Morrison, Toni

  Poetry & Prose    Books / People

Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.

Toni Morrison (1931–2019) was an American academic, novelist and essayist. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Song of Solomon (1977) gave her global fame. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she gained worldwide recognition when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

|  18th February, 1931, Lorain, Ohio, U.S.
|  5th August, 2019, The Bronx, New York, U.S.

As Danielle Jackson says, “She was a singular writer and editor with a complex body of work, a rigorous, unwieldy mind who wrote and thought us toward a more capacious humanity. She defies any impulse toward summary.”

Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.

A trio of classics
Three great works of 20th c. American fiction.

This page has the following chapters:

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

Toni Morrison
“Today is always here … Tomorrow, never.”
Toni Morrison
“We mistook violence for passion, indolence for leisure, and thought recklessness was freedom.”
Toni Morrison
“Paper & Pencil”
Toni Morrison in 1979 — photo by Jack Mitchell.
Toni Morrison
“All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.”

— § § § —

01. — Works of fiction

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

These are Morrison’s key fictional works:

📙 The Bluest Eye

“The Bluest Eye” — by Toni Morrison

Morrison, T. (1970). The Bluest Eye. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

The story in this book is set in 1940s Ohio, shortly after the “Great Depression.” The family of the protagonist, Pecola, live in poverty. We soon come to learn that nightly she prays for blue eyes like those of her privileged white classmates. This work gives us a deep analysis of humankind’s obsession with beauty and our typical conformity to convention and type. It also encourages us to think about issues of race, class, and gender but this is achieved by way of subtlety and grace (i.e., not polemics).

📙 Sula

“Sula” — by Toni Morrison

Morrison, T. (1973). Sula. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.

In her essay “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin”, Deborah McDowell reads Sula from a poststructuralist perspective, urging black women critics to “develop and practice critical approaches interactively, dialogically” instead of viewing “black female identity as unitary essence yielding an indigenous critical methodology.” As she points out, the ambiguity of Sula as a character subverts traditional binary oppositions, and “transcends the boundaries of social and linguistic convention.”

📙 Song of Solomon

“Song of Solomon” — by Toni Morrison

Morrison, T. (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.

The main character is nicknamed “Milkman” — because his mum kept breastfeeding him until he was way past four, it was kind of her only pleasure because her marriage was sexless, the last time Milkman’s mum had sex was when she got pregnant with Milkman. Milkman has a dysfunctional family, they are rich but there’s no love (a key part of the story is the dysfunctional family relationships). Milkman has a long relationship with his cousin (Hager) but then he suddenly ends the relationship… She gets very very upset about being dumped by Milkman and tries to kill him (but not ‘really’ kill him because she still sort of loves him — she hates most the way he just suddenly dumped her. Milkman’s grandfather had been a slave and overall, the book is about Milkman seeking to understand more about his family’s history and to follow in his great-grandfather Solomon’s footsteps and fly…

Summary, characters, themes & analysis

📙 Beloved

Toni-Morrison Beloved
“Beloved” — by Toni Morrison

Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.

“An American masterpiece.”
— A. S. Byatt*
“A heartbreaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all.”
— Margaret Atwood*

This novel is set in the mid-1800s, after the American Civil War (1861–65), as the practice of slavery was thought to be coming to an end. The book’s protagonist, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her love. This novel has been described as Morrison’s most iconic work and it exemplifies her powerful and important place in contemporary American literature. It did indeed win the Pulitzer prize (this work of fiction was inspired by a real life character. Margaret Garner, an African American who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856 by crossing the Ohio River. Upon her imminent recapture by her slave-master she tried to kill her children rather than have her taken back into slavery.)

Summary, characters, themes & analysis

📙 Paradise

Toni Morrison: Paradise
“Paradise” — by Toni Morrison

Morrison, T. (1997). Paradise. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.

“When Morrison writes at her best, you can feel the workings of history through her prose.”
— Hilary Mantel*

Spanning the birth of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the counter-culture and politics of the late 1970s, expertly intertwining the past, present and future, this book reveals the interior lives of the citizens of the town with astonishing clarity. Starkly evoking the clashes that have blighted the American century: between race and racelessness; religion and magic; promiscuity and fidelity; individuality and belonging. The plot: At the heart of Paradise, four young women are brutally attacked in a convent near an all-black town in America in the mid-1970s. The inevitability of this attack, and the attempts to avert it.

Summary, characters, themes & analysis

📙 Love

Toni Morrison: Love
“Love” — by Toni Morrison

Morrison, T. (2003). Love. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.

Love is written in a non-linear style and focuses on the lives of several women and their relationship with the late Bill Cosey — a charismatic but dead hotel owner. The novel concentrates on a number of women affected by him alive and dead… Key characters in the novel are (1) Christine, his granddaughter and (2) Heed, his widow. As someone else did summarise the story, “Christare the same age and used to be friends but some forty years after Cosey’s death they are sworn enemies, and yet share his mansion. Again Morrison used split narrative and jumps back and forth throughout the story, not fully unfolding until the very end. The characters in the novel all have some relation to the infamous Bill Cosey.

Summary, characters, themes & analysis

— § § § —

02. — “Song of Solomon”

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

— § § § —

03. — “Beloved”

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

— § § § —

04. — “Paradise”

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

— § § § —

05. — “Love”

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

— § § § —

06. — Academic publications

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

Morrison herself wrote a number of academic papers, the one given on this site is:

Unspeakable, Unspoken (1988)

In addition, books have been dedicated to analysing her literature and 100s of academic journal articles have been written too:

Jan Furman
Jan Furman
Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint

In — Toni Morrison’s Fiction (2014) — Furman surveys ten of Morrison’s works that include the trilogy novels, a short story, and a book of criticism to identify her recurrent concern with the destructive tensions that define human experience: the clash of gender and authority, the individual and community, race and national identity, culture and authenticity, and the self and other. As Furman demonstrates, Morrison more often than not renders meaning for characters and readers through an unflinching inquiry, if not resolution, of these enduring conflicts. She is not interested in tidy solutions. Enlightened self-love, knowledge, and struggle, even without the promise of salvation, are the moral measure of Morrison’s characters, fiction, and literary imagination. Furman decodes their collective narrative chronology, which begins in the late seventeenth century and ends in the late twentieth century, as Morrison delineates three hundred years of African American experience. In Furman’s view Morrison tells new and difficult stories of old, familiar histories such as the making of Colonial America and the racing of American society. Furman reveals the novelist’s contribution to the expansion and redefinition of the American literary canon through her portrayal of the African-American experience. In addition, Furman examines Morrison’s concern with the danger of gender and racial stereotyping and with her admiration for those who resist such limitations. Pointing to the novelist’s extraordinary depictions of human suffering, endurance, and triumph, Furman moves beyond literary analysis to illuminate what she contends to be the defining achievement of Morrison’s fiction: the presentation of the path to spiritual freedom and emotional independence.

Extracts from Furman’s 2014 Toni Morrison’s Fiction:

“Understanding Toni Morrison”
(pp. 1-11)
In a writing life that spans more than four decades, Toni Morrison has produced ten novels, a significant book of literary criticism, two plays, two edited essay volumes on sociopolitical themes, a libretto, lyrics for two productions of song cycles performed by the American operatic soprano Jessye Norman and another song collection performed by the American soprano Kathleen Battle. She has coauthored nine children’s books, published numerous essays on literature and culture, and played an international role in supporting and encouraging art and artists. Morrison is also a poet and public intellectual.

“Black Girlhood and Black Womanhood: The Bluest Eye and Sula”
(pp. 12-30)
From the beginning of her writing career Morrison has exercised a keen scrutiny of women’s lives.The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison’s first and second novels, are to varying extents about black girlhood and black womanhood, about women’s connections to their families, to their communities, to the larger social networks outside the community, to men, and to each other. Lending themselves to a reading as companion works, the novels complement each other thematically and may, in several ways, be viewed sequentially. (Morrison calls her first four novels “evolutionary. One comes out of the other.”

Male Consciousness: Song of Solomon
(pp. 31-43)
When asked during an interview whether she thinks her novels are evolutionary, Morrison responded that she believes they are: “from a book that focused on a pair of very young black girls … to a pair of adult black women, and then to a black man … is evolutionary.” The black man Morrison speaks about is the subject of her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977).

Community and Cultural Identity: Tar Baby
(pp. 44-59)
Song of Solomon, in part because of its popular appeal, gave dramatic momentum to Morrison’s writing career. By 1981, the year of her fourth book, Tar Baby, that career was soaring. As one reviewer observed, “The promotion ofTar Babywas a stunning show,” choreographed by “the Madison Avenue machinery [which] spun into highest gear.”¹ Morrison was, the reviewer continued, “the toast of the literary world,” appearing at parties and on television, giving readings, and (arguably the most remarkable of these unveilings) appearing on the March 30, 1981, cover of Newsweek.

Remembering the “Disremembered”: Beloved
(pp. 60-75)
When Tar Baby was finished, Morrison expected to stop writing novels. After four successful performances, she was, for a time, without the urgent need to say something that had not been said before. She no longer had a messianic will to tell about people that only she knew, in a way that only she could. In 1974, at the time of her first novel, she was strongly convinced that no one “is going to see what I saw which was this complex poetic life …. And no one is going to write from the inside with that kind of gentleness.”

City Blues: Jazz
(pp. 76-92)
Five years after the publication of Beloved, Morrison returned to the image of the dead girl in Van der Zee’s photograph collection,The Harlem Book of the Dead. In Jazz(1992) eighteen-year-old Dorcas Manfred embodies Morrison’s curiosity about a young dying woman who sacrifices herself to save her lover by refusing to name him as her murderer. Morrison’s original interest in the story related to a broader fascination with women’s unselfishness—the willingness of some to value people they love more than themselves. By the time she wrote Jazz, however, Morrison’s focus had changed.

Utopia and Moral Hazard: Paradise
(pp. 93-109)
Morrison says that she “was lucky to be working on Paradise when she won the Nobel—to avoid the writer’s block a friend called ‘the Stockholm curse.’”¹ She received the Nobel in 1993, and five years later her novel appeared.Paradise, like other Morrison novels, explores the intellectual questions she, as well as, perhaps, the rest of us, contemplates. In Paradise(her publisher’s choice of title; Morrison wanted to call it War), she made what she calls a “two-pronged” inquiry. The first proceeded from her observation that one’s political ideals often become jaundiced with increasing age.

The Language of Love: Love (pp. 110-125)
Morrison’s eighth novel is a love story that does not read like a love story. Instead of idealism, there is a pointed emphasis on the underside of loving: betrayal, violence, deception, and unfulfilled longing. Tenderness and generosity surprise occasionally, but love is in short supply even though there is a pent-up demand. Only in the final, powerful scenes does the novel appear to earn its title, confirming what Morrison calls “that human instinct to care for somebody else.” Until that point, Love is, more than it is not, a tale of exploited childhood and squandered youth etc.

The Race[ing] of Slavery: A Mercy (pp. 126-140)
Morrison does not object to A Mercy being called a prequel.¹ For her ninth novel, rather than advance a storyline beyond Love ’s1996 setting, she turned the focus back to a historical beginning when seventeenth-century America was still a place of possibility and the social order—on the cusp of a systematic and systemic race code—was what Morrison calls “fluid” and “ad hoc”: “From one year to another any stretch [of territory] might be claimed by a church, controlled by a company or become the private property of a royal’s gift to a son or a favorite.”

A Lesson of Manhood: Home (pp. 141-156)
Home, Morrison’s 2012 novel, is a 1950 s story. “I wanted to rip the scab off that period,” Morrison says, indicating an era of unhealed wounds. “There’s all this Leave It to Beaver nostalgia,” Morrison continues. “That it was all comfortable and happy and everyone had jobs.”¹ Morrison, however, recalls that decade as years of “violent racism. There was McCarthy. There was this horrible war we didn’t call a war where 58,000 people died.”² There was “a lot of medical apartheid, the license of preying on black women, the syphilis trials on Black men.”

Literary and Social Criticism: Playing in the Dark (pp. 157-169)
Since 1974 Morrison’s essays and interviews have comprised a reservoir of ideas about American culture. Over the years she has spoken and written about issues of race, class, and gender and how they shape perception and identity in American society. Of course, in the broadest sense these are also the subjects of her novels. And because this connection exists between her fiction and her nonfiction, it is possible, even desirable, to read one as a clarifying vision of the other. Indeed, in some cases Morrison’s comments are extensive tutorials on meaning in her novels. … Language as a symbol of culture is especially Morrison’s concern. She is keenly interested in the authentic and authenticating language of public narrative (in literature, politics, society), a point that she makes eloquently in her Nobel Prize lecture to the Swedish Academy. The lecture is an ode to language, the essential conduit of knowledge between individuals and generations. Language is the building block of narrative with which the artist inexplicably, illuminatingly weaves together the past, present, and future experiences of life. Narrative bequeaths continuity. Narrative language is continually threatened, however, by narrow thinking that reduces rather than creates.

Selected academic publications:

Herminingrum, Sri. “Four Criteria for Labeling Black Women and Their Community as’ Others’ in Toni Morrison’s Novels.” Jurnal Humaniora 22.3 (2010): 231-240.

Krupa, N. Dyva. “Racism and Religion in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” Veda’s Journal of English Language and Literature 2.1 (2015).

Mahdi, Maher A. “Triangle of Hatred: Sexism, Racism and Alienation in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” Canadian Social Science 11.9 (2015): 45-51.

Rahmani, Ayda. “Black feminism: What women of color went through in Toni Morrison’s selected novels.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 4.3 (2015): 61-65.

DiPace, Angela. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved:” Unspeakable Things Unspoken” Spoken.” Sacred Heart University Review 14.1 (1994): 5.

Galehouse, Maggie. “” New World Woman”: Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Papers on Language and Literature 35 (1999): 339-362.

Schur, Richard L. “Locating” paradise” in the post-civil rights era: Toni Morrison and critical race theory.” Contemporary Literature 45.2 (2004): 276-299

Ludwig, Sämi. Toni Morrison’s social criticism. na, 2007.

Rashedi, Roxanne Naseem. Deconstructing the erotic: A feminist exploration of bodies & voice in Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Nella Larsen, and Toni Morrison. Diss. Georgetown University, 2011.

Furman, Jan and Linda Wagner-Martin. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Revised and Expanded Edition. University of South Carolina Press, 2014.






1270-2714-1-SMUNSPEAKABLE Toni Morrisons Beloved

ANALYSIS Morrison, Toni Song of Solomon (1977) analysis by 21 critics

Unspeakable thoughts unspoken_ Black feminism in Toni Morrisons

ANALYSIS Morrison, Toni The Bluest Eye (1970) analysis by 25 critics


— § § § —

07. — Commentary &c.

01. — Works of fiction
02. — 📙 “Song of Solomon”
03. — 📙 “Beloved”
04. — 📙 “Paradise”
05. — 📙 “Love”
06. — Academic publications
07. — Commentary &c.

This section abridges a number of long-form news articles on Toni Morrison, starting with an obituary of sorts

Toni Morrison in the Review

The Editors, The New York Review of Books

A life in literary criticism: how Review writers read and responded to the novels of Toni Morrison (1931–2019).

Diane Johnson, “The Oppressor in the Next Room,” November 10, 1977 (Song of Solomon)
Morrison’s effect is that of a folktale in which conventional narrative qualities like unity and suspense are sacrificed to the cumulative effects of individual, highly romantic or mythic episodes, whose individual implausibility, by forcing the reader to abandon the criteria of plausibility, cease to matter. In this way, the writer can imply that hers are not descriptions of reality but only symbols of a psychological condition. Yet if her tales are merely symbolic, the reader can complain of their sensationalism. If they are true, her view of a culture in which its members, for whatever reasons, cannot depend for safety and solace on even the simplest form of social cooperation is almost too harrowing to imagine.
Darryl Pinckney, “Every Which Way,” April 30, 1981 (Tar Baby)
The laboring poor of The Bluest Eye, the self-sufficient women and drifting men of Sula, the avaricious middle class and defiantly marginal citizens of Song of Solomon—they are gone, replaced, in Tar Baby, by the rich, their servants, their dependents, and the sans culottes who threaten their security. Though much is made of money, fashion, commodities as consciousness, and the experiences open to the privileged, the cultured, and those clever enough to hustle a piece of the action, the people living on Isle des Chevaliers, voluntary exiles all, seem to inhabit a world that is oppressively parochial and provincial. Many of Morrison’s previous concerns are here—having to do with the inner life of black women and especially the offhand, domestic violence and conjugal brutality that burn out daily life. Much of the recent fiction by Afro-American women contains these themes. Their message is new and arresting, as if, in the past, the worries of the kitchen or the bedroom were not sufficiently large to encompass the intense lives of black people in a racist society. But Tar Baby’s sense of such experience is inchoate, muffled.
Thomas Edwards, “Ghost Story,” November 5, 1987 (Beloved)
Stories are important—they are in fact all we have of the past—yet at the end the voice that tells Beloved’s story insists that hers is “not a story to pass on,” even though that voice has been passing it on for 275 pages. It should not be told, it will be told—the paradox is unresolvable. The memory—personal, political, poetical—of a social horror of such magnitude may distort or cancel living possibilities; but living possibilities, pursued without regard for such memories, are pretty sure to be trivial, empty possibilities in the end.
Michael Wood, “Life Studies,” November 19, 1992 (Jazz and Playing in the Dark)
The simplest of public incidents, of the kind that make it into the newspapers, arise from complicated private stories, and such stories, connecting blunt or bitter fact with its riddling context or history, have always been Morrison’s business as a novelist. And not only as a novelist. In her introduction to an interesting volume of essays on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas affair, Morrison distinguishes between “what took place” and “what happened,” where the former is what can be briefly stated in a newspaper, say, and the latter is what we might, after patient thought and considerable investigation, actually understand. We live in a world of what the narrator of Jazz calls “a crooked kind of mourning,”—crooked as a path may be crooked, unavoidably indirect—and the phrase takes us a good way into Morrison’s moral landscape.
Patricia Storace, “The Scripture of Utopia,” June 11, 1998 (Paradise)
Paradise pulls off a rare and stunning feat: it is a novel with a double life, a serious work of fiction which also functions as a parable, a novel that is, effectively and ironically, also a work of literary criticism. Paradise, perhaps more directly than any of Toni Morrison’s other novels, draws that black presence forward from the margins of imagination to the center of American literature and history. With the ambiguity of illusion that Magritte used in his painting The Human Condition, in which the image of the sky on an easel may be a painting or the world outside the room, Morrison tells a story of an African-American community in the Vietnam era which is also a story about colonial America.
Darryl Pinckney, “Hate,” December 4, 2003 (Love)
Although Morrison has also been known as the publisher of black women writers such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, she wasn’t writing the kind of thing the period is remembered for: the feminist critique of black men. Its absence in her own work has always set her apart from other black women writers who emerged on the scene around the same time she did. The women’s movement was entering another popular phase in the 1970s, but Morrison, in looking back, said she couldn’t understand why white women were talking about loving one another, because to her way of thinking black women had always understood the importance of friendships among women… More than any other black writer in contemporary African-American literature, and without its being her primary intention, Morrison captures the battles of class and the struggles to define status that are part of the history of the places where black people were allowed or where they turned up, whether in the stuffy midwestern pocket of Song of Solomon or the dry all-black Oklahoma town of Paradise. Then, too, Morrison respects the entrepreneurial pride some black people had in spite of segregation—making a way out of no way, as the saying went. As a single parent, a working mother, Morrison, the Nobel Laureate, spent two decades in an office and before that was a college instructor. “You can’t idealize hard work,” she said, before adding that the great home of the soul is the open road.
Wyatt Mason, “The Color Money,” March 12 2009 (A Mercy)
Naturally, the story of a country has many more meanings than a fable can reasonably contain. Morrison’s A Mercy seeks that vaster quarry. Like Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, Morrison employs a range of reporters to cover a focal event from multiple viewpoints. Any one of these reports tells much of the story, but only in concert is a full understanding of events and implications attained. As in Faulkner, the event is a journey, but where his delivers a dying woman to her grave, Morrison’s would keep a dying woman from reaching hers.
Christopher Benfey, “Ghosts in the Twilight” July 12, 2012 (Home)
Home has a sparer, faster pace than earlier Morrison novels like Beloved or Jazz, as though a drumbeat is steadily intensifying in the background and the storyteller has to keep up. Morrison signals this percussive narrative drive when, during his journey south, Frank listens to a jazz trio in a local dive: “After long minutes, the pianist stood and the trumpet player put down his horn. Both lifted the drummer from his seat and took him away, his sticks moving to a beat both intricate and silent.” As Frank concludes, “The rhythm was in charge.”… Home places two familiar stories, like jazz standards, in unlikely counterpoint. One is the coming-home narrative, as old as Homer, with a soldier bearing battle scars returning to a changed domestic scene. The other is the Grimms’ folktale “Hansel and Gretel,” that disturbing story of children repeatedly ejected from their unhomelike home, who stumble across a counterfeit home of gingerbread and sugar candy. The story has evidently held a particular urgency for Morrison since childhood.

Francine Prose, “Growing Up Too Black,” May 7, 2015 (God Help the Child)

At various points the novel shifts from the familiar and the real to the allegorical and the mythic, and then shifts back again. The challenge that Morrison has set for herself is to have it both ways, more or less at once: to populate a fairy tale with credible human beings and to set it in a world in which the paranormal coexists with the same electronic gadgets and brand names we recognize from our own.
Toni Morrison, introduction to On the Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, August 9, 2001
If one is writing within and about an already “raced” milieu, advocacy and argument are irresistible. Rage against the soul murder embedded in the subject matter runs the risk of forcing the “raced” writer to choose among a limited array of strategies: documenting their seething; conscientiously, studiously avoiding it; struggling to control it; or, as in this instance, manipulating its heat. Animating its dross into a fine art of subversive potency. Like a blacksmith transforming a red-hot lump of iron into a worthy blade, Camara Laye exchanged African “enigma” and darkness for subtlety, for literary ambiguity. Eschewing argument by assertion, he claimed the right to intricacy, to nuance, to insinuation—claims which may have contributed to a persistent interpretation of the novel either as a simple race-inflected allegory or as dream-besotted mysticism.

Toni Morrison Remembered by Writers

The New Yorker

When you read [Toni Morrison’s] work, the world changes, becoming more beautiful and expansive and complicated via every sentence. You are in contact with a great soul, and you know this because the soul has infused every line; there is nothing common or unconsidered or small in them; her largesse is present in every phrase. I turned to her, as so many writers have, the way a painter might turn to Picasso: to see what true greatness looks like and to gauge the distance between it and me. I will miss just knowing she is out there, as an artistic presence and a moral force. But she is far from gone and will be tremendously loved as long as there are readers hungry for beauty.
If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.
I first read Toni Morrison as a college student—first “Sula,” then “The Bluest Eye,” then “Song of Solomon.” It was exhilarating to see black women’s lives taken seriously in such an unapologetic, matter-of-fact fashion. Morrison created characters who struggle against attempts to destroy their humanity; in doing so, they show precisely what it means to be human. In her work, the inner lives of black girls and black women speak to the human condition in ways both universal and specific. Achieving that delicate balance is the mark of all great literature. And this was always done from the unique perspective of the African-American experience. What a gift to the world Morrison was, and her work is.
My first experience with Morrison was through “The Bluest Eye,” back when I was a student at Wesleyan University, in the late nineteen-eighties. I had never read a novel like it, and the vision it gave me—not just of Pecola’s life but of her world, made of white standards of beauty—reoriented me in time and space. I remember thinking, afterward, “So this is what a novel can do.” Especially when the vision stayed with me. Before that encounter, I was the experienced reader of white literature I’d been taught to be. But I had not read American novels like this, novels that had thought down to the ground and back about the way we are shaped by the racist history of this country, more than we might ever know. “The Bluest Eye” told me to expect such thinking—of other writers, and of myself.


What is Sethe’s role in the novel?
Sethe represents the pain and permanent scarring of slavery. Her torture is both physical and emotional and does not end when she is freed. Although Paul tries and succeeds somewhat in convincing her she still has a life worth living, the lingering effects of her ordeal are nearly impossible to overcome.

Here are some quotes and analysis to support this argument:

‘My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember’ (Ch.1)

(*Treated and abused like an animal, Sethe cannot even embrace motherhood in a real way. She is too tired and too fearful of losing the children to become close to them.)

“To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one” (Ch 3).

(*It is an out-of-the-frying pan way of life. Slavery was horrible, true, but this life is not better than simply existing.)

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (Ch 9).

(*Proves that just because slavery ends, the mind is not free.)


Beloved Summary

Runaway slave Sethe settles in Ohio after fleeing Sweet Home, a farm run by the vicious Schoolteacher. Her husband, Halle, intended to join her in Ohio, but was driven insane when he witnessed Schoolteacher’s nephews pinning the pregnant Sethe down and drinking her milk.

Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs invites Sethe and her children to live at 124 Bluestone Road. Baby Suggs is a spiritual leader within the community, but her congregation turns away from her after deciding that Sethe and her family are uppity.
One day, Schoolteacher rides into town in search of Sethe. Terrified, she attempts to kill her children to prevent them being taken back into slavery. Three of her children survive. Her eldest daughter dies.
Following the murder, 124 becomes “spiteful.” Sethe’s sons leave home as soon as possible. Sethe and her only surviving daughter, Denver, take in a mysterious woman named Beloved, whom Sethe believes to be the spirit of her murdered child. Beloved nearly eats them out of house and home, then disappears without warning.
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Summary of the Novel
Mr. and Mrs. Garner owned Sweet Home, a farm where they used the slave labor of Paul F, Halle, Paul A, Paul D, and Sixo—although they treated their slaves with a modicum of respect, asking for their ideas and allowing them the use of rifles for hunting. Sethe, a young female slave, was bought and allowed to choose Halle for her husband. With the Garners’ permission, the two slaves were “married.” They had a family of two sons and a daughter before Mr. Garner became ill and died.

Prior to his death, Mr. Garner had allowed Halle the privilege of hiring his labor out so that he could buy his mother, Baby Suggs, out of slavery. At 60 years of age, Halle’s mother was a free woman and moved to the next state north, Ohio, where she rented 124 Bluestone Road from the anti-slavery Bodwins and became a spiritual leader (rather than a preacher since she preferred not to preach) and a mender of shoes.

After her husband’s death, the weak-willed Mrs. Garner became very ill. She complied when she was told she must have other whites in residence and invited schoolteacher and his two nephews to live with her and manage the farm, including the slaves. Schoolteacher and his nephews were a different breed than the Garners and introduced whippings, torture, humiliation, and the dehumanizing of the slaves, but Mrs. Garner was too ill to take heed. The slaves (with the exception of Paul F, who had been sold two years prior for the money needed to keep up the farm) decided to flee via the Underground Railroad. Sethe, pregnant again, had sent her two-year-old daughter and two older sons ahead with some of the other slaves when her husband, Halle, did not arrive to meet them in the predetermined place at the predetermined time.

She stayed behind to look for him but was caught by schoolteacher’s nephews who held her down and sucked milk from her breasts. Schoolteacher discovered that she told Mrs. Garner about the incident and whipped her, flaying open the skin of her back despite her being six month’s pregnant.

Unbeknownst to Sethe, her husband was in hiding in the loft where he had a view of the attack on her. Watching without being able to come to her aid drove him insane. Paul D was watching Halle, although unable to see what was happening to Sethe. At some undetermined time soon after, he saw Halle sit down and calmly smear the butter from the churn all over his face while his eyes remained vacant. Sethe managed to escape, but had to stop because her baby was being born. An indentured servant, Amy, happened upon her and helped her. The infant was named Denver, which was Amy’s last name.

Sethe reached her mother-in-law’s home with the newborn infant and was overjoyed to be reunited with her other three children. Soon after, Baby Suggs and Sethe hosted a picnic-barbecue for all the neighbors. The abundance of food and good times, in addition to Baby Suggs’ good fortune in having been bought out of slavery, driven to freedom in a wagon by her former master, and befriended by the Bodwins who rented her their two-story house (unlike the one-story houses everyone else lived in), led the neighbors and friends, who also were Baby Suggs’ congregation, to believe she and her family were “uppity.” Thereafter, the residents of 124 Bluestone Road found themselves being shunned until they no longer had any visitors and Baby Suggs stopped being the spiritual leader at the clearing in the woods.

Schoolteacher, one of his nephews, the sheriff, and a slave catcher arrived to bring Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home. No one had warned them but Sethe recognized schoolteacher’s hat as he approached the house on his horse. She whisked her children into the shed and attempted to murder them, rather than allow them to live the kind of life in slavery she had led, as both her mother-in-law and Stamp Paid stood in the yard behind the house, frozen in terror. She succeeded in killing her two-year-old daughter by slitting her throat and would have also killed her infant daughter, Denver, if Stamp Paid had not caught the baby as Sethe swung her against the wall in an attempt to bash her brains out. The two boys had been severely beaten on their heads with a shovel.

Howard and Buglar were nursed back to health by their grandmother while Sethe was jailed to await her trial for the murder. Since Denver was still a suckling infant, she went to jail with her mother. The Bodwins used whatever influence they had in Cincinnati to ensure Sethe’s imprisonment, rather than the death sentence. They were successful.

After serving her sentence, Sethe and Denver returned to Baby Suggs’ home to join her, Howard, and Buglar. Once there, it was apparent that the spirit of the murdered child was haunting the house. Howard and Buglar were so affected by this that each left home as he reached his teens. Sethe found work cooking for most of the day at Sawyer’s restaurant: the owner was not afraid to hire an ex-convict. However, the rest of the community, except for Stamp Paid, continued to avoid the family.

Denver, a lonely and very quiet child, was brought up in the house with her mother and grandmother. When she was seven, she discovered that Lady Jones was teaching the local children in her home and joined the classes, only to leave when one of the children innocently asked Denver about the murder of her older sister. Baby Suggs decided to die, despite Stamp Paid’s efforts to dissuade her, and did after keeping close to her house or in her bed for many years. Her death came soon after Howard and Buglar left, but had nothing to do with their departure.

