"Beloved": Reception History
“Ghosts, for me, are just something that have past,” Toni Morrison said in an interview about her fifth and, at the time, newest novel, Beloved, with the Associated Press. She was describing the “area of consciousness” she applies in the novel, an area we are all familiar with and are certain we know exists because, as Morrison explains, “everybody was a child.”
Because we were all children, we know ghosts exist; that trees speak; and that, “lurk[ing] underneath the bed” is a world that is very real. Perhaps this aptly describes the character Beloved, whose childhood is intimately entangled with her death, and whose real-ness is only as certain as everything else that from a past that lingers, thrives, and haunts, a past wracked with both the horrors of slavery and the breaths of freedom that are bittersweet when, like Paul D. on his way from Selma to Mobile, one sees “more dead people than living ones.” Despite being “declared free,” Paul D. could not safely travel from “the foundry in Selma straight to Philadelphia.” This path to constitutional liberty may have been paved, but it is yet to be totally clear of the thorny brush of anti-Black racism that still remains pervasive and overgrown.
When Beloved failed to garner Morrison the National Book Award, forty-eight Black writers, activists, and critics signed a collective letter published in The New York Times on January 24, 1988, that both decried the fact that Morrison had yet to win a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, and praised Morrison’s literary value as an American novelist.
Signers included Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, John Edgar Wideman, John A. Williams, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Toni Cade Bambara, Joyce Carol Thomas, Hortense Spillers, Alice Walker, and more.
Eventually, though, Morrison did win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved in 1988. She also won the American Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. In the years to follow its release, however, Beloved faced bans in various places across the country, perhaps most notably when, in 2016, Virginia State Senator Robert H. Black introduced the “Beloved bill.” Calling the novel “moral sewage,” Black’s bill required teachers inform students’ parents of any sexually explicit content in the materials and would allow parents to “opt their children out of reading said books.” In 2007, two parents in Kentucky complained about the book’s violence and was removed from the Eastern High School AP English’s reading list. At a public hearing in 2012, another two parents complained about the book, claiming it “contained violence…and sex acts that provide no historical context” and was written at a “fifth-grade reading level.” Subsequently, the superintendent of the district ordered its removal from English curriculums.
Whether or not any of these parents read the book in its entirety, let alone understood it, remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that despite some of the scorn, Beloved generated waves of attention and praise, which is captured below in most of the contemporary reviews written about Morrison’s novel.
Atwood, Margaret. “Haunted by their Nightmares.” The New York Times, 13 Sept. 1987, pp. 560; 608-9.
Describing Beloved as “another triumph,” the writer Margaret Atwood describes Morrison’s writing in Beloved as “antiminimalist." The prose “is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” Atwood writes poignantly about Beloved’s vivid portrayal of American slavery, noting the way the novel makes the reader “experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange”—which, Atwood continues, “above all,” means recognizing slavery as “one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised.”
Ms. Morrison's versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, ‘Beloved'’ will put them to rest. In three words or less, it's a hair-raiser. - Margaret Atwood
Notably, Atwood recognizes Morrison’s portrayal of slavery “as a paradigm of how most people behave when they are given absolute power over other people.” Indeed, as is often the case with ideological or hegemonic structures of power, one of the “first effect[s]” is that those in power “start believing in their own superiority and justifying their actions by it.” In other words, a completely unnatural racial hierarchy takes hold and becomes internalized by those who benefit from the subjugation of Black bodies. Indeed, in a turn from previous reviews of earlier Morrison novels, rather than see the portrayal of “whitepeople” in Beloved as a shortcoming, Atwood understands that “in a novel that abounds in black bodies—headless, hanging from trees, frying to a crisp, locked in woodsheds for purposes of rape, or floating downstream drowned,” then it isn’t any wonder that “ ‘whitepeople,’ especially the men, don’t come off too well.” Moreover, even those “whitepeople” who do “behave with something approaching decency” are unable to see those whom they help “as full-fledged people.”
