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Old notes on Toni Morrison's Beloved

A strain of magic realism, à la Garcia Marquez, runs through Beloved. The ghosts that are accepted without question by people; the three shadows holding hands when the figures of which they’re shadows are not, and Sethe’s easy acceptance of that fact. Morrison fashions a magical, romantic world reminiscent of Jean Toomer’s Cane—or, somewhere between Marquez’s Macondo and Toomer’s Georgia—but even more full of horror. It’s an unusual mixture of misery and wonderful romance. But it works. Magic realism both highlights the pastness of the past (by creating a world distant from the contemporary, full of naïveté and romance like the mists of history) and endues it with eternity, by fostering an air of timelessness and unreality. The result is a world both more real—vivid, immediate, meaningful, poetic—and less real than reality.


I’m struck by the parallels between Beloved and Slaughterhouse-Five [which I had recently read], especially by the similar approaches toward time and tragedy. In both books, everything that happens exists forever in a temporal continuum. It is not gone once it has happened; it remains there forever, in the realm of ‘spirits.’ And in both books, we living ones have access to the past: in Morrison’s we’re tortured by it, by the ghosts of what has happened throughout history, and we cannot escape; in Vonnegut’s the aliens are able to see the past, present and future all at once but can choose which moments they want to experience and ignore the horrifying ones, like the bombing of Dresden, even though the latter are just as eternal as the others. Regardless, both authors seem to realize (obscurely), with Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that our actions can have true moral gravity only if they do not pass in and out of time but exist forever, together with their consequences. “Nothing matters as long as we live in time, for everything is over right after it has happened.” By peopling her world with ghosts and denying that events pass away in time, Morrison is able to emphasize moral imperativeness and horror, the horror of the past that presses on us constantly.


The difference between them, of course, is that for Vonnegut, but not for Morrison, the future exists just like the past. This allows Vonnegut to take refuge in the idea of “fate” (everything has already happened!) and to deny free will, which is comforting given all the evil in the world. For Morrison there is no such comfort.



Morrison’s decision not to use the past perfect tense (except when necessary for clarity) initially strikes one as strange, as unliterary. But of course it ties into the theme, the intertwining of past and present. The past perfect, by its nature, is used to distinguish between ‘layers’ of the past, but that isn’t appropriate in this novel because the past is just the past (not the past-past), which is just the present. There is no linear temporal order in Sethe’s world, no ordered series of events fading away one by one into the past like markers on a marathon fading into the distance according to mathematical laws of perspective. Everything blends together;[1] there is no ‘x happened after y had happened, and w was happening at the same time, which was before z…’ All the happenings are a blur of time weaving in and out of itself, all simply the ancient past and the ever-present present, sameness, eternity. No passage of time. Undifferentiated events, unhistorical history.

The name ‘Sethe’ must come from ‘Lethe.’ Sethe wants to forget the past, she would do anything to be free of it, but it forces itself on her.

[1] The flashbacks are seamlessly inserted into the narrative of the ‘present,’ so that there is no distinguishing between the narrative and the flashbacks.

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