Eighteen years after the murder, Paul D arrives in town. He, too, had attempted to flee Sweet Home but was caught in the attempt and forced to wear an iron bit which holds down the tongue—a form of torture and humiliation. He had been sold to Brandywine, the man he soon tried to kill. The murder attempt led to his imprisonment in the worst possible type of work–gang prison in Alfred, Georgia. He escaped from the prison and stayed with the Cherokee until he was the only escaped prisoner left out of the original forty-six. The Cherokee showed him how to follow the trees to the north, which he did. Eventually he reached Delaware, where he stayed for eighteen months with a woman who had been kind to him. Once he left her, he was rootless until he came to Sethe’s home.

Upon finding Sethe, he is dismayed to hear of Baby Suggs’ death and—despite Denver’s hostility—moves into the house. On the first night there, he has a confrontation with the spirit in the house and wins, thereby effectively sending away Denver’s only companion for the last eighteen years and practically wrecking Sethe’s kitchen. In an effort to win both Sethe and Denver over, he talks them into going to colored day at the carnival. When they return home, they discover a young, very tired, nattily dressed black woman waiting for them. Sethe immediately discerns that she is her daughter’s spirit reborn in the flesh. Paul D and Denver see only that the girl needs sleep and water.

Beloved, who seems to have no memory other than her name, is incorporated into the household, much to Paul D’s chagrin. She becomes devoted to Sethe, following her from room to room and even meeting Sethe after work once she regains her strength. Beloved’s obvious interest in seducing Paul D makes him so uncomfortable he moves into the shed, but Sethe and Denver fail to see “the shining” on her, as Paul D calls her seductiveness. Beloved seems simple: she talks little, doesn’t know how to do much, acts childishly (except when it comes to Paul D), and needs Denver to keep her occupied. As Paul D moves further and further away from her and, finally, out of the house, she occupies more and more of Denver and Sethe’s energy.

At work, Stamp Paid and Paul D are moving pigs toward the slaughter house when Stamp Paid shows him the newspaper article about the murders. Paul D, unable to read, does not know what it says but recognizes the likeness of Sethe. He insists it is not her; the mouth is different. Much to his later regret, Stamp Paid reads the article to Paul D. When Paul D confronts Sethe, she tries to explain that she was saving her children. Paul complains that her kind of loving is too “thick” for him, and he begins to disengage his life from hers, eventually moving out of it for a while.

So involved are the women with Beloved that Denver becomes less sullen and Sethe eventually loses her job for not showing up. Denver knows Sethe cannot take care of them anymore and implores Lady Jones to find her a job, not realizing that jobs are hard to come by and everyone in the community is just about as poor as they are. Unable to offer a job, Lady Jones does make certain the community shares with the family, each different community member leaving some food in their yard at intervals.

By this time, Paul D is living in the basement of the town’s storefront church, which horrifies Stamp Paid, who feels that the community should have opened its doors to Paul D, especially since he is a working man willing to pay for his keep. He finds a drinking Paul D on the church steps and apologizes for his neighbors’ behavior toward Paul D. He also explains that he was there the day of the murder and it wasn’t the way the newspaper said it had been.

Until Denver finds employment, the three women are not doing well—even with their neighbors’ sharing. Instead of dividing the food evenly, Sethe gives most of it to Beloved, who is now pregnant with Paul D’s child, although Sethe and Denver seem not to know it. Sethe appears to be shrinking, and Denver is losing so much weight that her clothes are too big on her. Besides always being hungry, Sethe is becoming Beloved’s slave and complacently abides with her temper tantrums. She is no longer safe from Beloved either, since Beloved apparently attempted to strangle her in Baby Suggs’ clearing. After much deliberation, Denver goes to the Bodwins to seek work.

Janey Wagon convinces the Bodwins they need someone to stay with them at night since they are older now and she has her own family to tend. She also spreads the news in the community that Sethe’s dead daughter has come back to bedevil her. The women of the community decide to go to 124 Bluestone Road to drive Beloved out. Just as thirty of them gather, Mr. Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver for work. When the women begin to sing, Sethe and Beloved come to the door to see them. Sethe has a confused flashback and thinks Mr. Bodwin is schoolteacher, come to take her children back to slavery. She rushes toward him with the ice pick in her hand as Denver intercedes to save him by leading some others in wrestling her mother down so that Ella may hit her on the jaw. Mr. Bodwin is unaware of the attempt on his life, aware only of the beautiful, naked, pregnant woman standing in the doorway and what he thinks is Sethe going to stop some of the other women from fighting amongst themselves.

Paul D and Denver run into each other on the street. She is still working for the Bodwins, and Miss Bodwin is teaching her. Beloved disappeared the day her mother tried to kill Mr. Bodwin. Sethe is not doing well. Soon, Paul D resumes his residence in Sethe’s house. He tries to convince Sethe that she, not Beloved, is her own best thing.

Estimated Reading Time
Because of the constant shift from past to present and back again and the rich metaphoric language which does not state—but rather implies—this is not a quick novel to read despite its moderate length. Rather than rush through it and miss all the visual images, it is suggested you read it in ten sittings, totaling approximately eight hours.

Part One will take half this time with the following breakdown:
pages 3–42—one hour
pages 43–85—one hour
pages 86–113—45 minutes
pages 114–147—45 minutes
pages 148–165—half an hour

Part Two will take two and a half hours:
pages 169–199—one hour
pages 200–217—45 minutes
pages 218–235—also 45 minutes

Part Three will need the remaining hour and a half:
pages 236–262—one hour
pages 263–275—half an hour

These page numbers are based on the softcover edition of the novel (Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume Books, 1988). Please remember this is simply an estimation; reading speeds are different for individual readers and some may prefer to dwell on certain parts of the novel while others may choose different sections of the novel in which to invest their time.

The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Her parents, Ramah (Willis) and George, survived the Great Depression with the aid of government assistance and by sharing with their equally poor black and white neighbors. Her great-grandmother had been a slave and her grandfather was born in slavery, not being freed until he was five, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

Ms. Morrison earned a B.A. in English from Howard University in 1953 and, while a student there, changed her name to Toni. She also joined the Howard Players during her undergraduate years and toured the South, playing to mostly black audiences. Her M.A. was earned in 1955 at Cornell University; her thesis was on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She moved to Texas Southern University, where she became an instructor of English from 1955 to 1957. There she wrote a play entitled “Dreaming Emmett” which dealt with the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Ms. Morrison returned to Howard University to be an Instructor of English for the next seven years and began writing. During that time, in 1958, she married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison. Two sons were born during this six-year marriage. After divorcing her husband, she took her sons back to Lorain to their grandparents’ home. The next year, she became an editor for the textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse, New York.

Five years later, in 1970, her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published and Ms. Morrison took an editorial position at Random House’s New York office, where she eventually became a senior editor. During this time—1971 and 1972—she was also an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York–Purchase. In 1974, Sula, her second novel, was published and she edited The Black Book, a collection of memorabilia from three hundred years of black history, which contained the Margaret Garner story—the springboard for Beloved. Upon the publishing of The Black Book, Ms. Morrison wrote an article entitled “Rediscovering Black History.” The following year, Sula was nominated for the National Book Award. For the next two years, she was a visiting lecturer at Yale University. In 1977, her third novel, Song of Solomon, for which she received the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letter Award, was published and quickly became a paperback best seller with 570,000 copies in print. Ms. Morrison was then named Distinguished Writer of 1978 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Tar Baby, her fourth novel, published in 1981, was on the New York Times best seller list for four months. During this time, Ms. Morrison was on the cover of Newsweek.

From 1984 to 1989, Ms. Morrison was the Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the State University of New York–Albany and won numerous honors. In 1986, her play was produced by the Capitol Repertory Company and she won the New York State Governor’s Art Award. The following year, Beloved—which was dedicated to the 60 million who died in slavery—was published and nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Award. In 1986, Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Award for this fifth novel. In 1989, Ms. Morrison became the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University, where she teaches both creative writing and Afro-American Studies. Jazz, which is her sixth novel, and her non-fiction Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, were published in 1992.

Toni Morrison has been featured on the Public Broadcasting System’s Writers in America, London Weekend Television’s South Bank Show, and Swiss Television Production’s In Black and White. She was appointed to President Carter’s National Council of the Arts and elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Many books of interpretation and criticism have been written about her novels. Her own novels have been translated into German, Spanish, French, Finnish, and Italian and are taught in Afro-American, American Literature, and Women’s Studies courses.

Chapter Summaries
Beloved Homework Help Questions
How does Beloved show the characteristics of magical realism?

I think that the most potent way in which Morrison’s work can represent magical realism would be with the presence of the title character. Sethe’s murder of her child has revisited her in the…

Please explain the concept of “re-memory” used in Beloved.

The concept of “re-memory” arises in this incredible novel to point out the way in which the legacy of slavery is captured in the emotional and mental scars that the various characters in this…

What are some of the differences and similarities between the movie and the book Beloved?

The film version of Beloved does a decent job of trying to illuminate the primary themes of the novel, however, much of the book deals with abstract ideas such as guilt and shame which are…

Describe the house in Morrison’s Beloved.

The house in this powerful novel is given human qualities through personification that makes it seem as if it were another character along with Sethe and Denver and the rest of the characters…

How are racism and the institution of slavery presented through the characters by the symbolism…

In Beloved, the title character functions as a symbol of the horrors of slavery that the characters have had to endure. Sethe manages to escape Sweet Home with all her children, so when she sees…


Beloved Themes
Beloved depicts not just the physical but the psychological effects of slavery, describing how it strips people of their freedom, their families, and, in some cases, their sanity. Sethe’s attempt to kill her children is a direct result of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Schoolteacher and his nephews.
Morrison explores the theme of motherhood through Sethe and Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs, whom Halle bought out of slavery, is a nurturing spiritual leader within the community. Sethe, on the other hand, is so traumatized by her experiences as a slave that her maternal instinct is warped by fear and guilt.
In many ways, the character Beloved is the physical manifestation of haunting. She assumes the role of Sethe’s dead daughter, acting both as a vengeful spirit and as a reminder of the murder Sethe committed.
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Themes and Meanings

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The characterization of the female fugitive, Sethe, and her murdered daughter, Beloved, is without precedent in fiction. The novel is an accurate portrayal of the black slave woman’s experience. Married by age fourteen, Sethe is pregnant with her fourth child by nineteen. Although Mr. Garner prides himself on the treatment of his male slaves, he nevertheless has the slavemaster’s agenda of using slave women for the purpose of childbearing. Schoolteacher also values Sethe for her childbearing capabilities and the money she represents.

Moreover, the novel is important for its demonstration of the concern that slave mothers had for the welfare of their children. Sethe determines to kill all of her children rather than allow them to be returned to a life of slavery. Thus Sethe struggles to reach Ohio, and her children, at any costs. In fact, she repeats often that she has to get her milk to her “crawling already” baby girl, Beloved. The novel also probes the bond between the nursing mother and her infant. Sethe remembers that slavery has denied her a relationship with her own mother and determines to have a nurturing relationship with her own children. Beloved’s personality, therefore, originates from a lack of bonding with her mother and from a sense of spite, as well as from a need for retribution for her brutal murder at her mother’s hand. Although Beloved is a ghost, it is significant that she acts like a child who has experienced a loss in the infant stage of development; she is psychologically damaged and has enormous anxieties. Thus, Beloved constantly demonstrates a need to be near Sethe at all times and never gets enough of anything, especially her mother. Because of Sethe’s sense of guilt, Beloved is able to demand the best of everything and to make her mother try to meet all of her demands, no matter how ridiculous. When Sethe complains, it does no good.

The genesis of the plot of Beloved came when Morrison worked as an editor. While on a project, the author came across the story of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, who killed one child and tried to kill three others to keep them from being returned to slavery; the story was the basis for Beloved.

The novel treats the theme of the mother as nurturer and protector through the characters of Sethe and Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs protects and takes care of Sethe after her escape, and when she can no longer do so, she decides to die. Sethe sees her children as her property, as lives that she has made. An alternate example is provided by Baby Suggs, who was forced to part with all of her children but her last son, Halle. Sethe determines to put her children where they cannot be hurt by the system of slavery.

The novel is, moreover, an attempt to understand the forces, historical and personal, that would cause Sethe to murder her daughter rather than allow her to experience the horrors of slavery. The horror of the slave past is shown as a haunting, evidenced by the appearance of the baby ghost and the manifestation of the fully grown Beloved. From the opening of the novel, the means of bringing the past into the lives of Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and the community is the use of the supernatural. Beloved represents the troubled past that haunts the lives of all African Americans. This troubling past is represented by the word “rememory,” which is used throughout the novel. The characters are constantly in a struggle to “beat back the past,” which intrudes into their lives and causes a haunting pain that is physically represented by the appearance of Beloved.

Morrison unceasingly places before her readers the environment that created Sethe—economic slavery. This is the source and the context of Sethe’s madness and the impetus for her behavior. Paul D is able to understand and verbalize Sethe’s dilemma by concluding that it was dangerous for a slave woman to love anything, especially her children. Paul D thus points out the tension created by the system of slavery and the instinct of the slave woman to protect and nurture her children. Slavery claimed ownership of all of its property and ignored the slave mother’s right to determine the future of, to mold the character of, and to physically nurture her own children. Sethe instinctively sought to hold on to and love her own children, thus creating the central conflict in the novel.

Themes Discussed

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Despite having killed her own child, Sethe is presented as an admirable character, for Morrison’s emphasis is on the no-exit choices slavery imposed on people. Sethe acted out of love and years later defends her action: “But she had to be safe and I put her where she could be.” One of the central themes Morrison treats has to do with the dehumanizing effects of slavery on moral choice. When Schoolteacher comes to recover Sethe and her family under the Fugitive Slave Law, she has no viable option. If she permits this to happen, she and her children will return to conditions that have deteriorated at Sweet Home and will be even worse because of the escape. As she tells Beloved, to return would subject her and her children to the white man’s abuse, sexually, physically, and psychologically — the very things that drove Sethe’s mother into rebellion. The alternative Sethe chooses is monstrous, and much of the novel is concerned with the debilitating effects her guilt and Beloved’s haunting her house, once a way-station on the road to freedom, have on her and her family. She accepts ostracism from the community and has turned inward. Her sons run away as soon as they can; her daughter Denver lives in constant fear that her mother may again be placed in a predicament in which her only choice will be to kill a child. While Morrison does not justify Sethe’s decision to kill her children and herself — intervention by an ex-slave who has committed his life to helping others escape prevented her dashing Denver’s brains out on a wall — she makes it clear that Sethe’s choice results from the twenty-eight days of freedom she actually experienced. Like Baby Suggs, she learned the exhilaration of freedom and therefore could not tolerate the notion of returning to the bit and the dependence of slavery.

As well as a book about moral choice as the effects of slavery, Beloved is also a subtle treatment of two of Morrison’s key themes, the nature of community and the potential healing power of love. As her narrative moves through several layers of time, Morrison suggests that Sethe’s principal source of hope is the community of which she is a part, but that community’s failure contributed in large measure to her great crime.

In fact the novel contrasts two kinds of failed communities. Within the false community at Sweet Home, the slaves developed a subset, which nurtured and supported them as the evil incipient under the Garners’ ownership is revealed in full magnitude by Schoolteacher. As his and his nephews’ policies became increasingly menacing, the slaves supported one another and conspired to escape to Ohio. Many suffered in the effort; Sixo’s death is graphically drawn, and Paul D and Halle were bent or even broken by what they endured in the effort. But they prevailed by acting as a community.

Once in Ohio, the concept of a free community invigorates and inspires Sethe. As she recovers from her wounds, she rejoices in “twenty-eight days of having women friends, a mother- in-law, and all her children together; of being part of a neighborhood” — things she never knew she did not have until she experienced them and things she could not give up when Schoolteacher came to take her back. But in this novel community is a two-edged notion. To celebrate Sethe’s recovery and Denver’s near-miraculous birth, Baby Suggs prepares a lavish feast. The community sees her rejoicing as ostentatious display, and collective resentment of her feast results in a failure of the warning network. Because this network, designed to protect ex-slaves from owners’ capturing runaways under the Fugitive Slave Law, fails to alert Baby Suggs that unfamiliar white men are in the neighborhood, she has no time to prepare for their arrival. Despite her intuition that something is amiss, Baby cannot protect Sethe from Schoolteacher’s unexpected presence. Thus the community is indirectly responsible for Beloved’s murder, a responsibility they fail to accept by making Sethe an outcast. The community’s failure is further emphasized when, after her jail term, the isolated Sethe must pay for a gravestone by selling her body to the stonecutter, who clearly takes advantage of her suffering.

If the community, by failing to warn and support, contributes to Sethe’s dilemma, it also contains conditions for her recovery. When Paul D, learning what happened eighteen years before, cannot endure life with Sethe — he says her love is “too thick” — and takes up lodging in a church basement, Stamp Paid is outraged that no one in the neighborhood has offered shelter. As he tells Paul D’s story, he also carries news about the dire events in 124, Sethe’s house; Beloved and her mother are locked in a war of attrition, and eventually Denver concludes that she must go outside to get help. The women of the community offer physical support, then organize in a spontaneous exorcism to drive Beloved out of Sethe’s and Denver’s lives. Through this intervention (and unfortunate timing by one of the few kind white people in the novel) her neighbors help Sethe to rid the house of Beloved as ghost made flesh.

At an even more personal level, Beloved is a study in the redeeming power of love. Scarred by the infanticide, Denver has turned inward, and her only familiar is a ghost, later her returned sister whom she vows to defend against their mother. She resists Paul D’s presence in 124, longing for her father’s return. As Denver watches in horror while Sethe, having lost her job, her meager savings, and her will in her effort to compensate her daughter for the life she denied her, wanes in the battle with Beloved, she becomes the family’s savior by confronting a world she fears and finding jobs to support her mother, at last alerting the community to the damage Beloved is doing Sethe and initiating the exorcism.

Similarly Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men, twice gives Sethe restoring love. When he arrives at 124, Paul is broken by his experiences and has attempted to block out his past by storing unpleasant memories in a tobacco tin he carries with him, but he sees in Sethe’s scars (from the beating by Schoolteacher’s nephews) a pain he must address; by touching them, he shares her pain, “learning that way her sorrow,” and briefly liberates Sethe from the prison of her guilt. They make a family attending a carnival, and Paul D successfully exorcises the “spiteful ghost,” but he too is overwhelmed by the ghost made flesh, who eventually demands that he introduce her to sexuality she was denied in death. After he leaves 124 and learns the full extent of Sethe’s suffering and his own concern for her, he returns to offer support as she faces a life without either Beloved or her ghost. Recalling Pilate’s climactic words in Song of Solomon, Paul offers a limited but compelling vision of hope: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

As many scholars point out, Beloved is also a novel about memory and the past. Early, Denver announces the theme of a selective focus on the past. She wants to hear the story of her miraculous birth, but to be spared most details pertaining to Sethe’s troubled flight to freedom. This selective treatment of the past applies obviously to the ex-slaves, who except for Stamp Paid have not really faced up to their whole stories. Paul D’s arrival at 124 is marked by an exchange of stories about the Sweet Home men, but Sethe tells him an abridged version of her life defining event: “I wasn’t going back there … Any life but not that one. I went to jail instead.” What she tells Paul is not a lie, and her motive for killing Beloved is clear from it; but she leaves out the single most important detail. Something very like this describes Sethe’s eighteen years of isolation since killing her child.

She has been fixated on the past, but she has not come to terms with it. Because of Paul D’s associations with Sweet Home, Halle, and Baby Suggs, his arrival stirs many memories and Sethe literally meets her past in her daughter’s incarnation. She must tell her own story over and over to herself and Beloved to explain just what she did and why she did it, to come at last to terms with the meaning of her action for Denver as well as for herself. As critic Valerie Smith puts it, as a ghost made flesh Beloved is “literally the story of the past embodied” and encountering her forces Sethe, Paul D and Denver to encounter “not only the story of her sorrow and theirs; indeed, they encounter its incarnation.”

Throughout the novel Sethe uses a portmanteau word, “rememory,” as both a verb (to remember) and as a noun (memory). This is Morrison’s linguistic instrument to suggest the importance of coming to terms with our individual and collective past, for she is clearly not representing an unschooled character’s malapropism. At times Sethe correctly uses both roots, but she and Beloved must “rememory” the past, or come to terms fully with the experiences not as stories but as lived events. Only when she has “rememoried” what happened to Beloved in that lean-to and coped with the horrible choice she had to make can Sethe hope to bear her past into the future.

In one way Morrison subverts even this meaning, for she repeats in the final chapter that this “was not a story to pass on.” Sethe needs to accept and end this story so she can put it into a past that is a preparation, not a substitute, for the future.

Expanded Themes

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Race and Racism
“You got two feet, not four,” Paul D. tells Sethe when she reveals her secret to him, and the dehumanizing effect of slavery is a primary theme of Beloved. According to the schoolteacher, slaves are just another type of animal: not only does he list their “animal characteristics,” he considers them “creatures” to be “handled,” similar to dogs or cattle. In some ways, they are not even worth as much as animals: “Unlike a snake or a bear,” he thinks while pursuing the runaways, “a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin.” Because slaves are treated no better—and sometimes worse—than animals, it leads them to question what it is that makes one human. While Mr. Garner was alive, for instance, Paul D. truly believed that he was a man. But after the schoolteacher arrives and puts the bit to him, he learns a different lesson: “They were trespassers among the human race.” There is another side to the dehumanizing effects of slavery, however: just as it turns slaves into animals, it turns owners into monsters. As Baby Suggs thinks of white people, “they could prowl at will, change from one mind to another, and even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did.” Stamp Paid understands this effect as well: “The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince [whites] how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, … the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them,” Stamp Paid thinks, but “the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made.”

For people treated no better than animals, freedom can be a difficult concept to grasp. When Halle buys his mother’s freedom, for instance, Baby Suggs thinks that he “gave her freedom when it didn’t mean a thing.” When she steps across the Ohio River, however, “she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew there was nothing like it in this world.” While under the schoolteacher’s bit, Paul D. sees Mister, the rooster, and thinks, “Mister, he looked so … free. Better than me.” The reason for this, Paul D. explains, is that “Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was.” Once he has escaped from prison and earned his first money, Paul D. decides that “to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got.” Freedom is more than this, however, as Sethe has discovered. While waiting for Halle to turn up, Sethe had to learn to become her own woman. “Freeing yourself was one thing,” she thinks; “claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” This can be a difficult task, especially if one is tormented by painful memories of slavery. In the end, Paul D. comes to agree with Sethe about the nature of freedom: “A place where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now, that was freedom.”

One of the cruelest effects of slavery is how it severs bonds of love, particularly those between mother and child. Sethe still feels the pain of separation from her mother, while Baby Suggs has lost all but one of her eight children. One reaction to this loss of love is to deny it; as Ella says, “If anybody was to ask me I’d say ‘Don’t love nothing.'” After having her first three children sold away and a fourth fathered by the man who sold them, Baby Suggs “could not love [that child] and the rest she would not.” Sethe similarly understands that she couldn’t love her children “proper” at Sweet Home “because they wasn’t mine to love.” Paul D. also knows mother-love is risky: “For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.” When he nevertheless suggests to Sethe that they have a baby together, Sethe thinks, “Lord, deliver me. Unless carefree, mother-love was a killer.” This comment is terribly ironic, of course, coming from a woman who murdered her child for such a love.

Despite the pain mother-love can bring to a woman, the maternal impulse is often too powerful to deny. As Baby Suggs says, “A man ain’t nothing but a man. But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.” Sethe similarly thinks her children are “her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—that part of her that was clean.” A mother’s love has no time limits, either, as Sethe tells Paul D.: “Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother … I’ll protect [Denver] while I’m live and I’ll protect her when I ain’t.” It is this need to care for her children that drives Sethe on to Ohio despite her pain. When telling Paul D. about the beating she received before escaping, she keeps repeating, “they took my milk!”—emphasizing how important it was to her to save her milk for her baby. Unfortunately, Sethe’s experiences with slavery have twisted her maternal protective impulses. “To keep them away from what I know is terrible,” Sethe attempts to murder her own children. This love may be “too thick,” as Paul D. says, but motherless Sethe never had a chance to learn the difference: “Love is or it ain’t,” she replies. “Thin love ain’t love at all.”

Memory and Reminiscence
The physical wounds of slavery heal quickly compared to the mental and emotional scars suffered by its victims. Throughout Beloved, characters struggle with their memories, trying to recall the good things without remembering the bad. Paul D. has “shut down a generous portion of his head” so that he will not “dwell on Halle’s face and Sixo laughing.” Of her first seven children, Baby Suggs can only remember that the oldest liked the burned bottom of bread. “That’s all you let yourself remember,” Sethe says, and for her “the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay.” For Sethe, “re-memories” are so powerful that they exist for her as physical objects: “if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again,” she tells Denver. In contrast, Ella seems to have a healthy attitude towards the past: “The past [was] something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out.” But Sethe has a “rebellious brain” which does not allow her to forget: “there is still more that Paul D. could tell me and my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don’t want to know or have to remember that.” Beloved seems to have “disremembered” almost all of her past, and when Sethe comes to believe the girl is her lost daughter she “was excited to giddiness by the things she no longer had to remember.” Her words seem to imply that Sethe tortures herself with memories as a sort of punishment. Now that her daughter is returned, however, “I don’t have to remember nothing. I don’t even have to explain. She understands it all.” The conclusion of the novel seems to imply that finally putting the past behind her will enable Sethe to survive. “We got more yesterday than anybody,” Paul D. tells Sethe. “We need some kind of tomorrow.” “Remembering seemed unwise,” the narrator similarly notes, and so Beloved is “disremembered”—deliberately forgotten: “This is not a story to pass on.”

Creativity and Imagination
Despite the statement that “this is not a story to pass on,” stories and the imagination play an important role in the novel. Denver’s imagination is her only weapon against loneliness and it “produced its own hunger and its own food.” Sethe’s “deprivation had been not having any dreams of her own at all.” Her brain has been “loaded with the past and [is] hungry for more,” leaving her “no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.” For Beloved, listening to Sethe’s stories “became a way to feed her” and the “profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling” allows Sethe to share things that had been too painful to speak about before. When the lonely Denver tells stories to Beloved, she gives her subjects “more life than life had.” Denver uses these stories to keep Beloved with her, trying to “construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved.” Stories have the effect of bringing listener and teller together, for in the telling “the monologue became, in fact, a duet.” It is this kind of sharing that allows Sethe to begin to heal, and eventually brings her to the brink of a new life with Paul D. Planning on making “some kind of tomorrow” with Sethe, Paul D. thinks that “he wants to put his story next to hers.”


Beloved Characters
Sethe, a former slave who attempts to kill her children to prevent them being taken back into slavery. She’s haunted by the death of her third child.
Denver, Sethe’s fourth child and only surviving daughter.
Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, a spiritual leader in her town. Her son Halle bought her freedom when she was 60.
Halle, Sethe’s husband, who goes insane after witnessing an attack on Sethe.
Beloved, a mysterious woman whom Sethe believes to be the spirit of her murdered child.
Paul D., Sethe’s friend.
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Characters Discussed

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Sethe, a fugitive slave woman. She killed one of her four children eighteen years earlier, when she saw her former owner come to capture them. This happened a month after she escaped to Ohio, where her mother-in-law resided. After the incident, she alienated herself in the community while living with her youngest child in a house occupied by a ghost spirit. the dead daughter, Beloved, returns as a ghost. Sethe enjoys their reunion and responds to all of her demands. When Beloved’s demands increase, she exhausts herself physically and psychologically.


Beloved, a bodily ghost of Sethe’s baby. Having died at the age of two, her throat cut with a handsaw by Sethe, she reappears as a woman of twenty. She calls herself Beloved, the only word carved on her tombstone. She is eager to listen to Sethe’s stories, demands her attention, and accuses Sethe of forsaking her. She disappears with the singing of thirty women in the community.


Denver, Sethe’s youngest child. Denver was born in a river while Sethe was escaping to Ohio as a runaway slave. She was named for a white woman who helped Sethe’s delivery. When Beloved appears, Denver soon recognizes that she is the ghost whom she had seen as a child and welcomes her company. Witnessing her mother’s exhaustion from meeting Beloved’s demands, she asks for help from the community, from which she and Sethe had been isolated since Sethe’s murder of her child. Eventually, she is offered a job working for a white family.

Paul D

Paul D, a former slave. He comes to Cincinnati to look for Sethe and her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, after eighteen years of absence. He used to belong to the plantation where Sethe was enslaved. the last time he had seen Sethe was during a failed escape attempt. After his sale to a new plantation, he was moved to a camp, joined the army, stayed with a woman, and continued his journey north. Upon their reunion, Paul D and Sethe rejoice, but he is soon chased away by Beloved and informed of Sethe’s actions. Following that revelation, he avoids her. Later, he reconsiders and assures Sethe that he wants to spend his life with her.

Baby Suggs

Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law. Her son, Halle, earned her freedom in return for years of his extra labor. She had seven other children, fathered by different men, and did not know where they were sold. As soon as she arrives in Ohio, she enjoys a sense of possessing her own body. She preaches to the community that they too should love their own bodies. Sethe’s murder of Beloved occurs on the following day, when Baby Suggs provides a huge banquet for the community, an action that invites their anger. She dies after pondering colors for her last eight years.

The Characters

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The novel takes its name from the character Beloved, a ghost. Beloved was killed by her mother, Sethe, as a baby to keep her from being returned to slavery by her owner, schoolteacher, who has come to Ohio to reclaim his slave property. As a result, the opening lines of the novel state that the house where Sethe, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her daughter, Denver, live is spiteful and full of a baby’s venom. The frightful atmosphere caused by the antics of the baby ghost causes Beloved’s brothers, Howard and Buglar, to run away by the time they are thirteen.

