unique to her experience (following Benjamin’s model for the storyteller).
Complicating Benjamin: Function of Storytelling in American Indian Studies
Morrison’s novel expounds upon the importance of storytelling and remembering in the single act of recording a story “that was not to be passed on.” The novel ends with this phrase, yet in the very telling of the story it becomes apparent that indeed it is a story to be passed on. While we have been discussing the negative aspects of storytelling witnessed as conflict over ownership of stories, tellings that bring the brutal past into existence, and the horror of history brought back to life by the living speech of the storyteller, a Native model of “storying” offers us a lens to view story as healing.3 Essential to the oral tradition in American Indian studies is the power of story to construct reality not just for an individual but for the entire community. The oral tradition is multi-faceted and comprehensive. It is fluid and interwoven like a spiderweb.
Since the publication of Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” numerous writers have been manipulating the novel form to incorporate orality into this “fixed” genre. Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller (of practically the same name as Benjamin’s essay) offers an interesting contribution to the distinction of the oral tradition from the novel (or the collaboration of the oral tradition within the novel’s form). Silko’s model of storytelling is that stories accrue meaning. They change and are adaptive to situations. Silko blends stories and argues for a tradition that does not get lost, but changes and becomes dynamic. Stories are on-going narratives and their tellings are a communal activity. Oral narratives and stories are central because they “became the medium in which the complex of Pueblo knowledge and belief was maintained. Whatever the event or the subject, the ancient people perceived the world and themselves within that world as part of an ancient continuous story composed of innumerable bundles of other stories” (Silko 268). In fact, “the ancient Pueblo people depended upon collective memory through successive generations to maintain and transmit an entire culture, a world view complete with proven strategies for survival” (268). For Silko, everything is a story. And through this lens, everything is inclusive and interdependent. In other words, language becomes a powerful tool because of what it can do in the world. It functions as a strategy for survival and continuance of culture, but it can also function ritualistically or ceremonially to heal.
Akin to Silko’s definition of storytelling, Cherokee writer Diane Glancy defines "storying" as "the making of story" or "act of imaging [through which] you create a reality" (Glancy 1-2). For Glancy, "storying" generates cultural renewal. She turns to the healing power of narrative in her fiction and poetry to reimagine fragmentation as communal truth in order to move from communal truth to regeneration. This trope in Native Studies illuminates a reading of Beloved. By viewing storytelling as a healing ritual, or a means to shape reality, then we can move beyond the stagnant mode of storytelling that opens Beloved. Instead, we can reimagine the fragmented stories of the various characters of the novel into a larger story of communal truth that in fact offers regeneration. We can begin to see the integrativeness that Morrison’s novel celebrates. Resembling a ceremony, the (re)telling and layering of the various fragmented stories (as told by the fragmented characters) offers redemption to the Bluestone community and a story to take up.
(Re)telling 124’s Story: A Ritual for Integration
Stories of Beloved eventually become too much for Denver. When Beloved and Sethe begin ignoring Denver, she no longer has a community of even one; therefore, she must leave the yard. After all, she is a teller now and she needs listeners. As she reaches out to the community, we begin to see the collective role of the community in creating the history of 124 and their role in healing it. Denver emerges from “the yard” as the next generation of storytellers—evidence that the telling will continue and that her people are surviving. By part three of the novel, Denver has not only come into her own as a storyteller, but she has mastered the craft. She must tell the story of 124 to obtain help: “It was a little thing to pay, but it seemed big to Denver. Nobody was going to help her unless she told it—told all of it” (Morrison 298). Story becomes the orchestrater of healing. It becomes the only possible redemption. Denver’s story is her story of 124, but as she becomes a part of the community, her story begins to grow as the members of the community begin adding to her telling: “It took them days to get the story properly blown up and themselves agitated and then to calm down and assess the situation” (300). By becoming part of the collective in reaching out to the community, Denver finds her own identity and recognizes integrativeness outside of 124 and outside her mother’s yard. The story she sets in motion has a ceremonial/healing function for all.
Like a cyclical ceremony, whose center emanates through to the beginning and the end, the story strategically placed in the middle of the novel becomes the story that is essential to healing the darkness that encapsulates the members of 124. In the cyclical nature of history, the story repeats itself and becomes the healing force for Sethe and the community. The end of the novel mirrors the center story, only now the story is righted. In its repetition, key details and points can be added, experiences layered, moments refined. When Sethe mistakes Mr. Bodwin, who is picking up Denver for work, as Schoolteacher, the pattern of the story is replayed. Only in the reenactment of the story (now with the community present) can Beloved and what she stands for be put to rest. The function of storytelling becomes one of remembering (which is key) and one of healing. Although the trauma of the past is threatening, it must nevertheless be remembered. As we witness in Beloved, to exchange that experience through narrative is to re-live its horror; otherwise, what is repressed or forgotten returns as something monstrous. To negotiate this double-bind is to construct a safe ceremonial space for the story to be told, a communal space in which the weight of the past can be shared among many, rather than burdening the one. This ceremonial space in the novel functions as a healing component because through reenacting the story, the community now acts properly and the reintegration of the alienated members (Sethe and her family) into the community occurs.
