Believe Care Invest: Sethe and Others in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

  • A rural area outside Cincinatti, Ohio in 1873: Escaped slave Sethe is haunted by her baby’s ghost. Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law who originally owned her house, has died and her two sons have run away in fear of the ghost, leaving her alone with her quiet 18 year old daughter Denver. Paul D, an old acquaintance from her plantation days, stops by and quickly realizes the house is haunted. He banishes the ghost and becomes Sethe’s lover. 
Like all of the other books in this section, this was a bestseller, but unlike those, it won its writer a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize. It’s a tough read about the most painful fact of American history, but it’s also a compelling ghost story. It has horrific atrocities, but it’s also, in some ways, an uplifting love story. You can read it in high school, or a book group, but you can also write a dozen doctoral theses about it.

Believe: Morrison has a lot of big jobs in front of her. As with any novelist, she must describe thing with unique similes we haven’t read before (a gravestone is “pink as a fingernail”), then she must make the 19th century come to life with details unique to that century (slop jars, a kettleful of chickpeas, the house’s “keeping room”), then she must make the horrors of slavery come alive (the scars on Sethe’s back are in the shape of a “chokecherry tree”) and ideally she can do all three in one phrase, such as when we hear that one of Sethe’s memories is “as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”

Morrison’s utter unique character descriptions are perfect models of efficiency. Here’s how Paul D. sees Sethe: “A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes.” Here’s how Sethe sees Paul D: “Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed.”

One way to make characters feel unique is to give them things they won’t normally do, and then we know the significance of a change in that behavior. Denver notes that Paul D. is “someone her mother wanted to talk to and would even consider talking to while barefoot.” Sethe has unique values that define her, and then she makes an exception, showing how these events are shifting her world.

Already in these first ten pages, we totally believe in the reality of this world. We sense that Morrison surely must have been there in person to have noticed all these odd little details that no one could just make up.

Care: On the one hand, these characters are very easy to care about. They are, after all, the victims of America’s greatest atrocity. Who in our history has suffered more than they? But Morrison knows that it’s hard to conceive of the horror of slavery. Most of her readers had seen “Roots” ten years earlier, so they knew about the vicious whippings, the omnipresent rape, and having your children sold away from you, and they were inured to it. But of course slavery is an unending fount of horror, and Morrison used her research to gouge through the calloused skin of her readers and make the wounds fresh.

Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs has had all of her eight children taken from her. How can we conceive of the magnitude of that? The horror comes alive when she says, “My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that?” The fact that she only has one memory of the toddler that was taken from her is staggering, but the memory is fascinatingly bizarre (and thus convincing). Likewise, Morrison knows she must confront the reality of rape, but she must make the horror fresh. For Sethe, what made it so horrific was that she was nursing at the time and “they took my milk.”

In the modern day story, things are going better for Sethe, as a lover emerges as if from nowhere and eases her burden a little, but we only believe in this relationship because it’s not as easy as it should be. Sethe is amazed to see Paul D. and asks “Is that you?” to which he honesty answers, “What’s left.” Later, she says, “You could stay the night, Paul D,” and he parries with “You don't sound too steady in the offer.” Neither feels entitled to happiness and they’re wary of it. She recalls that he’s always “treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.” Even when the romance develops quickly, as it does in this book, always make your heroes scratch for it a bit, and we’ll care about the relationship so much more.

Invest: Of course, the ghost story of course also need unique details, to separate it from a million other ghost stories. Here the ghost-baby picks on their poor dog, which is named “Here Boy”, and Denver remembers Sethe’s fierce reaction:
  • And when the baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye, so hard he went into convulsions and chewed up his tongue, still her mother had not looked away. She had taken a hammer, knocked the dog unconscious, wiped away the blood and saliva, pushed his eye back in his head and set his leg bones. He recovered, mute and off-balance, more because of his untrustworthy eye than his bent legs, and winter, summer, drizzle or dry, nothing could persuade him to enter the house again.
We will read much more about the remarkable (and occasionally disturbing) resilience Sethe has shown over the years …but do we really invest our hopes and dreams in Sethe in these opening pages? Not really. And we’re right not to do so. About half of the book takes place in flashback, and in those sections “iron-eyed” Sethe will show epic heroism, but in the modern day story, Sethe has lost all willingness to stand up the vengeful ghost that rules her house, and she will continue to cling desperately to it even past the book’s climax where Beloved is finally banished.

No, in these opening chapters, we invest our hopes in Paul D, which is easy enough to do, as he shows traditionally manly traits and stands up to the ghost right away:
  • A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house. “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!” The quaking slowed to an occasional lurch, but Paul D did not stop whipping the table around until everything was rock quiet.
That’s pretty easy to invest in. But, as it will turn out, Beloved will return in the flesh, and Paul D, too, will ultimately be unequal to the task of defeating her for good.  It is meek Denver who will do what is necessary to purge Beloved from the house, but we don’t sense that yet, which is fine. As long as we have characters to root for early on, we don’t mind if the real hero turns out to be one we didn’t pick.

