‘The return of Beloved becomes not only a psychological projection, but also a physical (rather than spiritual) manifestation. Her “rebirth” represents, as it were, the uncanny return of the dead to haunt the living, the return of the past to the present’ (Mae G. Henderson, ‘Toni Morrison’s Beloved’)
Explore the different forms of “haunting” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Haunting, in general terms, can be defined as something, either a physical presence or something as insubstantial as a memory, which returns from the past in a manner it should not. In Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, the theme of haunting is unquestionably the main theme and as such it manifests throughout the book, figuratively, literally, literarily, metaphorically, psychologically and as Mae G. Henderson agrees, “physically”.
The main haunting in ‘Beloved’ is the physical reincarnation of the eponymous Beloved herself. Although some critics, such as Elizabeth B. House (1990) would argue that Beloved the woman is not a ghost: “the girl is not a supernatural being of any kind”, it is clear that Beloved is a ghost. The idea of her being a human can be discounted for several reasons, firstly her superhuman strength. Beloved is clearly very weak after she is found at 124, yet she is still able to lift a rocking chair up with one arm: “I seen her pick up the rocker with one arm”. This is despite being also described as someone who: “Acts sick, sounds sick”. Beloved has strength clearly beyond her capabilities, which indicates that she is not in fact human.
Furthermore, when Beloved seduces Paul D, it is clear that Beloved is indeed from the past and a ghost. Firstly, it is stated “He should have been able to hear her breathing”, which is evidence in itself that Beloved is not a human. However, it is more Beloved’s actions and effect on Paul D. which indicate she is not human. Beloved has a hold on Paul D. which seems inhuman; she makes him copulate with her against his will, though she does this without force and with only a few small words: “You have to touch me… And you have to call me my name”. It appears as though Beloved has hypnotised Paul D, as he is utterly powerless. Also, Beloved’s effect on Paul D’s psyche overall indicates she is from the past; she helps Paul D. to accept his past and move on with only a few words.
Morrison compares Paul D. to “Lot’s wife”, a figure from the bible punished for looking back on Sodom, the city of sin. Morrison goes on to explain how Paul D. must not become like Lot’s wife “If he trembled like Lot’s wife…he too would be lost”. This already tells the reader that Paul D. is going to confront his past, and Morrison then goes on to state “he didn’t hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin”. The ‘tobacco tin’ is a continued metaphor throughout the book for Paul D’s emotions and memories, and it’s made clear here that Paul D. has opened the ‘tobacco tin’ and thus his emotions and memories have been unlocked by Beloved. Furthermore, Paul D’s shouting of ‘Red heart’ reiterates that his emotions have been released as well as the way in which Morrison tells the reader about Paul D’s experiences. Before the event with Beloved, all of Paul. D’s experiences were relayed to the reader via an omniscient narrator: “By the time he got to Ohio, then to Cincinnati… he thought he had seen and felt it all”. However, after the event, his past is explained in the form of his memories: “Something is funny. Paul D. guesses what it is when Sixo interrupts his laughter”. The difference in the way Paul D’s past is explained show the reader how Paul D. has released his emotions and memories; before it was simply an account of events but after it becomes much more personal.
Also, when Beloved is first introduced, she is clearly very sick; she describes her legs as heavy and suffers from what is described as sounding like ‘croup’. Presumably for someone like Beloved who until recently was an insubstantial ghost haunting 124, walking on Earth would be very hard. Beloved is not used to having a heavy body, or breathing, so this might explains her illnesses. Furthermore, it is far too coincidental that Beloved arrives as soon as Paul D. exorcises the poltergeist from 124. She can be nothing but a ghost.
The dominant reading is that Beloved is the reincarnation of the crawling-already baby, however, she can also be read as the amalgamation of Sethe’s mother and the many victims of the slave trade, especially those from the Middle Passage, which was the journey by ship from Africa to America. There is much evidence of this, especially in the chain of thoughts from Beloved, where she states “I cannot fall because there is no room to the men without skin are making loud noises I am not dead the bread is sea colored”. This can clearly be seen as a reference to being on the Middle Passage, with the “men without skin” being white men, who, to a young girl who has never seen Caucasian males, would appear to have no skin. Furthermore, the squalid conditions she describes, such as “the bread is sea colored” indicates that she was poorly treated, which would have happened on the Middle Passage. hhhBeloved also describes a serious lack of space: “there is no room to do it in…there is no room to tremble so he is not able to die…I cannot fall because there is no room to”, which is akin to the slaves experience on the Middle Passage; they were often chained together with no room at all to move.
