Beloved is unique -- it’s a gorgeously-written, lyrical book that explores the darkest chapters in American history, namely, how the U.S. treated enslaved people, and particularly the violence that was done to them as the moment of emancipation drew closer. What will a person who escaped from slavery do to stay free? Morrison approaches her topic not with a clinical eye, but with a poet’s interest in the power of the aesthetic -- of the yearning for beauty -- even amidst unspeakable trauma. The Kentucky plantation where some of the most horrific events in the story transpire is described with memorable warmth: “and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty.” In effect, this idea of “shameless beauty” can be taken as a kind of premise statement for the novel as a whole. While some might find a book about these topics depressing, most people who read Beloved walk away moved and chastened, and with a new perspective on the long-term damage the institution of slavery has done to the Black community -- and to American society more broadly.
Background and Context
Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Beloved -- the two highest honors in American literature. Not long after, she won the Nobel Prize for literature as well (the Nobel committee doesn’t award prizes for individual works, but rather for whole careers). In 2006, the New York Times ranked it the best work of fiction published between 1981 and 2006.
Historical basis. Beloved is based on a true story about a woman, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery (from Kentucky to Ohio) in 1856, just a few years before the Civil War. Morrison found the story while doing archival research in an old newspaper. It was essentially just a clipping, but she used it to build out a set of characters and a world around them. Beyond the kernel of the true story, everything described in Beloved is fictional (and indeed, it would probably be a mistake to try and use the details of the real Margaret Garner and her family to try and interpret Morrison’s novel).
Fugitive Slave Act. Most of the events in Beloved take place in Ohio and Kentucky (though Paul D. often reminisces on his travels elsewhere; he lived Georgia [as an enslaved person], Delaware, Rochester, NY, and other places). Ohio was a ‘free state’ while Kentucky was, of course, a slave state. They share a border -- the Ohio River. The city of Cincinnati is right on the river. They may have been on opposite sides of the Civil War, but Morrison's novel suggests they were not so far apart legally. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, freed slaves and escapees weren’t “safe” in Ohio or other northern states in the final years before the Civil War. And indeed, the legal jeopardy black people in the north had to live with as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act is an important part of the plot of Beloved.
Great Migration. More broadly, Beloved forces us to rethink the ‘north-south’ polarization with respect to American race relations. After the Civil War and Emancipation, African Americans began a process of general migration. Thousands of people from the south began migrating to northern and western states; later this mass movement would be referred to as the “Great Migration.” Looked at positively, this mass migration event reflected the newfound ability of millions of newly freed people to have some agency over the course of their own lives. More worrisomely, the migration event suggests a sense of general displacement -- these travelers arrived at their destinations desperately poor. In many northern cities, the new black settlers quickly entered into a permanent underclass, beginning a cycle of poverty that would continue for generations. Within the novel, this dynamic is most pronounced with Paul D, who lives in quite a number of places, including Virginia, Georgia, and Delaware, before landing at the house known as 124 on the outskirts of Cincinnati.
Magic Realism. Many Toni Morrison novels contain supernatural elements alongside narratives that are very much understood to be unfolding in the 'real world'; these supernatural elements are sometimes described by critics as "magic realism." There are some magic realist elements in Morrison's earliest novels, though the technique is clearly more pronounced in Song of Solomon, specifically with the repeated appareances of the ghost of Macon Dead's father. In Beloved, the supernatural elements are front and center and utterly impossible to ignore. In passages above, the actions of the ghost have to be understood as literal and as directly witnessed by the main characters -- they are “true” within the world of the novel, and in the novel’s present.
That puts us in a slightly different position than in Song of Solomon, where the realest and most palpable supernatural element -- the ghost of Pilate and Macon Dead’s father -- was something witnessed in the past of both characters. Other elements, like Solomon’s flight, are more fanciful and could be “lies old folks tell around here” -- not understood by the reader as literally happening. That said, while the ghost we meet at the beginning of the novel has to be understood as real, other happenings will be more ambiguous and harder to interpret. There is, for instance, considerable ambiguity about the nature of the grown woman who appears in the novel calling herself “Beloved.”