Subsequently, Beloved walks out of the water a fully dressed woman of twenty, the age the murdered baby would have been if she had lived. The author reveals the character of Beloved through the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D (Beloved’s uncle and Sethe’s lover). Sethe is at first flattered by Beloved’s quiet devotion and adoration, which pleases her. Denver is devoted to the care and protection of her ghostly sister, but Paul D is suspicious of Beloved. He notices that she is “shining” and questions her closely concerning her origins. Sethe notices that Beloved vexes Paul D, and he is eventually run out of the house and seduced by Beloved. Moreover, Denver notices “how greedy” Beloved is to hear Sethe talk, and that the questions Beloved asks—such as “where are your diamonds?”—are perplexing since she did not understand how Beloved could know of such things. As a result of her murder, Beloved has a need for retribution, which she seeks by literally using up her mother with her constant and insistent demands for time and nurturing.

Beloved’s murder is the cause of Sethe’s constant state of guilt and Denver’s alienation from the community. The efforts of Sethe to provide unity and support for herself and her daughters after Beloved’s return are dramatically revealed in the ice-skating scene. Beloved, Denver, and Sethe skate on a frozen pond holding hands and bracing one another. The three cannot stay upright for long, however, and the author states that “nobody saw them falling.”

Sethe’s inability to hold out physically or mentally against Beloved’s need for vengeance and constant attention eventually leaves her jobless and confined to the house. Beloved takes the best of everything. Denver is forced out into the community to provide for the family; moreover, the community is forced to come to the family’s home to rid it of the invasion of the ghost. A replay of the scene that caused her murder causes Beloved to disappear, and Sethe takes to Baby Suggs’s dying bed with “no plans at all.”

Ironically, Sethe’s wasting away is paralleled by Denver’s emergence, thus allowing the rounding out of Denver’s personality. As a result of Beloved’s disruption of the household, Denver becomes acquainted with her community, and that community gives Denver the help and support that she and her family need to survive. Denver’s shyness is overcome, and she finds a job to provide for her family; however, this job brings her white employer to her home, an episode that in turn causes the flight of Beloved and allows Denver’s emergence into full maturity. Denver’s thoughts are revealed through a stream-of-consciousness technique, and she is the first to recognize that Beloved is “the white dress that had knelt with her mother in the keeping room, the true-to-life presence of the baby that had kept her company for most of her life.” In fact, Denver begins to come alive in the novel when Beloved enters the household, for her mind begins to work fervently trying to understand the acts and desires of the spiritual presence that has entered her life.

Morrison, therefore, uses a variety of literary techniques to develop well-rounded principal characters in Beloved. The use of flashbacks, which reveal the background of each primary character as well as the perceptions of the minor characters, allows the author to delineate character in an effective and artful manner.

Character Development

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Most characters in Beloved are exslaves, and they are treated with respect and compassion as victims of oppression. By contrast, the few white characters in the novel come off generally as malicious, whether passively so like the Garners and the restaurant owner for whom Sethe works, or actively so like Schoolteacher. One exception, the Bodwin family, championed abolition and contributed to the underground railroad. Ironically, in the second exorcism of Beloved, Sethe confuses Mr. Bodwin, who has come by to give Denver a ride to work, with Schoolteacher coming to take her family back to slavery, and attacks him, in one sense reliving the past to escape it. Another exception, Amy Denver, helps runaway slave Sethe deliver Denver, but Amy’s language betrays that she, like Twain’s Huck Finn, must rise above her innate prejudices to be decent to Sethe. The ex-slaves are defined by their ability to withstand the trauma inflicted by slave culture, but like Stamp Paid who tells Paul D about Sethe’s killing Beloved, must accept moral responsibility for the decisions they make.

Except for Sethe, Paul D, and Denver, in many ways the most important characters of the novel never appear as living entities, but as part of the other characters’ memories. Sethe’s husband Halle represents a heroic ideal, a slave of great moral courage who volunteered to work extra Sundays to buy his mother’s freedom and learned to read and count so the owners couldn’t cheat him. Baby Suggs taught Denver to remember the father she never knew as an “angel man” who will someday return to liberate the family. While Denver must unlearn that hope, as Sethe accepts her life with Paul D as acknowledgment that Halle cannot return, Paul recalls Halle as the best of the Sweet Home Men, but finally tells Sethe of seeing Halle smearing himself with clabber to express his humiliation at not being able to rescue Sethe from the nephews’ abuse. Thus Halle represents the power of racism to destroy the will of even the bravest and noblest man.

Something similar is true of his mother, whom the narrator calls “Baby Suggs holy.” Herself broken and crippled by slavery, Baby takes up the mission of healing other ex-slaves. In “the Clearing” she preaches to them not of Christian submission, but of self-acceptance. She exhorts them to love their flesh, to dance and cry and pray about it, because “[y] onder they [white people] do not love your flesh. They despise it.” But even Baby Suggs’s desperate optimism cannot sustain her after the Misery (Stamp Paid’s word for Sethe’s killing her child). She retires to her room and studies individual colors, staying away from the more aggressive shades, until her death. Only through the process of rememory can Sethe and Stamp Paid come to terms with the cause behind Baby’s despair: “Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed, … and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in this world but white folks.” Like her son, the character of Baby suggests that even a holy, life affirming person can be driven to despair by racism and hatred.

About the novel’s central enigma, Beloved herself, it is hard to decide whether she is a character or a presence, a ghost made flesh or a succubus. After Paul D exorcises the “venomous ghost” haunting 124, a young woman who possesses memories specific to Sethe’s lost daughter as well as memories of “the other place,” which is both death’s kingdom and the hold of a slave trader ship, takes up residence with Sethe, who gradually recognizes this young woman as her daughter — Denver earlier made the same identification. As she evolves into the identity Sethe and Denver create for her, Beloved forms a bond with Denver, makes an attempt on Sethe’s life in the Clearing, drives Paul D from Sethe’s bed and eventually seduces him; by the novel’s end she is draining Sethe of her life and is exorcised by Ella and the community.

There is no denying that she is an otherworldly presence even if she appears in the flesh, but her nature remains ambivalent. By superimposing trader-ship memories on Beloved’s abbreviated life experiences, Morrison suggests that she is a representative victim for many who were destroyed by racism. But however much one sympathizes with Beloved as victim of slavery and Sethe’s impromptu choice, there remains an inescapable malice, something Sethe has to come to terms with in order to forgive herself and experience her life. As Sethe’s victim, and that of her culture, Beloved longs to possess her mother; but in seeking to possess Beloved very nearly destroys the thing she loves and wants to become.


Beloved Analysis
Morrison cultivates ambiguity about the character of Beloved. She could be the spirit of Sethe’s murdered child, but she could also be an ordinary woman with a traumatic past who find a mother in Sethe. This ambiguity allows for many different interpretations of the novel.
The first line of Beloved is “124 was spiteful.” It sets the scene (124 Bluestone Road in Ohio) and the tone of the novel (of darkness and bitterness). It also subtly hints as to why the house is spiteful: the missing “3” is often interpreted to represent Sethe’s third child, the one she murdered. The absence of this 3 haunts the rest of the novel.
Morrison was inspired to write Beloved after coming across an article about the real-life Margaret Garner, a former slave who, like Sethe, killed her daughter to prevent her from returning to a slave plantation.
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Toni Morrison’s central intention in writing an individual history of a former slave is to reclaim the unrecognized past and to furnish these records to future generations, ensuring that the horrors of slavery will not be repeated. Beloved is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1856 when a fugitive slave woman killed her child when they were caught. Reconstructing this incident, Morrison tries to understand the intention of the mother’s action. The novel focuses on a protagonist who kills her child and alienates herself from her world, and it shows how the memory of the past can haunt the present.

The novel reveals that Sethe’s act of murder is rooted in a motherhood crippled by slavery, thus illuminating slavery’s inhumanity. In slavery, the basic value of a woman is her role in the reproduction of her master’s commodities, as well as in his sexual pleasure. In these circumstances, mothers are neither nurturers nor protectors of their children. Baby Suggs remembers little of her seven children who were sold away; Ella, another slave, refuses to nurse her baby born from forced sex with her master.

Like many of the others, Sethe does not enjoy motherhood, either as a child or as a mother herself. As a baby, she is nursed with milk not from her mother but from another slave with the little milk left after she nurses white babies. When Sethe is still small, her mother tries to run away, leaving her behind. Later when she is a mother, Sethe is violated and has her milk stolen by Schoolteacher’s nephews. Such symbolic acts break the nurturing tie of mothers and children. Beloved mirrors Sethe’s longing for her own mother. Through her, Sethe sees herself as the daughter she might have been if her mother had been with her. It is not only Beloved but also Sethe who wants both compensation and explanation for the absence of a nurturing mother.

Through the narratives told by the characters, it is shown that Sethe’s intention in killing her daughter was to provide her with the ultimate protection from slavery’s agony. In order to compensate for the absence of motherhood in slavery, Sethe becomes an overly powerful nurturer and protector. Whether her action is right or wrong, in putting her daughter’s life to an end she remains a protector of the dead child. Her action reclaims the rights of deprived mothers and of all humans in slavery. The ironic nature of her action emphasizes the tragedy of the slavery system.

In the novel, the recovery of an individual’s history parallels that of all slaves. Sethe and Beloved, both abandoned children who cry out for the missing ties with their mothers, represent all slave mothers and children. They also signify the longing of many African Americans for the missing ties with their cultural heritage in Africa. While Sethe’s experiences mirror the suffering of the “sixty million and more” slaves to whom Morrison dedicates this novel, Beloved represents those who are not even counted in the official numbers in slavery. Beloved’s life is not recognized; she does not even have a name. Her thirst for recognition and for her mother’s love suggest the necessity of recognizing forgotten people. By giving a body and a voice to the spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter, Morrison recognizes and recovers the forgotten people in the history of slavery.

Written in the African American storytelling tradition, Beloved is full of metaphors and symbols that suggest slavery, such as water. The initial separation of the African slaves from their homeland took place in the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, and the Ohio River often separated slaves from successful fugitives. In the novel, Denver’s birth is in a river, and Beloved first rises from a river and drinks much water upon appearing. The image of a ghost also suggests the situation of slaves, who possess nothing, not even their own bodies. Furthermore, it symbolizes the African American reality that has been treated as nonexistent from the perspective of the dominant society. In narrating her characters’ histories, Morrison frequently uses exact figures concerning length of time and number of people. This approach provides a contrast to the official written documents, which record the history of slavery in vague numbers.

Literary Style

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Narration/Point of View
For the most part, Beloved uses a third-person narrator—one who tells the story by describing the action of other people (“he said,” “they did”). Because the narration describes what various characters are thinking and doing, it can also be classified as omniscient (“all-knowing”) narration. This third-person narration remains fairly constant throughout the novel, but the point of view (or perspective) from which the story is told changes from section to section. In the first chapter alone, for instance, the point of view switches from Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs didn’t even raise her head”) to Sethe (“Counting on the stillness of her soul she had forgotten the other one”) to Paul D. (“He looked at her closely, then”) to Denver (“Again she wished for the baby ghost”). The changing point of view is important to the novel for several reasons. First, by including the thoughts and memories of several different characters, the narrator allows the reader to witness the various ways slavery can violate a person’s humanity. Second, the changing point of view allows the reader to gain fuller portraits of each of the characters than if the focus was on a single person. These portraits are made even more intense when Morrison changes the narrative style. In the middle of Part Two, the narration switches from the third person to the first (“I”) in four consecutive sections that are told directly by the characters. In these sections, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved contemplate how Beloved’s arrival has changed their lives. By adding these first-person sections late in the novel, the author enhances her portrait of these characters, deepening the reader’s understanding of them even further.

A flashback is a literary device used to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. In Beloved, the narrator structures the story in such a way that past events are related as a way of explaining the present. In the first paragraph, for instance, the narrator says that “by 1873, Sethe and her daughter were [the ghost’s] only victims.” This sets the main action in 1873, but the paragraphs that follow explain how Baby Suggs and the two boys escaped the ghost prior to that date. Flashbacks are also presented as the memories or stories of several of the characters. When Paul D. first sees Sethe, for instance, he begins to recall how the men of Sweet Home reacted to her arrival over twenty years ago. As Paul D. and Sethe spend time with each other, they remember moments of their previous time together and tell each other stories of what has happened to them since their time at Sweet Home. There are more direct flashbacks in the narrative as well, when past events are related directly, without present-day comment from the person telling or remembering the tale. Examples of this direct style of flashback occur when Beloved first hears the story of Denver’s birth and when Paul D. recalls how the Plan went wrong. Deborah Horvitz notes in Studies in American Fiction that flashbacks play an important role in the novel, for they reflect one of its important themes. The flashbacks, the critic writes, “succeed in bridging the shattered generations by repeating meaningful and multi-layered images. That is, contained in the narrative strategy of the novel itself are both the wrenching, inter-generational separations and the healing process.”

Idiom refers to a word construction or verbal expression that is closely associated with a given language or dialect. For example, the English expression “a piece of cake” is sometimes used to describe a task that is easily done. In Beloved, Morrison makes use of idiom to help re-create the sense of a specific community, that of African Americans in Reconstruction Ohio. When the characters use words like “ain’t” and “reckon” and phrases like “sit down a spell,” it helps place their characters within that community. One particularly interesting example of this idiom is the way in which it describes people of different races. In compound words such as “whitegirl,” “blackman,” and “coloredpeople,” a person’s race is actually part of the word that describes them. This seems to indicate that there is a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, for if the only difference between them were color one would say “black woman” and “white woman.” Instead, the compound words seem to indicate that black and whites are entirely different creatures. These words thus reinforce one of the themes of the novel: that one of the foremost evils of slavery is the way in which it dehumanizes people, both black and white.

A motif (sometimes called a motiv or leitmotiv) is a theme, character type, image, metaphor, or other verbal element that is repeated throughout a piece of work. Throughout Beloved, there is one such motif that is repeated with regularity: a description of the characters’ eyes and how they see. “The eyes are windows to the soul,” goes the common saying, and the eyes of the novel’s characters are likewise revealing. Sethe, for instance, has had the “glittering iron” punched out of her eyes, “leaving two open wells that did not reflect firelight.” When schoolteacher catches up to Sethe, her eyes are so black she “looks blind,” and after too much conflict with Beloved her eyes turn “bright but dead, alert but vacant.” Similarly, the disturbing thing about Beloved’s eyes is not that the “whites of them were much too white” but that “deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all.” When Paul D. recalls his time on the chain gang in Georgia, he remembers that “the eyes had to tell what there was to tell” about what the men were feeling. When the schoolteacher comes upon the scene in the shed, he decides to turn back for home without claiming any of the survivors because he has had “enough nigger eyes for now.”

The way people use their eyes is also important. Denver thinks of her mother as one “who never looked away,” not even from pain or death. Paul D thinks he is safe from Beloved’s advances “as long as his eyes were locked on the silver of the lard can.” Denver thinks it is “lovely” the way that she is “pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes” of Beloved. It is shortly after Beloved asks Sethe, “you finished with your eyes?” that Sethe realizes Beloved is the ghost of her baby daughter. “Now,” she thinks, “I can look at things again because she’s here to see them too.” But as Beloved drains the energy from Sethe, “the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness.” When Paul D. wants to return to Sethe, he considers how he looks through other people’s eyes: “When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed.” Finally, however, he considers how he looks through Sethe’s eyes. After he does this, he returns to the only woman who “could have left him his manhood like that.”

Imagery refers to the use of images in a literary work. Critics frequently describe Morrison’s writing as “lyrical” or “poetic” because her use of vivid, powerful imagery. One such image is that of the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back. Instead of having the narrator give a simple description of the oozing wounds on Sethe’s back, Amy Denver describes it as a chokecherry tree, complete with sap, branches, leaves, and blossoms. The picture this comparison draws in the reader’s mind is much more disturbing than a straightforward description would be. This is just one example of how the author sets beautiful natural images in contrast to the horrors of slavery, the better to highlight its evil.

Places Discussed

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*Ohio River

*Ohio River. River separating the slave and free states that Sethe crosses while fleeing from Kentucky to Ohio. She gives birth to Beloved as she crosses the river. Years later, the child reappears to Sethe in mortal form along a riverbank. Toni Morrison’s choice of the Ohio River for these events is significant. One of America’s major maritime shipping routes, the Ohio extends from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and flows for nearly one thousand miles before joining the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois.

In the nineteenth century, the Ohio river was filled with passenger-carrying flatboats and paddle-wheel ferries and served as a central conveyance for families moving west to capitalize on the frontier’s promise of prosperity. In slave narratives from the same period, however, the Ohio River symbolized freedom. For slaves, crossing the Ohio River and making one’s way into the “free” state of Ohio was tantamount to entering a land in which one’s citizenship was honored.

Sweet Home

Sweet Home. North Kentucky plantation on which Sethe begins her life as a slave. Her flight from slavery in Sweet Home to Cincinnati is based on the historical story of a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner, who began killing her own children when it appeared she would be recaptured. When Garner was tried for her crime, she was charged not with murder but with theft—for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1856 by destroying the legal property of her family’s slave master.

That the Ohio River represented a physical demarcation between one way of life and another for so many African Americans in the nineteenth century is treated ironically by Morrison, for in no meaningful sense can Sethe be regarded as “free” in Ohio. Although she may be legally free there under the law, she is very much a prisoner of her experiences as a slave in Sweet Home. This is why Morrison presents the story not as a linear narrative but rather as a quilt, a tapestry. The kind of time that one can read on a clock and the kind of space that one can calculate on a map are of less importance in the novel than the protagonist’s experiences within a space-time continuum in which the past constantly intrudes upon the present. For instance, the novel distinguishes between “memory,” that is, the human capacity consciously to recall events that transpire in one’s life, and what Sethe experiences as “re-memory”—things that “just stay.”

Bluestone Road house

Bluestone Road house. Sethe’s Cincinnati home. The most important place in the novel, 124 Bluestone Road figures into every section of the book. Each of the novel’s three sections begins with a description of the mood of the house, as if the house itself were a living, breathing creature. The first part opens by describing the house as “spiteful”; the second part calls it “loud,” and the third part calls it “quiet.”

By the time the story begins, Sethe’s male children have been driven from her house by a paranormal presence that seems to haunt its timbers. The arrival of Paul D appears, at first, to signal a return to a more normal state of affairs. However, he soon also senses spirits hovering above the house’s stairwell that resent his presence and his command of Sethe’s attentions and do not wish him well. By the novel’s midpoint, the house drives Paul from Sethe’s bed. Later, he is driven from the house itself. Only after struggles in the novel’s last third is he able to return to the house.

With such a haunted house, Beloved might seem to be part of a long and honorable tradition of gothic tales, aligning it in particular with the nineteenth century psycho-gothic ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. However, this is only superficially true, as Beloved is about dramatizing the psychic pains of its protagonist. Beloved’s spiritual presence in the house is, effectively, Sethe’s own grief and guilt taking on something approaching perilous dimensions. The house has height, mass, and an architectural design to be sure. Sethe herself is no more delusional than her house is a fantasy. The house has all the things that one associates with what is “real.” However, the “reality” of 124 Bluestone Street in Cincinnati far exceeds what is normally meant by a “place,” for Morrison reminds readers that the most important places are those that one cannot leave behind.


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A child who has suffered a violent death haunts the house where her grandmother, mother, brothers, and sister live. The grandmother dies; the brothers disappear; the mother takes a lover; the sister grows up. The ghost grows up too, assumes a human form, and seduces and drives away the lover. Then she takes possession of the mother. So might run a plot summary of Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved. Yet Beloved is no ordinary ghost story. Brilliant, complex, haunted and haunting, it is a remarkable event in American fiction. With the stark, cathartic power of Greek tragedy, Beloved compels attention, on an intimate and personal scale, to the “Sixty Million and more” victims of slavery to whom the book is dedicated.

Morrison’s principal character is Sethe, a former slave. In 1873, when the novel opens, Sethe is living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Sethe works as a cook in a restaurant, but Denver never leaves the house, which, the reader is matter-of-factly informed, is haunted by the ghost of Denver’s sister, a baby whose throat was cut when she was not quite two. The dead baby’s tombstone reads, simply, “Beloved,” one of the two words Sethe remembers from her daughter’s funeral sermon; she paid for the inscription by having sex at the grave with the stone-carver. Over the years, Sethe and Denver have uneasily adjusted to the disappearance of Howard and Buglar, Sethe’s sons, and to the death of Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law; they have also learned to live with the ghost’s spiteful visitations. Then Paul D appears. Also a former slave, Paul D lived at the Kentucky farm called Sweet Home from which he and Sethe both escaped before the beginning of the Civil War. The two have not seen each other since the night the Sweet Home slaves tried to run. Each knows details about the escape of which the other is ignorant, and this knowledge, along with their shared history at Sweet Home, pulls them together. “The kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry,” Paul D moves into Sethe’s life, confronts Denver’s jealousy, and, with great dispatch, exorcises the dead baby’s ghost.

Since their terrifying escape from Sweet Home and its brutal aftermath, both Sethe and Paul D have “worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe,” but in each other’s presence their stories are slowly and inexorably revealed. Sethe comes to feel that “her story was bearable because it was his as well—to tell, to refine and tell again. The things neither knew about the other—the things neither had word-shapes for—well, it would come in time.” By the end of the book, Sethe and Paul D know everything, and so does the reader. Faithful to the complex processes of what Sethe calls “rememory,” Morrison’s method of unfolding her story bit by bit and her use of multiple points of view produces a relentless tension—in the reader, as well as in Sethe and Paul D—between the hunger to know what has happened to the Sweet Home slaves and an equally urgent desire to avoid that terrible knowledge. Sethe’s and Paul D’s reluctant yet insistent storytelling makes Beloved both excruciating to read and impossible to put down.

If Paul D’s dominant trait is his ability to stir women’s deepest feelings, Sethe’s is a maternal love so tender and fierce that it defies rationality. The context for her maternity is the slaveowners’ practice of breeding slaves as though they were animals and separating families so that slave parents were deprived of knowledge of their own children. “Men and women were moved around like checkers,” Morrison reminds her readers; “anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” Paul D cannot recall his mother, has never seen his father. Baby Suggs has known only one of her eight children as an adult. Sethe remembers the wet nurse who took her mother’s place, remembers too the hanging of her mother, who disposed of all of her children but Sethe because they were fathered by white men. At Sweet Home, Sethe’s unusually enlightened owners, the Garners, allow her to marry and to remain with her husband and growing family. When Mr. Garner dies, however, Sweet Home is taken over by a new master, called “schoolteacher,” who treats the slaves with cold cruelty. They decide to try to escape. At the appointed time, Sethe loads her sons and unweaned daughter onto a wagon, promising to get to them as soon as she can. Barefoot, pregnant with her fourth child, suffering from a savage beating, separated from her husband and from the other escaping slaves, Sethe gives birth on her way to Ohio and manages to get to her mother-in-law’s house in time to resume nursing her older daughter as well as the newborn Denver. Miraculously, she has milk enough for both. For a month she enjoys friends, her mother-in-law, and her children and begins “claiming ownership of [her] freed self.” Then schoolteacher appears to take the fugitive Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home, and Sethe, certain that death is better than life in slavery, commits the only act she is sure will keep herself and her children free: “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”

In the course of the novel’s long opening section, Morrison makes Sethe’s violence against her children entirely comprehensible. At the end of that section, when Paul D learns what Sethe has done, he moves out of the house, leaving Sethe and Denver with the mysterious young woman who has come to live with them at about the time of Paul D’s arrival. The woman calls herself Beloved, and Denver is convinced that she is the grown-up embodiment of her dead sister. Sethe is slower to recognize Beloved, but once her lover is gone, she perceives the truth. Becoming absorbed in this daughter who has come back from the dead, this daughter with whom she need no longer remember anything because Beloved knows it all already, Sethe loses her job and, eventually, her senses. By the end of part 2, which includes a series of luminous interior meditations on possession, the three women have closed their door against the world, “locked in a love that wore everybody out.” In the third section, Beloved’s insatiable craving for her mother threatens to consume Sethe completely: “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur.” Denver realizes that she must somehow rescue her mother from her ghost-sister, and her courage brings the novel to its moving and satisfying conclusion.

As characters, Paul D, Denver, Beloved, and especially “quiet, queenly” Sethe, her dark eyes so unwilling to see that they have the blank, stylized look of African or Greek sculpture, are completely convincing. Equally vivid are the many characters whom Sethe and Paul D remember, but who are now dead or missing. Each of these also has a story as startling as those of the foreground characters. Among the most memorable of these figures are Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs, the expert cobbler deemed “holy” because once freed, she is called to help other former slaves experience their freedom; Halle, Sethe’s husband, who works extra hours and days to buy his mother’s freedom from the Garners and who is driven mad by what happens to Sethe during the escape attempt; Sixo, the Sweet Home slave who walks thirty miles to see the woman he loves and whose flame-red tongue, indigo skin, and dying laugh Paul D cannot forget. Even the house where Sethe and Denver live, “peopled by the living activity of the dead,” takes on a vigorous human personality that varies with the mood of the ghost who haunts it.

The house belongs to the Bodwins, white abolitionists who allow Baby Suggs and then Sethe and her children to live there rent-free. Although the Bodwins’ generosity to freed and escaped slaves is legendary, they keep an open-mouthed pickaninny figurine, labeled “At Yo Service,” at their back door. Like the Garners, who “ran a special kind of slavery, treating [the slaves] like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known,” the Bodwins, though relatively admirable, are portrayed with serious reservations. Amy Denver, a white woman with good hands, is less objectionable; she tends Sethe’s wounded back and ruined feet and helps her give birth to the daughter who bears her name. Then there is schoolteacher, who runs Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies and who uses ink Sethe herself has made to record her animal characteristics, and there are schoolteacher’s nephews, boys with mossy teeth who hold Sethe down and steal her milk. For a time, Sethe thinks that she can discriminate among whites, but experience teaches her thatanybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself any more. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

Despite the punishing difficulty of its subject matter, Beloved leaves an impression less of anger than of profound astonishment—at the stunning cruelty of slavery, at the death-defying endurance of love, at the sharp beauty of the natural world. Morrison’s style in this book, as in her other novels, combines the magic of Afro-American idiom, the density of poetry, and the speed of the plainest prose; she has never written better. Over and over, her words “say things that are pictures.” Here is her description of a turnip: “A prettier thing God never made. White and purple with a tender tail and a hard head. Feels good when you hold it in your hand and smells like the creek when it floods, bitter but happy.” Her figurative language is often extravagant and daring: There are “berries that tasted like church,” “winter stars, close enough to lick,” “a dress so loud it embarrassed the needlepoint chair seat.” Her use of color is sometimes precisely literal, as with Paul D’s “peachstone” skin, and sometimes symbolic, as with any occurrence of red, Beloved’s color. The tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back, the scar which Paul D caresses and which Sethe has never seen, symbolizes her “sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches.”

Written with such generosity and intensity that the reader more than willingly suspends disbelief, Morrison’s ghost story about Sethe’s love and grief stands for the sixty million and more untold—perhaps untellable—stories that Americans black and white must hear. Beloved is a rich, intricate, and liberating book that leaves a permanent mark on the mind and heart. One can only be grateful to Toni Morrison for this magnificent gift.

Form and Content

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Beloved portrays the life of a former slave after the Civil War who is haunted by the horrors of her past. The stories told by the characters in the novel describe the dehumanization that results from slavery and eventually reveal Sethe’s dark secret: her murder of her baby daughter eighteen years ago, when Sethe was caught following an escape attempt. Sethe killed her baby so that the child would not have to live as a slave, without dignity and in a world where her body would be used for a master’s pleasure and for the reproduction of his “property.” Beloved, the spirit of Sethe’s dead baby, returns as a woman of twenty to the house where Sethe and her daughter Denver live. Taking her name from the word on her tombstone, Beloved demands compensation from Sethe for her missing childhood.

The novel begins with visits from Paul D, one of the former slaves at Sweet Home in Kentucky, and from Beloved. Urged to tell stories, Sethe recalls memories of the past that she has long buried. She was owned by a humane master at Sweet Home, where she married Halle and gave birth to three children. After the master’s death, a new master, Schoolteacher, tried to dehumanize his slaves, which led to their escape attempt. While the other slaves failed in their attempt, Sethe sent her children ahead to the North.

Unable to find her husband, Sethe, pregnant and barefoot, succeeded in arriving in Cincinnati, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs waited with the children. On the way, Sethe gave birth to Denver in a boat on a river with the help of a white woman. Before she left Sweet Home, she was whipped by her master. Upon her arrival in Cincinnati, Baby Suggs attended to the tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back and nursed her back to health. A month later, when the master came to capture her and her children, Sethe instinctively tried to kill her children, cutting her baby’s throat with a handsaw and almost dashing out Denver’s brains before she was stopped.

After eighteen years of alienation from her community, Sethe now rejoices with Paul D’s visit. Soon after, she enjoys her reunion with Beloved. Yet the appearance of this young woman is an ominous one: Baby Suggs soon dies in distrust of God, Sethe’s two sons run away from home, and Paul D leaves upon learning of the murder and being made unwelcome by Beloved. In addition, Beloved’s demands eventually exhaust Sethe. Denver soon recognizes Beloved as the ghost that has been seen in the house and believes that she is her dead sister. Although Denver enjoys Beloved’s company, she ventures into the outside world when Sethe’s exhaustion becomes unbearable—a world from which she has been isolated by her mother’s actions. She asks neighbors for food and work, which they provide for her. Soon the women in the community gather to exorcise the ghost from Sethe’s house. Confronted by a chorus of thirty singing women, Beloved vanishes. Paul D comes back to see Sethe and tries to inspire in her a will to live and an ability to realize her own worth.


