TOP SHELF: Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ explores core self


In 1987, author Toni Morrison published “Beloved,” a powerful tour-de-force that snagged her the Pulitzer Prize and that opened the door for her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

The plot of “Beloved” can be explained in a straightforward way (though the book is anything but): a group of enslaved people, including pregnant Sethe and her three children, attempt to escape Sweet Home, a farm whose dead owner has been supplanted by his cruel brother-in-law. Only the children make it across the river to Ohio and freedom unscathed: Sethe is brutally tortured and nearly dies in the wilderness giving birth to Denver, her second daughter.

Eighteen years and a Civil War later, Sethe lives in Cincinnati with Denver in a home haunted not only by the tangible “rememories” of the past, but by the ghost of her other daughter, who died a month after the escape and whose tombstone simply reads “Beloved.”

When Paul D, the only other survivor of Sweet Home, shows up at her door, the ghost seems to be displaced, until a strange young woman arrives, calling herself Beloved and psychologically latching on to Sethe with a fierceness that may either save or damn the woman forever … for “Beloved” may be Sethe’s long-dead daughter, made flesh by her hunger for motherly love.

Narratively, however, the novel is richly complex, with multiple viewpoints and recursions that unfold the tragic cruelties of slavery as it touched the lives of several characters, slowly revealing the details of Beloved’s death in a way that is heart-breaking but not, ultimately, alienating. The narrative quilt Morrison sews allows us to explore the social and psychological aftermath of slavery in the years right after the Civil War without getting mired in too much historical detail.

Exploring themes of family, community, manhood, motherhood, and identity, “Beloved” is ultimately concerned with how men and women, forced to make impossible choices, can retain dignity and discover their “best thing” within, that pure core of admirable self that assumes responsibility and remains undaunted.

Written in masterful prose that marries Faulkner and folklore, the epic poem and the spiritual song, Beloved is an essential work that will change your heart and mind, the sort of watershed novel that comes along once in a generation. It is easily one of the best novels written by a U.S. author.

David Bowles is a writer, educator and editor. You can contact him at