14 January 2009

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1988.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

How did Sethe's baby die? As soon as the novel opens we know she and her daughter Denver are haunted by a ghost and that this ghost is the disturbed though not unkind spirit of Sethe's first daughter, who died when she was still a baby. Morrison uses a wandering third-person narrator—not quite omniscient, but freely moving among her characters—throughout the novel and yet it takes about halfway for this central mystery to get solved. And when it does, Morrison gives it an elusive treatment. We are placed in the point of view of the four horsemen (points to her for not lingering too heavily on this mordant, prophetic symbol, in a scene that is maybe the novel's second most apocalyptic) that have come to round Sethe and her children up to return them to the plantation they've escaped.

We don't know any of these men, and so we cannot feel relaxed in their viewpoints. We're learning them at the moment we read the scene, while they themselves are trying to figure out what it is they're seeing. They don't know the characters' names like we do, they have no idea who these people are, and so all the action and detail—Sethe shut up in a shed slitting one daughter's throat and trying to crack another's skull open on a wall—seems displaced. That is, because of this withdrawn POV Morrison dips into for one chapter, we have to work so hard to piece together what is going on, which in turns makes us both removed from the scene and also weirdly voyeuristic with it.

It's such incredible control over such incredible violence. A lesser writer would have kept us in Sethe's POV, or gone as omniscient as the constructs of the narrative would allow. Morrison's choice is right on. We're complicit, somehow, in both the violence of the scene and the self-interests of the slaveowners.


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