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Beloved provides a feminist’s perspective on historical writing. As such, it challenges the accepted content and narrative mode of historical documents. Morrison shines a light on those who have been silenced and marginalized by history. She chooses to focus on a slave woman’s act of murder as a historical incident to be narrated, and she recounts it through a tradition of storytelling which is the principal literary form in African American culture. Morrison’s achievement in Beloved is having contributed to the recording of an important part of American history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

Morrison is primarily concerned with the psychological trauma that social conditions create by showing how the protagonist’s alienation and despair result from her experience in slavery. One of the social conditions that Morrison reveals is that only white males such as Schoolteacher have the authority to record history and determine literary tradition. She also provides evidence of African American women’s double suppression because of their gender and race. These concerns are still the central problems of many women’s lives in the author’s contemporary society.

The reality of such problems is not foreign to Morrison, who has faced some obstacles as an African American woman writer. Despite its high literary quality, achieved through a unique narrative style and the use of symbolism and poetic imagery, Beloved was overlooked by two major literary prizes, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. These oversights brought controversy, and many African American writers and critics demanded recognition of Morrison’s achievement in Beloved. Eventually, the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Moreover, Morrison won international recognition when she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature; she is the eighth woman and the first black woman to win the prize.

Historical Context

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The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
One of the central events of the novel—Sethe’ s attack on her children—is described as “her rough response to the Fugitive Bill.” Prior to 1850, U.S. law permitted slave owners to attempt to recover escaped slaves, but state authorities were under no obligation to assist them. Many Northerners saw aiding and protecting fugitive slaves as one way to combat the evil of slavery. Escaped slaves who settled in free states were therefore relatively safe from capture, since their abolitionist communities rarely cooperated with slave owners. This sense of safety was jeopardized by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

As America expanded her borders, slavery was a continuing source of controversy. The addition of territory acquired in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 sparked heated debates over the status of slavery in these new lands. When Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot proposed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part” of the territory acquired from Mexico, Southern states strongly objected. The Wilmot Proviso was defeated, and Kentucky congressman Henry Clay brokered a new deal. The resulting Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills designed to satisfy both North and South. As well as admitting California as a free state and allowing Utah and New Mexico to decide the slavery issue for themselves, the Compromise of 1850 enacted a much stricter fugitive slave law. Under this law, fugitive slaves were denied a jury trial, facing a court-appointed commissioner instead. This commissioner received ten dollars for certifying delivery of an alleged slave, but only five dollars when he refused it. And not only did federal officials take part in the capture and return of fugitives, but they could compel citizens to help enforce the law—and jail or fine them if they refused.

Anti-slavery forces were outraged by this new law, and often took matters into their own hands to combat it. In cities such as Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Syracuse, New York, and Christiana, Pennsylvania, mobs rescued alleged fugitives from their captors and in some cases even killed slave owners. Less confrontational forms of protest increased as well, as the new law inspired an increase in organized assistance to slaves such as the Underground Railroad. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired by the Fugitive Slave Law to write her classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Despite these very visible activities protesting the law, most Northerners complied with it. Of an estimated two hundred African Americans arrested during its enforcement, only twenty were released or rescued; the remainder returned to slavery.

The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan
Even after the abolition of slavery ended the threat of being returned to servitude, African Americans still found their rights and even lives in danger. Many white Southerners found Reconstruction Act of 1867—the Republican government’s plan for returning the South to the Union—difficult to swallow. This act replaced the mostly all-white state governments created after the war with five military districts. Each district had 20,000 troops, commanded by a Union general. Southern states were forced to grant new rights to African Americans, and more than a dozen black congressmen and two senators were elected. In response to what they perceived as Republican oppression, white Southerners formed a secret society whose aim was to intimidate these unwanted administrators. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew from a social club into a terrorist organization that used arson, beatings, and even murder to achieve their ends.

Klan activity stepped up after the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all men the right to vote, was passed in 1870. Not only did this amendment ensure the voting rights of Southern blacks, it expanded the right to vote to African Americans in Northern states. Klan activity was similarly expanded, as its violence spread to northern states. In Beloved, Paul D. considers Cincinnati “infected by the Klan,” which he calls “desperately thirsty for black blood.” The KKK terrorized African Americans to keep them from voting, often with great success. Many African Americans were murdered, and their killers had little fear of prosecution. To combat this violence, Congress passed the Ku Klux Act in 1871, which strengthened the penalties for interfering with elections. This led to almost three thousand indictments that year, and the 1872 elections were relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, the Klan had demonstrated its strength, and after the last federal troops left the South in 1877, white supremacists were free to establish a deeply segregated society that openly oppressed African Americans until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Toni Morrison and the Post-Aesthetic Movement
Mirroring their increased presence in politics, African Americans also became highly visible as writers during the 1960s. Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston had been prominent in the 1920s, while Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison achieved both literary and popular acclaim in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of these works were popular because of the way they were able to interpret the black experience for a white audience. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, writers within the “Black Aesthetic Movement” attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the black masses. Writers such as Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez created works which highlighted the disparity between blacks and whites and affirmed the value of African-American culture, thus creating a sense of pride and identity in the black community.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, many African-American writers chose a slightly different approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between blacks and whites in America—and thus placing themselves within or against a white social context—these “Post-Aesthetic” writers used a wholly African-American context for their work. Instead of looking to the outside world for solutions or validation, the African Americans in these works found answers within their own families or communities. Toni Morrison is considered one of the most prominent writers within this Post-Aesthetic movement, which includes such authors as Alice Walker, Kristin Hunter, and John Edgar Wideman. By emphasizing the importance of family and community in dealing with life’s challenges, Morrison’s Beloved provides a notable example of this literary movement.

Literary Techniques

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Beloved is, with the later Jazz, (1992) Morrison’s most experimental novel and in its firm control of time and memory it indicates a writer in clear control of her art form. Critics often develop extended linguistic analyses of the opening paragraphs, of Baby Suggs’s sermons in the Clearing, of the monologues at the center of the book, or of the final chapter; these studies testify to the richness of Morrison’s prose. The gradual layering of memory and the struggles to come to terms with it maintain narrative suspense while suggesting profound thematic implications. These innovations remind readers that Morrison wrote a graduate thesis on the writings of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

In most of her novels Morrison has been preoccupied with the problems of knowledge, of representing each character as knowing part of the story, and of the need for synthesis. For example, the story of Sethe’s being helped to birth Denver on the way to freedom by the white girl is actually reconstructed by Denver and Beloved after many tellings in which Denver has resisted Sethe’s insistence on the perils of the journey. This technique of gradually revealing layers of information challenges the novice reader, but it rewards deliberate re-reading with insight.

The most extraordinary innovation, however, is the series of three dramatic monologues and a trilogue at the center of the book. Drawing on her own essay title, Morrison calls these chapters “unspeakable things unspoken” that Stamp Paid overheard but could not understand. In these she employs the strategy of a Shakespearian soliloquy, in which the random thoughts and ponderings of a character are expressed in organized form. In these the characters’ desires, hopes, and repressed memories come to the surface. Sethe tells us, for example, how very bitterly she resented the abuse by Schoolteacher’s nephews, and how she looked to her mother’s rebellion as a role model; she also tells us that she stayed alive after killing Beloved only to address needs of her surviving children. Denver, who has seemed a shadowy character to this point, is given psychological depth preparing her for her role as the family’s liberator as she comes to terms with her veneration of the absent Halle and her fear of Sethe.

Of course it is Beloved’s soliloquy that will command many readers’ attention. Composed in a stream-of-consciousness format with little punctuation, the monologue takes us beyond individual to collective experience. It synthesizes the needs of a child who has been abandoned by her mother, with the recollections of horrors of burial and the hold of a slave ship in passage. In the monologue readers come to understand and sympathize with Beloved’s obsession with Sethe and the case that is to made for her resentment of being denied even a slave’s life. But readers also see the possessiveness and the capacity of that obsession to evolve into a life-draining hunger to possess Sethe’s very existence.

The final section is the height of Morrison’s technical innovation. It begins as a supplementary monologue by Beloved, but evolves quickly into a symphony of the three female voices in 124. At times readers cannot tell for certain which individual voice is speaking; that reinforces the synthesis the novel creates, as the merging identities produce both beauty and terror, for the women are one, but in being one they lose portions of their individuality. In the four monologues, the line between prose and poetry evaporates; language becomes the true instrument and subject of the novel’s central meditation.

Social Concerns

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Throughout her work, Morrison has probed the effects of physical dislocation and cultural alienation on African-American communities. Behind this quest lies her awareness that cultural conditions all Americans face have their origins in the most heinous institution this country has ever embraced, slavery. Although The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973) were concerned primarily with the effects of migrations that occurred early in this century, readers were often reminded that contemporary characters’ ancestors fled from a Jim Crow culture in the South, itself a consequence of slavery and the Civil War. Characters as diverse as Geraldine or Cholly Breedlove in The Bluest Eye were scarred by humiliations they received in the South, and one family deliberately practiced inbreeding to preserve the white features that came about when the slave masters impregnated slave women. In Song of Solomon (1977), Milkman’s quest takes him back into slave times, when heroes like his great-grandfather became the stuff of legend by flying back to Africa rather than submitting to slavery. In Beloved, Morrison takes up another slave’s flight; she confronts the slave culture directly and tells a ghost story about the consequences of slavery for a community of ex-slaves.

Much of the novel’s risk comes from the graphic, painful descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves. The humiliation of Sethe, in which the plantation manager’s “nephews” pinion her and take milk she has produced for her child, then beat and abuse her, leaves scars that are physical, scar tissue shaped like a tree on her back, as well as emotional scars, a feeling of vulnerability that is later intensified when she learns that her husband Halle, trapped in a hayloft, saw this abuse but would have risked death by trying to save her. Halle, in some ways the novel’s most admirable character, lost his self-esteem and abandoned Sethe out of the shame he felt because he could not intervene. Sethe can hardly remember her mother, except as a rebellious field slave who wore the bit and was eventually hanged for being impertinent to the masters. Paul D, Sethe’s lover years later, tells harrowing stores about imprisonment and the degradation exslaves had to undergo as well as the shame of recognizing that a barnyard rooster had more autonomy than a slave man had.

These stories, and the harrowing psychological trauma experienced by slaves whose parents, life-partners, and children faced sale as the owners’ economic fortunes dictated, or imprisonment and even death if an owner were displeased, paint a horrifying picture of slave life, one Morrison herself feared might diminish interest in the book. But it was a story she needed to tell, one both African-Americans and Euro-Americans needed to hear.

Morrison dedicated the novel to “Sixty Million and More,” an estimate of Africans who never made it into slavery suggested by her research — these died as captives in Africa or on the ocean passage. When she compiled The Black Book (1974) during the 1970s, a terrifying newspaper story from that collection stayed with her. Runaway slave Margaret Gardner tried to destroy her children, actually killing one in the process, when she and they faced re-enslavement. For Morrison, this variation on the classical story of Medea, a “barbarian” who killed her children to punish her unfaithful husband, was the most powerful possible indictment of slavery. Like her fictional manifestation Sethe Suggs, Gardner paradoxically expressed love by killing her child rather than allowing her to grow up enslaved. As critics often point out, this resembles Eva Peace’s incinerating her drug-dependent son rather than watch him grow completely dependent in Sula. Like Gardner’s and Seine’s, Eva’s act is a perverse expression of love, a choice forced on her. But it is forced by her son’s weakness. By contrast Sethe’s daughter is innocent and precocious (her “crawling-already? baby”); Eva ritualistically prepares Plum for his immolation, whereas Sethe spontaneously slits her daughter’s throat with a rusty saw blade.

A central intention of Beloved, then, involves readers in an unwelcome confrontation with our cultural past. We must confront, through the characters’ memories of a place ironically called “Sweet Home” — Paul D says it was neither sweet nor home — horrible things America’s ancestors did. Morrison depicts graphically the agony of women who as slaves must give up their children to be sold to other owners and who face the constant threat of molestation by the slave owners. She also shows the attempt at unmanning African-American males that was part of the slave enterprise. One of the “Sweet Home men,” Sixo, accused of stealing a pig, attempts to turn the accusation into a joke but the plantation manger “beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers — not to the defined.” When caught attempting to run away, Sixo is cruelly burned at a stake but gains two Pyrrhic victories: his taunting laughter forces the whites to shoot him rather than subject him to the lasting torture of burning; and he believes his pregnant life-mate will succeed in the escape he planned.

Morrison holds up to us not merely the physical and psychological horrors of slavery. Sweet Home was apparently one of the less heinous plantations; the Garners were no Simon Legrees. They did, however, traffic in human life, and Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, recalls a series of losses of her children until Mr. Garner permitted Halle to buy his mother’s freedom by contracting extra labor. As Baby Suggs realizes, she is an old woman with little time on this earth and limited commodity value to any owner, whereas her hearty son remains a slave, along with her other surviving children. And her owner advises her to change her name because “Baby Suggs,” while appropriate for a slave, is no suitable name for a freed woman.

Critic Terry Otten invokes holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt’s term “nice Nazis” to describe the owners of Sweet Home. Although not themselves physically cruel, they perpetuate an institution that fosters cruelty and dehumanizes both its victims and those who profit by it. After Mr. Garner’s death, however, the plantation is run by his widow’s brother, Schoolteacher, whose ubiquitous notebook represents an anthropological effort to justify institutional racism. Like the phrenologist in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) who measures Europeans who venture into Africa to learn whether physiological change suggests more subtle metamorphoses, Schoolteacher probes, measures, calibrates, and records to create a scientific justification for slavery. He tells his associates to quantify Sethe’s “human” and “animal” characteristics, but does not interfere when the “nephews” abuse her. His arrival in Cincinnati drives Sethe to kill Beloved. And even eighteen years later Sethe tells Beloved that she will never have to submit to Schoolteacher’s measurements and notebooks, in an attempt to explain why she killed her child. He is the monster whose intellect finds ways to justify even the most oppressive and inhuman institution.

Literary Precedents

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As is true of most truly original works of fiction, Beloved draws on many literary and folklore precedents. The method of interweaving sections of the narrative from many sources and arranging the narrative thematically rather than chronologically has affinities with many modernist novels, especially those of Faulkner and Woolf, whose work Morrison studied closely in graduate school. While Beloved shares narrative as well as epistemological qualities with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) it is an original application of those subtle storytelling strategies.

In terms of content the novel owes much to three distinct traditions, the combination of which sheds light on Morrison’s original talent. Insofar as it is a slave narrative, the book contributes to an emerging canon of narratives by slaves and ex-slaves that has recently emerged to challenge and complete the widely-read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), a polemical antislavery novel of the nineteenth century, and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a commentary by an ex-slave on the ignominy of the institution. Shortly before Morrison wrote the novel, poet Robert Hayden’s magnificent but distressing “Middle Passage” created a similarly disturbing artistic representation of the degree to which the slave trade dehumanized the traders and wasted the lives and hopes of the captives.

Beloved also draws on classical literature in its treatment of the theme of infanticide. Sethe’s act contrasts with Medea’s vengeful slaying her children to punish Jason, the Greek hero who was an unfaithful husband, and Procne, who served her son as food to his father for raping her sister Philomela — this story also forms a morbid center to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Unlike her classical predecessors, however, Sethe’s child-killing was neither premeditated nor an act of vengeance. It was an act of love, an effort to preserve her baby from the clutches of the slave owners.

Finally, the novel can be seen as part of the tradition of ghost literature and the stories of hauntings of guilty parties. All the ex-slaves believe in ghosts, as does Morrison herself. Ella, who leads the successful rescue of Sethe, sums up the community’s view of ghosts by saying she respects those who keep their ghostly dimension, but draws the line when ghosts “took flesh and came in her world … She didn’t mind a little communication between the worlds, but this was an invasion.” Beloved gives the typically frivolous ghost story a new seriousness in her study of guilt and the quest for forgiveness.

Media Adaptations

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After a decade of working to bring the novel to the screen, producer-star Oprah Winfrey finally brought out a film version of Beloved in 1998. Directed and co-produced by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, the film starred Winfrey as Sethe, Danny Glover as Paul D., Kimberly Elise as Denver, and Thandie Newton as Beloved.

An unabridged audio recording of Beloved by the author is available from Random House Audio; an abridged version read by actress Lynn Whitfield is also available from Random House Audio.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Margaret Atwood, “Haunted by Their Nightmares,” in New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, pp. 1, 49-50.

Martha Bayles, “Special Effects, Special Pleading,” in New Criterion, Vol. VI, No. 5, January, 1988, pp. 34-40.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

Susan Bowers, “Beloved and the New Apocalypse,” in Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 59-77.

Rosellen Brown, “The Pleasure of Enchantment,” in Nation, Vol. 245, No. 12, October 17, 1987, pp. 418-21.

Walter Clemons, “A Gravestone of Memories,” in Newsweek, Vol. CX, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 74-75.

Stanley Crouch, “Aunt Medea,” in New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 16, October 19, 1987, pp. 38-43.

Dubois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Mari Evans, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Appiah, K.A., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, Inc., 1993.

Deborah Horvitz, “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol.17,No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 157-67.

Elizabeth House, “Toni Morrison’s Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol.18,No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 17-26.

Carol Iannone, “Toni Morrison’s Career,” in Commentary, Vol. 84, No. 6, December, 1987, pp. 59-63.

Michiko Kakutani, “Did ‘Paco’s Story’ Deserve Its Award?,” in New York Times, November 16, 1987, p. C15.

Charles Larson, review of Beloved, in Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1987.

John Leonard, review of Beloved, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 30, 1987.

Lingley, Charles Ramsdell and Foley, Allen Richard. Since the Civil War–Third Edition. New York: Century Co., Inc., 1935.

McKay, Nellie Y., ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988.

Eusebio L. Rodrigues, “The Telling of Beloved,” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 153-69.

Carol Rumens, “Shades of the Prison-House,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4411, October 16-22, 1987, p. 1135.

Barbara Schapiro, “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 194-210.

Amy E. Schwartz, “Beloved: It’s Not a Question of Who Suffered More,” in Washington Post, April 3, 1988, p. B7.

Ann Snitow, “Death Duties: Toni Morrison Looks Back in Sorrow,” in Voice Literary Supplement, No. 58, September, 1987, pp. 25-6.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction 1865–1877. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1966.

Jean Strouse, “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic,” in Newsweek, March 30, 1981, pp. 52-57.

Judith Thurman, “A House Divided,” in New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 37, November 2, 1987, pp. 175-80.

Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison, Alan Benson, R.M. Arts, 52 min., Public Media, Inc., 1987.

A Conversation with Toni Morrison, Matteo Bellinelli, 25 min., RTSI–Swiss Television, “In Black and White: Part 3.”

For Further Study
Marilyn Judith Atlas, “Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Reviewers,” in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVII, 1990, pp. 45-57. A thorough survey of critical response to the novel prior to its winning the Pulitzer Prize. The critic suggests that the difficulties critics have had in interpreting the novel lie in its sensitive subject matter and complex design.

Bernard W. Bell, “Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past,” in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 7-15. Discusses Beloved as an exploration of the “double consciousness” of Black Americans.

Eileen T. Bender, “Repossessing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” in Cultural Power/Cultural Literacy: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film, edited by Bonnie Braendlin, Florida State University Press, 1991, pp. 129-42. Argues that Beloved is Morrison’s meditated reaction against the sentimental stereotypes of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel. According to Bender, Morrison’s novel represents a “new act of emancipation for a culture still enslaved by false impressions and factitious accounts.”

Patrick Bryce Bjork, “Beloved: The Paradox of a Past and Present Self and Place,” in his Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Selfand Place within the Community, Peter Lang Publishing, 1992, pp. 141-62.
Examines the contradictions of personal identity and memory in Morrison’s novel.

Marilyn R. Chandler, “Housekeeping and Beloved: When Women Come Home,” in her Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 291-318. Analyzes Beloved and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping “under the rubric of house and home as ideas in relation to which women in every generation and in every situation have had to ‘work out their salvation’ and define their identities.”

Marsha Jean Darling, “Ties That Bind,” in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 6, March, 1988, pp. 4-5.
Praises Beloved as a masterpiece of historical fiction which “challenges, seduces, cajoles and enjoins us to visualize, contemplate, to know, feel and comprehend the realities of the material world of nineteenth-century Black women and men.”

Christina Davis, “Beloved: A Question of Identity,” in Présence Africaine, No. 145, 1988, pp. 151-56. Extols Morrison’s gift for giving expression to the subjective consciousness of Sethe, a slave whose voice “is clear, its pain full of anguish, its beauty unbearable, its truth stunning.”

Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, “Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women’s Individuation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 51-59. Argues that Beloved “develops the idea that maternal bonds can stunt or even obviate a woman’s individuation or sense of self,” and that “the conclusion of the book effects a resolution of the tension between history and nature which underlies the movement of the work as a whole.”

John N. Duvall, “Authentic Ghost Stories: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Absalom, Absalom!, and Beloved,” in Faulkner Journal, Vol. IV, Nos. 1 and 2, Fall, 1988-Spring, 1989, pp. 83-97.
Compares the ghost story elements in novels by Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Faulkner.

Karen E. Fields, “To Embrace Dead Strangers: Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 159-69. Calls the novel a profound “meditation on the nature of love,” examining how the characters use relationships to attempt to create order out of chaos.

Anne E. Goldman, “‘I Made the Ink’: (Literary) Production and Reproduction in Dessa Rose and Beloved,” in Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 313-30. Argues that Beloved and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose “comment implicitly on the gap between mainstream critical theories and modern literary practice” by their construction of strong heroines who integrate themselves through writing, in contrast to the narrative fragmentation of post-modern fiction.

Trudier Harris, “Of Mother Love and Demons,” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 387-89. Analyzes Morrison’s treatment of the “mother love” theme in Beloved. Harris argues that in “exorcising” Beloved “the women favor the living over the dead, mother love over childish punishment of parents, reality over the legend of which they have become a part.”

Karla F. C. Holloway, “Beloved: A Spiritual,” in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 516-25.
Critiques Beloved as a mythic revisioning within an African-American literary tradition.

Carl D. Malmgren, “Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 96-106. Notes Beloved’s incorporation of elements from various genres, including the ghost story and historical novel, and argues that “[it] is the institution of slavery that supplies the logic underwriting the novel, the thematic glue that unifies this multi-faceted text.”

Barbara Hill Rigney, “‘A Story to Pass On’: Ghosts and the Significance of History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 229-35. Explains the meaning of history in Beloved as “the reality of slavery. The ‘rememories’ are a gross catalogue of atrocities, gross sexual indignities, a denial of human rights on every level.”

Mervyn Rothstein, “Toni Morrison, in Her New Novel, Defends Women,” in New York Times, August 26, 1987, p. C17. Interview with Morrison about the genesis of Beloved.

Danille Taylor-Guthrie, editor, Conversations with Toni Morrison, University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A collection of interviews with the author, including one with Gail Caldwell on the writing of Beloved.


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Anderson, Linda, ed. Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1990. Offers feminist criticism on the novels of Morrison and other women authors whose writing questions traditional modes of thought. The first part of the essay on Beloved examines historical novels by women, and the latter part analyzes the work and provides strong commentary on Morrison’s reinterpretation of historical writing.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Includes sections on the “story behind the story,” the novel’s characters, and the general critical reaction to its publication, as well as more focused scholarly essays analyzing themes and issues in Beloved.

Bowers, Susan. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 18, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 59-77. Discusses the novel in the tradition of African American apocalyptic writing. Concludes that the book maps a new direction for the African American apocalyptic tradition that is more instructive and powerful than the versions used by writers of the 1960’s.

Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Puts forth the argument that African American folklore is the basis for most African American literature and that Morrison transforms historical folk materials in her novels, creating what Harris terms “literary folklore,” allowing no dichotomy between form and substance. The study examines The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved based on this theory.

Holloway, Karla F. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 516-525. An analysis of the literary and linguistic devices that facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women’s experiences. Also treats the mythological basis of the novel.

McDowell, Margaret. “The Black Woman as Artist and Critic: Four Versions.” The Kentucky Review 7 (Spring, 1987): 19-41. Discusses the significance of the work of Morrison and other African American women writers because of the broadness of their inquiry and the intensity of their commitment to issues related to art, race, and gender.

Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Focuses on the analysis of the entire body of Morrison’s work, giving a thorough character and thematic analysis of the author’s novels through Beloved.

Simpson, Ritashona. Black Looks and Black Acts: The Language of Toni Morrison in “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved.” New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Focuses on Morrison’s successful struggle to represent African American lanuage and linguistic traditions without relying on nonstandard grammar or syntax. The author, Simpson argues, chooses language that “acts black” over language that “looks black.”

Spaulding, A. Timothy. “Ghosts, Haunted Houses, and the Legacy of Slavery: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Gothic Impulse.” In Re-forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. Discusses Beloved in the context of a broader movement toward representing the history of slavery in the United States through the lens of the supernatural and the subversion of realist narrative conventions.

Weinstein, Philip M. What Else but Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Extended discussion of the representation of race’s effects on loving relationships—from parent-child to romantic—by two of the United States’ greatest authors. Includes a chapter juxtaposing Beloved with Light in August (1932).




Love Summary
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Love is a novel by Toni Morrison published in 2003 that follows the life and death of a hotel owner named Bill Cosey.

Summarizing the plot, however, is a somewhat arduous task because of Morrison’s non-chronological, fragmented narrative style. Here is my best attempt.

Bill Cosey was the successful millionaire owner of Cosey’s Hotel and Resort, a high-end vacation spot for wealthy African Americans, mostly from the East Coast. Cosey was married twice, and his second wife, Heed, was only eleven at the time, in addition to being the best friend of Cosey’s granddaughter (via his deceased son Billy Boy and Billy Boy’s widow May, called Christine).

The novel explains how different events in the Civil Rights Movement impacted Cosey’s businesses in the 1960s, before its eventual closing in the 1980s.

The central conflict, however, is between Heed and Christine, both of whom occupy the former resort building. Each woman believes she is entitled to Cosey’s hotly contested, barely-there will because of her connection to him. The two women despise each other, and each works to gain the sole ownership of Cosey’s inheritance.

Heed even hires a phony named Junior, a young delinquent who begins having an affair with fourteen-year-old Romen, the grandson of one of Bill Cosey’s former fishing buddies, who works for both Heed and Christine.

The novel, at various points, introduces other women who were present in Cosey’s life. L, as the former cook at the resort, seems to have the most reasonable impression of Cosey as both a good and a bad man. The reader is also introduced to Celestial, a sex worker with whom Cosey fell in love.

By the novel’s end, Heed and Christine are finally able to reconcile to an extent, largely based on a common understanding that their hatred and fighting were the result of Cosey’s moral failings. Christine remarks that both women “sold [themselves] to the highest bidder,” perhaps meaning that Cosey was an ideal they tried to please and that in so doing, each gave up her independent identity.

Overall, the novel tries to examine the various meanings of love, family, and the African American experience through the lives of these female characters who all knew the same troubled yet charismatic myth of a man.


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Love is a carefully structured novel with a prologue and nine chapters devoted to the characters’ stories and their different, often contradictory, perceptions of Bill Cosey. Together, these chapters span a sixty-year period and represent the way racial segregation and the process of desegregation shape the lives of the Cosey family. To the local African American community, Cosey’s Hotel and Resort, catering exclusively to African Americans with its procession of famous jazz musicians and wealthy guests, offered a fairytale image of success during the Jim Crow period. While Bill himself was a role model of African American achievement to his guests and the locals, the different chapters in the novel suggest the tensions, bitter resentments, and misunderstandings brewing in Bill’s immediate family, and they question Bill’s roles as a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and benefactor.

Alhough he died over twenty years earlier, Bill’s influence upon Christine and Heed is still palpable in the 1990’s. They may have loved each other as children, but now they are enemies. Bill’s will, a note scribbled on a menu from 1958, is not specific enough; it leaves everything to that “sweet Cosey child,” and both Cosey women have a claim to that title: Christine is Bill’s granddaughter, while Heed was his child bride and called him “Papa.” Heed employs Junior to find a later will, and Christine visits a lawyer after pilfering the housekeeping money. The two women live at war in their Monarch Street house, while Junior establishes a sexual relationship with Romen, who is fourteen.

Behind the novel’s tight focus on the personal history of the Cosey family lies the public history of U.S. segregation and the movement toward desegregation. Working under the Jim Crow laws that separated African Americans and white people in public places such as schools, trains and buses, theaters, and resorts, Bill necessarily made some concessions to the white power structure to keep his establishment open and thriving. His friendship with the local sheriff, Chief Buddy Silk, resulted in morally dubious deep-sea fishing excursions and eventually in the sheriff developing and naming a town after himself.

The novel incorporates historical events of the 1950’s and 1960’s, including the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawing segregation in public schools, the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, sit-ins, the murder of fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till in Mississippi, and the Freedom Riders who fought the segregation of buses in the South. These events shake the security of the Cosey family, as white people in the South react violently to the quest for African American equality. After race riots and the death of a mixed-race couple at the resort, May Cosey, Bill’s daughter-in-law, is terrified that the hotel will be closed and someone will be lynched. Once African Americans achieve legal equality in the 1960’s, the resort begins to allow local African Americans to visit it, as its more wealthy patrons from other regions have acquired a wider variety of potential vacation spots. Heed must pay the sheriff’s son, Boss Silk, more protection money and finally resort to blackmail in order to keep the business afloat, until it finally closes in the 1980’s.

Sources for Further Study

Morrison, Toni. Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. In her foreword to this pictorial history covering the years from 1954 through the 1990’s, Morrison refers to “a time in American life where there was as much hate as there was love; as much anger as there was hope; as many heroes as cowards.”

Pinckney, Darryl. “Hate.” Review of Love, by Toni Morrison. The New York Review of Books 50, no. 19 (December 4, 2003). Outlines the novel’s plot and points to Morrison’s “straightforward” but rich prose, her warring characters, and her evocation of African American history.

