How can you love something that doesn’t belong to you? This is the question at the heart of Toni Morrison’s haunting 1987 novel. Set in Cincinnati after The Civil War and the Emancipation Act, the book unravels the story of Sethe, a former slave who commits an unforgivable crime to save her baby girl from slavery. One day, she receives a visit from Paul D, a former slave from the plantation she escaped from. But Paul doesn’t remain as her only guest for long – a beautiful young woman named Beloved soon appears on her threshold, making her place in the household and bringing much reckoning. Warning – spoilers ahead.
Besides Sethe, the novel has an unforgettable set of characters who are extremely intriguing to explore. Before doing exactly that, it is worth looking into the questions central to this novel:
How can you love a child who doesn’t belong to you?
How can you love a man who doesn’t belong to you?
How can you love a land that doesn’t accept you?
Sethe is a character who is easy to love but impossible to relate to. Her crime needs no mentioning (if you know you know, if not you should read the book). The most poignant and often criticised point about the book is Sete’s lack of regret for this crime. She defends herself repeatedly, making it impossible to rectify her on the grounds of momentary insanity. She holds the view that any fate is better than a slave’s throughout the novel. Her guilt is engrossing but without any regret.
‘Something that is loved is never lost.‘
This novel is about love. It is in the title, and it seethes through every single conflict and all the important conversations in it. And all these points merge in the enigmatic character of Beloved. I’ve encountered discussions of whether Beloved is actually Sethe’s zombified daughter. To me this wasn’t even a consideration while reading the book: her otherwise inexplicable love and rage for Sethe, her knowledge of obscure details from a child’s perspective (‘where are your diamonds?’), her hazy backstory among other details makes it clear for me. But the answer doesn’t really matter: the characters in the story conclude that she is the baby Beloved, and act accordingly, so that’s that.
‘Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.‘
The characters of Baby Suggs is also very memorable. The saint and the moral compass in the story, she is a slave whose freedom was bought by the only child she could keep. She does claim ownership of herself very successfully despite her age and disability, and becomes a lay preacher, drawing Black folks to herself and a message of peace through her enormous love.
No place like home?
The question of belonging isn’t only one about family and relationships. The connection to land and country is also questioned in Beloved. How can you love a land that enslaved you, a people treated you like property, lower than the lowest of all creatures? In the introduction, Morrison rightly criticises a country so proud of its ‘family values,’ yet historically discouraging marriage and family ties amongst some of its subjects. The acceptance of ‘little’ or ‘thin’ loves to avoid commitment and fatal pain is also relevant to the land. Paul roams the country from one place to another because he cannot settle down and make a place his own; the stakes are too high, the potential losses are too great. He has to suppress all the love he has for the land to survive. The book doesn’t give us a positive answer on this end; after witnessing Sethe’s decision, Baby Suggs dies with the thought that ‘there is no bad luck but white men’, despite her previous love for all.
‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’
‘Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’ The novel finishes on a kind of uplifting note as Sethe and Paul decide to be together, and Paul reminds her of the fact that she isn’t defined by her relationship to her children, but by her own self and soul.
A reason why this is so powerful is that the book discusses how innocent, untainted children were the best of the slaves’ selves – the master didn’t only subjugate but ‘dirtied’ his subjects. Paul’s words are in direct opposition to this view, and therefore against the master’s power itself.
Maybe Paul D answers the question of love and belonging in the novel for us: one can bestow her love generously on anyone and any place yet, in the end, it is only her soul that belongs to her. In the precarious situation of a slave, this requires immense courage and sacrifice. But as Sethe says, ‘Love is or ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.’
The stories of suffering from the book are only too real to read like fiction. I still can’t believe how I read it through knowing all too well it only scratches the surface of centuries of strife. I guess simultaneously reading Mandela’s autobiography helped, reminding the ongoing fight for freedom and the light at the end of the tunnel.
What is also special about this tunnel is that its length isn’t constant. The Emancipation Act, as Beloved shows, was only one of the milestones of a cause that is ongoing for many people in the world. According to Anti-Slavery International, there are 40 million people trapped in modern slavery today. It’s worth visiting their website to find out more about this. I also strongly urge becoming a member to support the cause of freedom.