Bharathiar University. Coimbatore
The American novel, right from its early days, had its provinces worked out and defined by integrating the element of romance. This element of romance has been far more conspicuous in the American novels than in the English novels. It enjoyed an implicit freedom from the ordinary novelistic necessities of the verisimilitude development.
The American novel gained its uniqueness. Energy and form as it was able to accept revolutionary disunities, rather giving importance to unities. In the early 1600’s, the story of American literature begins with the English men, as early writers, describing the English exploration and colonization of the new world. These books were then read as Travel Guides by the people who migrate to Virginia or New England. Another important feature of the American novel is that it is more reflective and psychic than the English novel, but at the same time it is narrower and more capricious.
The American imagination like the New England Puritan mind itself seems less interested in redemption than in the melodrama of the eternal struggle of good and evil, less interested in incarnation and reconciliation than in alienation and disorder. (Chase 38)
these characteristic features in the American novels are mostly abstract and ideal. The events are astonishing as they are likely to be representative and ideological rather than responsible.
Simon de Beauvoir pointed out the way women writing has come of an age after its long struggle.
The violence that women face is multifaceted; not merely physical. It Is more often subtle and insidious and hard to recognize, presented As it usually is in the guise of respect, idealization, concern or protectiveness. The effects of violence on a women’s psyche are deeply complex, hard to understand and even more difficult to overcome. (Singh 67)
The most dominant attribute of the black experience in America is alienation. The first blacks who landed on American soil were the freemen who were more familiar with the cultures of Europe than with those of Africa. The black American remained alienated from the mainstream of American society due to inherent cultural and physical differences.
Morrison depicts the reality of the lives of ordinary black men and women. She shows a profoundanxiety to understand the sexuality and the psychic fears and problems of black women. Her works often express a “psychological dualism” (Staple 69) which is often as real as cultural realism of the American Negro. Morrison designs the fate of black women in terms of her relation with class, and also the race she belong to. Morrison pictures the black women struggle against the persecution which is allowed unfirmly by the whites and also by the black ones.
Morrison’s fifth novel Beloved deals not only with ‘reconstructed memory’, but also deconstructed history. Set in post-civil was Ohio, this haunting narrative of slavery and its aftermath, traces the life of a young woman, Sethe, who has kept a terrible memory at bay only by shutting down part of her mind. The novel deals with Seth’s former life as a slave on Sweet Home Farm, her escape with her children to what seem a safe haven, and the tragic events that follow. Although Sethe physically survives, she remains emotionally subjugated, and her desire to give and receive love becomes a destructive force. Morrison also addresses the difficulties faced by former slaves in keeping the horrors of their pasts submerged within the subconscious.
The novel hinges on the death of Sethe’s infant daughter, Beloved, who mysteriously reappears as a sensuous young woman. Beloved’s spirit comes to claim Sethe who struggles to make Beloved gain full possession of her present and throw off the long, dark legacy of her past. Sethe’s experience is treated with many ironic overtones that point to certain paradoxes and many fundamental complexities of her quest for freedom.
On a socio-psychological level, Beloved is the story of Sethe and Suggs’ quest for social freedom and psychological wholeness. She fights with the haunting reminiscence of her slave past and the revenge of Beloved, the ghost of the baby daughter whom she has killed in order to protect her from the living death of slavery. On a legendary and mythic level, Beloved is a ghost story that frames embedded narratives of the influence of class, race and sex on the capacity for love, faith and community of black families, especially of black women, during the Reconstruction period. Beloved is a womanist neo-slave narrative of double consciousness, a post-modern romance that speaks in many captivating voices and on several time levels of the historical rape of black American women and of the buoyant spirit of blacks in persisting as a people.
As in her previous novels, Tar Babythe need for women to re-establish connections with one another is forcefully rendered in Morrison’s Beloved. It was all the more significant in that period of slavery for the reason that there was a profound and real need for physical as well as psychological existence. When Sethe arrives with her new-born daughter tied to her chest, Baby Suggs welcomes her. Baby Suggs kindles a desire in her to know her past and to love herself as a person.