Atwood does note that Morrison “is careful not to make all the whites awful and all the blacks wonderful,” but one wonders, then, whether that’s a success of Beloved in particular or if Atwood might feel similarly about previous texts, like Tar Baby for instance, which, apparently, left Anatole Broyard “wonder[ing] why the black characters in Tar Baby have all the passion while the white ones are fit only for sitting in greenhouses, manufacturing candy and sticking pins into their babies.” For Atwood, neighbors of leading character Sethe “have their own envy and scapegoating tendencies to answer for” and Paul D., as Atwood describes, is “much kinder” than the “woman-bashers of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple” but “has his own limitations and flaws.”
Thurman, Judith. “A House Divided.” The New Yorker, 2 Nov. 1987.
In her piece for The New Yorker, Judith Thurman argues that the "drama of Toni Morrison’s Beloved engages us in history.” To preface this point, Thurman suggests that writers have the ability to make drama from the “helplessness” of an “unwilled cry” to which literature beckons our ear, and this helplessness is “played out in and perpetrated upon the world.” For Thurman, through the drama of some of “the best fiction,” we become engaged in history.
The occasional excesses of rhetoric (and sentimentality) in ‘Beloved’ may reflect an anxiety that in Morrison that she attributes to her heroine: a need to overfeed and overprotect her children…One of the ironies of the novel is, in fact, that its author hovers possessively around her own symbols and intentions, and so determines too much for the reader—flouting her own central moral principle and challenge. For throughout ‘Beloved,’ Morrison asks us to judge all her characters, black and white, according to the risks they take for their own autonomy and in honoring that of others. - Judith Thurman
This emphasis on history continues throughout her piece, even though she claims that, “despite the richness and authority of its detail, ‘Beloved’ is not primarily a historical novel, and Morrison does not, for the most part, attempt to argue the immorality of slavery on rational grounds.” Further, Thurman contrasts Morrison’s handling of Sethe’s violent act with that of William Styron’s controversial The Confessions of Nat Turner. In a particularly stunning summation of Morrison’s literary interaction with the past, Thurman writes:
Thurman then contrasts this with a now controversial figure, Bill Cosby. As Thurman writes, Cosby and his “assimilated American family” function in a “state of grace” that is “in many ways an ironic counterpart of Morrison’s riven and haunted family.” Describing Cosby as “America’s ideal parent,” Thurman offers a controversial position: “for who were the slaves but the selfless ‘ideal parents’ of their white masters?”
[Morrison] treats the past as if it were one of those luminous old scenes painted on dark glass—the scene of a disaster, like the burning of Parliament or the eruption of Krakatoa—and she breaks the glass, and recomposes it in a disjointed and puzzling modern form. As the reader struggles with its fragments and mysteries, he keeps being startled by flashes of his own reflection in them.
Continuing her analysis of the family structure within the novel, Thurman argues that Sethe, Paul D., and Denver are a “fascinating ‘family’ unit” because of their familiarity: “a middle-aged mother, sexually out of practice, whose desire takes her by surprise; a middle-aged man ready to compromise with his own need to wander; and a lonely, ‘secretive’ adolescent who strains their relationship.” For Thurman, Morrison pens this “family romance” well enough that the reader feels the intended resentment toward the sudden “apparition of a supernatural intruder.” However, Thurman finds that other critics—including Morrison’s—description of the novel as a ghost story not only as restrictive but as a “somewhat deceptive and sensational tag.” Invoking Freud’s notion of the uncanny, Thurman suggests that the haunting, here, particularly of the home, is linked to repression, including the way the enslaved recall Sweet Home with a “mixture of homesick love and dread.” Again, Thurman flirts with potentially destructive thinking by writing that an “illusion of autonomy,” according to Morrison, “is more debilitating, and perhaps, in the long run, crueler, than a full consciousness of servility.”
In the end, Thurman sees Morrison as an “operatic writer” who falls victim to grandiosity and “some of the excesses that Nietzsche objected to in Wagner.” For instance, “she doesn’t eschew melodrama in her big, violent scenes, or weeping in her domestic ones”; she uses a “chorus of stock characters”; and “the prose is rife with motifs and images that the narration sometimes orchestrates too solemnly.” However, Thurman writes, if one reads the novel with a “vigilant eye,” then one should also “listen to it with a vigilant ear,” for, “there’s something great in it: a play of human voices, consciously exalted, perversely stressed, yet holding true. It gets you.”
Byatt, A.S. “An American Masterpiece.” The Guardian, 16 Oct. 1987.
