Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Real Tragedy of Beloved

I recently finished Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. Sethe, the main character, escaped from slavery after sending her three children ahead of her (and delivering another on the way). But when her former owner tracks her down, Sethe is desperate to save her children from being returned to a life of slavery, so desperate she tries to kill them to keep them "safe." She succeeds in killing only one of them, a nine-month-old girl. When the book opens, the spirit of the dead baby girl has been haunting Sethe's house for years--until another former slave, Paul D, chases the spirit away. But after a short time, the spirit is back--in physical form, as a young woman who moves in Sethe's house and disrupts everyone's life.

In general, I'm not a fan of magical realism; I guess I'm just too grounded in practicality. So I didn't especially care for this book, although I recognize the quality of the writing. However, I am taking something away from my reading that is rather sobering, and that is a new sense of how profoundly slavery disrupted the family structure for African-Americans, even after emancipation. (NOTE: The following will have some spoilers.)

Except for Denver, Sethe's youngest daughter, no one else in the book seems to know who their parents are. The point is made several times that families are broken up at the will of the slaveowner. Sethe knows her mother only as a distant woman working out in the rice fields, since Sethe herself has been given to another woman whose "job" is wet nursing to raise the slave babies. When Sethe was still very young, her mother was one of a group of slaves hanged for trying to escape. It's a common theme throughout the book. Sethe's mother-in-law had 8 children by several different fathers (by the will of her owner, not by her own choice); all of them were lost to her except Sethe's husband, Halle, who eventually was lost to her when he bought her out of slavery, never to see her again. Paul D had the fortune to be sold along with two of his brothers to the same slaveowner, but when that man died, the new owner splintered the brotherhood; one brother is killed while trying to escape, and the other two are sold, to separate owners. Another of Paul D's fellow slaves, Sixo, has been sneaking off the plantation to meet up with a woman from another plantation; eventually, Sixo is killed as a result of the failed escape attempt, but not before he has begot "Seven-o," who will never know his father (assuming his mother survived the escape attempt). A secondary character, Stamp Paid, lost his wife for some months when the slaveowner's son decided he wanted her for his mistress; she is eventually returned to Stamp Paid, once the "young master" has tired of her. It's just a miserable pattern that, sadly, is not fiction.

Sethe and Halle are the only characters who appear to have had a "normal," nuclear family life at any point in the book, and that was while they were living as slaves. Sethe was bought when she was 13 and allowed by her new owner (who was an unusual slaveowner in many ways) to choose her own husband. She and Halle were allowed to raise their children together, until the owner died and one of his relatives took over. The new owner is unbearably harsh, so Halle and Sethe (along with Paul D, his brothers, and Sixo) decide to make an escape attempt. The attempt fails, and that's when Sethe's family is fractured; she manages to get the three children to the woman who is running the Underground Railroad, but she can't find Halle. She finally decides to leave on her own without him to try to join the children in Ohio at the home of her mother-in-law, whom she's never seen. Her escape is successful; she's reunited with her children and lives with them for a month before the fugitive slave hunters find her, and she makes the choice that changes her family forever. (She never sees Halle again - we are left with a mystery as to what happened to him.)

Sethe becomes, in my opinion, a symbol of what happens to a person who has no social ties. She is gradually being consumed by the guilt Beloved embodies, when her younger daughter, Denver, finally makes the desperate act of reaching out to others. And there's the hopeful message that lies in Beloved; the natural family may have been destoyed by "whitepeople," as the book calls them, but the blacks create their own communities that provide them with the support the family would have given. For Paul D, that community was the group of slave prisoners, all chained together, who have to coordinate their movements to escape from the (terrible) prison in Alfred, Georgia. For Denver, it is the people who donate bits of food to keep her and her mother alive once Denver has made the move to step out of her isolation to be part of the community. For Sethe, it is the congregation of women who come to her house to exorcise the evil spirit rumored (rightly) to have taken over. I read one review that said Sethe was freed from the guilt Beloved represents once she tried to attack the white man who rode into her yard (she killed Beloved the last time white men rode into the yard). I prefer to think it was the community of women who took Sethe in and made Beloved disintegrate and disappear (this is where that magical realism part gets a bit confusing to me - what, exactly, happened to Beloved?). I think it's worth noting, though, that Sethe didn't really return to herself until Paul D reached out to her in love - the start of a new family, chosen and created by themselves.

I'm no sociologist, but I can't help thinking Beloved makes a very powerful statement about the value of family and community - and the dangers that haunt us when family and community are absent.

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