Sunday, August 7, 2016

Completed: Beloved



This year, as we looked at our *read-together* books, (PS. I still love that we're doing some books together! Good idea, past Jenny and Kelly!) we talked about choosing something we both wanted to re-read. Toni Morrison's Beloved has been on my list for a while. From our vague memories, we had both read this in college. I don't remember much about that first read, but I definitely remember reading it again in my mid-20s and it feeling like a completely new and different experience. I was actually kind of...scared?...of reading it again post-motherhood.

I'm going to sketch out a few of the big themes from our Skype discussions. Feel free to jump in and add!

Yep, Still Great. 
One question that's always on my mind when re-reading a book I loved is, "Will I still think it's as great as I did back then?" I don't think that there was any question for either of us that this book retained it's rather awesome power. You specifically noted her complete control of a dazzling number of literary styles. This book is powerful, disturbing, and an absolute tour de force. We were doing two things the entire time: reading it, and marveling at it.

Still So Relevant
Since it's 2016 and slavery ended 150 years ago, you'd think Americans would have better knowledge of the basic facts of slavery. Alas, as we discovered last week, lots of people were really upset to have it pointed out that slaves built the White House. Maybe more people ought to read this book, or other slave narratives. This led to an interesting conversation about when it should be taught in school. Lots of high school kids read it, but I can't even comprehend the scaffolding it would take to teach this book to teenagers and to do it well. HOWEVER, if they don't read it in high school, maybe they never will? The unrelenting horrors of slavery, both physical and emotional, are so terribly wrought in this book---and that's what makes it so vital.

[Kelly here: We also talked about how it could be a good book for high school students to read because of all of the different writing styles used. How she sometimes uses obscure language and sometimes it's so direct. Repeating phrases to emphasize certain themes, and the use of poetry within the prose. Buuuuut... it would have to be a pretty advanced class and definitely older students.]

The writing
There was so much here to parse: we were both impressed by the language, but also the many styles that she harnessed in the novel. We spent a lot of time talking about the scenes that were deliberately opaque -- both of us described scenes that we read and re-read. Those scenes made us work very hard to read the text carefully -- there is no "skimming" over the horrific events in this book.

However, at other times, the language was deliberate, almost plain. The scenes where Sethe kills her child are described in both ways -- the first time it's described, it's (mostly) from the point of view of "the four horsemen." It's opaque and abstruse and difficult to understand -- the horror of the scene is hidden from the reader, only dawning on us gradually as we piece together all the previous hints and clues. Here it is from schoolteacher's perspective... no details about what has actually happened, and far more focus on the "lost value" of what they had come to claim:

"Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim. The three (now four—because she'd had the one coming when she cut) pickaninnies they had hoped were alive and well enough to take back to Kentucky, take back and raise properly to do the work Sweet Home desperately needed, were not. Two were lying open-eyed in sawdust; a third pumped blood down the dress of the main one—the woman schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left. But now she'd gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who'd overbeat her and made her cut and run." [175]
But later, when Stamp Paid tries to describe it to Paul D (and fails, really, to deliver the news directly to him), Toni Morrison takes the reader aside and spells it all out for us, quite directly and explicitly:
"Stamp looked into Paul D's eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children." [186]
[Kelly here: We discussed these technique changes quite a bit. It felt like Morrison wanted us to work hard to parse scenes so that we're really immersed in them -- to really spend time with the action and get the full impact. But juuuuust in case we didn't get it... she's going to go ahead and make sure we really understood.]

Memory vs. Rememory
The difficulty of the text seems related to one of the major themes of the book: the role of memory or rememory, as Sethe calls it. They don't actually seem to be the same thing. In looking back over the notes from our conversation, it strikes me that the difference may be that "memory" is something that is active. We create and examine our own memories. But in Beloved, rememory is passive, it's something that crashes down upon a person, a flood or tide that takes over. Sethe doesn't want to remember what happened or what she did, and those rememories are just fragments that she doesn't really want to examine or claim. Rememory, then, is partial or incomplete. It's the terrible things we turn away from when they come to mind.

[Kelly here: I read something that said "re-memoring involves remembering memories," which I thought was an interesting take on it. Meaning that sometimes memories are forgotten and then they come back to us. Paul D locked his memories up in "that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut." [86] which, of course, eventually opens back up on him. And when Sethe talks about her rememories, she says that that memories (in this case, she is referring specifically to places) still live on, even after they are gone...
"I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not.  Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place -- the picture of it -- stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. [...]
Then Denver says: "If it's still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies."
And Sethe says: "Nothing ever does." [44]
And, of course, Beloved come back or... never died? Or perhaps her memory manifests herself because of Sethe's rememory of her? Oh, boy. I feel like I have just fallen into an rabbit hole or the movie Inception.  I'm not really giving this thought full justice. Just more "Whoa" moments.]

