Haunting and Healing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

All tales of haunting are about belonging. What belongs, what is unwanted, what keeps coming back.

And ghosts, by nature, reveal something other – a trace of history hidden or submerged.

According to Jacques Derrida, they ask the haunted how to live “more justly” with a past that harbours irrevocably polarised ‘truths’. Derrida’s reflections have, themselves, had a haunting effect on literature. The end of the twentieth century saw ghostliness develop into a conceptual metaphor by which almost all Western literature could be viewed as spectral, a phenomenon regarded by some as the ‘Spectral Turn’.

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As a text that uses haunting both conceptually and structurally to scrutinise the history of slavery in America, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an exemplary ghost story from the start of this period.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, a former slave of the ‘Sweet Home’ plantation in nineteenth century America. Treated brutally by the plantation’s new owner, named ‘Schoolteacher’, Sethe flees with her unborn child, Denver. Giving birth on the way, Sethe makes it to the safety of 124 Bluestone Road, where she joins her sons, her existing baby (the eldest daughter) and her ‘freed’ mother-in-law Baby Suggs, who has become something of a local religious leader, bringing people together though ritualised song and dance.

The subsequent arrival of Schoolteacher to reclaim them sees Sethe make a desperate bid for freedom: she attempts to kill her children and herself, succeeding only in murdering the eldest daughter.

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Illustration by Joe Morse

Ostracised from the local community, Sethe and Denver become the sole occupants of 124, as Baby Suggs fades into death and the baby-ghost of the dead child, known only as ‘Beloved’ on her headstone – drives out Sethe’s sons. Eighteen years later, another slave from the plantation, – the “last of the Sweet Home men” – Paul D arrives and banishes this ghost.

In doing so, one of the first truths illustrated in Beloved is that the harder something is pushed out, or down – the harder – and more formidable – will it come back.

The ghost returns in the form of an unknown woman named ‘Beloved’, which sets in motion a dual process of destruction and healing.

“i am not dead”

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While the characters mostly view Beloved as a revenant – the “dead daughter come back” – her power resides in her ambiguity.

Her arrival appears as a rebirth – it causes Sethe to urinate “like water from a breaking womb”. Throughout the novel, Beloved ‘hovers’, her body disintegrates, and she seems able to metaphysically ‘move’ Paul D out of the house.

These phantom-like qualities, however, are complicated by later passages that feature Beloved as having her own point of view, her own history. These involve the crossing of an “other side”, fragmentary accounts of a mother figure, and the confined, dark conditions of a dwelling controlled by a shadowy, nameless man.

Beloved’s piece-meal, broken story fits the narrative pattern of an African child who witnesses the death of her mother during the slave-ship crossing of the middle passage, and who is then locked away by a ‘whiteman’ until his death.

Through these dual readings, the “other side” that Beloved comes from thus refers to both the realm of the dead and Africa. 

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As Deborah Horvitz attests, Morrison’s positioning of a figure that “exists in several places and has more than one voice” allows for the representation of “every African woman whose story will never be told” (Horvitz). Beloved therefore functions as ghost and non-ghost, being and non-being – a duality, and liminality that attributes her with a hauntological status.

Hauntology

As Colin Davis explains, hauntology – Derrida’s phrase for the paradoxical presence of something that has been erased from cultural memory – examines “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive”.

This echoes the conceptual focus of much of Derrida’s work. In Of Grammatology for example, Derrida’s articulation of the ‘supplement’ (something added to a ‘whole’, thus suggesting a paradoxical lack) follows a similar description. He notes how the supplement “adds only to replace. . .if it fills. . .it is as if one fills a void”; a polarity that Nicholas Royle explains as “neither. . .and/or both inside and outside at the same time” because “it belongs without belonging”.

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Davis’s and Royle’s explanations of Derrida’s discourse on absent presence reveals two elements of hauntological agency in the figure of Beloved.

The first is that she is something disinterred – a Freudian return of the repressed in which she is both the metaphorical and literal “dead coming back to life” (Beloved).

Secondly, she is a substitute – a replacement. Beloved’s arrival – not as the murdered child but as a “fully dressed woman” – invokes Derrida’s notion that “resurrection . . . does not resuscitate a past which had been present; it engages the future”.

As a revenant that is “the age it would have been had it lived”, Beloved personifies a future that never was.

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Illustration by Joe Morse

These dichotomies are interwoven into a tale that is both domestic and historiographical. The history of slavery, constituted spatially and temporally as the middle passage and Sweet Home is framed into the domestic narrative of the inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road.