Roynon, Tessa. “A New ’Romen’ Empire: Toni Morrison’s Love and the Classics.” Journal of American Studies 41, no. 1 (2007): 31-47. Links the representation of rape in literature and history to classical works from Greece and Rome and classic American texts. Argues that the representation of rape in Love reveals and critiques the representation of traditional heroic masculine acts in literature and history as empowering colonization.

Rymer, Russ. American Beach: How “Progress” Robbed a Black Town—and Nation—of History, Wealth, and Power. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000. Provides a history of one of the many African American resorts that, like Morrison’s fictional one, flourished prior to integration and collapsed when schools and vacation spots were desegregated.

Wardi, Anissa Jane. “A Laying on of Hands: Toni Morrison and the Materiality of Love.” MELUS 30, no. 3 (Fall, 2005): 201-218. Analyzes the abstract concept of love as practical, healing action in the novel, focusing particularly on the materiality of touch, compassion, healing, and nurturing.

Love Themes
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An important theme in Love, which is evident from the opening pages, is the issue of violence against women. At the outset, Romen refuses to participate in a horrendous gang-rape. Christine’s relationship with her boyfriend ends because he didn’t react appropriately when a fellow-agitator in the civil rights movement was raped. And then there is the (presumed) statutory rape of Heed, whom Bill Cosey marries when she is only eleven, the same age as his granddaughter, Christine.

Of course, as the title suggest, the novel also deals with the love. This is a theme that’s explored in many of Morrison’s books, including Beloved and The Bluest Eye. Here, the focus is not so much on the nature of love or the idea of love. Pierre Reverdy is supposed to have said “There is no love, there are only proofs of love.” One might say that Love explores what these ‘proofs’ might consists in. Morrison is concerned not with the abstraction but with the materiality of love and her constant reference to hands might be taken as evidence of her interest in materiality. Another aspect of love is brought out through the absent yet omnipresent Bill Cosey: he is dead, yet all the women in the novel continue to have a close relationship with him. Every single chapter of the book refers to him. Thus, love is also explored as something that crosses the boundaries of life and death.

Themes and Meanings

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Love is ostensibly absent from this novel until its final pages, though its presence is suggested by some characters’ actions. Love masquerades as lust, possession, infatuation, envy, delusion, self-interest, romance, and even hatred. Christine mistakenly believes that her mother sent her away to school at the age of thirteen because Bill wanted her gone. In fact, the predatory sheriff noticed the beautiful girl, and Bill sent her away for her own safety. Heed, meanwhile, concocts a romantic fantasy around her relationship with Bill. Each woman mistakenly believes that by proving herself to be the true beneficiary of Bill’s will, she will prove that he loved her best. In the novel’s denouement, they both recognize that they have always loved each other.

Masculine power and sexuality are also themes in Love, in scenes of gang rape, sexual activity on Bill’s fishing boat, and racially motivated rape during the Civil Rights movement. Romen’s initial willingness to participate in a gang rape designed to prove the teenage boys’ masculinity turns to compassion for the victim, as he rescues the victim and is ridiculed by his peers. Something similar happens on the fishing boat trips, as women, and white and African American men play at role reversals, creating a counterfeit world that reinforces masculinity and white power in the real world.

Love Characters
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Love is a novel published in 2003 by the African American novelist Toni Morrison. The protagonist of the novel is William (Bill) Cosey, a successful African American entrepreneur who ran Cosey’s Hotel and Resort, a luxurious establishment that offered performances by leading jazz musicians and catered to the African-American community. The action of the novel begins after his death and portrays, in a non-linear fashion, how his heritage transforms and is transformed by the changing role of African Americans in society.

An important character is L, a cook who worked for the resort and acts in a choral fashion to fill readers in on the events of the story.

In terms of plot, the most important characters are four women connected to Bill: his lover Celestial, his second wife, Heed, his daughter-in-law May, and his granddaughter Christine. These women have various conflicts with one another over Bill’s legacy.

A love affair between two local teens, a boy named Romen and a girl named Junior, forms another subplot.

The local sheriff, Chief Buddy Silk, and his son Boss Silk act as antagonists in the novel.

The Characters

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Characters in the present time frame of the novel range in age from the fourteen-year-old Romen; to Junior Viviane, who is in her late teens; to the middle-aged Sandler and Vida Gibbons; to Christine and Heed, who are in their early seventies. There are obvious generational differences among the characters and their environments, but human nature does not change. Some characters have similar backgrounds despite being separated in age. These similarities aid readers’ interpretations, as individual stories mirror one another in part. Heed and Junior share similarly deprived and unloving childhoods, which they react to in the present. Heed and L think of Celestial, Bill’s mistress, when they look at Junior. Bill and Romen have similar attitudes toward what connotes masculinity, but Romen has a sensible grandfather in Sandler to give him advice. Christine, Heed, and Junior all feel unloved and unwanted despite their differences in class and education. Bill and Junior take lovers who are very young, with Junior thinking of Romen as a gift or toy.

Through various points of view the novel reveals that during the 1940’s and 1950’s, Cosey’s Hotel and Resort was an exciting, exclusive gathering place. Bill was its figurehead, while May, L, and later Heed took on the daily practicalities of running a successful business. Relationships between characters are fraught with tensions that are due to jealousy and misunderstandings, despite or because of the resort’s success.

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Toni Morrison’s Love revolves around the character of William Cosey (also known as Bill): even though Bill is dead, each of the novel’s chapters describe him (Portrait, Friend, Stranger, Benefactor, Lover, Husband, Guardian, Father, and Phantom) and each of the living characters is connected to him in some way or another.

He has a daughter, May, and a grand-daughter, Christine. Christine is the same age as Bill’s second wife, Heed. L is the cook in their household and she is often taken to be the narrator of the novel. Apart from them, the novel features a love story involving a young woman called Junior and a young man called Romen (who is the grandson of Sandler and Vida).

Love Analysis
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In Love, Toni Morrison tackles the hardest questions, whether mysteries of the heart or social injustice, through the lens of love and, by extension, its opposite, hate. At its core is a multi-generational family drama revolving around a patriarch’s love, unfolding within dramatic twentieth-century US events. Set primarily in African American coastal communities, moving from the turn of the century through the 1960s, Love draws the reader into American social issues of injustice, racism, and institutionalized discrimination, along with efforts both to cope with and to solve them.

After Bill Cosey’s death, his children and grandchildren struggle to understand who he loved best in life and thus who will now inherit his legacy. The rivalries are more than squabbles; one character describes her relatives as “fire ants.” Bill had created a fabulous resort, uniquely available to and prized by African Americans; it is described as a “haven” more than a “playground.” The reader continues to wonder if the twisting vagaries of love, and the aftershocks from withholding it, will threaten that legacy enough to completely disintegrate the strained family. The political and social climate of the US occupies almost equal billing with the family saga, however. The symbol and the reality of Bill’s success via his resort-hotel, and the multifaceted effects of later desegregation on black prosperity, help to keep the social dimensions grounded.

Challenging social conventions was part of Bill’s attitude toward life, including taking an eleven-year-old girl, Heed, as his wife, and thus having a granddaughter, Christine, the same age as his wife. The long-lasting feud between his wife and granddaughter, vying after Bill’s death not only for the inheritance but the love it represents, gives structure to a sometimes diffuse plot. If his mistress, Celestial, had been ostensibly the object of his love, she might find a way to gain her legacy as well. And those who are outside the family but deeply entrenched in the resort—notably its cook, named just L, whose reflections form a refrain—remind the reader of the continued pressure of class within sectors of society.

Although Bill is in many ways the backbone of the Cosey family, it is the impact of his life through the feelings and beliefs of his descendants and their families that dominate the book. Each of them struggles not only to forge their own path in life but also to understand—and sometimes deliberately reject—the weight of Bill’s troubled life. Chapter titles such as Friend, Benefactor, Lover, Husband, Guardian, and Father may refer specifically to dimensions of him, but it remains open if they are more symbolic than real. Because many of the characters present in the contemporary time period venture far beyond the often claustrophobic world of the resort, they bring different social issues back with them and ensure attention to the complex, racially charged environment of the times.


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Toni Morrison has dealt with the complexities of love before—parental love, love between friends, romantic love, even supernatural love. Its need and its absence seem to be at the heart of every novel she has written, from her very first, The Bluest Eye (1970), through Paradise(1998). This incarnation of Love, her brief, intricate eighth novel, begins with a monologue, a soft, reassuring woman’s voice that introduces both characters and setting. The voice belongs to L, a chef and “an old woman embarrassed by the world.” An important fixture in this world, she has been around so long that no one remembers her full name anymore, although she will eventually reveal it to the reader. She holds all the secrets: She is the Chorus, the Wise Woman from Up Beach, the area where the poorest black folks live. L is able to bridge the distance between present and past as if they are one; her hum begins and ends the novel.

The most important character is Bill Cosey, once a powerful and respected man; the title of each chapter names one of the many roles he fills. Without him there would be no story, yet he is never really there. Viewed only through the eyes or thoughts of those who remember him, Cosey represents the past. His ghost pervades the book, and his influence continues to affect the present. Tall, handsome, rich, Cosey adores his first wife, who thinks far less of him when she discovers that his wealth comes from a police informer, his father, Dark Cosey. Dark worshiped money and was willing to sink to whatever level needed to acquire it, but he spent very little. When Bill Cosey inherits this blood money, he rejects his father’s greed and determines instead to spend his inheritance on everything the father despised: clothes, food, music, pleasure. He is generous with his money—or not, depending on who is speaking. Neither plaster saint nor scoundrel, he is both.

Pursuing his interests, Cosey buys a decaying whites-only club on the humid eastern seaboard and transforms it into a deluxe hotel and resort for well-to-do African Americans. L, who cooks for him nearly fifty years, is the hotel chef. Cosey takes local people out of the low-wage shellfish cannery at Up Beach and offers them better jobs and a more prosperous economy, even though his hotel does not welcome them except as employees. By the 1940’s the genial, popular Cosey is a widower, and Cosey’s Hotel and Resort is famous nationwide as “the best good time this side of the law,” attracting excellent jazz and decorous gambling.

The Cosey women revolve around him like satellites. The first is his daughter-in-law, May, the widow of his only son, who died young of walking pneumonia and left May with their daughter, Christine. When Cosey temporarily withdraws from the world to mourn his boy, L and May run the hotel in his place. May continues to devote her life to Cosey, allowing L to raise Christine. In later years Christine will harbor a great deal of anger toward her grandfather, believing that he consistently ignored her in favor of her former friend, Heed the Night Johnson.

When these two little girls first meet on the beach, Christine invites Heed for ice cream. They are soon best friends, although May never approves, despising the poor, illiterate Johnsons. However, the girls’ friendship falters when Cosey, in a sudden infatuation with eleven-year-old Heed, announces that he is going to marry her. Naïve little Heed, too dark-skinned ever to dance in the Cotton Club, is sold by her father for two hundred dollars and a new pocketbook. Both May and Christine (who will become her best friend’s granddaughter by marriage) resist the union to the point of hiding Heed’s wedding gown. Soon jealous Christine runs away from home, to a wild and difficult life. The broken friendship, the shift in the two girls’ relationship, is at the heart of a lifetime of bitterness.

Many other women grace Cosey’s life, all of them tangential except one: the beautiful, scarred Celestial, always glimpsed on the horizon and never quite real. Celestial, who comes from a long line of sporting women and is fiercely independent, has an ongoing affair with Cosey and is the only woman to whom he ever feels truly connected. Although everyone is aware of Celestial, and the adult Heed even knows that Cosey dreams of her, no one wants to mention her directly. As children, Christine and Heed use her name as a code for something smart and daring.

Beginning in the 1960’s, the cannery odor becomes a problem for the hotel. The resort has already noted a decline as the better class of guests gradually leaves. Cosey himself has moved his family out of the hotel and into nearby Silk, where they become the first black family in town. He charges that whites have cheated him by allowing him to buy up the oceanfront, knowing that the smell would discourage guests. After refusing to allow his black neighbors to purchase some of his depreciating land, he sells out to white developers, creating considerable ill will. The community that once looked up to him now talks of him behind his back.

Cosey seems to decline too; his interests dwindle to whiskey and good music. L tartly comments, “He wasn’t fit to think.” The doctor attributes Cosey’s sudden death, at eighty-one, to a heart attack. However, May (who has become decidedly strange since civil rights disturbances began, donning an army helmet and burying things in the sand) assumes that the school busing controversy killed him. L says it was heartache, but his enemies believe it was syphilis. Christine, returning home for his funeral, expects to inherit her grandfather’s house and hotel, but the widow Heed contests the questionable will. At the funeral, the two women have a terrible argument over the coffin. Christine produces a switchblade, but L stops them both. The next day L quits her job and moves back to Up Beach. May gradually sickens and dies, and Heed cannot manage the hotel alone. Finally, it is boarded up.

In the novel’s present action, some twenty years after Bill Cosey’s death, a homeless young woman in a miniskirt and high boots arrives in Silk to answer a newspaper advertisement. She is Junior Viviane, seeking a position as companion and secretary. Directed to the Cosey home, she comes face-to-face with Christine and Heed, living together now in hostile coexistence. Christine, an excellent cook, keeps house for both of them. Heed, “the meanest woman on the coast,” is crippled by arthritis and stays mostly in her upstairs room. Heed tells Junior privately that she is writing a history of the Cosey family and needs a research assistant, but what she really wants is someone who can help her produce a new will that leaves everything to her. She and Junior are worthy adversaries; each slyly evaluates the other, and Junior is hired.

Sandler Gibbons, formerly a waiter at the hotel and now a retired security guard, recalls the fishing trips he took with Bill Cosey, even though Cosey was much older. They would drink whiskey laced with hot coffee and talk almost as equals. Sandler thinks Cosey was lonely, remembering how his eyes “radiated pain like cracked glass.” While Sandler’s wife Vida, the former hotel receptionist, idolizes Cosey, Sandler understands that the past is not pure, just “stifled.” He is reminded of a stag party on Cosey’s boat, where three or four women, including Celestial, were present for the guests’ enjoyment. Recognizing a deeper sickness within the old man, he is not fooled by the myth of Cosey.

The novel plays out against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, from the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi through bus boycotts and church bombings to the unrest of Vietnam. These events deeply affect May, who becomes clinically paranoid, and Christine, whose lover heads a group of underground revolutionaries.

This would not be a Morrison novel without at least a hint of the supernatural, most obviously L’s mention of the Police-heads, “dirty things with big hats who shoot up out of the ocean to harm loose women and eat disobedient children.” These thunderclouds that turn into gigantic bearded heads return sporadically, heralding disaster for the local residents. Only Celestial dares to defy them. Another disturbing influence is Cosey’s portrait, with which Junior is so obsessed that she dreams of him as well as talks to him. In a sense, the portrait seduces her, driving her to ever wilder behavior with Sandler’s adolescent grandson Romen, who is also sorely tempted. Amoral, insatiable Junior’s mashed toes make one bare foot appear to him like a hoof in the darkened room.

On the other hand, the language of Love can be downright beautiful. Morrison’s characteristic lyricism can be found even in the kitchen: “A bouquet of steam wandered away from water lifting to a boil on the stove,” or “A tomato slice exposed its seedy smile.” Her vision of the deserted Cosey Hotel evokes its glory days: “The shift of a shutter hinge sounds like the cough of a trumpet; piano keys waver a quarter note above the wind so you might miss the hurt jamming those halls and closed-up rooms.”

L’s memorable voice winds in and out of the story, a steadying influence. In an epilogue she sums up Cosey, who was “adept, you know, at spotting needy, wild women. . . . You could call him a good bad man, or a bad good man . . . an ordinary man ripped, like the rest of us, by wrath and love.” She alone is able to see him clearly and whole. Everyone, especially Bill Cosey, depends on her, as does the book.

Typically, Toni Morrison demands much of her reader, and in Lovenothing is accidental. With so many viewpoint characters, the “truth” of the story is never clear-cut. Dates, allusions, suspended coherence—all the information is there, but everything is murky, oblique. Morrison is very good at hiding details in plain sight, and part of the pleasure lies in fitting those details together. Like the much longer Paradise, this intense novel is challenging to follow, and as rewarding.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 22 (August 1, 2003): 1926.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 2003, p. 15.

Ebony 58, no. 12 (October, 2003): 24.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 15 (August 1, 2003): 984.

Library Journal 128, no. 17 (October 15, 2003): 99.

The Nation 277, no. 20 (December 15, 2003): 30-32.

New Statesman 132, no. 4667 (December 8, 2003): 50-51.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 19 (December 4, 2003): 18-20.

The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2003, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 35 (September 1, 2003): 60-61.

Time 162, no. 18 (November 3, 2003): 75.

Women’s Review of Books 31, no. 3 (December, 2003): 8-9.




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Paradise, which focuses on the love of God, is Morrison’s third novel in a trilogy of books dealing with various kinds of love. As the book opens, a violent, bloody massacre takes place at the Convent, a run-down refuge for broken women located near the small town of Ruby, Oklahoma.

The inhabitants of Ruby are descendants of a group of dark-skinned African Americans who migrated west in the 1870’s from Mississippi and Louisiana. Hoping to be accepted in Fairly, a town of lighter-skinned blacks, they were turned away. This event becomes memorialized in the town’s history as “The Disallowing.” The nomadic group finally established a town that they named Haven. During the World War II years, however, the morals of Haven declined so much that the town elders became convinced that they should establish a new town, Ruby, named after the deceased sister of the town’s two patriarchs, Deek and Steward Morgan.

The centerpiece of Ruby is the transported Oven, a brick kiln and shrine to the town’s unity as well as the gathering place for town business and remembering. Ruby is a proud town, cloistered and protective of its immunity from the evils of the outside world. In this town, there is no tolerance for the less than righteous. Sin is either suppressed or secret.

Despite the town’s stringent vigilance against the intrusion of sin and sinners, the weight of transgression and progress from the world outside—mostly sins of the flesh and a weakening of religious constraint—bears heavily upon the town. At the novel’s beginning, the height of the mid-1970’s social revolution sends the town’s self-righteous and deluded leaders into a desperate and chaotic plot to destroy the blatant evil lurking west of Ruby: the Convent and its defiling inhabitants, the women Consolata, Mavis, Grace, Seneca, and Pallas. Ironically, the elimination of these women will also destroy the evidence of those who violated the town’s blood rule, a code of sexual fidelity and purity.

The Convent serves as a central locale in the novel. The Convent is everything Ruby is not. It is a haven of acceptance and nurturing. It does not require judgment, nor does it require history or moral purity. Built originally by an embezzler with a taste for bizarre architecture and decadent décor, the Convent was later occupied by an order of nuns who ran a school for Arapaho girls. Consolata, herself rescued from a profligate life by Sister Mary Magna, the mother superior of the order, was brought to the Convent to live. As the school funding and church support eventually ran out, the girls all disappeared, and the residents of the Convent dwindled to Sister Mary Magna and Consolata.

Later, as Sister Mary Magna dies, Consolata is joined by four women who arrive at the Convent at the heights of their life crises. The lives of these women become inextricably entangled with those of the Ruby men, often as a result of adultery or promiscuity. Their lack of regard for the sexual psychoneuroses of Ruby men—so much in contrast to the quiet submission of the women of Ruby—mocks the moral piety of these men and inevitably leads the men to blame the women of the Convent for their own hypocrisy and sexual infidelity.

It is Patricia, Ruby’s fair-skinned descendant, who figures out the malignant intentions of the men. She collects the enormous data on bloodlines of the original nine “8-rock” families, so named for their coal-black skin. She has gleaned information from her students, from conversations with her neighbors, and from her own copious notations of the interrelations and dead ends of the original bloodlines. The myth that no one dies in Ruby save those who leave, she discovers, depends on all generations being not only racially untampered but also free of adultery—the “deal” that Zachariah, the original patriarch, and Steward made with God. As the promiscuous sisterhood of the Convent invokes the destructive power of lust in the men, the women become a natural target.


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The opening sentences of Paradise are startling and hint at the ominous events that unfold in the novel. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here.” “They” refers to a group of nine men, composed of many of the founders of the city of Ruby, Oklahoma, who have taken it upon themselves to kill the six women who live in a mansion that townsfolk have named the Convent, seventeen miles outside of Ruby. Although the mansion was originally owned by an embezzler—and contains sexually explicit paintings and statues depicting sensual poses—a former nun, Mary Magna, turned the house into a school for orphaned Native American girls. When the novel opens, however, Mary is dying, and her daughter, Consolata/Connie—a Brazilian orphan whom Mary has raised as her own—has been elevated to the role of mother superior for the numerous women who will take refuge in the house.

The plot of the novel develops in a nonlinear fashion, twisting and turning in a labyrinthine way that involves multiple perspectives, mysterious clues to the identities of characters, and fragmentary allusions to historical events. These elements must be stitched together in order to reveal the action of the novel. For example, the white girl mentioned in the first sentence is never identified, nor is it ever clear why a white girl is among the women at the Convent. Numerous subplots digress from the opening action, revealing bits of information about Ruby’s history and the reasons for the men’s attack upon the Convent. Several of the novel’s chapters take their title from the name of one of the women residing at the Convent, and a portion of the chapter tells that woman’s story before digressing in other directions concerning the complex relationship between Ruby and the Convent.

Although the action of Paradise occurs in the 1970’s, culminating with the Convent attack in 1976, the historical events that underlie the plot involve the migration of black people from the South to the West in the late eighteenth century. The novel tells of several families that got together—among them, families whose descendants would participate in the attack—and moved westward with hopes of settling into one of the numerous all-black towns that were then being established. In an event called “The Disallowing,” the families were refused acceptance into several towns. The town of Fairly, Oklahoma, did provide food for the migrants, but it refused to allow them to reside in town because of the dark color of their skin.

The families had nowhere to go, but a mysterious stranger appeared out of nowhere to lead them in the desert, and they followed him for twenty-nine days. When their guide suddenly vanished, they built a town called Haven on the spot where he left them. At the center of town, the families built a communal oven, called the Oven, where community rituals occured. By the end of World War II, Haven was no longer the haven and center of purity that it had initially grown to be, so descendants of the original founders moved even farther west and built a town named Ruby. The town was named after Ruby Morgan, the mother of town cofounder K. D. Smith.

By the 1970’s, Ruby’s attempts to keep itself pure have faltered: The original vision of the town as a bastion of racial purity (a town for dark-skinned African Americans only) has been disrupted not only by the sexual inbreeding of the original families but also by what the elders perceive to be a breakdown in the moral and social order. Such a breakdown is most forcefully demonstrated when the Oven—which the elders have carried from Haven and reassembled in Ruby—is desecrated with the symbolic raised fist of the Black Power movement.

The Convent also becomes a symbol for the sexual breakdown of society. The men of Ruby see the Convent as the refuge of impurity: The sexually explicit statues and paintings were never removed when Mary Magna turned the mansion into the Convent; the mansion houses only women, and there are rumors of inappropriate sexual behavior among the women. Thus, one night in 1976, Steward Morgan and his identical twin, Deacon, lead seven other armed men out to the Convent—which they often refer to as the coven—to purify the town by killing the women living there.

The town of Ruby is divided over the massacre. Many of the women who live in Ruby, although they are not given substantial parts in the novel, oppose the plot to attack the Convent. Lone DuPres, for example, tries to warn the women in the Convent about the attack, but they ignore her. When the killings are over, the bodies disappear, and the town must come to terms with this action that has destroyed not only the women’s lives but also the town itself.

In a rather strange plot twist, but one characteristic of many of Toni Morrison’s novels, the dead women are resurrected and speak to their family members as a way of bringing healing for past actions. Paradise ends with a spiritual vision in which Peidade, the supernatural spirit in Connie’s visions earlier in the novel, foresees the spiritual bonds of female community being formed through the earthly works of groups of women.


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Paradise is about the relationship between two communities—the town of Ruby, Oklahoma, and a very small but largely self-sufficient group of women who live in what has come to be known as the Convent, located on the outskirts of Ruby.

The people of Ruby were once filled with a common purpose—they trusted, needed, and relied upon each other. But in more recent times, with which this novel is concerned, Ruby has been experiencing a whole range of difficulties. The town’s shared existence is threatened, and in their desperation to find some kind of solution, the townspeople blame and attack the women in the Convent. The women become convenient scapegoats for all the unresolved emotions pent up in the prominent men of Ruby, who have felt powerless to halt the unraveling of their homes.

Paradise is a novel of interwoven portraits. They are not exactly portraits of people, places, or of periods of time; they are portraits of striving and conflict. The portraits center on all of the things that are done to protect what has been worked for and sacrificed for, to keep the town safe from the forces of destruction that lie in wait all around.

The events of the first chapter actually occur near the end of the chronological story. The year is 1976, and a few men from Ruby attack the women who live in a single building, which is referred to as “the Convent,” not very far from their town. The men believe (or at least they tell themselves) that they are committing this act in order to protect their way of life. The specific threat that the women represent is not fully explained at first, but that doesn’t matter for the moment—what matters is action. After the smoke of the violence clears, the reader is taken on a tour of the lives that made up both the town of Ruby and the Convent, a place where a few women have come together to try to help one another.

The rest of the novel jumps back and forth in time, partially because of the characters’ memories and partially due to the omniscient narrator’s subtle voice, which feeds the reader bits and pieces of the larger story. Ultimately, the explanation of the raid comes out of everything that led to the raid. The story of the town’s history is built up slowly, and we start to understand why the men of Ruby are the way they are.

The town of Ruby was founded in 1950 by a group of African Americans, many of them recently returned from World War II. Ruby was born from the relic of another town, named Haven, which was also in Oklahoma. Haven was founded in 1890 by black settlers (the parents and grandparents of the men who founded Ruby) who had arrived there from Mississippi and Louisiana. Many of those settlers had important careers and were very accomplished, but various racist forces had come together, causing these people to seek a better life for themselves and their families. On the way from these southern states, the settlers endured many hardships; the worst of these misfortunes took place in Fairly, Oklahoma.

Many of the residents of Ruby once lived in Haven, and that town had a rich, vibrant life from 1890 to the late 1940s, by which time the town had no future. The trials and hardships of 80 years have shaped the residents’ sense of determination about who they are and how to protect what is important to them. Seventeen miles away from Ruby is a single building surrounded by plains and rolling hills. It is called “The Convent,” because it was once a Catholic school run by nuns. The nuns have left, and the building has a newer story. A woman named Connie, who has spent most of her life with the nuns and who once ran the school, takes in women whom have left society: an ill-fated housewife hounded by her own family; an independent young woman, uninterested in someone else’s imposed ideas of morality, judged as a threat to the community; and two young women who have been traumatized by events in their lives.

The Convent becomes their home, and it is like a paradise for them. But their lives come into conflict with the people of Ruby, and the ultimate manifestation of that conflict is brutal violence. One message the reader can take from this is that paradise has to be fought for in order to be achieved, and once it has been won, it will have to be protected by further fighting.

At times, it seems that Paradise consists of several large, intertwined stories, and some of these stories stand opposite each other. The novel is a demandingly historical work, and the reader is confronted by a great amount of hard data, such as family trees and historical facts. At the same time, however, the novel contains increasing amounts of mysticism. Different readers will respond to and interpret these parts of the novel in different ways, but a combination of careful reading, logic, and suspension of disbelief will lead the reader to some clear conclusions. The novel ends with glimpses into fantastical worlds, which one cannot hope to understand if one insists on using logic alone.

Estimated Reading Time
The average reading time for this 318 page novel is about 12–15 hours, or approximately one to three hours for each chapter. But reading this novel will require more than just time. Paradise is a formidable novel, and it will challenge most readers. For example, stories begun early in the novel will not be completed or explained until the end of the novel.

Paradise also gives the impression that one is reading history—albeit a history filtered through the idiosyncratic style of a storyteller who does not want to give us all the information at once but wants to make us work for the understanding we receive. Morrison makes her readers work. Teachers using this book in a course will probably want to examine the novel with students one chapter at a time in order to ensure that the students are following the difficult narrative scheme and presentation of characters.

Chapter Summaries
Paradise Homework Help Questions
What are some of the main themes of Paradise by Toni Morrison?

One of the themes in Paradise by Toni Morrison relates to the title of the novel, a novel about different perspectives of what constitutes safety and safe harbor. For one group of people, safety…

How does colorism help destroy the town in Toni Morrison’s Paradise?

In Paradise, Morrison explores the ways in which black people have internalized systematic preferences for lighter skin, and residents of Ruby engage in prejudices based on skin color even without…

In Tony Morrison’s Paradise, how does Reverend Misner resist the dominant opinions on race and…

Reverend Misner is young compared to many of the authority figures in the town, and as such some people don’t fully trust him. Despite the authority and respect conferred on him by his office,…

character?who is the most important character in the book?

Perhaps I overlooked it, but I didn’t see if you were referencing a specific book, so I’ll answer in generally terms. Books like short stories have protagonists and antagonists. The Protagonist is…

What are some of the main themes expressed in “Paradise”?

One of the outstanding themes in this novel is the interconnectedness of human beings. The novel consists of many interwoven plots that weave in and out of each other as the story progresses.


Themes and Meanings

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Why do the men kill the women in the first place? The Convent women are survivors. With their spiritual and sexual freedom and their maleless environment, they manage to survive in better stead than the people of Ruby, who appear to be turning on one another. The line of the Morgans has come to a dead end. Though the men of Ruby interpret the peaceful and unfettered life maintained by Consolata at the Convent as sinful and dangerous, they must acknowledge their own attraction to and curiosity about the women. The truth to be extinguished is that the women, who can live simply and communally, succeed and survive, whereas the leaders of Ruby, who must exert control and rule over others by way of spiritual guilt and mercilessness, cannot do so without constant struggle to uphold the collapsing walls of isolation. Even then, there is sin among them—greed, jealousy, unforgiveness, lying, adultery, murder.