It is evident that Beloved is the amalgamation of many ghosts and thus many victims of slavery and the Middle Passage because the crawling-already baby reincarnated would have no recollection of being on the Middle Passage. Though Elizabeth B. House (1990) argues Beloved is just one single victim of the Middle Passage, the structure of Beloved’s soliloquy makes it clear that there is more then one victim; the large spaces between the words, such as ” we cannot his teeth are pretty… someone is trembling” make the whole passage disjointed. Morrison’s disjointed paragraphs make each statement separate from the next, as though they are not one memory but many different memories compiled together in one place. If Morrison had used standard English form, then the statements would have appeared together as one continuous passage, and thus as one continued, single memory, however by spacing out the words, she makes each statement a statement in itself, which thus gives the impression that these are individual, unrelated memories meaning that they most likely come from a number of people. Furthermore, when Stamp Paid goes to visit 124 he hears “the undecipherable language…of the black and angry dead”. As soon as Stamp Paid gets near Beloved, he hears a multitude of dead black ghosts, which suggests that Beloved is a physical manifestation of the spirits of many.
A psychoanalytical reading of Beloved would be that haunting is portrayed linguistically throughout the book; Morrison shows haunting by echoing previous metaphors and similes throughout. For example, the proleptic sentence “sometimes they danced the antelope” is echoed by the analeptic sentence “the little antelope rammed her”. There are several examples of this in Beloved, and it gives the impression of a haunting within the pages of the novel itself, as words and phrases from the past narrative literally return to the reader. This can also be seen at the opening of each new section, which start “124 was spiteful…124 was loud…124 was quiet”. The repetition of “124 was…” reminds the reader, either consciously or subconsciously, of the previous section, so the reader is literally bombarded by words from the past; the past narrative ‘haunts’ the reader in the way it returns to the present narrative.
In ‘Beloved’, the characters also suffer from psychological haunting, as their past memories constantly return to them at inopportune times. Morrison often makes it clear that the characters of Beloved haven’t come to terms with their traumatic past, by always eluding to but never stating the past. For example, Sethe’s traumatic past haunts her, as it’s very clear that she has not dealt with killing Beloved; the trauma is revealed to the reader in the same cryptic and difficult way that the memories of the Middle Passage are. There’s no explicit explanation of what happened, everything is alluded too, for example when the white men first see the murder scene they state “But never made him…I mean no way he could have…What she do and so that for?” Nowhere in the text is it actually said explicitly: Sethe killed Beloved. The truth is eluded, but Sethe simply says “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe”. Even with Paul D., rather then admit to himself Sethe was a murderer, instead thinks “This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw”. The way Sethe is elusive and refuses to be frank is indicative of her mental state; she clearly hasn’t come to terms with the event and thus Morrison makes it clear that she is haunted by the event. Sethe puts a veneer over the truth; she was protecting her children, she found safety with a handsaw, rather then simply stating the truth; she committed infanticide. Literarily, it is also not revealed until the middle of the book, chapter 18, which represents to the reader how far this is buried in Sethe’s mind. Sethe constantly circles as she admits the truth to Paul D.: “Circling, circling, now she was gnawing something else”, which indicates her state of mind. Unlike Paul D, whose emotions and memories haunt him so much he has locked them entirely away in a “tobacco tin”, Sethe’s are more available, but only in a hazy, cryptic form. Sethe is unable to be succinct and open, because that is too painful, although the past relentlessly presents itself to her, she cannot express it which she must do in order to process it.
The only way this story can be told is wrapped up in colourful similes and ambiguous statements, for example; “The hot sun dried Sethe’s dress, stiff, like rigor mortis”. This unpleasant metaphor connotes death, and implies a part of Sethe has died; rigor mortis occurs very soon after death, and Sethe’s dress is literally stiff like rigor mortis, indicating it, as a part of Sethe, has died. It could also be seen as the beginning of the haunting; Sethe is enveloped in a dress which is covered in Beloved’s blood and is symbolically dead. She’s covered, literally, in death.
Sethe’s memories come randomly to her, which is something Morrison makes very explicit when she states: “Unfortunately her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field…Nothing else would be in her mind…Just the breeze cooling her face…Then something…suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes”. The anaphora of “rolling” gives the passage a nice, fluid sound which reflects the nature of memories and how easily they seep into Sethe’s mind. The sibilance also gives a pleasant, rolling and lethargic feel to the passage: “faintest scent…last bit of sap…carelessness…across…something…sight of her shoes and stockings…suddenly there was Sweet Home”. The passage before the initial memory of Sweet Home is very tranquil and sensual, with a pleasant description of Sethe’s journey; “Just the breeze cooling her face…sopping the chamomile away…scent of ink…the itching…the plash of water”, but with unpleasant images dispersed confusingly throughout: “Nothing else would be in her mind. The picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard. Nor was there the faintest scent of ink”. The image is unexpected and bombards the reader; they’ve been reading about nature when suddenly the image of a disfigured back comes into their mind. Morrison places random memories throughout the passage to show the reader how Sethe’s memories haunt her: they bombard her at any time, for the most random of reasons, as they do to the reader. She is psychologically haunted as she clearly cannot forget these memories, or escape them.