Magical Realism
We spent a lot of time talking what was "real" in this book. Obviously, the biggest question was about the young girl that arrives, the ghost of the girl that Sethe killed in the shed. Is she real? Can we know? Does it matter? Why has she taken the form she did? Why are her powers sometimes small but nevertheless terrifying? What happens to her? Is she really gone for good? I don't know that we came to much of a conclusion, but it was interesting to see how both of our points of view changed as we continued to read.

[Kelly here: This led to other talk of what is real and what is not. After we read the birth scene in the boat, I said, "Is Amy real?" We don't really know -- she seems unlikely (a random kooky white girl who happens to show up and help Sethe give birth?) but we only have Sethe's story to go by. This led you to observe that all escapes in the book really are metaphors because... what is the likelihood of any escape from slavery happening at all? (and even if you physically escape, you could never actually escape) Paul D and his entire chain-gang swimming under the mud, Sethe encountering Amy -- these are both fantastical stories. Because the idea that a slave could escape from slavery is fantastical, right?]

Community vs. Individual
The first two times I read this, I was overwhelmed by Sethe's past. This time around, I was so heartbroken for her present. Her loneliness and the way she had been cut off from the community were just wrenching. Denver paid that price, too. I found her isolation to be devastating. The book shows how we close ourselves off out of guilt and shame, which further isolates us from people who might help.

[Kelly here: When the community does finally help, part of it is their own guilt and shame that brings them to Sethe's aid. A woman named Ella leads the party because, "She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by 'the lowest yet." It lived five days never making a sound. The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working..." [305] Seems like she had a rememory of her own that brought her to help Sethe.]

This is not a story to pass on
You pointed out the many different ways to read this sentence. First, that it's impossible for a reader to skip or skim any parts of the book. One thing I tell my students about poetry vs. prose is that in a poem, every word matters. You can't *skip* anything. That's true of Beloved, too. Nothing can be passed over or skipped. Morrison wants us to fully engage and read every word.

Second, there's no way to read this book and forget Sethe and her courage, determination, or failures. Once you've read her story, it's with you.

But finally, a reminder that this is not the entire story of slavery. This is not *a* story -- there are many, many stories. We can't know the full extent and horrors of slavery. And yet, we have passed on and have been so afraid to look at the truth. This book forces us to examine the true cruelties of slavery and how its influence, like a ghost, haunts us all.



  1. PS. On the books about slavery front, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is making big news this week--selected for Oprah's book club, great reviews, and feeling like a shoe-in for Tournament of Books 2017. He'll be speaking at the University of Chicago next month and I got tickets! Will keep you updated...

  2. Hi, Jenny and Kelly. I check out this blog about once a year and am always glad that I did, and wish that I remembered to do it more often.

    I started reading this post and then quickly stopped. My eyes caught the bolded "Yep, still great," and I immediately decided that I:
    a) want to reread it as well, and
    b) should do so and reflect upon it myself before reading y'alls thoughts about it.

    Just TODAY I was talking to Dipankar and some friends of ours and we were listing our top 5-10 favorite books. I said that Beloved used to be a Top-10 for me, but it's been so long since I've read it (Jen, didn't we read it with Flossie when we were in that book club in Berkeley?). Anyway, it seems like a sign that I then saw your post here, so I'm going to re-read it as soon as I finish my current book (the third Elena Ferrante book, which I'm sort of slogging through, though I really like the series).

    Maybe once a year I should guest-post here about one of the books that one or both of you have read ;)

    Hope you're both having a great summer,
    Kelly K

    1. Book club in Berkeley just brought me all the way back. Whoah. You should DEFINITELY reread this, Kelly. It was so great to go back to it.

  3. Relevant to our discussion of the Underground Railroad:

    1. Especially relevant to our discussion--it's like we read this New Yorker writer's mind:

      1) "It is a clever choice, reminding us that a metaphor never got anyone to freedom"...We talked about that above! All the escapes are metaphors. Later on in the article, the author goes on to say, "No one knows for sure how many enslaved Americans escaped with the help of the Underground Railroad. Foner estimates that, between 1830 and 1860, some thirty thousand fugitives passed through its networks to freedom. Other calculations suggest that the total number is closer to fifty thousand—or, at the highest end, twice that many.

      What we do know for sure is this: in 1860, the number of people in bondage in the United States was nearly four million. By then, slavery in this country was more than two hundred years old, and although estimates are hard to come by, perhaps twice that many million African-Americans had lived their lives in chains. Most accounts of fugitive slaves do not invoke those numbers, and most Americans do not know them. The Underground Railroad is a numerator without a denominator."

      This was a great article. I'd highly recommend it if you have the time!