Morrison’s overt symbols—the Oven, the Cadillac, the Convent—all point toward an objective world in which these symbols are endowed with powerful, historic ideas and values, sustained by the cultures that made them. The Oven at the center of town carries the town motto, “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” For the “8-rock” families, it serves as the axis of the community; it is the place to gather for food and for civil and social matters. Although the Oven has been preserved for years (it was transported brick by brick from Haven to Ruby), the young people wish to change it. By his own admission, the Reverend Misner admits that he was partly at fault for encouraging the young people to speak up and make changes.

Few women in Ruby ride in cars, but the women at the Convent have use of a Cadillac that gives them unlimited mobility and freedom. Their happiness and freedom must be resolved to evil if the myth of hard work, sacrifice, and denial is to work for Ruby. Morrison’s tale is of the archetypal clash of good and evil, of moral righteousness fueling hatred and violence, and of good ultimately transcending evil.

Themes and Meanings

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Paradise functions thematically on many levels. The book’s title, of course, recalls the biblical paradise of Eden, described in Genesis, and the sin that disrupted this paradise. It also recalls the third book of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Whether or not Morrison is intentionally drawing on these earlier texts, her novel raises issues of the human capacity for evil, the longing for a paradisiacal community, and the role of the supernatural in human communities. (Unlike Dante and Milton, Morrison draws on African and Brazilian spirituality rather than Christian spirituality.)

Both the men in Ruby and the women in the Convent strive to create a utopian community that will preserve its members from the evils of the outside world. In the end, they all discover that the human capacity for evil lurks in the souls of even the most utopian bodies and that such a community is impossible as long as human beings lack the perfection they once possessed in paradise.

Paradise also deals with the themes of racial purity, unity, and harmony. The clan at the center of Ruby—the “8-rock,” a name that refers to the darkness of their skin—has built a community that allows only like-colored members into its center. In fact, one of the reasons Ruby is falling apart is that it disallows other African Americans (especially light-skinned ones) from joining its community. Thus, Ruby’s future is less than hopeful. Not only does the Convent represent the moral disorder of the outside world—symbolized by sexual anarchy—but it also represents a loss of purity. The founding fathers cannot coexist with this impure world situated so close to their own, so they seek to eradicate it.

The complex relationships between men and women are also themes of Paradise. What does love mean? Is love pure only when it occurs between men and women? What about the love of one woman for another? Are the sexual and social bonds that women form in community threatening to men, and why? Paradise depicts two worlds: Ruby, which is ruled by men, and the Convent, where women have escaped the rule of men and have gained the freedom not only to be themselves but also to challenge patriarchal rules.


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If the social concerns and themes associated with the evolution of Ruby are stasis, conservatism, violence, and patriarchy, the alternative locus of the novel, the “Convent,” represents an antithesis to each of these as surely as the iceberg and the Titanic are converging entities in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain.” While much of the plot of Paradise involves the reader’s unraveling the motives and dynamics of the Ruby men’s violent assault on the Convent to kill or drive away the “convent women” (both motives are plausible at one time or another in the book), one thematic center deals with the ways in which the two locations contrast with one another to form a dialogue on several topics, among which we can isolate austerity vs. hedonism, fixity vs. freedom, stasis vs. dynamism, rationalism vs. mystery and magic, and most critically, patriarchy vs. what one arrival at the convent (Pallas) calls “blessed malelessness.” It is as a dynamic community of women that the Convent comes, in the minds of Ruby’s civic leaders, to stand as a challenge and an affront, then a scapegoat for their own failed construction of society, ultimately one to be expunged by an act of dreadful violence.

Unlike Ruby, the Convent has stood for many years. But also unlike Ruby, built from the ashes of Haven by the Morgan twins and other town leaders, the Convent is a place of constant change (an ironic contrast to the connotations of solidity, fixity, and stability associated with the word “convent”). The narrative is organized around the arrival of several women at this out-of-the- way building, each bearing scars of life in a patriarchal culture. So, at one level, the acculturation of the Convent is accumulative, whereas that of Ruby is one of loss. Except for the unwelcome “Convent Women,” the only arrivals in Ruby during the novel’s present, 1975, are an unfortunate white family who ignore warnings from both Steward and Anna about the ferocity of an Oklahoma winter storm and perish in a blizzard—true to Ruby folklore, however, their deaths are blamed on Convent witchcraft. Despite the local myth that no one has ever died in Ruby, the community is permeated by loss, as children move away, patriarchs like Steward prove to be infertile, and Deacon’s sons die in war while Jeff Fleetwood and Menus Jury come back from Vietnam broken men. Moreover, that cherished myth is destroyed in the final chapter, “Save-Marie,” in which the Fleetwoods’ infant daughter is laid to rest. The anti-story, that of the Convent, is “a woman’s road of sorrow,” a gathering of women from diverse places—California to Maryland—and contrasting cultural backgrounds—rich and artistic to poor and in trouble with the law—eventually to share and transcend their individual sorrows through a process Consolata names “loud dreaming.”

The name of the place, while seemingly fixed because of the connotations of “convent” as a relatively stable place, paradoxically suggests fluidity and adaptation. The actual building was an ornate palace an embezzler built with his criminal profits. After his downfall it was taken over by a sisterhood as a parochial school for Arapaho girls. After that outreach failed because of general suspicion about Catholicism in rural Oklahoma, one old nun refused to leave and her protege/nemesis, Consolata, remained with her. Thus it never was a convent in the strictest meaning of the term, although nuns did live there and unsuccessfully tried to eliminate the pornographic statuary in the original mansion; moreover, it has technically ceased to house any sisters in the sense of religious vocation, though something like a figurative, perhaps spiritual, sisterhood is evolving there despite the fact that Mavis and Gigi fight constantly.

The town clings to the name “the Convent” to suggest its function as a refuge for women, but the men appear not to be fully aware that many of their own wives and daughters have sought asylum there from time to time. At one point Deacon observes Sweetie Fleetwood walking out toward the Convent, but elects not to follow up because there “should be no occasion when the bank of a good and serious town did not open on time,” concisely reinforcing the contrast between materialism and duty on the one hand (banks should open on time) and more abstract, less “covenant-based” issues of ethics (care for persons in our community). Moreover, Billie Delia takes refuge there after Pat Best strikes her; finally, Soane Morgan, Sweetie, and Arnette at one time or another had abortions there: “women dragged their sorrow up and down the road between Ruby and the Convent.” While the men resent the intrusion of the Convent into their idea that only “ruled women” belong in Ruby—the “women of Ruby did not powder their faces and they wore no harlot’s perfume”—they are unaware how important the idea of the Convent has become to their womenfolk, and how appealing the Convent women’s “unruly” life-style may be to some of their repressed wives and daughters, even if most of them are shocked by the dress and behavior of these unruly convent women that Soane ill-advisedly invites to K. D. and Arnette’s wedding.

Keeping the name “the Convent” also enables Morrison to reinforce the associations of Ruby with Puritanism, for “convents” are generally associated with Roman Catholicism. The American Puritans, the Ruby men’s spiritual ancestors, saw Catholic practices and institutions as the embodiment of a dreaded “other.” On the day of the attack, Deacon, Steward, and K. D. penetrate the deepest reaches of the Convent, where the women have assembled for their exercises in “loud dreaming,” and see their drawings in terms of religious alienation: “defilement and violence and perversions beyond the imagination… [and a] sea of depravity beckoning from below,” so alluring that Deacon considers putting on sunglasses to shield his eyes from the sight of an alien dogma. The rhetoric with which Morrison describes the men’s experience recalls the Puritan heritage of intense, resounding language of condemnation of the “other” still present in many Fundamentalist sects’ preaching and teaching. By contrast, Soane and Dovey see the floor drawings as expressions of an inner angst when they must face what their husbands have done.

Although the men of the village tolerate the Convent as a provider of foodstuffs, particularly hot peppers, and come to see it as a scapegoat for the many things that are, in their collective opinion, going wrong with Ruby culture, the building serves as a haven for many women wounded by their confrontations with society, and especially male power. From the day Mavis arrived at the Convent, on foot because her Cadillac was out of gasoline, the building has accumulated a variety of women, one of whom leaves briefly to return after little more than a month. Mavis, from Maryland, was responsible for her infant children’s suffocation in a parked automobile. She escaped to Oklahoma, finding in Consolata’s indifferent hospitality a place to nurture her illusion that the children are still alive. The Convent also provides an alternative to facing her husband and remaining children, toward whom her guilt has caused her to formulate paranoid fantasies that they are conspiring to kill her. Grace is the victim of childhood sexual abuse and consequently flaunts her sexuality and engages in a two-year affair with K. D., much to the chagrin of the puritanical Ruby elders. Seneca, abandoned as a child and abused in foster settings, then later in a relationship with the convict Eddie, and finally whored by a rich white woman, secretly practices self-mutilation, a habit she acquired as the consequence of being raped by her foster brother. Pallas, the youngest, was doubly betrayed when her beautiful artistic mother became sexually involved with the janitor- sculptor with whom Pallas ran away. She suffers anorexia and is pregnant with his child.

For the first several years of their stay at the Convent, the women find refuge from their outside male tormentors, but inwardly little changes except for the occasional addition of more Convent inhabitants. Mavis clings to her fantasy that Merle and Pearl are alive; she buys toys and clothing appropriate to the needs of growing children; Gigi (Grace) has her affair with K. D. and seeks an illusory treasure in the mansion’s bathroom; Pallas, however, grows heavier, not merely because of her pregnancy, but because she feels safe enough that she overcomes her anorexia; Seneca perfects her art of self-mutilation. As the novel moves toward its grim conclusion, however, the women change. Until the end of the book, they have been simply “unruly women” whose behavior and appearance outraged both the women and the men of Ruby. Although the women of Ruby have quietly resented the men’s puritanical demand that they be unlike the nineteen unruly Negro women of a town their husbands held as a model of everything to be despised, they resent the “Jezebel’s storehouse” from which the Convent women adorn themselves, quite a bit too skimpily for Ruby’s austere tastes. Moreover, two truck drivers observe Gigi and Mavis wrestling outside their automobile after the wedding, while Seneca comforts Pallas by embracing her in the car (which the men interpret as a lesbian relationship). The truck drivers bring reports that confirm the town’s judgment of the Convent women as dangerously immoral, unruly women.

By the time of the attack, however, the women in the Convent have changed. The key figure in the change of the women—from victims seeking a refuge from the suffering the world inflicts, to active members of a sisterhood of sorts—is Consolata, the mysterious Brazilian child who was abducted to the Convent by Mother, then had a brief but tempestuous affair with Deek Morgan. Connie is the most mysterious among the characters in Paradise, partly because she is the embodiment of Morrison’s adaptation of the “magic realism” tradition. Years before the assault on the Convent, Connie discovered, because of Lone DuPres’s insistence, that she had the gift of “stepping in” to restore life to someone who has recently died. She restored life to Deacon and Dovey’s son Scout after a truck accident, then several times interfered with the awaited death of Mother Mary Magna. After letting Mother go, Connie endures a period of mourning, in which her eccentricities and her drinking become increasingly pronounced.

During this period, Connie offers the voyagers to the Convent a range of personal liberty and insulation from male interference in their lives, but she is driven more by indifference than by affection or concern. Although Pallas responds to her as a maternal figure, and although Mavis’s passionate defense of Connie’s authority is the principal cause for the public fight between her and Gigi that confirms Ruby’s official view of the Convent, she actually feels contempt, even loathing, for the women in her charge. Before the affair with Deek and Mother’s death, Connie had felt like a “nun without vows” despite having been abused and abducted as a child. Now she is a “woman in love with the cemetery,” living a “slug life” and greeting every morning with regret that she has not died the night before. Despite Mavis’s loyalty and Seneca’s trust in bringing Pallas to her for counseling, Connie views her charges as frivolous, silly women with “babygirl dreams” and “foolish babygirl wishes.” Her deeply-felt attitude toward them is condescending, even hostile: “Broken girls, frightened girls, weak and lying. When she was sipping Saint-Emilion or the smoky Jarnaac, she could tolerate them, but more and more she wanted to snap their necks…. Maybe that was what her slug life was being prolonged for.” So Connie spends her time in an alcoholic haze, wearing sunglasses to hide her strange eyes from the sun and the sight of others, living in a small, austere alcove in the huge mansion, windowless but near the wine cellar, resenting her charges and wishing she could join Mother, whom she “worshiped,” in death.

After Mavis returns from her Maryland visit in 1970, during which she learned that she remains a fugitive facing several criminal counts, she is astonished to discover that Connie has undergone a metamorphosis. She no longer smells of wine; she pays attention to her dress, in contrast to the slovenly appearance she affected since Mother died; and she has abandoned her sunglasses. Shortly before the attack, Connie completes her transformation, announcing her name as “Consolata Sosa” and insisting that the four Convent inhabitants reform as well: “If you want to be here you do what I say…. And I will teach you what you are hungry for.” The four women undergo a cleansing ritual under Connie’s tutelage, which involves drawing and adorning an alternate self on the stone floor of the cellar—the very hieroglyphics which speak of alien, frightening rituals to Deek and Steward.

Her transformation of the women includes a process she calls “loud dreaming,” which appears to be a group form of free associative confession and transference. Each woman shares her pain and fear in a narrative, and “it is never important to know who said the dream or whether it had meaning.” By sharing the nightmare of the past the women gain perspective, even psychological control over it. The process is painful and terrifying, as confronting one’s past often is: “exhausted and enraged, they rise and go to their beds vowing never to submit to that again and knowing full well they will.” As a result of this harrowing experience, the women are renewed in a variation on monastic sisterhood: they shave their hair, and dance orgiastically during the night, “holy women dancing in hot sweet rain” just before the attack.

To underscore their transformation from dependent women to sisters who love and trust one another, Morrison coyly refuses to identify which woman is shot (“the white girl”), which ones hit Harper Jury with a skillet and drench Menus with soup stock; which beats Jeff Fleetwood with a pool cue, then a religious statue, or smacks Arnold with an ashtray. The point is that the women are de-individuated by their finding common ground through sharing one another’s pain and coming to terms with their own. They act in defense of one another, not as agents out for themselves. Only Connie is clearly identifiable, as she “steps in” once more to restore life to the girl Steward has shot. Now truly a “Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst,” Connie saves her charge whom lately she despised, at the expense of her own life. Deek tries, but fails, to prevent his twin from murdering Connie in cold blood.

One means of assessing the effectiveness of Connie’s transformation of herself and her “sisterhood” is to see what happens to the four women after the attack. In the final chapter, Morrison offers vignettes of the outcome of each woman’s life, and the small scenes indicate that the women have come to terms with their past and their guilt. Gigi, dressed in army fatigues, visits her convict father, who is reprieved from death row; she seems more determined, less inclined to flaunt her sexuality. Her father even thinks she is “packing,” although one would be searched for weapons before visiting a lifer, even outside the prison. Morrison’s point is that Gigi seems committed, purposive, determined. Our final view rounds out the picture of a woman seeking a new and richer relationship with nature and “her companion.” Pallas returns to her mother’s house, not to confront her but to recover expensive shoes. An avoider most of her life, Pallas seems, like Gigi, to have a focus and a purpose. Dee Dee (her mother) thinks Pallas has a “sword.” Mavis reconnects with her daughter Sally, whom she used to fantasize as part of a conspiracy against her, and enlists Sally as an ally in nurturing the surviving children. Seneca comes to terms with the memory of her abandonment by her teenage mother, not as she had believed, her elder sister. All these changes, these definitions of purpose and coming to terms with reality, result from Connie’s effectiveness in teaching the women to care for one another-and to respect themselves by sharing one another’s pain.

If, however, there is a flaw in Paradise, it lies in the very effectiveness of this antipatriarchal theme. Most of Ruby’s problems, as well as those of women who come to the Convent, are the result of unchallenged male authority. As the above discussion indicates, most of the women’s problems, both in the Convent and in Ruby, are the result of men’s insensitivity. K. D. is an abusive brute who beat Gigi and is learning to beat Arnette, and he is the rising patriarch of Ruby. Pallas calls her wealthy father, an entertainment lawyer, to let him know that she is all right; that conversation presents an extreme, but not atypical, example of male insensitivity in Paradise: “Where is he [Carlos]—boy is his ass over…. Your bitch mother’s not making any sense as usual…. We’re suing the school, baby. Got them by the short hairs.” The focus on Carlos, rather than Pallas’s need, explicitly recalls Deek’s decision to open the bank on time rather than to find out why Sweetie walks all the way out toward the Convent on a cold morning. The difference is that lawyer Truelove introduces the element of competition, focusing on vengeance on Carlos and his employer, rather than on his daughter’s needs. Perhaps he thinks he knows better than Pallas what her needs are.

Eloquent and symmetrical as this is, it seems not quite true to life. There are of course many brutish and insensitive men who take male prerogative for granted. And there are many women like Dovey and Soane Morgan in need of meaningful female companionship and nurturing. But, not all men are louts, and most, except for Reverend Misner, in this novel are. The vigilante operation—with all its macho accouterments like pistols, rope, flashlights, even sunglasses—is a representation both of the failures of Ruby as a community and the tendency of men to resort to violence to protect their interests in the arena of sexual politics. While this may be true in many cases, it is by no means universally so, yet the representation of men in Paradise suggests that it is arithmetically far more probable than sensitivity or tolerance of men toward women’s concerns and suffering.

Morrison, however, challenges even this criticism, however modestly, by including one character who questions the assumptions of Ruby and one who changes his behavior as a result of the assault. We shall examine these two alternatives in the next section.

Chapter Summaries
Related Questions and Answers for Themes in Paradise
What are some of the main themes of Paradise by Toni Morrison?

One of the themes in Paradise by Toni Morrison relates to the title of the novel, a novel about different perspectives of what constitutes safety and safe harbor. For one group of people, safety…

What are some of the main themes expressed in “Paradise”?

One of the outstanding themes in this novel is the interconnectedness of human beings. The novel consists of many interwoven plots that weave in and out of each other as the story progresses. This…

How does colorism help destroy the town in Toni Morrison’s Paradise?

In Paradise, Morrison explores the ways in which black people have internalized systematic preferences for lighter skin, and residents of Ruby engage in prejudices based on skin color even without…

In Tony Morrison’s Paradise, how does Reverend Misner resist the dominant opinions on race and…

Reverend Misner is young compared to many of the authority figures in the town, and as such some people don’t fully trust him. Despite the authority and respect conferred on him by his office,…

In Paradise, why did the men of Ruby make scapegoats of the women in the convent? Are there…

The main reason the men of Ruby make scapegoats of the women in the convent is that they simply fear what they do not understand.


List of Characters
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Nine Unnamed Men from the town of Ruby—they are the figures around whom Chapter One centers.

Morgan—the ironmonger (blacksmith) who contributes his nails to the Oven at the founding of the town of Haven.

Ossie—a citizen of Haven who had once organized a horse race as part of a town celebration and picnic.

Ruby—the woman after whom the town of Ruby was named. She was the mother of the youngest of the nine men, the aunt of the twins.

Mavis Albright—a housewife in Maryland whose baby twins have suffocated in a parked car; she is 27 years old.

Frank Albright—Mavis’ husband.

Sal—Mavis and Frank’s daughter, the eldest of their children.

Frankie and Billy James—Mavis and Frank’s two sons.

Merle and Pearl—Mavis and Frank’s deceased twins.

June—the journalist who interviews Mavis and her children.

Birdie Goodroe—Mavis’ mother.

Dusty—the first of the hitchhikers Mavis picks up on her way West.

Bennie—the last of the hitchhikers that Mavis picks up.

Connie—a woman who takes Mavis in at the Convent. Connie reappears as Consolata later in the novel.

Soane Morgan (nee Blackhorse)—a rather formal, well-to-do woman who comes to the Convent to pick up pecans and some other mystery item. She is married to Deacon Morgan.

Soane Morgan’s son—an unnamed young man who gives Mavis a ride to the local gas station.

Mother—a very old woman in the Convent who seems to be one of the former nuns. Her full name is Mary Magna.

Gigi (Grace)—an outsider who comes to Ruby and goes to the Convent.

K. D.—The nephew of Deek and Steward Morgan, and the nephew written about in the first chapter.

Good and Ben—the two dogs K. D. tends.

Arnette Fleetwood—a young woman who has been keeping company with K. D. She is fifteen and pregnant.

Billie Delia—Arnette’s friend.

Deacon (Deek) Morgan—the more reserved and subtle of the two Morgan brothers.

Steward Morgan—the more outspoken of the two Morgan brothers.

Arnold Fleetwood—Arnette’s father, and one of the leading men in Haven.

Mabel Fleetwood—Arnold’s wife, a woman whose people played an important role in the histories of both Haven and Ruby.

Jeff Fleetwood—Arnold’s son and Arnette’s brother. Jeff and his wife, Sweetie, live with his parents.

Sweetie Fleetwood—Jeff’s wife.

Reverend Misner—the town’s main spiritual leader.

Mikey—a boyfriend from Gigi’s past.

Dice—the man on the train who tells Gigi about a strange landmark outside of Ruby.

Roger Best—the man who gives Gigi a ride to the Convent. Frustrated in his hopes to become a doctor, he became an undertaker.

Dovey Morgan (nee Blackhorse)—wife of Steward Morgan and sister of Soane Morgan.

Menus Jury—a man who lives in Ruby; a member of one of the founding families. He served in Vietnam and has a drinking problem.

Reverend Pulliam—one of Ruby’s three spiritual leaders. The reverend of New Zion (Methodist) Church, he represents the old ways of thinking and decries the behavior of the youth in Ruby.

Destry Beauchamp—a young man who speaks up at the town meeting.

The Friend—a mysterious but friendly man who visits Dovey Morgan on the porch of their little house in town. Neither Dovey nor the reader ever learns much about him.

Elder Morgan—the older brother of Steward and Deacon. He does not appear in the novel, but remains a figure in the memories of the twins.

Rector Morgan (Big Daddy)—the father of Elder, Steward, Deacon, and (the late) Ruby Morgan. Like his father, Zechariah, Rector remains a figure in the memories of the twins, and is featured in the stories/history lessons told by the invisible narrator.

Zechariah Morgan (Big Papa)—Rector Morgan’s father and one of the founders of the town of Haven. He is a shadowy, almost mythical figure, because there are few clear memories of just what kind of man he was. Zechariah was an ironmonger, and put the message on the Oven’s door.

Anna Flood—the proprietor of Flood’s General Store. The daughter of Ace Flood. She is in love with Reverend Richard Misner.

Seneca—a young woman who is wandering aimlessly. Abandoned when she was five, Seneca is meek and very accommodating to others.

Jean—Seneca’s sister, who abandoned Seneca.

Eddie Turtle—the young man with whom Seneca becomes involved. He is serving a six-month sentence in jail, and Seneca brings him a Bible.

Mrs. Turtle—Eddie’s mother, whom Seneca visits in Wichita, Kansas.

Norma Fox—a mysterious woman who “hires” Seneca for some private services.

David—Norma’s chauffeur, who approaches Seneca about employment.

Leon Fox—Norma’s husband.

Pallas Truelove—a young woman with a troubled past. She seems to be a child from an interracial marriage. Originally from Los Angeles, she runs away from home and eventually finds the Convent.

Carlos—Pallas’ boyfriend. He was the janitor at the exclusive girls’ school she attended. He is considerably older than Pallas and eventually leaves her for her mother.

Patricia Best—mother of Billie Delia and daughter of Roger and Delia Best; she is a schoolteacher.

Nathan DuPres—the oldest man in town. He tells a story from his childhood at the Christmas production.

Sister Roberta—one of the nuns at the Native American girls’ school.

Penny and Clarissa—two Native American girls who look up to Connie and appeal to her for help.

Lone DuPres—Ruby’s midwife, and one of the town’s oldest women. She helps Connie to explore and develop her abilities.

Piedade—a mythical figure in Consolata’s stories and lessons. Though described as a woman, Piedade has various powers and may be something of a shape-shifter.

Save-Marie—The youngest of Jeff and Sweetie Fleetwood’s sickly children. The other children were Noah, Esther, and Ming. Her death is the first death inside the town of Ruby.

Manley Gibson—Gigi’s father, a convict recently removed from death row.

Dee Dee Truelove—Pallas’ mother

The Characters

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The stern voices of Morrison’s two protagonists, Deacon and Steward Morgan, set the novel’s tone. Inheriting the patriarchal leadership of Ruby by virtue of their wealth and bloodline, the two men rule over money, property, and ultimately the moral sanctity of Ruby’s history. Insisting on a hard respect for an ethic of hard work, strength, and moral purity, they control of the town. Morrison uses their characters to resonate the voices of the past and emphasize the town’s lack of its own voice for the present world. Anything that threatens to dishonor the town’s ancestral covenant is condemned by one of the twins. Although they publicly inveigh against the sins of the flesh, however, both twins have privately violated the ethic that they so stringently guard. Their self-righteousness and the evil they do to maintain it is the catalyst for other Ruby men who lack the nerve to act. Their wives, Soane and Dovey, likewise epitomize the meek submission of the Ruby women to their men.

Consolata, who has been at the Convent since nuns rescued her from poverty in Brazil, presides over the company of bruised women at the Convent, which is still a respite for orphaned souls and wounded spirits. First comes Mavis, who has inadvertently allowed her babies to suffocate in a hot parked car. Driven to a private madness, she steals her husband’s car and flees. Grace, the next to arrive at the Convent, comes to town in sleazy glory, arousing the lust of Ruby’s men, most notably K. D., the last male of the Morgan line. Yet men are not her object; she seeks an elusive desert shrine to eroticism. Seneca, abandoned at age five and shuffled through a series of foster homes, comes to the Convent as a martyr. She feels that she can never do enough good to deserve goodness, and she wishes most of all not to offend others. She is patient with runaway Sweetie’s dementia, she acquiesces to a brutal lesbian relationship with a dried-up rich woman, and she plays in the middle with the spatting Mavis and Grace. She learns acceptance through accommodation. Pallas, a teenage runaway, is found vomiting outside a clinic. She is delivered to the Convent, where Connie nurses her back to health and speech. Pallas eventually returns to her suburban life but finds it unchanged. Her father is preoccupied with moneymaking, and her boyfriend is still somewhere making art with her mother. It does not take long for Pallas to escape back to the Convent.

Consolata, the “consoler” of these women, is the thread that holds the novel together. Her story begins and ends the novel. Her beginnings are obscure, but her history is made clear toward the end of the novel. She has Christlike powers for healing and resurrection. After she is shot, the massacre is essentially over. The townspeople arrive, the others flee, and the hunters are diminished in their zeal. Her death involves suffering, and it is the result of her threat to those who should be least threatened by her. After her killing, she is laid on the kitchen table and covered. The next day, her body has disappeared; only the shroud of the sheet and a pillow remain. Her command to her followers is simple: “Follow me.” They do, and because of their decision to do so, they may have risen above the earthly peril of the Ruby men and found life a better reality.


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Like the books of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, whose influence on Morrison’s art is well documented in the criticism and in her statements about her work, Paradise paints a vast canvas populated by many characters. Because Morrison is interested in portraying a community (a recurring motif in her fiction), the sheer volume of characters challenges even the most alert reader’s memory. There were, after all, nine original founding families, each of which leaves a legacy of descendants who know the Founders’ history and the folklore of their collective past. Moreover, each woman who comes to the Convent has a private family history, usually painful, and most have lovers or friends whom they encountered on their “road of sorrow” that led them to Oklahoma. The cast of characters is of epic proportions, so much so that a few readers have suggested that a genealogy similar to those prepared for some of Faulkner’s novels would be helpful in keeping the families and characters straight. In this novel, furthermore, character is a complex combination of social, religious, intellectual, and emotional forces. Because character in any great novel is inextricably linked with theme and social concerns, many of the Convent women’s characters were discussed in the “Themes” section and some of the Ruby families’ characters were discussed in the “Social Concerns” section. Here we shall focus on the two male characters who offer a possible ray of hope, Reverend Richard Misner and Deacon Morgan.

Morrison has stated that Paradise is her most overtly religious novel. This may startle many readers because the book paints an unflattering picture of organized religion as an accomplice in the history of civil rights repression as well as in the exploitation, however well intentioned, of Native Americans by Roman Catholic missionaries, a theme Chippewa novelist Louise Erdrich also treats in novels like Love Medicine (1984) and Tracks (1988). Moreover, the discussion under the heading “Social Concerns” suggested that echoes of Puritan theocracy are a central motif of Morrison’s anti-utopia. Despite these many negative portraits of organized religion’s role in the Civil Rights struggle, and despite the fact that the Convent is a place in which women who journey there, as well as some of the women who make the shorter trip from Ruby, have abortions (contrary to both Catholic and Fundamentalist doctrine), there is considerable truth in the statement that Paradise is a religious book. It is ultimately difficult to reconcile the notion of organized religion’s culpability in the establishment, development, and propagation of injustice based on both race and gender, with the notion of a religious experience as a counter-theme to the violence that lies at the heart of Paradise. However, an analysis of the town’s three ministers, arranged along the continuum of the religion’s role as either an apologist for the status quo or as an advocate for change, supports the notion that, if Paradise seems judgmental of the role religion has undertaken in American culture, it also offers hope in the presentation of religious persons who may take risks to change the future.

Morrison indicated in an interview that she sees Reverend Misner as a focal point for building some hope for the future. While that hope may need to be qualified, in that he is powerless to prevent the violence that organizes the novel (in fact, his encouragement of the “radical” youth of Ruby is one among several indisputable causes for the rages that drive their elders to attack the Convent). But Misner at least reflects on the frustrations of bringing a Gospel of love and tolerance to a community steeped in rage and complacency. This notion never occurs to either of his colleagues. Both Reverend Pulliam and Reverend Cary are stern, self-congratulating apologists for the prevailing patriarchy in Ruby as supported by Holy Writ and clerical custom.