It is possible to view this polyphonic form under Royle’s rhetoric of veering, the literary act of “swerving, interweaving [or] sudden turning between/within” different registers, tones, genres or discourse. This act, Royle asserts, “haunts writing”. Here, however, it can also be viewed as a mechanism to convey haunting itself through dialogue.

For example: here is the scene that aligns two conversations – one between Sethe and Denver in the present, and the other with the engraver of Beloved’s headstone in the remote past. Morrison causes both moments to appear before the reader at once.

“For a baby she throws a powerful spell” said Denver.

“No more powerful than the way I loved her” Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones [. . .] Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I’ll do it for free.

Multiple voices co-exist by the parallelism of different times

This temporal displacement, where language slips fluidly between different moments, points to the notion of stratified time – how a place or space can ‘hold’ and fix memories. This is given figurative form through the trope of what Sethe calls a ‘rememory’, which conveys the idea of a memory having an afterlife that exists outside of the individual. Sethe sees it as “a picture . . .outside [her] head”:

even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened

Sethe’s explanation also outlines rememory’s spectral properties of ‘being’ and ‘nonbeing’. Speaking to Denver of the Sweet Home plantation, Sethe explains:

“Even if the whole farm–every tree and grass blade of it dies [. . .] it’s going to always be there waiting for you”.

The past is a place, something that can be entered into.

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The spectral status of this is given double signification through Morrison’s deployment of rememory as a style, as well as a thematic trope. Just as the narrative concerns a rising from the dead, the text uses rememory to disinter, as evidenced in its treatment of Baby Suggs:

Sethe [. . .] looked at Beloved’s profile [. . .] she could not examine [. . .] the hairline, nor the eyebrows, the lips nor…

“All I remember” Baby Suggs had said “is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Her little hands I wouldn’t know ‘em if they slapped me”

…the birthmark, nor the color of the gums, the shape of her ears, nor…”

Through the stylistic use of ellipses (ellipses suggest words that are both “left out” and “implied”), Baby Suggs’s voice weaves itself into the present-day.

Morrison’s narration in the above passage also serves another purpose, conveyed via the use of tense. The passage communicates something in the recent past and then refers to the remote past through the use of the pluperfect. By doing so, it flattens out the length of time between, and situates both of these events as memories.

Thus, the characters are suggested to be, even in their ‘present’, trapped by the text in a ‘past’. This type of “polarity” is one that time theorist Bill Schwartz identifies between “memory as destruction” and “memory as salvation”. In Beloved, the main characters occupy both spaces, and so are paralysed by their memories.

Sethe views “beating back the past” as “serious work”, Paul D represses his pain in a “tobacco tin lodged in his chest” and Denver, unable to participate in any kind of past, religiously recites the story of her birth, knowing by heart the unchanged, “told story” given by her mother.

It is from this framework that disinterment – the raising of a ghost – is dangerous, and will dangerously veer.

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Ghosts never come back as they were

This destructive potential is revealed when Paul D’s exit from 124 sees Sethe deteriorate under the tyrannous grip of Beloved.

Endlessly “pleading for forgiveness” while “Beloved [laps] devotion like cream”, Sethe allows this past to consume her. As Beloved “ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it”, Sethe, whose eyes are now “bright but dead”, becomes more like a ghost herself.

Oblivious to everyone, Sethe and Beloved live perpetually in past pain, seeking and failing to repair the wound. The past, rather than being recovered or restored, has become a “timeless present”, in which memories are endlessly replayed.

The pattern is broken when Beloved is finally pushed out of 124, and Paul D reunites with Sethe. This reunion, where Paul D “wants to put his story next to” Sethe’s, textually mirrors the novel’s structure, where all stories exist side by side.

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Illustration by Joe Morse

The crisis of breaking out of the past

Not only is the scene redemptive in tone, but the shift to present-tense indicates a heightened experience of the present moment. From this point of view, we could perceive this as a moment of jetztzeit. 

Translating to ‘now-time’, jetztzeit is a notion conceived by the great writer and thinker of time and language, Walter Benjamin. It is defined as a subversive rewriting – or retelling – of history in order to enter the future through a “past charged with the time of now”, thus “blast[ing] out of the continuum of history”. Benjamin continues:

…no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump [. . .] takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands.

According to Benjamin, the controlled, “empty” narratives of the master discourse (the “victors”) can be freed by this act of jetztzeit. A “tiger’s leap” is achieved by “blasting” out of this structure through the alignment – and hiatus – of past-time and present-time momentarily merged together.