Sethe, like Morrison’s other feminine protagonists, is a prey of both sexist and racist subjugation. She is a runaway slave woman, a slave mother, who is heartlessly treated by white men, the school teacher and his nephews. Morrison discovers a black woman’s self- conscious complaint to the dual oppression. It is not only the sexual exploitation that Sethe feels most burdened by, but the humiliation of her nurturing abilities as mother – the stealing of her milk.
One of the most harmful effects of the dual domination of black women, against which Morrison writes, is murder of one’s own child. Murder becomes Sethe’s act of mother love, which she illuminates saying, “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.” (Beloved, 163) She prefers to murkier her daughter, Beloved, rather than see her in captivity. According to Deborah Gray White, infanticide represents one of the avenues of resistance on the part of a slave woman. Although Sethe’s murder might be viewed by contemporary standards as limiting the context in which she committed it, it does not diminish her stature. If it was possible for a black slave woman like Sethe to live with her family with dignity and
self-respect in the America of the 1850s, she would not have committed this hideous crime which was the mutilation of her vibrant mother love.
By picking to narrate the real life and actual experiences of a runaway slave woman, Morrison proves the power of art to demolish stereotype. Sethe’s involvement is frozen with many ironic overtones that point to certain paradoxes and many fundamental particulars of her hunt for independence. Other novels like Song of Solomon and Invisible Man have done this through numerous adventures of the hero examining the intricate legacy of the past and of history Yet, Beloved forays a different and perplexing note because it purposefully avoids chronological development of the narrative and undeviating structure. Beloved’s mother, Sethe, is wedged in the ambiguities of a quest that presents itself as a succession of rememories. Each recorded incident, act or word further unfolds her story.
Sethe’s black consciousness and denial of white sensitivities and inscriptions of herself, her children, and other slaves as non-human are synthesized with her black feminist sense of self-sufficiency. Sethe merges gender modifications first with her husband, Halle Suggs, and later with Paul D., in heterosexual, endogamous connection. Although by inference the author blends racial and sexual consciousness, the construction and style of the text foregrounds the ambivalence of slave women about motherhood that disrupts their personal integrity and that of their family.
The feminist qualities that Morrison advocates through Sethe’s portrayal are the traditional beauty, strength, resistance and integrity of black women She is sensitive to feminist concerns and includes all those elements of black female experience in her text which are of compelling significance to a woman In her interview with Rosemarie K. Lester, Morrison expresses her views on an extremely painful and unattractive history of black women in the States where black women have always been both mother and laborer, mother and worker, and have worked in the fields along with men.
Stimulatingly enough, Beloved becomes the symbol by which African people are to measure the devastating effect of isolation. Isolation literally tears apart the family. The personification of isolation and all things characteristic in it, including self-centered individualism, voracity and annihilation, Beloved succeeds in dividing 124 from the rest of the African community. Denver’s remoteness in life, 124’s isolation in the community, and Beloved’s loneliness in death all serve to further division the African community and, as a consequence, leave it vulnerable to the oppression and exploitation of the slave society. It is she who drives Howard and Burglar from home and separates Paul D, Sethe, and Denver just when their three shadows grasp hands and just when they upright bonds with the African community: “Paul D. made a few acquaintances; spoke to them about what work he might find. Sethe returned the smiles she got Denver was swaying with delight. And on the way home, although leading them now, the shadows of three people still held hands.” (49)
In Beloved gender oppression is not a noticeable problem that happens between African men and women, but is one that exists within the context of the economic relationship between master and slave and race is only a later justification for the oppression of the African people. Clearly, then, Morrison’s choice of setting is relevant in crystallizing the nature of the African’s oppression, for the economic source of both race and gender oppression is obscured in slavery.