The reenactment story begins like the previous one. Denver, like Baby Suggs, is looking the wrong way when the women arrive: “She is looking to the right …. She did not see the women approaching, accumulating slowly … from the left” (303). Unlike Baby Suggs who was looking the “wrong” way for evil, here Denver is looking the wrong way for help. Another repeated detail of the story is the image of shoes. As Baby Suggs “stood in the garden smelling disapproval,” she felt “a dark and coming thing” and she saw “high-topped shoes that she didn’t like the look of at all. At all” (173). Denver’s emotions mirror Baby’s the morning of the reenactment. She has just woken, “crying from a dream about a running pair of shoes …. Nervous, she fidgeted” (303). Approaching from the left are thirty women, significant because it is one-third of the original ninety that feasted at Baby Suggs’s house so many years ago. Following the numerical pattern of threes throughout Beloved, the number of women is a piece of the whole—the remaining piece needed to exorcise the negative force of the three living in 124.
Forgiveness and recognition are essential to the story being recast, and when the women arrive “the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves. Younger, stronger, … not feeling the envy that surfaced the next day” (304). This group of women becomes a group of one as their “mumbling” and “murmuring” and “whispering” turns into “syllables of agreement” (304). These syllables become the sound that can capture what is outside of language—the horrors of slavery. Together the women “take a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (305). This element of sound is what was missing from the earlier story—the warning that was not uttered. Otherwise, Schoolteacher (like Mr. Edward Bodwin) would have heard 124 before reaching it. In the reenactment, Mr. Bodwin heads up “the road curved like an elbow, and as he approached it he heard the singers before he saw them” (307). The community of black women are now aware of their worth—the power that they were jealous of Baby Suggs for having—the power of their response, their sound that they did not understand the import of. Had Sethe and Baby Suggs been warned all of those years ago by “sound,” then perhaps the earlier story would have had a different telling. No matter though because now the community takes the place of Beloved’s presence in 124. The group of women replaces the darkness that destroys selfhood with their attributes: love, acceptance, and shared experience that allows identity and selfhood to emerge in a collective group of strength.
Following the theme of repeated stories, when Sethe lies down at the end of Beloved, her action seems to follow the story of Baby Suggs. Yet since there is a new beginning for Denver and the community at Beloved’s end, there must be a new beginning for Sethe, too, because she completes the triad that was part of the reenactment ceremony. Her ending cannot be the same as Baby Suggs’, and Paul D will not share the fates of Halle and Sixo. Like Denver, Sethe must find her own “best” self. Slavery defined her, Sweet Home defined her, being married to Halle defined her, and mothering her children defined her. Only at the novel’s end when Sethe finds herself alone—isolated—does the magnitude of the novel’s ending signify a beginning for Sethe—an opportunity to define herself in a new way, a healing way. The ghost of the past may be gone and laid to rest, but the community journeyed back to her abode on Bluestone Road and Paul D does as well. Like the reenacted story that counters the original one, Paul D’s journey back to Sethe is the “reverse route of his going” (310). He, like the community, must right/write his story with Sethe. To put “his story next to hers,” he brings the words that they both need to speak and hear: “You your best thing, Sethe” (322). Finally, their stories are integrated—side by side.
Special thanks to Melissa Ryan.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah
Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 83-109.
Fiedler, Leslie A.
Glancy, Diane. The West Pole. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Nutting, Elizabeth Lofgren. “Remembering the Disremembered: Toni Morrison as
Benjamin’s Storyteller.” Schuylkill. Ed. Elizabeth Abele. 1.1 (1997): 29-39.
Scruggs, Charles. Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins U P, 1993.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination.” The
Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. 264-275.
Accepted for publication in Teaching African American Women’s Writing. Ed. Gina Wisker. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2010
1 Charles Scruggs offers an excellent treatment of Beloved and the function of community in his book Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel.
2 For a discussion of Benjamin and Morrison on the catastrophe of history, see Elizabeth Nutting’s “Remembering the Disremembered: Toni Morrison as Benjamin’s Storyteller.”
3 Throughout this essay, we will use the idea of storytelling and “storying” interchangeably, drawing special attention to the ceremonial function of language and its use to actively create reality.