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Transforming the Chain into Story: The Making of Communal Meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Claire Cowan-Barbetti


     Beloved is a blues-song, Eusibio L. Rodriguez colorfully proclaims in his essay "The Telling of Beloved." Toni Morrison's style, he states, is "musical," "making rhythms clash, turning beats into offbeats and crossbeats, introducing blue notes of loneliness and injustice and despair, generating, at the end, meanings that hit her listeners in the heart, that region below the intellect where knowledge deepens into understanding" (Rodriguez, 296). Indeed, the dense, melodic language of Beloved croons to us through its verses and refrains, memory upon memory. It sings out hope for a new community, in which all the stories of its people unite in song to raise them out of an infernal, fractured world. Beloved is about slavery. Its focus, however, is not on the sociopolitical dimension; rather, it enters into a realm of the spirit where the heart, not the intellect, must make sense of the painful past.
     From the very beginning of the novel, "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom," readers cross a threshold and enter into a strange, spiritual plane of reality. The novel's themes of suffering and rebirth, fragmentation and wholeness unfold as we are introduced to Sethe in her myriad memories of slavery and her struggle for freedom. Her memories are splintered; we see them come to light primarily in the conversations with Paul D, a former slave and figure of spiritual midwifery with a "blessed manner" about him. They further emerge in the presence of the unearthly, young woman Beloved, who, hungry for Sethe's stories and guilt, draws the memory of the Misery, Sethe's murder of her baby girl, out of her mother's closed mind. As Beloved moves in with Sethe, her voracious presence crowds Paul D. out of the house and the three women, Sethe, her daughter Denver, and Beloved retreat from the rest of the world and live in a dark, possessive relationship, each one claiming to own the other. When Denver finally sees her mother starving herself to feed Beloved with food and memories, she steps off the front porch into a world she had feared to ask help from the women in her community. One of the women, hearing of the demonic Beloved with unlined hands, gathers a group of women in front of 124, and chanting they exorcise the intruder from the house. Sethe is broken at the end of the story, waiting to die, when Paul D. comes to her and caresses her, putting back together again the parts of her body.
     Controversy has riddled Beloved from the start. Modern critics have diagnosed Beloved as a melodramatic ghost story or historical slave narrative akin to Uncle Tom's Cabin that, according to Stanley Crouch, "fails to rise to tragedy because it shows no sense of the timeless and unpredictable manifestations of evil that preceded and followed American slavery" (Crouch, 201). Mythic, archetypal, Marxist, pragmatic, and even psychoanalytic critics, because they treat the relation of the individual to the community, understand that Beloved is not tragic, nor does it attempt to be. These critics, for the most part, perceive the Gordian portrayal of Sethe and Beloved as an occasion to unveil the implications of language, memory and story in forming the psyche or soul of the person. Essentially, these critics agree that the movement of the characters towards making meaning out of a painful past in the context of a communal understanding implies a comedic hope for the future.
     A startling image, in the memory of Paul D, paradigmatically embodies the power of imagination to free human beings spiritually. Incarcerated years ago and set to labor in a chain- gang, Paul D. finds solace in the song he and the other inmates share The treatment they receive is generally inhuman, but worst of all, they are left to die as the sky storms one night and thick mud slides into their holding pits, threatening to drown them. Tugging on the chain that enslaves them, they signal to each other and dive under the mud and the iron bars to their freedom. The narrative continues, "For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none" (Morrison, 110). As a symbol for the movement and meaning of the novel, this image reveals that the experiences of suffering and slavery-- the chain that binds Sethe and the community of blacks around her-- must be used, transformed by the imagination into meaningful story, if they are to be spiritually free. If, however, the chain becomes fragmented, its links broken, if memories are refused form in the scope of community-- as Beloved's spectral presence portends-- then the vision of true freedom cannot be realized.
     As an archetypal force, that is to say, a pattern of spiritual slavery within the consciousness of humanity, Beloved weaves her dark design on a level basic to all humans. She is a severing force, for she constantly demands Sethe's memories, her guilt-- pieces of Sethe- but she never allows these things to take form in context, just as she takes Sethe's food, thereby preventing Sethe to digest, nourish and sustain herself. Beloved's inherent nature is fragmented as well; a passage in which she plucks a tooth from her mouth and feels as if her head, arms, legs will "fly apart" portrays a fractured entity (Morrison, 133).