Morrison seems to be at her best in documenting slavery and its aftermath. The handling of slaves as beasts of burden and the sexual exploitation of African women by European men are driven home to the reader. Perhaps, more important than Morrison’s skillful way of transporting to life the facts about slavery is her expertise at correcting myths about slavery. One such myth is that slave life for some was good. Morrison shows how slavery was slavery, on Sweet Homeor any other plantation. The conditions of slavery were qualitatively indistinguishable whether the slave had a ‘good’ master or a ‘bad’ master. For instance, Baby Suggs reveals that life for her has been one continuous cycle of oppression. Her past has been intolerable like her present
Unity is the only way by which African people can survive. It is only when the African, through self or forced isolation, exists outside the collective that the struggle appears endless and the burden Unbearable. In Beloved, Morrison reinforces her theme of the people, one struggle, and one solution in several ways. First, she begins each chapter in the novel in the present, and then returns to the past in order to bridge the gap between occurrences of the past and those of the present. Second, the beginnings are often designed in such a way that they seem more like middles thereby underscoring the fact that oppression for the African exists as one uninterrupted continuum. Another skillful structural device that Morrison uses to reflect the static status of African people is the repetition of key words, phrases or sentences.
Morrison further shows that Africans all over the world are one people having the same history and sharing the same plight since they are seen as one by those outside the African nation, no matter what their class status might be. Clearly she wants African people to see themselves as one people, undivided by their class status. The novel reiterates its theme of solidarity by implicitly reminding the reader chapter after chapter that collective struggle is the only practical way to alleviate the oppression African people have been experiencing.
What crime did the uncreated first nigger commit that the curse of
birth was decreed for him? And why is this awful difference made between white and black? … How hard the nigger’s fate seems, this morning! Yet until last night such a thought never entered my head. (Nayakh 108)
Thus, in Beloved Morrison comes to terms with both the dilemma confronting African people and a part of the solution that must be espoused by them. The novel makes it clear that the plight of Africans in America stems from their nation-class oppression, that their primary enemy is capitalism in all its disguises, and that the solution to this problem lies in collective, not individual, class struggle against capitalism. Furthermore, Morrison crystallizes the strategy which ushers in the solution of collective struggle.
Morrison’s greatness as a novelist, however, lies in her extraordinary power of achieving a harmonious fusion of her social concerns and the demands of novel as an art form the ultimate solution of collective struggle to the problem of economic exploitation of the blacks in white America is offered habitually in terms of fictional art. What Morrison has worked out in Beloved is an extremely effective Gothic blend of post-modern realism and romance as well as of racial and sexual politics. For the characters of the novel as well as the implied author, the scars of racial, sexual, and class oppression are more horrible on the soul than those on the body.
Thus, Morrison has brilliantly succeeded in her attempt to make Beloved “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful ” It is a beautiful narrative about the survival of the heritage of slavery, on the power of rememory, and the collective memories kept alive through oral tradition. It is also a story of the genesis of a culture and of a people who, living on the edge of life and death, have managed to create that culture and to keep their history alive. Morrison’s self-conscious interest in the celebration of black women’s strength, their values and beliefs, stems from a desire to correct the wrongs that have been historically leveled against black women she seeks to celebrate the legends of black women like Baby Suggs and Sethe, and weave their dreams into myths that allow us to recover their past.
Thus, Beloved is as imaginativelystimulating as it is socially and politically gratifying It is full of beautiful prose, dialogue as rhythmically satisfying as music, living characters and scenes so clearly etched. Morrison tries to do what Dickens did –“create wild, flamboyant, abstractly symbolic characters who are, at the same time, not grotesques but sweetly alive, full of deep feeling” (Mbalia, Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness, 89) usually in contemporary fiction, the outrageous is mixed with irony, not with passion and romance. Morrison discards irony, a choice that directly sets her apart. As an alternative, like Alice Walker, she wants to incline the mind, search for an expansion of the possible and cultivate a spiritual richness in the black custom even after three hundred years in the white desert.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved.London Pan, 1987.
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and its Tradition. New Delhi: Kalyani, 1973.
Singh, Anita. “Genealogy of Gender Bias: A College Of Three Contemporary Indian Plays”.
Indian English Literature.Ed. BasavarajNaikar. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2003 Staples, Robert. The Black Women in America. Chicago. Nelson – Hall. 1973. 69.
Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness. Selingrove: Susguehanna UP, 1991.
Nayak, Kishore. K. “The Closed Circle: Miscegenation and Sexuality”. American Fiction: The Black – White Encounter.Jaipur: Mangal Deep, 1997.