Beloved: The Archive (and Hiatus)

A great book.  Hopefully we got some good discussion out of it...

Okay, folks, I think that’s it for the rest of the summer.  My daughter will be home a lot and I have a lot of your books to read!  I should get through my backlog soon, though, so feel free to send your work my way and I’ll get to it asap!

Straying from the Party Line: Showing Some Compassion in “Beloved”

Generally speaking, you want to make things hard for your characters. Everything feels better if it’s earned. Readers want to watch your characters struggle to overcome their problems so that they can feel like they’re learning problem-solving methods for their own lives, and so that they can feel like they too have suffered along with your characters and earned the ending.

But there are exceptions. “Beloved” is a novel about characters who have endured an unfathomable amount of suffering. Sethe has a long story of whippings and rapes as a slave, all before she had to cut her own baby’s throat, only to have that baby’s ghost violently haunt her house and drive both her boys away. That’s a lot.

What sort of mind could even conceive of that much horror to inflict on one character? Is Morrison, like the last author we looked at, a sadist, torturing her character and the reader, preying on our masochism? No, she’s not. Morrison overflows with empathy and sympathy for her poor beleaguered characters.

This novel begins in a way that risks feeling too easy. Lonely Sethe comes home one day to discover a nearly perfect man simply waiting for her on her porch. A guy she always liked from back in the day who now just wants to love her, make love to her, and exorcise her ghost problem. True, he is later seduced by the ghost when she returns as a grown woman, but in the end he is happily reunited with Sethe.

You have to love your characters, and that means that you have to cut them a break sometimes. The reader is overwhelmed by the horrors of Sethe’s life, and we want her to have this happiness. Finding a great man so easily would be unsatisfying if this was just a romance, but there’s so much more going on here, and the ease of this romance is a nice counterpoint to everything else.

And of course, because these people are so damaged, there still is a certain amount of conflict. She begins by asking “Is that you?” and he responds, “What’s left,” which is a great beginning for a romance story. Soon we get:

  • “That's some of what I came for. The rest is you. But if all the truth be known, I go anywhere these days. Anywhere they let me sit down.”
  • “You looking good.”
  • “Devil's confusion. He lets me look good long as I feel bad.” He looked at her and the word “bad” took on another meaning.
  • Sethe smiled. This is the way they were--had been. All of the Sweet Home men, before and after Halle, treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.

Morrison is still making her heroine scratch for it, under all the layers of scar tissue. Both sides earnestly deflect the other’s compliments, feeling too traumatized to ever be desirablie. She’s giving her heroine a big-hearted gift, but nothing is easy for characters this scarred.

People enjoy reading “Beloved”. It was very popular on Oprah’s Book Club. It’s draining and painful, but also heart-swelling and powerful. Morrison isn’t saying, “The slaves had to suffer and therefore I will make you suffer.”  The text has horrors and rewards, as most stories should.

Rulebook Casefile: The Power of Objects and Kitchens in “Beloved”

You can marvel over just about any paragraph from “Beloved”, but let’s look at this one:

  • The fat white circles of dough lined the pan in rows. Once more Sethe touched a wet forefinger to the stove. She opened the oven door and slid the pan of biscuits in. As she raised up from the heat she felt Paul D behind her and his hands under her breasts. She straightened up and knew, but could not feel, that his cheek was pressing into the branches of her chokecherry tree.

I’ve written before, both here and in my book, about the value of placing scenes in kitchens. In this case we have a semi sex-scene in a kitchen, and because of the stove we already have a wet finger and rising heat before the man has crossed the room. The kitchen does half the work of getting characters where they want to go.

(And speaking of food, can we talk about how great the word “chokecherry” is? Sethe’s back has been whipped so badly that the scar tissue resembles a tree, but not just any generic tree, a very specific chokecherry tree. When Morrison encountered this word, you know she fell in love with it and cherished it until she found a devastating place to deploy it.)

At the end of the chapter, Sethe goes upstairs with Paul D, leaving her dejected daughter Denver downstairs:

  • Now her mother was upstairs with the man who had gotten rid of the only other company she had. Denver dipped a bit of bread into the jelly. Slowly, methodically, miserably she ate it.

Denver isn’t just sitting there feeling miserable, she’s got some food in her hand and she’s eating it slowly, methodically, and miserably. The object allows Morrison to describe a state that is physically visible, instead of her inner turmoil. Seeing is believing. Behavior is better than internal description.  Put objects in their hands.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Humanize the Inhuman

It’s hard to conceive of the horrors of slavery. The word that keeps coming to mind is “inhuman”. Inhuman cruelty leading to inhuman suffering. But as writers it’s our job to humanize. If the slavers were characters in “Beloved”, Morrison would have to humanize their cruelty. They’re not, which is just as well, which means she can focus on the victims. She has to humanize their inhuman suffering.

The only way that Denver and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs have survived is by cauterizing their wounds. This is literally true for Denver, who has lost all feeling in her back from her whippings, but Baby Suggs, too, has developed some calluses.

