1. How does Toni Morrison's writing style have an impact on the story and themes?
Beloved is influenced by a style called "magical realism," in which the supernatural exists right alongside the everyday. People accept things like ghosts as simply a part of life. However, Toni Morrison does not simply write in magical realism. Her style in this book allows the reader to understand the disastrous impact of slavery on her characters' lives and spirits.
Rather than telling the story chronologically, Morrison jumps about in time, which not only creates a sense of mystery but also forces the reader actively to contemplate the relationship between different events. When Paul D first arrives, he needs to walk through a sad, haunted part of the house, which Sethe identifies as her daughter who died (10). A little later, Denver remembers how, as a child, she saw a white dress embracing her mother in prayer (31). And, we learn that "Sethe had twenty-eight days-the travel of one whole moon-of unslaved life" (100). However, none of these facts are connected for the reader until halfway through the text. Morrison's fragmented storytelling forces the reader to wonder about how these events are related and to actively engage the sad truth even before it is revealed.
Not only is the story told in pieces, it is also told from different points of view, creating a circular rather than a linear narrative. When the story of Sethe's tragedy is finally revealed, it is told first through the point of view of the sheriff, then through Stamp Paid, and finally through Sethe, herself. This causes the reader to look at something that seems barbarous-murdering one's own child-from several points of view and to wonder whether the blame can really be placed on Sethe. Rather than just being a horror story, this tale asks the reader to question whether morality is really absolute.
Although most of the story is technically in third person, the style and sentence structures shift depending on the point of view to reinforce this sense that different characters have different ways of understanding the truth. So, Beloved's voice is very fragmented, as she still has the mind of a toddler, while Denver's is that of a love-sick teenager. When she thinks she might lose Beloved "She can feel her thickness thinning, dissolving into nothing" (129). This changing style reinforces the sense that the story is slowly coming out from the memories and experiences of all of the characters.
In order to appreciate that slavery has created this tragedy, the reader really must understand that Sethe alone cannot be blamed. By first actively engaging the reader in the story and then telling it from different points of view, Morrison winds the theme of shifting morality through the fictionalization of a true story.
2. What is the significance of clothing in this novel?
Clothing is a social nicety, so it represents a person to others. As slaves, the characters were not allowed to own anything. Any possessions were technically owned by their masters, so clothing represents having control over their own identities when they are free. Once the slaves are free, they can choose and possess their own clothing and so choose their own identities.
When she married Halle, Sethe wanted some special clothing to commemorate the moment. She was not allowed a real wedding ceremony, but she wanted some sort of ceremony to mark the event as special. So, she stole bits of cloth to piece together and make a dress. The dress was awful looking and she had to return each of the pieces of cloth, but it was something special for her wedding. In this way she was able to dignify her marriage more than her masters would allow.
Sethe now puts on a show with her clothing, which sets her apart from the other members of the community. She dresses up to go to the carnival, even though no one else does. Only after they set out does she realize that people may think "she was putting on airs, letting them know she was different because she lived in a house with two stories; tougher, because she could do and survive things they believed she should neither do nor survive" (52). She repeats this mistake when she loses her job and spends all her savings buying finery for the girls. The dresses she chooses are so showy that the other people think of them as "carnival dresses." Whenever Sethe is uncomfortable within her community, she becomes unable to dress in a socially appropriate way.
Beloved's clothing sets her apart as different and somewhat unnatural. When she arrives, she comes out of the water fully clothed. This is the opposite of real babies, who are born out of their mother's water naked. The clothing she is wearing is unworn, as though she had never done anything in it. In this way, her clothing identifies her as strange. Beloved then leaves the world naked, while most people are clothed as adults. While Sethe's clothing is her way of identifying herself, Beloved has never grown to be an adult who understands the importance of clothing as representative of identity.
3. Is Beloved real?
It is possible to just take the novel at face value and assume that Beloved really is the reincarnated daughter that Sethe killed. However, there are several instances in which Morrison seems to have intentionally created doubt about whether Beloved is this child or if she really exists. By creating doubt about Beloved's existence, Morrison can use her to represent the guilt and tragedy that are slavery's heritage.
Beloved's appearance can either be read as simply magical realism or as an impossible miracle. She has unlined skin, appears in unworn shoes, cannot say where she is from, and is very weak. Furthermore, the only people who see her for quite some time are Paul D, Denver, and Sethe. Each of these characters could have their own reasons to need to see her. Denver is lonely and wants companionship. Paul D has a history of leaving women, and Beloved allows him an excuse to leave. As he explains, Beloved creates the "danger [of] losing Sethe because he was not man enough to break out" (133). Perhaps Beloved is simply a manifestation of his own fear of settling down and feeling too attached. Finally, Sethe feels great guilt, and Beloved's appearance allows her to expiate that guilt. The only other character who ever sees Beloved is Stamp Paid, and he only sees her from behind, so it is not certain he really sees her, either.