Toni Morrison has always been an ambitious artist,” A.S. Byatt writes in their review for The Guardian—so much so, however, that her work has, through this very ambition, “in its own brilliant and complex vision,” sometimes becomes “almost clotted or tangled.” But Beloved has a “new strength and simplicity”, according to Byatt, who describes the text as “huge, generous, humane…gripping,” and, moreover, an “American masterpiece.”
This novel gave me nightmares and yet I sat up late, paradoxically smiling to myself with intense pleasure at the exact beauty of the singing prose. - A.S. Byatt
Byatt identifies the purposeful suppression or “deliberate limitation of memory” as “the emotional condition of all the people of this story,” a “condition” which Sethe describes early on in the novel, shared as well with Paul D’s tobacco-tin that he buries deep within. At odds with this psychological sweeping-under-the-Hippocampus-rug, is the past. In a suggestively Faulknerian, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past” comparison, Byatt details the way in which the past in Beloved “rises up and cries for blood.” As Sethe suggests, “nothing ever dies.”
“In the foreground,” Byatt writes, “is the life of the black people whose courage and dignity and affection is felt to be almost indomitable.” Noting Morrison’s frequent motif of unique names, in Beloved, “their names are the no-names of non-people and are as alive as jazz with their quiddity and idiosyncrasy.” “By contrast,” Byatt continues, the “world of the whites…is almost wholly distanced,” surfacing to “consciousness only as and when the blacks can briefly bear to contemplate what it has done to them.” Byatt calls Beloved an “adult book,” but, populating this novel-for-grown-ups, are characters whose “essential virtue” Byatt likens to “fairy-tale heroes.” These characters, Byatt contends, “exact our primitive affection unquestioningly.” Morrison drew frequent comparisons to Faulkner in reviews for her earlier works, but, for Byatt, this “love for her people”—no longer just characters, but people—is “Tolstoyan in its detail and greedy curiosity; the reader is inside their doings and sufferings.”
Other familiar names that Byatt mentions include those whose novels existed in the time period in which Beloved is set—and which it “reassesses”: “Melville, Hawthorne, Poe,” Byatt argues, all “wrote riddling allegories about the nature of evil, the haunting of unappeased spirits, the inverted opposition of blackness and whiteness,” but Morrison “with plainness and grace and terror—and judgment—solved the riddle, and showed us the world which haunted theirs.”
Merser, Cheryl. “A Soul in Bondage. St. Petersburg Times, 27 Sept. 1987, p. 6D.
Cheryl Merser recounts the influence for Beloved that Morrison herself identified in an interview. According to Merser—and, by extension, Morrison—the author had read a “haunting magazine article” published during the mid-19th century which detailed the story of Margaret Garner, a “young slave who had fled to Cincinnati with her four small children. Once there, she was caught and, rather than submitting her children to lives as slaves, tried to kill them and indeed did succeed in killing one.” From these “raw facts,” Merser writes, “Morrison has imagined Beloved, a rich, mythic, deeply unsettling story about how Margaret Garner might have lived her life, and of the hold slavery would have had on her ‘rememory’ long after the physical bonds were removed by legislation.”
Toni Morrison has written a rich, mythic novel about slavery and its power to imprison a person long after the chains are gone.” - Cheryl Merser
The novel is “also the story of a woman,” and, Merser argues, is thus also about “men, children, work, pride, sorrow, nurturing and the imperatives of love.” Merser contends that, when we discover Sethe’s motives for what she did “on that day 18 years ago,” the reader takes on the character’s position in that, “long after the close of the book, we find her act at once noble, selfless and unacceptable.” For Merser, this is Morrison’s triumph: that we the readers “will live with it the way Sethe has had to, or Margaret Garner.” Morrison also triumphs, Merser continues, in “affirming live, love and human dignity above and despite all else.”
Perrick, Penny. “Dreams that mix memory and desire.” The Sunday Times (London), 25 Oct. 1987.
Rubin, Merle. “Morrison’s Novel of Slavery, Memory, and Human Kindness.” Christian Science Monitor, Ideas, 5 Oct. 1987, p. 20.