  • “You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don't you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody's house into evil.” Baby Suggs rubbed her eyebrows.
  • “My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember.”
  • “That’s all you let yourself remember,” Sethe had told her

They have blocked off their feelings, but it’s Morrison’s job to pick at those scabs, rip off the dead skin, and expose their pain to us in a way that we’ll feel it. How do you make the audience understand what it’s like?

Losing eight kids is unimaginable to modern readers, but you have to make us imagine it. The first mistake would be to have Baby Suggs scream about the injustice of it, which is of course something she would have stopped doing long ago. Morrison does the opposite: summons up our shock and horror by showing how casual Baby Suggs is about it. Our horror is in inverse proportion to hers.

But then Morrison shows how important unique-but-universal details are. If she said of her firstborn, “All I remember of her is her smile,” we would gape at the horror of that loss, but we wouldn’t really feel it. Instead, Morrison says “All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread”. This is a detail I’ve never heard used in a story before, nor in real life, but it feels totally real in a universal way. It feels so real, and so it makes the suffering so real.

The inhuman has become human. A writer’s most powerful tool is specificity.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Authority Goes a Long Way

“Beloved” is a great ghost story, a great family story, and, just as important, a vital story about the legacy of slavery. Crucially, Morrison could not have more authority to tell this story. When she dedicates her book to the 60 million who are estimated to have been killed in the middle passage, she’s not only tapping into her blackness, but the power of her depictions of racial injustice in her three previous novels, which established her as the ideal writer for this topic. When Morrison turned her attention to the 19th century, everyone was eager to hear what she would have to say.  The result was a Great American Novel.

But what if you lack that sort of authority?

I’ve been asked to read two books by white people about slavery. The first was a real heartbreaker. When “We Need Diverse Books” was rising, a published author, who was a white southern man, was asked by his publisher to write something to something set in the Civil War about race. They knew he was a great writer who could handle it.

But while he was writing it, the tide of public opinion shifted to “Own Voices”, with extreme scrutiny on white writers writing about race (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) The publisher was in a bad position: They had requested this book, and the writer had really knocked it out of the park with a beautifully written book, but now they were worried about publishing it.

So they sent it out to sensitivity readers, but they also sent it out to me to see if I could help make sure all of the characters, black and white, were fully humanized. The writer liked my notes, so he paid me for a second round after revisions, and I was really impressed by his dedication to making his novel better and more sensitive.

But he was never able to convince the publisher to publish it. They thought it was great, but they were afraid of Twitter. They shelved it.

I inevitably kept this experience in mind when I got a later manuscript about slavery, this one from an unpublished author. I couldn’t guess from her name, so I felt compelled to ask up front if she was white or black. She responded with the worst possible answer: She was white, but she too had experienced oppression. I told her flat out to never say that to anybody else! Nevertheless, I could tell that she was genuine and I was eager to give her novel an unbiased reading.

Her novel was also very good but I worried about several aspects. To pick one example, the family had an exceptionally kind master who liberated them. This wasn’t typical of the era by any means, and a white writer could be accused of choosing this story out of an urge to show that slavery wasn’t so bad (though that wasn’t at all her intent). Ultimately, I gave her a lot of notes to help revise the (already very good) text, as I do with everyone, but I felt I had to warn the writer that she was very unlikely to find a publisher.

In any type of writing, authority goes a long way. This is one reason to “write what your know”: nobody can question your right to write it. Morrison writes with devastating authority. Of course, in theory, anybody can write about anything if they do enough research and write it well enough. But that theory is being tested.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Literary Doesn’t Have to Mean Hide-n-Seek

We’ve done a lot of popular fiction, so I wanted to do something “literary”, but something that most people have read. I chose “Beloved”, but I’ve got a problem: It’s not a good example of a “difficult” book, if that’s what I was looking for. Let’s look at the remarkable opening paragraph:

  • 124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.

Morrison is taking full advantage of her omniscient POV to just tell us everything we could want to know about her novel, right up front. We have a genre (horror), a subgenre (haunted house), a setting (124 Bluestone Road outside Cincinatti), a villain (the ghost baby, who is so far unnamed), two heroes (Sethe and her daughter Denver), a description of the rest of the family and what happened to them (except the unmentioned father), and most importantly, the dramatic question: Can Sethe and Denver survive the spiteful wrath of the ghost? And we’re off to the races!

Not exactly difficult to read, is it? And yet the book could not have a more literary reputation, having won the Nobel prize and many more. I’ll have to find another example of a tough nut to crack!

Literary fiction doesn’t have to play hide-n-seek. There’s a place for difficult fiction, but it doesn’t have an exclusive claim to greatness. That’s a great opening paragraph, no matter what your aspirations are.

The Annotation Project: Beloved

Hey guys, I was going to do Hitchhiker’s Guide next, but I didn’t want to do two nerdy-white-guy books in a row, so instead I figured we should look at our first really literary book, stamped with a Nobel and every other prize (but don’t worry it’s still a spooky genre story, too.) It’s hard not to love this book. It’s the oldest one we’ve done, but the style is still very modern. I’ll have lots more to say about it in forthcoming posts. Update: Here’s a downloadable Doc.