Beloved by Toni Morrison

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

No novel of recent years has been more honored than Toni
Beloved. The book received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988,
and was a major reason for Morrison winning the Nobel Prize in
literature five years later – a distinction all
the more striking when once considers that
only three other native-born US writers
earned this prestigious award during the
second half of the 20th Century. More
Beloved trounced the competition
The New York Times survey of authors
and critics to determine the best book of
American fiction during the last twenty-five

But if the Nobel judges love Morrison,
college professors love her even more. The
Toni Morrison Society lists some 150 dissertations on the author,
and enough academic articles to keep a graduate student in the
library for years. I can’t imagine another novel of recent years
assigned by more teachers in more classrooms. Do a Google search
on “Beloved” and “syllabus,” and take a look yourself.
Beloved is
that rarity among contemporary novels: it was selling by the
truckload even before Oprah gave it her stamp of approval.

Hence, one might assume that
Beloved is the most canonical of
modern novels, if not the foundation of the New Canon. Yet there is
some heavy irony here, since
Beloved might also be the first book
picked for The Anti-Canon, the novels that upset the applecart of
traditional literary canonization. As one commentator has noted,
Toni Morrison is the Living Black Female to counter the Dead White
Males who have long dominated literary studies.

Beloved also challenges the ‘old school’ standards by which novels
have been evaluated –- based on factors such as poetic writing,
creative use of language, metaphor, etc. Yes, you can find these
elements in
Beloved, but they are a little beside the point. Morrison
herself has admitted to getting “annoyed at people who said there
were poetic things in my writing.” In short, this novel goes hand-in-
hand with post-colonial, post-patriarchal, post-Eurocentric
attempts to restructure not just the priorities of fiction, but also the
ways and means by which fiction is assessed and appreciated.

Of course, the language of
Beloved  is poetic. Sometimes it is
animated with the timeless force of myth and folklore; at other
points it stretches out in longer phrases that circle in on a subject
with Faulknerian indirection. Some of my favorite passages take on
a sweeping Biblical tone. This final comparison is an apt one. The
King James Bible is also poetic, but if you mentioned that to the
most devoted fans of the Good Book, they would say that the poetry
is a little beside the point.

For the most part -- as the dissertations and articles makes clear --
Morrison’s readers look to her fiction primarily for the many ways
in which it grapples with the issues of race, gender, sexuality and
power. Morrison infuses each of these factors, moreover, with
several layers of history, not just the antebellum and postbellum
time periods in which
Beloved is set, but also the earlier history
raised in the book’s epigraph “Sixty Million and more,” referring to
the black Africans who died in the Middle Passage. This past haunts
the story, in a novel in which there are many hauntings, many ghosts
hovering on the margins or moving into center stage.

All of these factors are set in play through the character Sethe, the
protagonist of
Beloved, a black woman of extraordinary power. She
is the “one who never looked away,” as her daughter Denver
describes her at one point in the book, and Sethe’s fierce
independence is the catalyst that sets off key elements in the
narrative. Sethe nearly dies in her attempt to escape to freedom
from the Kentucky plantation incongruously named Sweet Home,
and join other members of her family in Ohio. The plot hinges on
decisions she feels compelled to make, above all on how much she is
willing to sacrifice not only to gain her own emancipation, but also
to prevent her children from falling under the yoke of forced

Morrison’s narrative is enriched by the roundabout way in which
she unfolds this tale. The novelist once described to an interviewer
her fascination with the “moments of withheld, partial or
disinformation” in Faulkner’s
Absalom, Absalom!, and to some
extent her storytelling here is similarly indirect. The central tragedy
Beloved is hinted at almost from the novel’s start, but only in the
sketchiest manner. Gradually Morrison circles in on the key
elements of her plot, as a vulture circles on its prey, and with a
tension that is heightened by the non-linear structure of her account.

Morrison adds another twist by mixing magical and realistic
elements into her story. As a result, some readers have tried to link
her writing to the magical realism of
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet
you could also look at
Beloved as a post-colonial Turn of the Screw,
only here the “extra turn” of the screw is a much larger haunting that
echoes down the generations – so much so that, as Sethe sees it,
nothing ever dies, and the future is often “a matter of keeping the
past at bay.” In truth, echoes of many different strains of the
American literary tradition – Southern Gothic, slave narratives, the
macabre tales of the supernatural– can be traced in the pages of

Not everyone has bought into the canonical status of this work.
Stanley Crouch has argued that Morrison’s writing is too often
interrupted by “maudlin ideological commercials” and that Beloved
“reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of
the miniseries.” Crouch’s comments are (as so often with this critic)
thought-provoking, and deserve to be part of the on-going debate
and discussion surrounding this novel. On the other hand, trying to
purge melodramatic and ideological elements from a book of this
sort would be like trying to get the bloodshed out of a war novel, or
the fight scenes out of a Jackie Chan movie. One suspects that these
very elements have contributed in no small part to the success and
appeal of this author.

In the final analysis, the importance of this book is no longer a
matter of good or bad writing, and perhaps never was. For twenty-
somethings and thirty-somethings, this is the book that spurred
them into dialogues on race and gender and other thorny issues that
still haunt our national debate just as the ghost of
Beloved haunts
Morrison’s novel. As such, this book will continue to loom large
over current day American fiction. And it is testimony to the
strength of the “canon” that it can (once again) make room for such
an anti-canonical work, and even give it a prized place at the head of
the table.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time.
In this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews
Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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