     Rebecca Ferguson has said of Beloved, "She.. contains the effects that slavery had, its profound fragmentation of the self and of the connections the self might have with others (Ferguson, 114). On the most basic and essential level, our connections with others take the form of language. Language, as a work of the imagination, embraces and incorporates the Other; it seeks to open new realms to explore. In contrast, the language surrounding and spoken by Beloved's otherworldly presence is limiting; it is a language of possession, categorization, imprisonment. The monologues spoken by the three women, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, which Morrison has described as "a threnody of mines" (Darling, 249), exhibits this type of speech. Each monologue begins with a possessive statement; Beloved's begins with "I am Beloved
and she is mine" (Morrison, 210). Morrison describes this spiritually enslaving language in her Nobel lecture: "It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities.. all.. the policing languages of mastery.. cannot, do not, permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas" (Morrison, 16-7). Certainly the speeches of the three women have the stifling quality Morrison describes here. They do not seek new knowledge; rather, they are singular in experience, and determine the other only in the context of possession. Similarly, the newspaper that Stamp Paid brings to Paul D. reports the events of the Misery in a terse, factual manner. The newspaper labels, categorizes Sethe; it offers no understanding into the event that the whole community shuns as taboo. Upon listening to the article, Paul D. confronts Sethe, exclaiming, "You got two feet, not four" (Morrison, 164). Caught in the dehumanizing mode of the empirical language of mastery, Paul D. in turn defines and limits Sethe. Sethe's portion of the chain is rejected and unrealized; thus, Paul D. himself as well as the other members of the small Cincinnati community cannot reach a true freedom. Leaving one member behind will inevitably keep them enslaved.
     How, then, can one make sense of and integrate the horrifying memories of enslavement and suffering? It seems that the key to making meaning, creating good out of the pain, lies in a bit of wisdom spoken by Baby Suggs: "She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it." (Morrison, 88). In the clearing, Baby Suggs, holy attempts to rectify the wrongs done to her people by telling them to love and reclaim all the parts of their bodies, to love themselves. Her words, however, fail; she cannot congeal a myth for her people because although she brings them to love themselves, she does not entreat them to gather and embrace the excruciating pieces of their collective past. Unfortunately, she cannot imagine a communal love. Her vision is limited and ultimately narcissistic. This lack of communal sense spawns the jealousy that causes the townsfolk to ignore the four horsemen, Schoolteacher, his nephews and the sheriff, riding up to the gate of 124 to collect Sethe and her children. After this fateful event, Baby Suggs retreats in despair to her bed to contemplate patches of color on a quilt. Stamp Paid begs her to continue preaching the "word"; her only answer is, "Blue. That don't hurt nobody." Stamp Paid replies, "Ain't nothing harmless down here" (Morrison, 179). Unable to combine the possibilities of the human soul, the harmful and loving, the suffering and joyful, into a whole meaning, she finally surrenders to the lure of fragmentation. Unlike Paul D's chain gang that used the binding chain to save all its members from the mudslide, Baby Suggs cannot imagine using the sorrow of her people to guide them to a spiritual freedom. She lies dying, distracted only by gazing at pieces of color, abstract color without meaning and applied to no living thing.
     Sethe, too, suffers from the same lack of vision, but her shortcoming is prompted by a terrible cycle of shame. Completely cut off from others, including Denver and Paul D., Sethe's words are now only for Beloved. The dimension that these words occupy is that of slave to master: Whispering, muttering some justification, some bit of clarifying information to Beloved to explain what it had been like, and why, and how come. It was as though Sethe didn't really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out" (Morrison, 252). Sethe never tells the story of the Misery; she makes small, fractured excuses. More important, she never asks forgiveness. To ask forgiveness is to realize one's action as one's own, and all the pain engendered by that action as well. One's words, so long as they are shared with the Other, are reflected back to us; they show us who and what we are as communal beings. Sethe' s words fall back upon themselves because Beloved is not other. Her face, as she primitively shows Denver, is "nothing but darkness" (Morrison, 122). Thus, Sethe's words, fragmented and delusional, limit the possibilities of her soul. The system of language Sethe employs must be broken and cleared away, much like the bars of a jail-cell, in order for her to complete the spiritual journey to freedom.
     Through their conversation with Denver and each other, the women of the town decide that they must help Sethe. As they arrive at 124, the women witness an image of themselves eighteen years in the past at the jubilant feast Baby Suggs held the day before the Misery. Earlier in the novel, Sethe describes what she calls the rememory as constituted by images of the past held by a particular place-- images that unroll themselves out before the eye of the viewer. Such a rememory here, comes into play, and the women find themselves in the same cycle that was begun on the fateful day, when out of envy, they refused to warn Baby Suggs of the arrival of Schoolteacher.
