Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"Beloved" Criticism: Psychoanalysis and Trauma Theory

The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison's Beloved
Author(s): Linda Krumholz
Source: African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, Fiction Issue (Autumn, 1992), pp. 395-408
Published by: Indiana State University
Stable URL:

Keywords: Historicism, Trauma, Historical recovery, W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk

Main Claim: "In Beloved Morrison, like Du Bois in Souls [of Black Folk], negotiates the legacy of slavery as a national trauma, and as an intensely personal trauma as well. Both works challenge the notion that the end of institutional slavery brings about freedom by depicting the emotional and psychological scars of slavery as well as the persistence of racism. And both Morrison and Du Bois delve into the stories and souls of black folk to tap the resources of memory and imagination as tools of strength and healing."

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1967.
Freud, Sigmund. IntroductoryLectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Nor-ton, 1966.
Henderson, Mae G. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text." Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991. 62-86.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

"To Be Loved and Cry Shame": A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
Author(s): Lynda Koolish
Source: MELUS, Vol. 26, No. 4, African American Literature (Winter, 2001), pp. 169-195
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
Stable URL:

Keywords: Psychoanalysis, Multiple Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, R.D. Laing, Julia Kristeva, Doppelganger

Main claim: "All four of these characters, and, to some extent, every black character in the novel who believes he or she has seen Beloved (as well as Bodwin, the one white character who also sees Beloved), experiences Beloved either as a fractured aspect of Sethe's psyche or as a kind of doppleganger for his or her own feelings of loss, grief, confusion, and rage, and, in the case of Bodwin, feelings of accountability, culpability, and guilt. The story not to be passed on, the story not told in traditional slave narratives, is that of psychosis, dissociation, of climbing out of one's body to forget 'that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up' (251)." 

Key Citations in Works Cited: 

Christian, Barbara. "Fixing Methodologies: Beloved." Cultural Critique 24 .1 (1993): 5-15.
Henderson, Mae G. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text." Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1991. 62-86.
Holloway, Karla F.G. "Revision and (Re)membrance: A Theory of Literary Structures in Literature by African American Women Writers." Black American Literature Forum 24.4 (1990): 6
Kristeva, Julia. "Women's Time." Trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. Signs 7.1 (1981): 5-35.
Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience. New York: Random House, 1967.

The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
Author(s): Barbara Schapiro
Source: Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 194-210
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL:

Keywords: Psychoanalysis, Object relations theory, Feminist psychoanalytic theory, Intersubjectivity, Recognition by the Other, 

Main claim: "A free, autonomous self, as Jessica Benjamin argues in The Bonds of Love, is still an essentially relational self and is dependent on the recognizing response of an other. Beloved powerfully dramatizes the fact that, in Benjamin's words, "In order to exist for oneself, one has
to exist for an other" (53); in so doing, it enacts the complex interrelationship of social and intrapsychic reality. For Morrison's characters, African-Americans in a racist, slave society, there is no reliable other to recognize and affirm their existence. The mother, the child's first vital other, is made unreliable or unavailable by a slave system which either separates her from her child or so enervates and depletes her that she has no self with which to confer recognition. The consequences on the inner life of the child - the emotional hunger, the obsessive and terrifying narcissistic fantasies- constitute the underlying psychological drama of the novel." 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon, 1988.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
Klein, Melanie. Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963. New York: Dell, 1975.
Miner, Madonne M. "Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 176-91.
Skerrett, Joseph T. "Recitation to the Griot: Storytelling and Learning in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 192-202.
Wessling, Joseph. "Narcissism in Toni Morrison's Sula." College Language Association Journal 31 (1988): 281-98.
Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.
Winnicott, D. W. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities P, 1965.


[Categories/Possible Tags: Psychoanalysis, History, Feminism]

Redeeming History: Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Author(s): Helene Moglen
Source: Cultural Critique, No. 24 (Spring, 1993), pp.17-40 
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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Keywords: History, Psychoanalysis, Lacan, Freud, Unconscious, Fantasy, Othering, Differentiation, Subjectification, Fantasy, Realism, French feminism 

Main Claim: “In Beloved, Toni Morrison significantly reconceptualizes the psychological dynamic of differentiation and the social consequences of othering by radically interrogating the fantastic tradition within which she also writes” (18). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“As realistic fictions of the nineteenth century employed social, sexual, and racial ‘others’ thematically in order to mediate external and internal conflict, fantastic fictions became more psychologically focused, and dissolved the distinction between self and other by revealing how the ‘other’ serves as an instrument in the construction of the self” (17). 

“Reading the theory and the fiction as expressive of the same tradition helps us to understand the power of the fantastic to map the social and psychological relations of self and other, as well as the genre’s tendency to enmesh itself in the obsessional dynamic it explores” (18). 

“While realism expresses the boundaried aspirations of [the] self, the fantastic voices its desire to return to the wholeness that existed before the fall into fragmented subjectivity and cultural difference. While the realistic narrative thematizes a rational cultural order, the fantastic reproduces the contradictory strategies that the subject employs both to heal and to deny its alienation” (18). 

