Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"Beloved": Critical Overview

[Categories/Possible Tags: History, Psychology]

Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, “Rememory,” and a “Clamor for a Kiss”
Author(s): Caroline Rody
Source: American Literary History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 92-119
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL:

Keywords: History, Historical gaps, Memory, Psychology, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Gothic, Historical Fiction, Ideology 

Main Claim: “While Beloved is evidently a politically engaged novel, it is also a novel of extraordinary psychological reach. I suggest that to account for Beloved we integrate an ideological reading of historical fiction with a reading of the inscribed psychological project of reimagining an inherited past” (95). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“In an important sense, Beloved is manifestly about the filling of historical gaps” (93).

“A reading of the novel as a recuperation of unrepresented history does not begin to account for its cultivation of the bizarre and uncanny; its revival of gothic conventions—the haunted house, the bloody secret, the sexually alluring ghost; its obsessive, claustrophobic plot focus; and an emotional climate that changes from pained repression to volcanic fury to a suspended lovers’ swoon. All of this seems somehow excessive to the requirements of a historical novel that would recuperate the story of African-American slavery and survival” (93). 
Beloved is, however, a historical novel; Morrison rewrites the life of the historical figure Margaret Garner, who killed her child to prevent her recapture into slavery, and sets this story as the focus of an epic-scale recreation of African-American life under slavery and in its aftermath…the peculiarity of this ‘history’ suggests a design different from those described by most theories of the historical novel” (93). 

“Surely we can read Beloved as a historiographic intervention, a strategic recentering of American history in the lives of the historically dispossessed. But by what logic does the plot of child murder serve any late twentieth-century ideological interest? In what sense does this plot assert the historiographic authority of an African-American woman’s hands? If these theoretical approaches do not greatly illuminate the historicity of the ghost story without which our literature was incomplete, it may be because they view historical writing solely in terms of ideologies of representation, without considering the affective aspect of history writing, insofar as the historiographic project enacts a relationship of desire, an emotional implication of present and past” (94). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Language of Slavery.” Davies and Gates xi-xxxiv.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K.A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. 
McDowell, Deborah E. “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition.” Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Ed. William Andrews. Boston: Hall, 1991. 192-214. 
Slemon, Stephen. “Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse.” Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 9-24. 
Spillers, Hortense J. “A Hateful Passion, a Lost Love.” Toni Morrison. Ed. Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 27-53.
Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison.” Black American Literature Forum 16 (1982): 34-42. 
Zimmerman, Bonnie. “Feminist Fiction and the Postmodern Challenge.” Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Westport: Greenwood, 1986. 175-88. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: History, Remembering, Memory]

Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Author(s): Ashraf H. A. Rushdy
Source: American Literature, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Sep., 1992), pp. 567-597
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL:

Keywords: History, Memory, Remembering, 

Main Claim: “In articulating a reconstructive—critical and hopeful—feminist voice within the fields of revisionist historiography and contemporary fiction, what Morrison does is create daughters Signifyin(g) history” (568). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“Despite the dangers of remembering the past, African American artists have insistently based a large part of their aesthetic ideal on precisely that activity…[the] insistence on the interdependence of past and present is, moreover, a political act, for it advocates a revisioning of the past as it is filtered through the present” (567). 

“[Morrison’s] concern with the appearance, with the ideology of transmission, is, though, only part of the overall trajectory of her revisionary project. Eventually her work…must, that is, signify on the past and make it palatable for a present politic—eschewing that part of the past which has been constructed out of a denigrative ideology and reconstructing that part which will serve the present” (567). 

“By taking a historical personage—a daughter of a faintly famous African American victim of racist ideology—and constructing her as a hopeful presence in a contemporary setting, Morrison offers an introjection into the fields of revisionist historiography and fiction. She makes articulate a victim of a patriarchal order in order to criticize that order. Yet she portrays an unrelenting hopefulness in that critique” (568). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Hurston, Zora Neale. Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939; rpt., Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1984, p. 16. 
McDowell, Deborah E. “Boundaries: Our Distant Relations and Close Kin.” Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston A. Baker Jr. and Patricia Redmond (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1989, pp. 51-70. 
Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter 1989): pp. 1-34.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed.” Slavery and the Literary Imagination, ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1989, pp. 25-61.


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