Morrison's style is both bleak and tender. She writes of the unthinkable without histronics. Her triumph is that through metaphor, dreams and a saving detachment, she melds horror and beauty into a story that will disturb the mind forever. - Penny Perrick
Merle Rubin describes Beloved as both a “stunning book” and a “lasting achievement.” For Rubin, the novel “transforms the sorrows of history into the luminous truth of art.” She draws the oft-repeated comparison of Morrison to Faulkner, but argues that Morrison’s style is “simpler, purer, more finely disciplined,” even if the novel’s opening is, as she argues, “deliberately uninviting—an obstacle thrown in our path that puzzles and repels.”
Toni Morrison has constructed her powerful narrative on the cadence of contending voices, the murmur of words thought but unspoken, and the circling motion of memory as it edges slowly but inexorably nearer to the things most deeply buried in oblivion. - Merle Rubin
From this intentional rough patch, the novel gradually unwinds—or, as Rubin puts it, a “cluster of words and images becomes a group of stories” while the novel itself “builds in sheer suspenseful intensity” and “generates ever-widening circles of moral significance.” For Rubin, the “dominant theme of the novel” is understanding slavery as “theft of kinship, of freedom, of the ability to love, of ‘the milk of human kindness,’ and of humanity itself,” represented in particular by Sethe being held down by the cruel slave master schoolteacher’s nephews who steal her milk: “this is the milk Sethe was bringing to her baby daughter in Ohio,” Rubin writes, the “love she has for her daughter, her kinship with her daughter.”
Kakutani, Michiko. “Beloved, by Toni Morrison.” The New York Times, Books of the Times, 2 Sept. 1987, p. 72.
In her review for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani argues that Beloved necessitates—or is at least more impactful—when the reader has a familiarity with the characters and setting from Morrison’s first two novels. As Kakutani writes, “it’s not only possible to recognize the people in Beloved as older relatives of the small-town Ohio folks who populated Ms. Morrison’s earlier novels Sula and The Bluest Eye, it’s also necessary to understand their story in order to comprehend the loss of innocence that is the legacy of the characters in all her fiction.”
Describing the novel as “dazzling” and “as magical as it is upsetting,” Kakutani praises the “narrative method” and Morrison’s “magisterial yet sensuous prose” that enchants Beloved with the “heightened power and resonance of myth.” Comparing the characters to those “in opera or Greek drama” for seeming “larger than life,” Kakutani nevertheless argues that we think of the novel beyond those terms; for, to do so only, Kakutani argues, “is to diminish its immediacy, for the novel also remains precisely grounded in an American reality.” This reality is that of “black history as experienced in the wake of the Civil War.”
Moreover, Kakutani emphasizes the way time functions within the novel, not just Sethe’s attempts to beat back the past, but the “contemporaneous quality to time past and time present” as these periods unfurl through events “like dream images, in a succession of lyrical passages that jump back and forth in time, back and forth in point of view from one character to another.” However, at the “heart of” the novel—which Kakutani calls “extraordinary”—is, of course, the “brutal” and “disturbing” event that occurred eighteen years prior to the novel’s opening. With this event, Kakutani contends, time becomes “warped,” with the “before” and the “after into a single, unwavering line of fate.”
Saker, Anne. “Book Reviews.” United Press International, 18 Sept. 1987.
Not unlike other reviewers, Anne Saker emphasizes the role of memory within the text. For Saker, “Morrison’s themes of live in its infinite varieties” entangle three major characters—Sethe, Denver, Paul D—in “memories of fear and freedom.” Moreover, she argues that Sethe’s “freedom,” or what they describe as her “final liberation,” does not come “by herself.” Rather, it is through the “unity of peoples once oppressed who recognize and do battle with slavery of any kind.”
Toni Morrison has been silent for six years, since the publication of her acclaimed Tar Baby, but her quiet time has been supremely productive. With Beloved, Morrison again flexes her considerable strength in capturing the song of speech, the color of human life and the intimacy of oppression. - Anne Saker
Like Judith Thurman, Saker asks us to move beyond the category of “ghost story” when thinking of Beloved. To do so, she argues, is “to miss the point of Morrison’s magnificent tale.” For them, the novel, which “celebrates the struggle for liberty, not just of body but also of mind and soul,” demonstrates the “steep price” that accompanies “the peace of any sort of freedom,” but, moreover, Saker continues, “why people must pay.”