Moreover, it’s evident that these memories haunt Sethe because they come up again in the future; she killed Beloved, and now Beloved has arisen, and also Sethe attempts to repeat the same crime she did in the past. The past literally is repeated at the end of the story; a white male on a horse comes to 124, and Sethe goes on a murderous rampage. The language Morrison uses to describe the two scenes is almost the same; when Sethe kills Beloved, Morrison writes “And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono” and later when Sethe attempts to kill Mr. Bodwin, Morrison states “And if she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono”. These two proleptic and analeptic passages echo each other, thus showing that Sethe is so haunted by the past that it literally repeats itself. This is reiterated when Sethe explains to Denver about the dangers of Sweet Home; she explains how it would be dangerous for Denver to return there because the memories are alive and harmful: “It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else…if you go there…it will happen again; it will be there for you…it’s going to be always there waiting for you”.
From this it is clear that memories, or ‘rememories’ haunt Sethe, and that they can physically manifest into something very real. Not only this, but via transgenerational haunting they also affect others, in this case Denver: it’s made clear that your past is not something you can avoid, even when you die it will affect the next generation. Denver is already haunted for her mother’s sins; though she is innocent, she is just as much a victim of Beloved as Sethe.
The physical scars on Sethe’s back can also be seen as metaphors for the haunting which she cannot escape; they are something permanently behind her. She describes her scars as a “tree” which implies that it is a living and growing memory, and also Morrison describes the tree as having an “oak bark”, indicating to the reader that the tree is an oak tree; a tree which traditionally last hundreds of years and grow very wide and strong. Sethe cannot escape the past which haunts her, as is represented by the ‘tree’ on her back.
Literarily, passages in ‘Beloved’ are highly similar to previously published slave narratives, such as Harriet Jacob’s ‘Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl’. The passage where Sethe speaks in the first person: “I stood by her bed waiting for her to finish with the slop jar. When I got her back in the bed she said she was cold” is very direct, which is similar to other first person slave narratives. Morrison has written in the same style as previous slave narratives, so that literally ‘Beloved’ the novel is haunted by previous slave narratives. The reader is subconsciously reminded of previous slave narratives and thus other slaves, because of the similarities between the two.
Overall, Morrison has made haunting the main theme of the novel ‘Beloved’. This could be seen as a warning to America; Sethe is the archetypal melancholic; she cannot accept her past and as such the past is literally forced to return (in the form of Beloved) and literally consume Sethe (hence much of the oral imagery; Beloved constantly wishes to kiss Sethe and also consumes all her food). In regards to America, Morrison could clearly be warning America that unless they truly come to terms with their slave past, it will always haunt them, a theory supported by Fraud, who in ‘Studies on Hysteria 1893-95’ stated “each individual hysterical symptom immediately and permanently disappeared when we had succeeded in bringing clearly to light the memory of the event”. As Morrison stated herself in ‘Conversations with Toni Morrison’ (1994): “Afro-Americans in rushing away from slavery…also rushed away from the slaves…and they may have abandoned some responsibilities in doing so.” It’s clear that Morrison believes America must take responsibility for their past, and also accept it, rather then rushing away from the past. This links also with the transgenerational haunting shown in ‘Beloved’; Denver is haunted by Beloved in the same way Sethe is, though Denver herself is innocent. It’s clear that the past is inescapable if not dealt with; Sethe can not deal with it and as such it’s transferred to the next generation, which parallels with America; if they do not deal with their slave past it will transfer to the next generation.
It’s also clear that Morrison has used Beloved as a voice for the African slaves from the Middle Passage; unlike those that made it to America, those that died on the Middle Passage had no voice: “She (Beloved) speaks a traumatised language, of her own experience…she was on that ship as a child…those that died en route. Nobody knows their names, and nobody knows about them…they never survived in the lore”. This also explains Beloved’s chain of thoughts during her first person narrative: “I do not eat the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink we have none at night I cannot see the dead man on my face”. Clearly Morrison emphasised Beloved’s thoughts and perceptions, rather then her physical actions (unlike Sethe), to help redress the lack of psychological insight traditional slave narratives traditionally have. Morrison clearly wanted to tell the collective story of slaves on the Middle Passage, as well as an individual account.
Both these reasons explain why Morrison has made such extensive use of haunting throughout ‘Beloved’; she clearly wanted to promote the message that it is important to come to terms with your past, and also wanted to tell the story of a generally forgotten people from the past (the slaves of the Middle Passage), and the best way to promote this message was to have an actual character who is from the past return, thus the importance of haunting throughout the novel.