The Reverends Pulliam and Cary are—to paraphrase Eldridge Cleaver, a militant African-American influential at the time of Morrison’s core narrative—part of the problem because they are not part of the solution. Consistent with the most central Puritan traditions, they are true theocrats, joining civic with religious authority in governing the town. But whether or not they might be able to influence the Morgan twins and the other town fathers toward tolerance and love, they encourage conservatism rather than change. Reverend Cary’s sermon on the voluntary austerity that makes Ruby life special is invoked as the nine men plan their assault on the Convent, as a concise expression of Ruby’s core values; however, when Reverend Misner is out of town, the women of Ruby do turn to Cary (not Pulliam) to intercede. He does not prevent the massacre, but he does at least demand that Steward take his own responsibility in the civil and religious violence that has taken place.

By contrast, Richard Misner is portrayed as a Christian activist. While his teaching the young to question the relation between social activism and the religious life stirs up strife in the complacent town, Ruby is a community in need of some stirring. One of Misner’s heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr., a martyr who combined the ministerial function with a commitment to a better tomorrow. Misner was jailed during the sit-ins organized during King’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement, so he is willing to put his freedom, perhaps his body or even his life, on the line for what he believes. He continues to promote among the youth of Ruby notions of black pride and Afro-centric theory. Moreover, he volunteers to teach classes on Negro history, for he feels that the community is dangerously and paradoxically submissive in its isolation strategy: “In their view Booker T. [Washington, who counseled getting along with white folks and taking what whites were willing to concede to blacks] trumped [W.E.B.] DuBois problems every time.” Moreover, Misner follows the lead of several African- American clergy of the 1970s in speculating on whether Jesus was a black man, and the need for Christ to be “freed from white religion.” His commitment is to change, and this makes Misner an outsider in every way in Ruby; Pat Best replies to Richard’s claim that he is not an enemy to the Ruby establishment by saying they equate all outsiders with enemies. Unlike Pulliam and Cary, he does not support immoral institutions like the suppression of the young or the women, but questions them and encourages the youth to do so as well. Thus Morrison aligns him implicitly with Socrates, who challenged youth to think independently and drew upon himself the wrath of a different conservative establishment. Yet, well-intentioned as he may be, Misner causes at least as much trouble as he prevents. The rupture between youth and adults is broadened, not narrowed, by his confrontational tactics, which even he comes to question. When Lone DuPres seeks out Misner the night of the attack, readers may quite legitimately wonder how much good Misner could do even if he were in town. This of course reflects on his unpopularity with the Ruby men rather than on the legitimacy of his concern. He cannot, however, save the youth of Ruby or the women of the Convent. While he is morally superior to the other pastors, in that he questions his own motives and seeks a solution based on hope for the future rather than perpetuation of the past, his immediate, practical effect for good is negligible.

Perhaps the ultimate assessment of Misner’s moral role in Paradise, however, involves his final cluster of decisions. He proposes to Anna Flood, and marriage in itself points to the future. But he realizes that success as a pastor demands that he relocate, that his marginalization in Ruby works against his effectiveness as well as his practical advancement as a clergyman. Moreover, he knows it will be hard for him to forgive the Ruby men for what happened at the Convent. On the other hand, Anna wants to stay, despite the horrors they imagined when they went to the Convent to see for themselves what happened. Misner decides to stay and face the challenge to forgive and to work for change in a community that has resorted to violence to avoid change, because someone he loves wants to be there—quite a contrast to the marriages of the Morgans and Reverend Pulliam. Moreover, he sees a real challenge to his ministry here: “there was no better battle to fight, no better place to be than among these outrageously beautiful, flawed, and proud people.” Finally it is some measure of Misner’s, and activist religion’s, importance to the novel, that it is he, rather than Pulliam or Cary, to whom Deacon Morgan comes to confess.

Deacon’s transformation is even more dramatic than Consolata’s, from a woman wishing for death to a true leader of the Convent women. Until the assault the Morgan twins were identical, so much so that they even married sisters and had nearly identical, and distinguished, service records. One measure of their physical similarity is demonstrated during Deacon’s affair with Connie; she found herself in a pickup truck with Steward, whom she believed was her lover. A kind of telepathy exists between the brothers as well. No one ever sees them talking, but each knows exactly what the other is thinking. They have similar attitudes toward business, toward Ruby’s traditions, toward the young as dishonoring those traditions, and toward the Convent as a source of social and moral contamination.

All that changes at the Convent. After Steward kills the first woman, Deek “gives the orders” to proceed with the operation, overtly consenting to this act of violence. But when Steward turns his weapon on Consolata, Deek attempts to stop him and finds out “who, between then, is the stronger man.” From that moment the brothers’ identities separate. When Steward blames the “evil in this house” in order to justify the killings to the townsmen who have arrived too late to prevent the violence, Deek openly challenges this, saying the responsibility is Steward’s alone. This is, at best, technically true, for Steward did fire the shots at the white girl and Connie; the others fired on women in the garden and all, including Deek, intended to do harm. But Morrison’s point is not a mere legalism; blaming his brother, Deek initiates a moral separation that is complemented by a loss of telepathic empathy: “For the first time in twenty-one years the twins looked each other dead in the eyes” because they need to do so.

After the assault the brothers continue to drift apart in moral terms, while the town tries to resume its life, since no bodies can be found and Pat Best’s fears of white lawmen overrunning Ruby do not materialize. Steward continues with the Morgan traditions of austerity, severity, and accumulation, grooming K. D. as his successor. But even as the brothers come to look more alike, their souls disconnect from one another. Deacon, finding his life “uninhabitable,” walks barefoot across town to confess to Misner, the minister the community despises. His shoeless walk suggests two related metamorphoses. One of the Founders, Coffee (Zechariah) Morgan walked barefoot for two hundred miles, with a wound in his foot, because he refused to dance when white men threatened him and his twin outside a saloon. As a result, Deek has to reconsider his history by reenacting a part of it. He confesses to Misner about his war adventures, his affair with Consolata, his vision of black girls at a canning factory in his youth. As a result of his confession, he comes to a new relationship with the pastor and a new theory of Ruby history, in which he rethinks his former disapproval of Coffee’s (Big Papa’s) breaking off his relationship with his twin, who “quite reasonably” danced in humility before the white men’s pistols. Now Deek realizes that Coffee’s hatred for his twin was not simply because of his servility, but because he recognized a “shame within himself,” a realization that owes much to Deacon’s shock at Steward’s shooting two women in cold blood, then striking K. D. for pointing out to Reverend Cary that only Steward shot the women. Out of this riot of emotions, Deek has learned a troubling lesson in humility, and realizes that he has a “long way to go” to come to terms with his own past actions.

At yet another level, the barefoot walk across town represents a transformation of gender roles. As many reviewers pointed out when the novel appeared, most of the women (except for Soane Morgan) walk to the Convent. Even Mavis arrives after walking away from an auto that is out of gasoline, and Seneca leaves a pickup truck to accompany Sweetie Fleetwood on foot to the building. Men, however, ride or drive in Paradise. Deek drove to meet Consolata and has his ritual of daily driving even the short distance to the bank; Steward rides his horse; the invasion party drives to the Convent. Deacon’s walk is the first time a man makes a significant journey on foot, with its implications generally of humility and specifically, in Morrison’s construction of gender, of female sensibility. Is this a symbolic manifestation that Deacon’s experience in the Convent has liberated his more generous, sensitive side, the one he has repressed over the years of being a Morgan patriarch?

Undoubtedly, this is exactly what it does mean. But the reader is left with still more issues after pondering this great change by one character who has acted in error (Deek) and this refusal to change by one who has represented attitudes the novel defines as healthy (Misner). Unlike his twin, however, Steward has refused to change. Moreover, most of the men who were at the Convent that morning have “sanitized” their stories and some, like Harper Jury, wear their wounds as medals giving them the status of “unbowed warrior[s] against evil.” Only Menus, his son, shows repentance, and he retreats even further into the bottle than before. Wisdom Poole confesses in church only after his family has shunned him for “scandalizing their forefathers’ reputations.” So it is left to the reader to decide whether the male cup of repentance is half full or half empty. Deacon confesses voluntarily, Wisdom under duress; but others, with no bodies to accuse them of their crimes, sink once more into their patriarchal attitudes. Even Dovey and Soane Morgan have ceased to support one another because of what happened, and because Deacon could not stop Steward from killing Connie. If we see salvation as a collective event, in which the community’s redemption is at stake, the cup of repentance is half empty and the spiritual future for Ruby is bleak. If, on the other hand, we see salvation as an individual act, the cup is half full. As in many of Morrison’s best books, particularly Song of Solomon, it is up to the reader to decide.



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Paradise, Toni Morrison’s first novel since she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been eagerly awaited. It spans more than eighty years, beginning with the founding of Haven, Oklahoma, by a group of former slaves (the Old Fathers) led by Zechariah Morgan, after they are turned away by lighter citizens of an all-black town (ironically named Fairly) because their skins are too dark. This bitter event, known as the Disallowing, is reenacted each Christmas season in Haven, which thrives until the hard years of the Depression and Dust Bowl.

Veterans returning from World War II decide to relocate their dying town, renaming it Ruby in honor of Zechariah’s granddaughter, the first to be buried there. Her twin brothers Steward and Deacon Morgan are bankers and respected civic leaders in the new community. Ruby remains largely isolated from the rest of the world, and its inhabitants prefer it that way. Tradition- bound town fathers are willing to sacrifice in order to continue their pure line.

Ruby’s patriarchal traditions are challenged by the inhabitants of an old mansion known as the Convent, some seventeen miles from town. Originally built as a pleasure palace, complete with pornographic plumbing, by an embezzler who was arrested at his first wild party, it was then purchased by Catholic nuns as a boarding school for Arapaho girls. Years later, after both students and nuns have gone, the Convent becomes an informal refuge for five lost women who live there more or less permanently, scandalizing Ruby, until local vigilantes set out after them. The novel begins with this attack.

The senior woman of the Convent is Consolata Sosa, rescued at nine from the streets of Brazil by a nun and brought to the school as her ward. Connie becomes a willing cook and servant to the nuns. She discovers and tends the famous purplish-black hot peppers that grow only on Convent grounds, and soon she begins to sell produce and baked goods from the Convent kitchen. Shortly after the founding of Ruby, she encounters Deacon Morgan, and they quickly become lovers even though he is married. Their affair is passionate and brief, for his brother Steward is suspicious, and Deacon dare not sacrifice his standing in this strict community. Later, when his son is killed in an automobile accident, the aging midwife Lone DuPres shows Connie how to “step in” and revive him. Yet Connie, “gifted” though she may be, lives in fear of God’s punishment for this power.

In 1968, Mavis Albright joins her when her car breaks down near the Convent. She is fleeing a brutal husband and the death of her infant twins, accidentally smothered in a hot, closed car. Mavis is a classic victim of abuse, isolated, wearing sunglasses to hide her bruises, believing herself inferior and forever wrong. Her own mother has betrayed her, but somehow Connie is able to put her at ease.

Soon the rebel Gigi follows, fresh from a riot in Oakland where her boyfriend has been jailed. Her father is in prison, her mother unreachable. Gigi seeks social justice and has a penchant for going naked, but she comes to Ruby in search of food and love, specifically, rhubarb pie and two fabled trees that intertwine like lovers. (She finds the pie.)

Sweet Seneca, the peacemaker, also finds a home at the Convent. Abandoned at the age of five by her older “sister” (actually her mother), Seneca has grown into a gentle woman, desperate to please others, who does not know how to respect herself. Secretly, she slashes herself with a razor.

The last to arrive is sixteen-year-old Pallas Truelove, who eloped with the janitor at her high school only to have her artist- mother fall in love with him. She has also been traumatized by a group of men who hunted her. Pallas rests briefly at the Convent, then goes back to California to finish high school, but she returns at Christmas, four months pregnant.

None of these events are presented in chronological order, as those familiar with the author’s work will already know. For the unsuspecting reader, however, coherence may be a problem, since much of the background information is delayed until the second half of the book. The novel is elliptically told in Morrison’s rich, storyteller voice, creating an effect of increasing illumination, introducing characters and events as gradually as dawning light clarifies the interior of a room.

The text spills over with magical language. After their long journey, Zechariah and the wandering freedmen are “raggedy as sauerkraut.” At a contemporary wedding “the men’s squeaky new shoes glistened like melon seeds.” Connie, who is “a woman in love with the cemetery,” buries herself in a cellar room and yearns to die to escape her guilt. Only the solace of wine permits her to endure “her slug life,” her unbearable thoughts.

This is a novel about passion. At first, the children of Haven have a passion for freedom, religion, and respect; their lives are devoted to these principles. Yet their passion gradually becomes distorted, especially by the men of Ruby, into a fanaticism that will brook no contradiction, no swerving from tradition, until they are willing to kill to protect their isolated community from any outside influence.

The Convent women seem to lose their passion (if indeed any but Connie ever had it), until Connie experiences an epiphany in the untended winter garden. Suddenly she is younger, stronger, her hair no longer gray. Passion, her life force, has returned, and she has become Consolata, the Consoler. This childless woman, a Reverend Mother to four motherless novices, instructs them in the rites of a very old religion. They light candles in the cellar, shave their heads, and dance joyously in the rain; they begin to connect with the natural world and each other, no longer haunted by their past. They begin to heal.

Paradise delivers a series of dichotomies, the most obvious between Ruby and the Convent, even though both groups have chosen isolation. The men of Ruby honor a patriarchal tradition. They are stern Protestants who condescend to their women and resist any change, and they believe their attack on the Convent is necessary to ensure the survival of their community. Conversely, the women of the Convent exemplify a break from tradition, the rejection of old ways. They embody change; they live in peace, unhampered by rules. In Ruby, feelings against them come to a head: “They don’t need men and they don’t need God.”

One disillusioned young woman, ready to enter the wider world, thinks of her town as “a backward noplace ruled by men whose power to control was out of control.” She sees the real conflict as one between men and women. This, though, is more than a struggle between male-dominated authority and the intuitive powers of women, best exemplified by Consolata and the midwife Lone DuPres. Intuitive, spontaneous paganism of the kind adopted by the Convent women seems to foster vitality and renewed life, even as Lone observes that such actions constitute a risk for “women who chose themselves for company, which is to say not a convent but a coven.”

Perhaps the pivotal distinction lies between Ruby’s world of dichotomies—good and bad, right and wrong—and the Convent women’s ultimate belief in healing wholeness. An inspired Consolata warns her followers against the forced separation of body and spirit, for no dichotomy exists, only unity. The spirit “is true, like bones. It is good, like bones. . . . Never put one over the other.” To the people of Ruby, such talk is heresy.

Racial prejudice in this novel is demonstrated largely through skin color within the African American community. For Ruby, preserving racial purity is of primary importance; there must be no “white” blood. The blue-black descendants of the Old Fathers are proud to be called “eight-rock,” like the darkness at the very deepest level of a coal mine; and they marry their own. They have forgotten the warning of rowdy Pura Sangre (Pure Blood), a lawless all-white town that demonstrates that such inbreeding may not be wise.

Ruby’s undertaker is the first to violate the blood rule by marrying a lighter woman, whom he soon buries; his daughter and granddaughter, also light-skinned, are barely tolerated. The town barber, forbidden to marry his fair-skinned black sweetheart, becomes a pathetic drunk. The yearly reenactment of the Disallowing now reveals that only seven of Ruby’s nine founding families are represented; those who have not measured up have been quietly erased from history. Ironically, a people who were rejected by light-complected Fairly have developed their own ruthless prejudices.

Ruby’s unused communal Oven is a major symbol, built by the Old Fathers in the early days of Haven and transported brick by brick to Ruby. Zechariah Morgan also fashioned an iron plaque with a cryptic motto; young people now argue its meaning, which they interpret differently. On the rainy morning of the attack on the Convent, the Oven shifts ominously on the soggy earth, undermined. Just as the Oven is unsteady, so is the rigid patriarchy and unforgiving nature of the town. Tradition is indeed on shaky ground.

Morrison employs numerous biblical symbols. The Morgan twins have struck a bargain: Death no longer comes to Ruby; but was Haven a false heaven, is Ruby a false Paradise, harsh and absolute? Even Consolata, out at the Convent, has raised the dead more than once. Her rich garden suggests Eden in its lushness, especially after a green-eyed stranger enters. Character names also bear religious overtones: in addition to Consolata, Deacon, and Steward, they include Piedade (Piety, the woman who cared for little Consolata in Brazil), Divine (another name for Pallas), Grace (Gigi’s real name), and her onetime lover Mikey Rood.

The novel has generally been well received, although a few critics have seized the opportunity to attack Morrison’s views on race, especially her introductory essay in Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case (1997), edited by Morrison and Claudia B. Lacour. Their arguments seem irrelevant to this novel, where Morrison’s focus is on the cruelties of intraracial, rather than interracial, color prejudice. Even though the book begins with a grim statement, “They shoot the white girl first,” subsequent events indicate that the victim’s race has nothing to do with it.

Indeed, no reviewer seems to be quite certain whether the white woman is Pallas, Seneca, or Gigi. Pallas’s father is a (presumably white) Jewish lawyer named Milton who works with black entertainers and has married “outside his own people”; her mother is an artist named Divine Truelove. Seneca’s mother is “not even the same color” as a weeping woman identified as black, but perhaps that is a comment not on race but on hue. Gigi wears the brilliant colors associated with the dying woman. The author, indicating that this ambiguity was a deliberate choice, has declined to identify the white woman because she contends that race is the least helpful piece of information in recognizing who a person really is. That idea is also controversial. Still, Paradise rises easily to the level of her best work, Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987). Toni Morrison’s books always deserve, and require, rereading. She engages the mind and the heart; one cannot be placed above the other.


Grewal, Gurleen. Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. A brief but perceptive discussion of Morrison’s most important works, with emphasis on its relation to the American South. Bibliography and index.

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A good survey of Morrison’s life and writings; provides an interesting contrast to the similar volume by Jill Matus listed below. Bibliography, index.

Matus, Jill. Toni Morrison. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A solid overview of Morrison’s oeuvre to the time immediately preceding publication of Paradise. Index, bibliography.

Mori, Aoi. Toni Morrison and Womanist Discourse. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A critical discussion of feminist themes in Morrison’s works. Includes a good bibliography and an index.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Morrison presents a series of lectures outlining her literary theory.

Peach, Linden, ed. Toni Morrison. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A collection of essays discussing Morrison’s novels in a variety of contexts: as women’s literature, as African American literature, and as twentieth century U.S. literature. Indexed, with an extensive bibliography.

Historical Background

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Paradise is set in a small town in Oklahoma and shows how a community’s past can influence, and perhaps determine, its present and future. As with Morrison’s two previous novels, Beloved and Jazz, Paradise is based on thorough research into a period of African-American history.

There is a rich history of African Americans in the American West, and although this subject was left out of many of the history books used in most classrooms, this is now starting to change. Some people fled the policies of slavery, whereas others simply sought opportunity in less-populated parts of the country. There were many good reasons for blacks to flee the South, before, during, and after the Civil War. Advertising, recruitment campaigns, and land incentives ensured that many thousands of black settlers went West, ready for new lives that would involve greater freedom and control of their own destinies.

All-black towns sprang up by the dozens throughout Oklahoma, Kansas, and elsewhere. Some of the towns were quite large. Two in particular seem to be the inspiration for material in Paradise. The town of Boley, Oklahoma boasted 4,000 citizens. When Booker T. Washington visited Boley in 1905, he was impressed with what he found; there had not been an arrest in Boley for two years (compare this fact to an observation in Paradise’s first chapter: “It neither had nor needed a jail.”) Langston City, also in Oklahoma, was considerably larger and had its own newspaper, which, not surprisingly, concerned itself with issues affecting the town. Although all settlers, regardless of race, were of great importance to the town, the town had to make sure that each and every one of its citizens would pull his or her own weight.

Of all the virtues for which the American West was famous, the most important was self-sufficiency. No town could afford to receive several hundred poor, broken refugees from the South. Moreover, as a general principle, weakness was not tolerated. Hence, the newspapers issued in black towns were strident in their demands that newcomers not be a burden. The Langston City Herald exhorted black settlers coming to Oklahoma from other parts of the country, “Come Prepared or Not at All.” This sentiment greatly disheartens the novel’s characters when they read it on their way to found Haven. Both Boley and Langston City are specifically mentioned in Paradise. These towns had to endure a variety of pressures and destructive elements. While white settlers in the region did not enjoy their neighbors, Native Americans saw all settlers as threats. Paradise is the story of how the people in the fictional town of Ruby, Oklahoma, dealt with those pressures.

Literary Techniques

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Although not quite as technically dazzling as Morrison’s previous novel, Jazz, Paradise offers a rich and multitextured narrative. As the previous discussions have indicated, the novel begins defiantly in medias res, with its climactic event, the attack on the Convent, and works its way through many layers of narrative to establish the social structure and history of Ruby as well as the personal histories of the women who become the objects of the town’s scapegoating. But in no case is the narrative simply chronological. Like her predecessors Woolf and Faulkner, Morrison addresses the issue of the tyranny of history by fragmenting its appearance of an orderly chronology. Thus the narrative moves by abrupt shifts within the chapters among stories of individual characters and stories of the building of a community. Although the narrator’s stance seems omniscient, it is often really limited in its focus to the scope of a single character, and therefore Morrison sets into motion a series of narratives competing for the reader’s trust.

The chapters themselves present a pattern seemingly set up to be broken, to reinforce both the theme relating to the planned community and that dealing with the tyranny of history. After a brilliant musical overture, “Ruby,” which tells cryptically the story of the assault and fills in a first installment of the history of Ruby, the novel names the next four chapters after the women who arrive at the Convent. The strategy of an overture—which, as in a musical composition, lays out most of the themes and motifs of the work to come—has been characteristic of all three novels of Morrison’s trilogy, as well as Sula; its achievement in Jazz is art of the very highest order. The next four chapters interconnect the Ruby story with each of the women’s stories. Even here, a modest mischief asserts itself in Morrison’s titling: the fifth chapter, “Divine,” is really about Pallas, whose mother, Dee Dee—an artist who steals her daughter’s lover—is actually named “Divine,” as is the daughter later born to Pallas in the Convent. This of course suggests that the chapter’s focus is properly on the most powerful single influence on Pallas.

Having established this pattern of contrasting narratives, between the inhabitants of Ruby and those of the Convent, the novel surprises us by focusing the sixth chapter, “Patricia,” on Pat Best, a townswoman teacher- historian. Morrison turns to Pat to give the historian’s objective voice and to articulate the theme of racial intolerance from within Ruby. The “eight-rock” theory is exclusively Patricia’s. It is not, however, completely objective. Patricia feels that her mother was despised because of her light skin, and Pat further fears that she has passed this flawed gene to her daughter Billie Delia. Some of the tension that drives Pat to strike Billie Delia, and the daughter to seek refuge in the Convent for a short time, probably derives from Pat’s own feeling of exclusion. Her theory is therefore not invalidated, but it is not objective either, because of her own sense that she and her family are discriminated against because of light complexion.

Other chapters complete the pattern of focusing on women from Ruby who feel alienated. After the chapter focused on Consolata, in many ways the central section of the novel, Morrison names one chapter “Lone,” itself a wonderful pun suggesting the planned community as a source of alienation as well as solidarity. The principal character, Lone DuPres, was a foundling and has never been fully assimilated in Ruby. Significantly, her occupation, that of a midwife, is becoming irrelevant as the prosperous younger women of Ruby turn to white obstetricians. Lone overhears the plan to attack the Convent, but her efforts to intervene, while well intentioned, are so futile as to be comical, were the stakes not so high. The final chapter, again with a powerful pun at its center, “Save-Marie,” is named for the ultimate female victim of Ruby’s male-based severity, a baby girl whose death is the first in Ruby. But Save- Marie’s death may be a positive as well as a negative beginning. Appalled by the raid, the child’s mother makes the brave, almost unthinkable, demand that her daughter will not be buried on any parcel of land belonging to Steward Morgan, the first public challenge to the Morgan theocracy in the entire novel.

The most important technical achievement of Paradise, however, is its open-ended quality. Who, and how many, were killed in the raid? What happened to their bodies? No doubt, Steward shoots “the white girl” and Lone expects “this dying [to] take a while.” He also shoots Consolata between the eyes, and she dies on the kitchen table, according to Soane Morgan. Sargeant says the other women, who ran from the building after defending themselves, “went down. In the grass.” Lone stays “with the bodies” (more than one, obviously) until Roger Best can arrive to pick up the five bodies he has been told he will find out there. Despite a careful search he finds none. Lone, too, is missing.

Much of “Save-Marie” is arranged around competing theories of the crime, some of which are self-serving nonsense, such as the version in which four men went to restrain the other five and the women attacked the four. By contrast, several are mystical: the women “took other shapes and disappeared into thin air”; Billie Delia fervently hopes they will “reappear, with blazing eyes”; Lone thinks God “has actually swept up and received his servants in broad daylight” and she must have been there if it happened. Finally, some are overtly political: Pat believes “nine 8-rocks murdered five harmless women … because they could.” The point is that there is no objective source of truth about what happened at the Convent. Even as witnesses to the event, we as readers can only build conjectures about how many women died, if any, and what happened to the bodies of those who did.

To complicate matters further, Morrison’s coda consists of efforts by the four women to resume their lives by confronting their pasts. In the coda we can account for Gigi, Pallas, Seneca, and Mavis, but not Connie, although it is at least possible that Piedade, whose song ends the book, is a manifestation of Connie’s spirit because she is a mythic figure transmitted by Connie to the other women. In either case, it is probable that Connie’s death by Steward’s hand was real and was, moreover, sacrificial. We are still left with the problem of what happened to her body, but it is easy enough to construct a plausible inference: Sargeant was wrong about the women being shot in the field (the marksmen, themselves injured, simply missed running targets), and the white girl did not die after all, because Connie saved her by “stepping in.” After the townspeople left, the women escaped and took their beloved Connie’s body with them, as well as Pallas’s daughter, whom the assassins did not seek. This explanation has obvious appeal, and is supported by the fact that Mavis’s Cadillac is gone. There is, however, a problem with even this theory. Lone was there, and she believes the women “ascended” in Biblical fashion. If she is not delusional, or if she did not leave before the other women did—neither can be ruled out—the persons who visit their pasts are ghosts or spirits, which seems highly inconsistent with the realistic quality of those portions of the narrative.

The point is that Morrison scrupulously resists the sense of closure typical of fictional constructs, even more than she did in Jazz or Beloved. She forces the reader to participate in an uncertain process of completing her narrative. And she well knows that our interpretation of any work of fiction in large measure depends on the sense of ending, of how things resolve themselves. In Paradise, Morrison warns us against easy and pat interpretations. She refuses to decide for us which of the several possible endings she suggests is true, so we as readers must visit and revisit this ill-conceived, humanly constructed “paradise” to decide for ourselves exactly what we make of it.

Social Concerns

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Paradise continues, and in some ways completes, Toni Morrison’s reflection on the journeys to escape from slavery’s heritage that began with Beloved (1987, see separate entry). This novel’s cultural myth is the narrative of a group who tried to escape from post-Reconstruction culture, not by heading for the city, but—in the words of Mark Twain’s, and the nineteenth century’s, great American protagonist Huck Finn—by “lighting out for the territory.” Ironically, these black pioneers, the revered ancestors of the characters in Morrison’s novel, emulated the migration that settled the American West, following the advice of the white editor of a New York newspaper, to “Go West, young man.” In their search for a Utopian alternative to institutional racism, the trailblazers had to contend not only with the enemies they shared with the other settlers (Native Americans trying to preserve their territories and cultures, wild animals, a severe climate, an unforgiving landscape); they had to contend as well with those white settlers who assumed that their privileges in the seaboard or gulf states still pertained on the frontier. Ultimately, however, the most formidable foes these pioneers encountered were established African- American enclaves to which they sought to migrate, time with its insistence on change, and human nature itself.

Thus Paradise is a variation on the Utopian theme central to literature since Plato’s Republic—the quest for a great good place in which human hopes may be realized through destroying oppressive institutions that impede individual freedom, and creating in their place institutions that foster human happiness. Since the late nineteenth century, however, humankind has generally ceased to believe in the myth of “nowhere.” Perhaps the only important hopeful Utopian fiction since Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) was B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), a fictional precursor to his Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). Far more frequent in modern literature are anti-utopian novels, sometimes called “dystopias,” which function as stern warnings about cultural trends the writer sees as threats to human freedom and dignity. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) is arguably the most influential of all these novels, challenged by its precursor, Animal Farm (1946). Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is another influential predecessor. Lesser novels like Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) or The Wanting Seed (1962), or Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker (1980) continue the tradition of criticizing the calcification of institutions, however well intentioned, that gather too much power over human lives.

To discover the ways in which Paradise contributes to the tradition of anti-utopian discourse, in this section we shall investigate the reasons for the creation of the community called Ruby, Oklahoma, its initial success, and its long-term failure. What we shall learn is that this community’s story constitutes Morrison’s contribution to the literary and cultural genre of the antiutopia, and that it echoes as well the construction and failure (not to mention the lasting consequences of) a similar Utopian experiment, America’s own Puritan heritage. As writers since Nathaniel Hawthorne have been pointing out continuously, the Puritan legacy is the single element of our cultural history that most influences and obsesses us.

Ruby, the “paradise” of this novel, was deliberately founded as a refuge from the terrors of white, institutional racism, yet its more proximate cause suggests disillusionment with the black communities that were founded in response to Jim Crow institutions. Ruby came into being in 1950, during the boom period following the Second World War. The principal founders were veterans who had fought on behalf of American culture and its ideology, but who had returned to a society that still practiced dejure as well as de facto segregation (the American Civil Rights movement, which began shortly after Ruby was founded, was itself a cause of conflict within that community). The irony that black veterans like Deacon and Steward Morgan faced death and killed yellow men in the South Pacific to preserve the American way of life, then returned to experience segregation in the land for which they fought, is hardly lost on Morrison or her audience. Morrison had touched upon similar ironies concerning World War I in Sula (1972) and Jazz (1992, see separate entry). The veterans in Paradise, however, felt themselves victims of an even more insidious kind of racism. When they came home to an allegorically-named “Haven,” or refuge, they found it contaminated with new ideas and concessions to the prevailing culture of America, which was of course a white society. Moreover, when the twin brothers returned, they saw the changes in their culture as precursors to yet another episode of American racism. This fear profoundly influenced their decision to abandon the hamlet their ancestors founded and move on to establish a newer community.