     At this moment, however, a moment bearing witness for both past and present, they sound the warning. Together, they cry out a sound from the beginning of time: For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash. (Morrison, 261) This sound, the "sound that breaks the back of words," destroys the cycle of darkness and shame in which Sethe is entrapped. Diane Enns describes it as "a language of the flesh without copulas, powerful enough to break the authorship/ authority purpose of words" (Enns, 277). The sound, in fact, is pre-language, an utterance akin to song. In context of both the past and present instant at 124, it is the sound of love, of care, and it forms the community that closed the door upon itself years ago. The sound ultimately banishes Beloved; she flees because Sethe has left her to attack Mr. Bodwin who is riding up, unaware of the situation. Sethe has made the movement outward instead of inward upon her own, the women of the community catch her, and thus, the spirit of possession and shame no longer binds her. Archetypally counteracting the possessive force of Beloved, the sound breaks the bars of enslaving language, and provides new ground upon which to build a meaningful language, a story. Sethe is left with the broad expanse of the deep waters of her psyche sounded and open to her. She now must make sense of her thoughts and memories, give them a rhythm and tide, so that she may be whole again-- not empty.
     At the end of the novel, Paul D. comes back to Sethe. He finds her broken, lying on the bed in which Baby Suggs died. Her thoughts echo those of Beloved earlier in the novel: she feels her body may come apart as Paul D. bathes her. She laments Beloved's leaving, crying, "she was my best thing." Paul D, on the other hand, remembers what Sixo, the strange, earthy slave at Sweet Home told him about the Thirty-Mile woman: "The pieces that I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind" (Morrison, 272-3). Paul D. names her parts in his mind-- her "steaming wet dress," "her mean black eyes," "her tenderness about his neck jewelry"-- parts carrying deep significance for both of them. She is valuable to him; he acknowledges that she, too, has a story, for he "wants to put his story next to hers." He says to Sethe, "You your best thing, Sethe. You are." He takes all of her parts now imbued with feeling, and unites them in the person. In that one sentence he has named her, embraced her vast human potential, and opened the door to a new communal understanding.
     A curious aspect within the criticism treating Beloved is the tendency to gloss quickly over the coda, and more specifically the sentence "This is not a story to pass on." An overwhelming number of critics dedicate only a few sentences at the very end of their essays to the paradoxical statement, usually positing that its ambiguity makes the audience remember the story all the more. The interpretation must not be so simple. The blood-current running through the novel is the theme of fragmentation versus myth-making, or not-story versus story. The coda is set apart from the body of the story; It has no chapter heading, nothing to introduce it as the end of the story. Thus, as the lines, "It was not a story to pass on" appear, they apply not to the stories of Sethe, Denver and Paul D, but to the passages immediately before describing a girl whose parts erupt in the long grass, whose footprints fit the feet of man and child alike, whose phantom image can be glimpsed in the photographs of loved ones. The girl is not named in these passages. She is a entity "forgotten and disremembered." She cannot be passed on because she is a fractured, negative spirit from that realm Louise Cowan describes as "a realm of the dead into which the negative flows.. all the things that speak of annihilation and nothingness" (Cowan, 302). Interpreting her figure according to the thought of C.G. Jung, she is the shadow archetype: the face of evil" with a "shattering" power (Jung, 93). Ultimately, she is not-story; she is not capable of being sung. The ones who survive make the story that is beloved. The novel begins with a passage from St. Paul to the Romans: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved which was not beloved" (Morrison, Ix). The last, whispered word of the novel is the word "Beloved." The hermeneutical import of the novel's final, lingering word carries us back to the beginning passage. With this single word, Morrison makes her point: she has given the historified past a rich name bearing feeling and body. Through the sound and musical structure of the work, Morrison pays tribute to the primordial, organic language that undergirds spoken language. The story of Sethe and the community around her is no longer broken; it is transformed into a graspable, beloved meaning-in-time. They share a chain that has become liberating song. This is story to pass on.

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For correspondence:

Cowan, Louise. "Beloved and the Transforming Power of the Word." Classic Texts and the Nature of Authority. Eds. Donald  and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute, 1993. 291- 303.

Crouch, Stanley. (1987): 38-43. "Aunt Medea." The New Republic. 197.16

Darling, Marsha. "In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison." Conversations with Toni Morrison.      Ed. Danielle Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1994. 246-54.

Enns, Diane. "'We Flesh'; Remembering the Body Beloved." Philosophy Today. Fall (1995): 263-79.

Ferguson, Rebecca. "History, Memory, and Language in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice. Ed. Susan Sellers. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1991. 109-26.

Jung, C.G. The Essential Jung. Ed. Anthony Storr. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Morrison, Toni. The Nobel Lecture in Literature. 1993. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rodrigues, Eusebio L. "The Telling of Beloved." The Journal of Narrative Technique 21.2 (1991): 153-69.

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