“Feminist and racially centered psychoanalytic theories have provided readings of the dynamic of othering that, while helpful in accounting for the deep structure of stereotypes, have also tended to reproduce the dyadic thinking which it has been their project to interrogate. Like the gothic fictions from which they have descended, these revisionary narratives rehearse the hallucinatory delusions of the Imaginary and participate in the shared psychosis of the cultural Symbolic. With other fantastic readings of ideology and desire, they reveal the difficulty that we always have in locating a world elsewhere—a place to stand from which to see the social and psychic landscapes as not only changing but as available to change. They suggest the extent to which the limits and possibilities of the fantastic conception are in large part established by the perspectival positionings within the dominant ideology that are interrogated. While it is true that fantasy seeks to name the unnameable, that which is named implicitly as real determines what can be imagined as unspoken” (20). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Bhabha, Homi K. “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference, 1976-84. Ed. Francis Baker et al. London: Methuen, 1986. 148-72.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967. 
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 222-35.
Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 33 (1989): 1-34. 
Naylor, Gloria, and Toni Morrison. “A Conversation.” Southern Review 21.3 (1985): 567-93.
Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987): 65-81. 


[Categories/Possible Tags: Psychoanalysis, History, Feminism]

A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Author(s): Emma Parker
Source: Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 1-19
Published by: Duke University Press
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Keywords: Hysteria, Hysterics, Freud, French feminism, History, Race, Gender, Breuer, Lacan, Irigaray

Main Claim:Beloved ultimately challenges several aspects of Freudian and French feminist theories of hysteria: in the way that the text highlights the culturally and historically specific character of hysterical symptoms, in its emphasis on the importance of the individual’s relation to the community, in its representation of hysteria as a social rather than familial phenomenon, and in its reservations about the adequacy of hysteria as a strategy for subversion, Beloved calls for a reconstitution of psychoanalytic formulations of hysteria” (3-4).     

Key Quotation(s): 

Beloved explores the means by which the disempowered and disposed express personal dissatisfaction and enact political dissent…like hysteria, Morrison’s novel highlights the importance of confronting, reclaiming, and transforming history, and that it points to the healing potential of memory” (1). 

“While Beloved is a woman-centered narrative that challenges the ‘phallusy’ of history (the lack of representation or misrepresentation of women in male-dominated versions of history), it is not so much a ‘herstory’ as a ‘hystery’ in the sense that the central protagonists can be read as hysterics: subjects haunted by the past, characters who unconsciously express repressed memories of psychic trauma through physical symptoms and use a corporeal discourse to articulate what is otherwise unspeakable” (1)

“The conviction of Freud and Breuer that ‘Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences’…confirms that hysteria functions as a useful conceptual tool in reading a novel that concerns what Morrison calls ‘rememory’: the continued presence of that which has disappeared or been forgotten” (2). 

“Whereas Freud almost completely ignores the role of the mother in hysteria, Irigaray proposes that hysterical discourse has a privileged relation to the maternal body” (3). 

“Because Irigaray (following Lacan) recognizes the ways in which subjectivity is shaped by the symbolic order, the realm of culture and ideology, her theorization of hysteria allows for a broader sense of social-historical trauma…read from an Irigarayan perspective, hysteria in Beloved can be seen as a product of public as well as personal repression, a response to what is repressed in history…yet because Irigaray overlooks issues of race in her revision of Freud and focuses on issues of sexual difference to the exclusion of racial difference, her usefulness is limited” (3). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Christian, Barbara. “Fixing Methodologies: Beloved.” Abel, Christian, and Moglen 363-70. 
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Perspectives on Gender 2. London: Routledge, 1990. 
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-74.
Irigary, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Metheun, 1985. 
Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Toni Morrison. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1990. 201-30. 
Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980. London: Virago, 1987. 


[Categories/Possible Tags: Psychoanalysis, Slavery]

Approaching the ‘Thing’ of Slavery: A Lacanian Analysis of Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Author(s): Sheldon George
Source: African American Review, Vol. 45, No. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2012), pp. 115-30.
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of African American Review (St. Louis University) 
Stable URL:

Keywords: Lacan, Psychoanalysis, Repetition and revision, Trauma, Haunted past, The Real

Main Claim: “The text presents to us a trauma that reemerges in the moment of our identification with its past location…through Sethe’s description of a traumatic past that is always there waiting, Morrison suggests the notion of an African American population continually imperiled, not so much physically as psychically, by the history of slavery” (115). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“At its most basic level, Beloved is an imaginative repeating and revising of the history of a slave woman named Margaret Garner…however, what is most compelling about Beloved is its articulation of a psychoanalytic conception of the role that repetition plays in the lives of both its African American characters and many members of its contemporary African American reading audience” (115). 

“What Morrison’s Beloved points to is precisely the persistence of a traumatic past that haunts the present through a subjective, psychic experience of trauma that defies the limits of time and space. Morrison’s novel presents us with a literary understanding of a past that functions as what Lacan calls the Real…it is this Real that Morrison’s protagonist Sethe attempts to circumscribe in her description of Sweet Home as a place from her past that is ‘still there,’ not just in her ‘rememory,’ but ‘out there outside [her] head’” (115). 

“Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, declares that ‘not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief’…this past grief is depicted in Beloved as a repetition that haunts and claims African Americans because they claim the racial past” (115). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Introduction: ‘Tell Me Sir,…What is Black Literature?’” PMLA 105.1 (January 1990): 11-22.
Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.
—. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1981.
Morrison, Toni. “Home.” The House that Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon, 1997. 3-12.
Wyatt, Jean. “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” PMLA 108.3 (May 1993): 474-88. 
Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso, 1997. 

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