To read Beloved as simply a manifestation of the character's feelings also works when examining the scene in which she disappears. In this scene, the community finally comes together to face its own guilt. A former slave woman who has been cold to Sethe realizes that she, too, allowed a child to die because of slavery (272). The community women, when they arrive, remember themselves at the feast in baby Suggs's yard and know they must behave as a group. Sethe faces her own guilt by chasing down a white man instead of her child. After this, Beloved disappears. Perhaps she disappears because she never really existed but was just the embodiment of everyone's negative feelings.
It is impossible to determine whether Beloved is truly there. Instead, the reader needs to remember that Beloved carries with her the guilt, sadness, and terror that so many people in the community felt because of slavery. To get rid of her is to face many of those negative feelings and finally deal with them.
4. Who has the power to name and define people?
In the Bible, God gives Adam the power to name the animals. This power to name and define is thus granted as a gift directly from God. To claim the right to name people is to claim the right to define them, a gift that is biblically only granted by God. In Beloved, the struggle between white people and black people to define and name one another is an attempt to claim this power.
The whites who name black people in this book are exercising their authority over their slaves. As Paul D notes, even Mr. Garner, who treated his slaves with some dignity, was actually in power because he had the right to declare them men: "Garner called and announced them men-but only on Sweet Home, and by his leave. Was he naming what he saw or creating what he did not?" (231). Mr. Garner has the right to decide whether his slaves are men, and if he can choose to call them by that name, he can also chose to take that distinction away.
When the black people try to reclaim the power to name, they are exercising one of the few forms of rebellion they have available to them. Baby Suggs refuses to be called Jenny because she wishes to retain the name given to her by her husband. She wants the identity she has chosen, rather than the one her masters give her. Sethe's mother, also, asserts herself through names. Nan tells Sethe that when her mother had children by white men, "Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him" (66). Sethe is named for her mother's choice, not for the lack of choice that the white men forced upon her.
When the white and black characters both attempt to name and define, there is conflict that ends in violence. Sethe remembers an incident with another slave, Sixo, who took a shoat to roast and eat. When schoolteacher accuses him of stealing, Sixo answers that his eating the shoat is actually "Improving your property" (199). Schoolteacher beats him "to show him that definitions belonged to the definers-not the defined" (199). Schoolteacher usually does have the power to define, as he can write and so is writing a book defining the slaves at Sweet Home as he chooses to. However, it is the slaves that call him "schoolteacher," so they are turning his power to define into their own power to name him.
Ultimately, the power to define rests with those who have the power of writing. Schoolteacher can write the slaves how he chooses because he is the book writer, so he can define them as animals. Sethe, by making the ink, is actually forced to take part in this violation. Schoolteacher, by virtue of being white, has the authority not only to define his slaves, but also to compel them to be a part of their own academic dehumanization.
5. Are there good white people in this book?
Beloved has some very negative portrayals of white people, yet it does not make them all seem the same. Rather, there are different people who behave as they can in a dysfunctional system. Ultimately, it is not white people but the power struggle of slavery that Morrison condemns.
The gentler white people are not necessarily "good" to black people. While Mr. Garner calls his slaves "men" and allows them to express their opinions, they are still slaves. He owns them and their labor. The Bodwins understand this and tell Baby Suggs that they "don't hold with slavery, even Garner's kind" (153). However, the only thing they dislike as much as slavery is slaves, themselves. They cannot see the human beings in the black people they are working to free.
Amy Denver, who helps Sethe survive, is different than any white person the other characters have ever met. She massages Sethe's feet and helps her deliver the baby. The black characters, however, cannot trust her because experience has taught them that all whites can hurt them. When Sethe tells a woman from the Underground Railroad that a white girl helped her deliver her baby, she is frightened that people might be following behind. However, Amy helps Sethe, rather than trying to hurt her. This is probably because she is a victim of the system. She is the daughter of an indentured servant who died, and she has to work to pay off her mother's passage. In this system, she has no power, so she has not developed the cruelty that comes with power.
Beloved does not judge people. Instead, it judges a system that gives people absolute power over others. While many of the characters assert that there are no good white people, Sethe names her daughter after a white girl who helped her. Amy is evidence that the contrast between the powerful and the powerless is the problem, not the color of people's skin.
Beloved: Essay Q&A