This mirrors the position of Beloved, which both thematically and stylistically reaches a climax with the coming together of the female community, who sing together – as they used to with Baby Suggs – as a way to ‘exorcise’ Beloved.  Their actions see Beloved – in the novel’s words – “exploded”.

Descending upon 124, the women – who had ostracised Sethe for so many years – experience an uncanny return in which they see “not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves”, when they used to sing with Baby Suggs.

This spectral scene, where “mothers, dead now, moved their shoulders to mouth harps”, mobilises a collective rewriting – or revising – of the past

When Sethe first arrived with her children at 124, the community (who believed Sethe to be acting above her station) had not warned her of the approach of Schoolteacher. This is what led to Sethe murdering her daughter.  Now, taking “a step back to the beginning” the characters can reshape the actions that occurred.

This time, Bodwin, the white landlord of 124 appears on the scene. In her temporal displacement, Sethe views him as Schoolteacher. But now, Sethe can revise her past actions by transferring the violence inflicted on her child towards him (she attacks Bodwin).

Similarly, the community can amend its past actions by protecting Sethe through their sound, rather than betraying her with silence. By “building voice upon voice” until they find a “chord – that works”, the women use music to “break the back of words” – the words of the master discourse.

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Illustration by Joe Morse

The aesthetic of voice and harmony in this scene symbolises the threading of a cohesive story and a collective memory – a subversive shaping of history that allows all participants to face the future by reconnecting to their past.

The healing power of music

Noting that “Sethe’s journey of spiritual healing and restoration [. . .] becomes the journey of the community”, R.R Reed posits music as the defining healing force in Beloved.

Applying the logic of jetztzeit however, alternatively suggests that Sethe’s healing comes from the cataclysmic ‘blast’ between temporalities that sees Beloved seemingly “exploded” (she vanishes from the scene).

According to Benjamin, jetztzeit occurs only with the intervention of the artist or the revolutionary.  Here in Belovedsong becomes the art that instigates the event. In present-tense narration, Sethe “feels her eyes burn” as she mistakes Bodwin to be “coming for her best thing”. The sudden veering of tense heightens the suspense and immediacy, as if what will happen next is yet to be decided, yet to be past.

This moment is thus signalled as one of crisis and change – in Benjamin’s terms, a zero-hour (stillstellung) in which a “revolutionary chance in the fight for the suppressed past” (Benjamin) can take place.

Such a reading renders music as a metaphor and an actuality, articulating both the polyvocal ‘harmony’ that is required to shape a consistent (hi)story, and a literal form of storytelling that acts as subvert to the written – meaning ‘fixed’ or ‘official’ – or in Derridean terms, privileged – discourse.

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Indeed, music as a form of “counter-memory” and transformation occurs throughout the text. Denver reconstructs her identity through dialogically retelling the story of her birth to Beloved, making it a “duet”, while Paul D’s self-recovery and mastery of his past is signalled by his eventual ability to revise the lyrics of his work-songs to suit a domestic setting.

The role of music is also crucial to the construction of the text. Morrison has frequently referred to her aim of making the novel seem more like a “sound”  – an intention shared with Derrida, whose Of Grammatology, as Judith Butler observes, “takes up the lure of phonic writing, the idea that somewhere the sound of speech still lurks in the written word”. It also echoes Benjamin’s concept of the storyteller, a premodern figure who passes down memories “mouth to mouth”.

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Healing, and belonging, comes at a cost

In this way, the text uses subversive means – outside and through the borders of language – to reclaim and revise the master-discourse of the slave narrative. And at the same time, it acknowledges that even in subversion, something must be pushed out. In this story, it is the human character of Beloved.

But is a ghost ever fully given up?

This scene is not the end of the novel. The closing chapter is Beloved’s, and it assigns a “dual ending”  – thus destabilising any neat resolution. Veering rapidly between tenses, Beloved “was”, “is” and then finally, Beloved is merely – as the last line of the book – “Beloved”. In past-tense “they forgot her”, but, in present-tense, “the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake”.

By emphasising her presence/absence, Morrison incites the reader to engage in remembrance. While Beloved may be exorcised from the collective story, she cannot be exorcised from the text, of which she is, of course, it’s title.

Like the ‘3’ in 124, she is conjured into the imagination, a presence defined by its absence. It cannot be reconciled, does not belong, and is not there.

 

Note: this post is based on an academic essay. If you use this blog for academic research, please ensure you observe the rules around plagiarism

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