In short, Deek and Steward, although themselves products of the “Haven” their father founded, sought a more perfect manifestation of the rights and seriousness they claimed as veterans and as citizens. After a lengthy search that emulated the “Grand Tour” their forefathers made to establish their “Haven,” they settled a small, isolated village dedicated to the economic and religious rights of black Americans. Ironically, they named their “paradise” for their sister Ruby, whose death the community folklore explicitly traces to the unwillingness of white hospitals and physicians to treat her when she fell gravely ill on the journey to the promised country. (It is debatable whether the brothers intended the irony, or whether Morrison is pointing to the unacknowledged contradictions in their naming of the town.) As the source of the town name and part of the community narrative, her story keeps alive the need for a place like Ruby, where white people will not have the power to turn away the Rubys of this world.

Therefore, the community was founded for a reasonable, if defensive, purpose. Within this story, however, Ruby is one of a long series of such communities in Oklahoma. A key component of the town’s myth is this long series of quests for the perfect haven. The sharing and handing down of a narrative of origins is, of course, a key element in the construction of a community; Ruby’s annual Christmas pageant eloquently synthesizes the history of the community with the refusal of lodgings to the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Much of the novel’s unique organization is Morrison’s gradual unraveling, from a variety of perspectives, of the nature and influence of those narratives that make up the village’s story and folklore. Much as the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony kept their narratives alive through writing and preaching to focus on their establishment of a model theocracy and to remind the citizens of this awesome undertaking on which they were embarked, the founders of Ruby preserve the stories of their planned community as cultural elements that bind the group in a common endeavor.

Much of the reason for the founders’ insistence on the continuity and purity of the Ruby population and story lies in the history of migrations that led their ancestors to Haven, then Ruby. Their folklore is full of heroes like Big Papa (Zechariah Morgan, a.k.a. “Coffee”) and Big Daddy (his son Rector), visionary ex-slaves who led a migration away from the poison of racial prejudice and toward their vision of a promised land, a shared paradise of ex-slaves who would work together to gain the rights and benefits of free citizenship. Morrison deliberately breaks up this narrative among several points of view in the novel, and, as we will see in the section on techniques, her strategy is to lead the reader to privilege one view of events over another by placing them in positions to compete for the reader’s belief in the truth of their portion of the larger narrative. One effect of this technique is to show the unreliability of, as well as the tyranny of, history (another theme that pervades the trilogy, especially Beloved). The town cherishes its oral tradition. One character, Pat Best, is trying to construct a documentary record to chronicle all of Ruby’s family histories. Best, as her name implies, is one of Morrison’s more reliable sources of the town’s folklore, but at the end of “her” chapter, “Patricia,” the reader co-participates with great sorrow as she systematically burns all the documents supporting her interpretative history of Ruby. She is clearly acknowledging her powerlessness before the force of history and her unwillingness to perpetuate what she sees as the evil of those systems that have evolved from Big Papa’s and her grandfather’s legacy. For the reader, much of the sorrow comes from the awareness that the history of an entire community is thereby returned to the oral tradition, by extension to the patriarchs who have traditionally controlled the creation and articulation of historical lore. As a female citizen of Ruby, Pat experiences a moment of liberation after she destroys the documents, but as readers we need to question whether turning away from the awful implications of the narrative she has unfolded spares her or Ruby from the events and their consequences. In the next section we will reconstruct the chronology that leads to the founding of Ruby, as opposed to Haven.

The first version of the narrative is Morrison’s synthesis of the memories of the twin bothers. Even while the assault on the Convent is in progress, as the story begins, Deek and Steward recall collectively the “controlling” narrative of “the Disallowing” that has become the centerpiece of the town’s folklore and the reason for its very being. Their grandfather told the story of 158 freedmen migrating from the cradles of the former Confederacy to Oklahoma, along the route turned away by Native Americans and poor whites alike but “unprepared for the aggressive discouragement they received from Negro towns already being built.” Their journey was thus filled with humiliation as well as deprivation, danger, and disappointment, until the self-esteem of the original band was nearly broken as a result of repeated rejections: “[i]n short, they were too poor, too bedraggled-looking, to enter .. . the communities that were soliciting Negro homesteaders” (emphasis added). But these were proud leaders, and they and their descendants reconstituted the narrative of their rejection as a test of will that builds a people who become “stiffer, prouder with each misfortune” (emphasis added) until they could rebuild their self-conception in direct response to the dangers, rejections, and humiliations they have endured.

To explain this heritage and to construct their local ethos, the descendants came to believe that the real reason for their ancestors’ rejection was their very dark complexion. In response to this, they have transvalued blackness itself within their folklore and their social hierarchy; now individuals in Ruby are valued in direct proportion to the darkness of their skin. Therefore no one who is light-skinned can be trusted or respected—obviously a type of counter-racism, whether traced to psychological compensation mechanisms or shared social acculturation. This theory—which Pat Best defines as “eight-rock,” (“Blue-black people, tall and graceful, whose clear, wide eyes gave no sign of what they really felt about people who weren’t 8-rock like them”)—originates as a compensation; but over time it deteriorates into a reason for excluding or disrespecting individuals. Both Best’s father, who married a light skinned woman (Pat fears that she has transmitted the light pigment gene to her daughter Billie Delia), and Menus Jury, who brought home a “pretty sandy-haired girl from Virginia” have felt victimized by the prejudice in favor of dark skin.

Over the generations, “the Disallowing” becomes the principal fact of the community’s folklore. Their humiliation and rage over being rejected by other communities of black families become the central theme of the stories the fathers pass to their sons as they congregate around Haven’s, and later Ruby’s, central location, the Oven. In 1975, Pat Best wonders why the ignominy of the Disallowing remained so strong in the community’s imagination as late as 1949, when the veterans interpreted a rise in racist and terrorist activities in the South as “The Disallowing, Part Two.” This concern, along with the sense that Haven has ceased to function as a true theocracy, leads the present generation of “New Fathers,” particularly the Morgan twins, to seek yet another safe place. The jealousy with which they guard their town is in part due to their sense that this refuge from racism was built by the work and fears of their forefathers, and it must be protected as a legacy for the future as well as an homage to the past.

The sense of Ruby as a special place is further reinforced by the town’s collective memory of dashed hopes during the period immediately following Reconstruction. Early in the novel, Deacon laments the fact that K. D., the twins’ nephew, is the last in a line of Morgans whose ancestors boasted a lieutenant governor, a state auditor, and two mayors during Reconstruction. This proud heritage was challenged by the purge of 1875, in which most of the political and cultural gains achieved by freedmen immediately after the Civil War were reversed and the Jim Crow South was born. (See D. W. Griffith’s powerful but disturbing silent film, Birth of a Nation, for a sympathetic account of the rise by white citizens against the Reconstruction.) Pat Best recalls that these ancestors were defiant freedmen who refused to take menial work from the white men after the war ended, and their descendants were rewarded by election to positions of power during the “carpetbagger” era. But after the white men drove out black officeholders in the mid-1870s, the Founders (Zechariah Morgan, Juvenal DuPres, and Drum Blackhorse) were singled out for special discrimination. While others driven from office were able to get lesser positions, these Founders were forced to accept menial jobs or endure poverty. Speaking, as it were, Pat’s thoughts, Morrison summarizes the frustration that animated the Founders to undertake the first of the “Grand Tours” to find a good place, and the heritage their children continued to keep alive: “Fifteen years of begging for sweat work in cotton, lumber or rice after five glorious years of remaking a country” (emphasis added).

Responding to the shared history of exclusion, marginalization, and racism, the Founders, old and new, deliberately established a series of two communities to provide a sanctuary from racism and exclusion; unwittingly, however, they emulate many of the features of the communities against which they are reacting. At the physical level, Ruby emulates suburbia, a post- World War II social phenomenon. Mavis, the first of the women to come to the Convent, notes a setting too elegant and planned to be real:

enormous lawns cut to dazzle in front of churches and pastel-colored houses. The air was scented. The trees young. Soane [Morgan, who is giving Mavis a ride] turned into a side street of flower gardens wider than the houses and snowed with butterflies” (emphasis added).

What Mavis sees, influenced of course by her own origins in poverty, is an ideal, ornate, artificial, modern suburbia. One delightful mock-heroic send-up of this planned Utopia involves the “flower wars” that took place between the founding and 1963, a competition among the women of Ruby to symbolize their husbands’, and the community’s, prosperity. Recalling the swept dirt yards in Haven and the other towns all the way back into slavery, the women of Ruby cultivate grass lawns as their husbands bring in labor-saving devices for farm and home. Then, as an evolving variation on social theorist Vance Packard’s concept of conspicuous consumption, “front yards were given over to flowers for no reason except that there was time in which to do it.” In this celebration of prosperity and leisure, the women of Ruby validate their husbands’ decision to reject the increasing cultural modernization of Haven. At the same time they imitate directly the suburbanization of America that was taking place after World War II, in which neighborhoods were laid out as planned refuges from the city, and the quality of the home, its lawn and garden, as well as the abundance of material possessions, became outward manifestations of the success and worthiness of the inhabitants. At a much more subtle level, however, this concern with manifestations of success, as a justification for the social experiment that was Ruby, points to connections with one of the predecessors for Morrison’s narrative, the Puritan experiment itself.

When the Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay, they set out, in the words of one of their founders, to construct “a city upon a hill” that would serve as a beacon to a decadent Europe that had rejected and persecuted them and their ancestors. Governor John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” expounded the blessings that would flow to Massachusetts Bay as proof of God’s will manifested in this experiment in government. In Paradise, this has three echoes. At the most obvious level, the Oklahoma community, like its prototype, emphasizes material possession as a sign of divine blessing. Much as the Puritans, in later generations, came to look upon prosperity as an end in itself—and their influence in emphasizing the equation of virtue and prosperity has been profound in American culture—the men of Ruby become obsessed with acquisition. Like Macon Dead II in Song of Solomon (1977, see separate entry), Deek and Steward follow in the footsteps of Big Daddy and Big Papa in prioritizing material ownership; but unlike their ancestors, they eventually come to value possession as an end in itself, not as a manifestation of the need to be vigilant against economic oppression by white men.

In the view of one of the town ministers, the twins “behaved as if God were their silent business partner.” Steward seeks consolation for his failing marriage by riding in the daybreak hours over the acres of his extensive land holdings. This habitual gesture tells us much about the echoes of Massachusetts Bay in Ruby. The consolation of material possessions for uncertainties of the spirit is complemented by the need to dominate, in this case to ride a horse, a powerful creature that must be controlled in order to be made useful to humankind—in the language of Genesis so central to Puritan society, to “subdue” earth and its creatures. This does not, of course, rule out ironic echoes of two racist cultural stereotypes: the American cowboy, inevitably imaged as white in post-war films, and the plantation owner who rode out to inspect the crops and slaves, to say nothing of the even more insidious association of “nightrider” with racial terrorism, specifically Klan activities after Reconstruction. Steward’s riding at daybreak points to two related themes: the breakdown of the traditional family unit and the engendering of attitudes toward material possession. Like his twin, Deacon has been distanced from his wife, Soane, in part because of their sons’ deaths in Vietnam, in part because the women of Ruby harbor unspoken resentments of their husbands’ assumptions of patriarchal privilege, and in part because he once carried on an illicit relationship with Consolata, now the de facto leader at the Convent.

In Morrison’s treatment of the Puritan heritage, moreover, it is the men who violate the Founders’ spirit by transforming materialism from a manifestation of providential favor to a sign of simple power. A few of the Ruby women express quiet forms of dissatisfaction with this. Dovey asserts a minimal independence by choosing to stay overnight in a house in town that Steward foreclosed upon; and that is one reason her husband rides at night. He would surely be shocked to know that at the house she often “entertains” an imagined guest, a fictional man whose interest in her is personal rather than sexual (as Steward’s definitely is; his longing for her as a bed partner reminds him of his incompleteness), and who fills a void in Dovey’s emotional and spiritual life by taking her emotions and thoughts seriously.

A second echo of Puritan culture—in addition to the overt sobriety, somberness, and conflation of spiritual and political spheres of community—is the emphasis on the concept of covenant. In Puritan culture, the covenants of grace and works were guidelines for every element of public and private life. In a strange sermon at the wedding of K. D., the young patriarch who passes four rituals of male initiation in Paradise (impregnating a woman, marrying her, beating her, and participating in the assault on the Convent, the citadel of matriarchal authority), Reverend Pulliam, one of the town’s three ministers and therefore leading citizens, opens the chapter called “Divine” with a stern meditation on love, “that silly word.” It seems to one of the characters, and to the reader, a bizarre theme for a wedding service, even if this particular marriage has feudal overtones of a royal union that will resolve the conflict between two of the town’s leading families, the Morgans and the Fleetwoods; Pat Best’s daughter calls it a “cease-fire.” The pastoral meditation is, however, consistent with the context of Puritan culture. Pulliam, with his “large and long Methodist education” is a force for theological conservatism in Ruby, and emphasizes the “otherness” of God and His demands that we fulfill His covenants. Love, says Pulliam, is rooted neither in erotic nor emotional attraction. It is a covenant, a “diploma,” that represents the contract between the individuals who make up a marriage and God. People do not “deserve” love, human or divine. Rather, one is admonished to “earn God,… practice God,… Think God” to acquire God’s blessings, among which are prosperity and a happy marriage. Those who fail to “earn God,” however they may practice monogamy and parental virtue, “cannot thrive.” While this is an extreme version of the covenant theory (and, as Anna Flood suspects, the diatribe may really be aimed at a fellow pastor who takes a more liberal view of the church’s role in public policy), it nonetheless is grounded in the overall covenant theory that governs this theocracy founded in reaction to racism and exclusion. Part of the problem with any covenant theory is that it can quickly degenerate into a means of discriminating against those who will not, or cannot, conform. As the Puritans made war on the Indians while invoking God’s wrath, or drove dissenters like Anne Hutchinson out of the community to perish and thereby express, in some Puritans’ eyes, God’s approval of their excluding the nonconformists in the first place, the stern men of Ruby are driving their children to the cities and their women to the Convent. K. D. and Arnette’s wedding begins under the cloud of Pulliam’s wrathful injunction to submit to the covenant, and to the austere life-style Ruby approves. But Arnette goes to the Convent the very night of her wedding to assert her territorial ownership of K. D. against the temptress, Gigi, one of the Convent women with whom he has been intimate. And it is not the first time she has been there.

The third echo of the Puritan experiment in Paradise involves the predominance of conservative and exclusionist thought. One of many reasons for the breakdown of Puritan culture was an unwillingness among the ministers and community leaders to accept change in the ideas or attitudes of the citizens. (Generally the ministers and community leaders were the same men, as in Paradise; it is no accident that the Morgan twins’ names, like their father’s (Rector), suggest hierarchical functions in a church, a deacon being an officer of the congregation and a steward being a manager, often associated with the parable of the steward; Puritans often named their children after religious duties or virtues.) As citizens came to doubt the dour theories of predestination and the Covenant of Grace, community leaders repressed their “free thinking” by chastisement, threats, exclusion, and eventually public punishments. In 1638, Anne Hutchinson was one among several hounded from Salem because she questioned the nature of divine communication and insisted on the possibility that a “mere woman” might be an instrument of God’s will. The Witchcraft trials of 1692 indicate the paranoia and brutality toward which this conservatism led.

In 1975, something very like this is happening in Ruby. The young are questioning the construction of Ruby and even its folklore; the women are becoming uncomfortable in the roles they are permitted to undertake; the nearby Convent is evolving as a place for “unruly women” and witchcraft, even demon-worship as the men see it; and the town leaders, following the examples of the Morgan twins and Reverend Pulliam, are digging in to fight to the death for those values and institutions in which they have always believed.

It is this combination that unleashes the act of violence with which the novel opens: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” This expression of calculated violence and racism is the result of a simmering patriarchal conservatism about culture, race, and gender that, like the systematic Puritan massacres of the Indians three centuries before, scapegoats certain groups to displace the frustrations of a culture unable or unwilling to adapt or change. Overhearing the townsmen planning the attack, Lone DuPres listens in on a conversation that perfectly represents the longing for stasis in Ruby’s male community. Lone judges that Sargeant Person is “chewing on the rag of truth,” questioning “why this deliberately beautiful town governed by responsible men couldn’t stay so: stable, prosperous, with no talk-back young people” (emphasis added). In her reconstruction of Sargeant’s lament (suggesting that Lone filters what she hears, capturing some, or most, or only a little, of what is actually said, for she is under great stress and suffering from the ravages of old age), Morrison suggests three of Paradise’s central themes: the planned Utopia, the inevitability of change, and the frustration that results from the insufficiency of values assumed to be self-evident to meet the needs of future generations. These are symbolized throughout the novel by the central shared space and signifier of Ruby, the Oven.

The literal and figurative center of town, the Oven is an inheritance carefully brought from Haven, brick by brick, and lovingly rebuilt as a tribute to the Founders. Again, as in almost every aspect of Ruby life, configurations relating to gender govern attitudes toward the Oven. The older menfolk are reverent, protective, even solemn in their appreciation of the Oven as the town’s center, but some of the women silently resented the effort of moving it from Haven back in 1950. Thus it is a man’s shrine, which the new founders believe is being desecrated by the slogans the young are drawing or painting on it, one of which is the “black power” raised fist of the 1970s, as well as by the younger people’s congregating there to gossip and play rock-and-roll music. The men nostalgically recall times when the Oven was a communal source of food preparation (ironically, a duty assumed in patriarchal communities by women—which goes a long way toward explaining why the women do not feel quite as reverent about the oven as the men do!), a place for baptisms and exchange of community information, a center for the town’s shared life. Their reverence goes beyond ordinary social or political conservatism; it is yet another willful refusal to acknowledge change. Now that the homes have private cook-stoves, a result of the very technological progress and prosperity of which the men are so proud, and the three churches have denominational baptismal fonts, also signifying prosperity among the religious institutions, the Oven has evolved into “a utility become a shrine.” The leading citizens’ refusal to comprehend this transformation, from a utilitarian part of the community to a holy place, counteracts its effectiveness as a symbol of what that community stands for to both the men and their children. Moreover, they simply cannot understand why their children do not see the Oven as a sacred place. For the young, however, that sanctity is an arbitrary imposition by their fathers and uncles, not a natural extension of a functional part of the community. The men express conservative rage that the younger generation, the women of Ruby, and one of the ministers (Reverend Misner) cannot recognize their symbol’s importance without its substance; to them it seems a willful refusal to do so, almost a form of heresy. Sadly, the main community actions that take place at the Oven, other than the gathering of the young and the outrageous conduct of the “Convent women” after K. D. and Arnette’s wedding, is the men’s assembly to plan their assault on the Convent.

The function of the Oven, as a signifier of Ruby’s conservatism that fails to evolve with its people, is further suggested by the conflict that occurs between the young and the old over the inscription the original founders placed on the Oven when it was built to serve a literal community need. The Morgan twins and other town elders believe the blurred inscription reads, with the Puritanical fervor of so many official pronouncements relating to Ruby, “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” If this is true, as it probably is, the motto is a warning that a vengeful providence observes and punishes the misdeeds of all people, and moreover, that all civic action is subject to divine oversight (a variation on theocracy). For the young, however, the blurred inscription is a call to social activism. Royal—perhaps influenced by Misner and certainly affected by the social unrest surrounding the Vietnam War, the Martin Luther King assassination, and the Watts riots—believes that the motto demands that people “Become” or simply “Be” the Furrow of His Brow, in which case the challenge is to act in such a way that one brings about the redress of social grievances, or wreaks a divinely-sanctioned wrath on those who resist. Looking outside Ruby toward the cultural revolution of the 1970s, Royal challenges the mores of the town and commits the ultimate affront by questioning the Founders’ wisdom. His “winged accusation” seems aimed at “the townspeople listening, their own parents, grandparents, the Ruby grownfolk.” For Royal, the Oven symbolizes the town’s failure to meet the challenges of African Americans in white society, the temptation to hide from rather than deal with racial problems (hence the closed fist on the Oven): “Suggesting that outsmarting whites was craven. They had to be told, rejected, confronted.” For him and his group, the Oven is an historic call to establish a “new theocracy,” in which activist black youth could be or become instruments of providential outrage over racism, thereby instruments of social change.

Because Ruby is a closed patriarchy rather than a democratic culture, the request of Royal and his friends to resolve the community’s differences over the Oven’s signification at the town meeting only increases the resentments of the town fathers and the defiance of the young, who have changed the graffiti on the Oven yet again by the novel’s end, to “We are the Furrow of His Brow” (emphasis added). The meeting is, however, among Morrison’s most eloquent indications that the Puritanical construction of Ruby is both conservative and rigid, and that its refusal to change is one source of its ultimate failure.

Understandably, the founders of Haven, and later Ruby, sought to escape racism by hiding from it. From this perspective, the men of Ruby find change to be their enemy. The vulgarity of their children’s dress, music, and idiom is an affront to their austere, Puritanical values. Moreover, the challenge mounted by Royal addresses the assumption implicit in Ruby citizenship—that white racism imposes a responsibility on the micro-, but not the macro-, community: they believe that, if racism can be prevented locally, by excluding white folks, citizens need not concern themselves with racism as a national problem. For Steward, the late Thurgood Marshall—who argued the Norman, Oklahoma NAACP lawsuit, later argued important Civil Rights legislation before the Supreme Court, and was the first African American appointed to that Court—is merely a “stir-up Negro.” The Ruby leaders deal with racism by creating an enclave in which it does not exist because there are no white people (Mavis notes a gasoline station attendant as the only white man she has encountered in the region). But this strategy fails for two reasons. One is that racism exists in the heart as well as the culture, and the invaders do “shoot the white girl first,” whether as a matter of race or of accident (she being the first they see) when they attack the Convent. Moreover, Pat Best believes this event is a watershed in Ruby’s history because “lawmen would be happily swarming all over town (they’d killed a white woman, after all), arresting virtually all of Ruby’s businessmen,” a prospect that does not materialize. Pat’s dread nonetheless manifests the abiding anxiety about racism in Ruby. The other reason the strategy of isolation does not work is that conditions change and generations prioritize things according to their own needs and perspectives. Blindly loyal to their traditions and patriarchal beliefs, the elders of Ruby refuse to recognize or accept change, then feel impotent rage as their children move away to the cities or “defile” the Oven by their conduct and their social activism. Outraged by their inability to pass their cherished legacy down to their children, the Ruby men welcome a scapegoat, someone they can blame for their own defeat as parents, whether that defeat be figured as K. D.’s inadequacy to serve as surrogate for Deek’s sons lost in Vietnam or his brother’s inability to sire children. That scapegoat is the Convent, an alternative place that challenges every belief the Ruby elders hold to be self-evident.


In what ways do the people of Ruby perpetuate racism?
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Racism is born out of fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of not having power. When the people of Ruby feel that their shared existence is threatened, and in their desperation to find some kind of solution, the townspeople blame and attack the women in the Convent. The women become convenient scapegoats for all the unresolved emotions pent up in the prominent men of Ruby, who have felt powerless to halt the unraveling of their homes. Because they do not understand these women and feel helpless, the men do to them what has been done to African Americans for centuries.

In Paradise, why did the men of Ruby make scapegoats of the women in the convent? Are there historical precedents for this kind of treatment between communities?
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The main reason the men of Ruby make scapegoats of the women in the convent is that they simply fear what they do not understand. Throughout time humans have feared what they have not understood, and more often than not, sought to destroy it.

Another aspect of their fear, I believe, is how well the women get along and manage to survive outside of the conventions of Ruby. Ruby is suffering from a rift between the young, who seem to take for granted all the founding fathers have worked and sacrificed for, and the old, who want to preserve their beliefs and practices. However, the women at the convent, regardless of race, age, and background, bind together for their mutual benefit.

One need not look further than the Salem witch trials to see how the strict Puritan religious code made scapegoats of the \’others,\’ those who existed outside of the establishment and their religious code of behavior. Look also at how Hitler\’s Nazis sought to purify Germany of the Jews, who throughout time have been scapegoats for more than one culture. How the U.S. government rounded up Japanese Americans and forced them into internment camps during the second world war is another example of this kind of treatment.


Sula Summary
In Sula, the friendship between Sula and Nel is repeatedly tested. Their friendship survives many absences as they mature into adults, but is forever changed when Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband Jude. Years later, when Sula lies on her deathbed, Nel realizes how much she misses her friend.

Sula and Nel grow up in the Bottom, an African-American community nestled in a hilly landscape said to be the bottom of heaven. They quickly become best friends.

While Sula goes to college, Nel stays home and marries Jude. After Sula returns, she and Jude have an affair. Nel catches them and is unable to forgive her friend.

Sula and Nel don’t speak for many years. When Sula falls deathly ill, Nel visits her. Only then does Nel realize how much she missed her friend.
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Summary of the Novel
Sula is a multi-faceted novel. It is, first of all, a story of the friendship of two black women (Sula and Nel) over a period of almost 45 years. The friendship, which begins in about 1921, continues through high school and even until Nel’s marriage to Jude. It is almost ten years after Nel’s marriage before Sula returns to the small town of Medallion, Ohio; she brings home tales of college and travels. When Nel meets Sula again, their friendship commences as if nothing had ever happened. Nel, however, interrupts Sula and Jude as they are having sex. Jude and Sula leave town together, but Sula soon returns alone. Nel has no contact with Sula for three more years. Nel goes to Sula when she finds out that Sula is dying. Sula tells Nel that if Nel had truly loved her, Nel would have forgiven her. Nel still does not forgive and continues to ask why Sula behaved as she did. It is only after Sula’s death and burial that Nel realizes that it has been Sula—not Jude—whom Nel has missed through the years. Sula is also the story of a neighborhood. The Bottom (actually the hilly land which is supposed to be the bottom of Heaven) with its black residents and the valley with its white residents are marked contrasts. Neither group of inhabitants seems content. The valley residents eventually take over much of the Bottom. The tight-knit neighborhood of the Bottom changes into a community where the people seek little connection with one another. The Bottom residents themselves destroy the uncompleted tunnel, a link to future employment and travel opportunities. Sula traces family histories from grandparents, parents, Nel and Sula themselves, and Nel’s family. Interwoven with their lives are Shadrack, who suffers with a psychic injury from the war, the adopted deweys, and the Jackson and Suggs families. Sula is a tragedy which unfolds in nonchronological order. Sula’s mother burns to death in her sight, her uncle burns at the hand of his mother (Sula’s grandmother), and Sula dies alone at a young age. Shadrack’s life is never the same after World War I. Nel spends her adult years as a single mother rearing three children and mourning the loss of a husband—and later a friend. Eva engages in self-mutilation and loses a leg to draw insurance money, sets fire to her own son, sees her daughter burn to death, and, at last, must reside in an old age home at the hand of her granddaughter. Jude loses his wife and three children when he has sex with his wife’s best friend. The community residents, who had been close, separate themselves from one another; they eventually destroy the tunnel—their link to the New Road and to promised employment opportunities. Many people die in the destruction. Hate, sarcasm, loss of life, and lack of identity bring unhappiness to an area which is supposed to be the Bottom of Heaven. Marvin, in Library Journal of 1973, calls Sula “an evocation of a whole black community during a span of over 40 years.” Morrison, he says, describes this “re-creation of the black experience in America with both artistry and authenticity.” In the New York Times Book Review, Blackburn describes the novel as “frozen” and “stylized.” She calls it an “icy version” of Morrison’s first novel and a book with characters who are “achingly alive.” Prescott in Newsweek of 1974 calls Sula an “exemplary fable…arranged in a pattern that cannot be anticipated until the author is done with her surprises.” Prescott comments on the “surprising scope and depth” of Sula; Blackburn calls it a “howl of love and rage.”

Estimated Reading Time
The average silent reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute, according to Lambert. Because each page has about 300 words on it, an average student would take about one minute to read each page. The reading time for the 174-page book would be about three hours. One must, however, allow extra time for interpretation. This means that the total reading time for Sula will probably be about four hours. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach.

The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town. Her name at birth was Chloe Anthony Wofford, and she was one of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford.

The Wofford family was not well-off financially. At one point, when George and Ramah could not pay their $4.00 rent, the landlord set fire to the house—with Chloe, her older sister, and her parents still inside. No one was injured. Her parents frequently shared the story in an amusing—not a tragic—way; Chloe said the incident helped give her a sense of humor.

Chloe’s father came from Georgia. He left that state because of the racial evils he witnessed there. These atrocities were, to him, sufficient reason for hating all whites. George was a pessimist and believed that no hope was imminent for African-Americans. Chloe’s mother, on the other hand, was more optimistic. She believed that individuals in society could better their lots.

Chloe’s family life had many influences. One such influence was superstition, which figured prominently into the belief system and activities of the family. For instance, Chloe’s maternal grandmother kept a dream book with symbols. She used these symbols for playing the numbers. Chloe’s father loved to delight the children with scary ghost stories, which also reflected superstition.

A second important influence on Chloe’s family was a respect for its heritage. George Wofford skillfully wove the stories of family into oral history which the children clamored to hear again and again.

Music was a rich, third influence on Chloe’s family. Chloe’s mother was an excellent singer and often entertained her family with song. Chloe’s grandfather, John Solomon Willis, was a violinist in his early life and added to her love of music. It is no wonder that young Chloe set a goal for herself: she would express herself through music by becoming a dancer.

Chloe attended public school in Lorain. She was a gifted child. In her first-grade class Chloe was the only child in her ethnic group and the only student who could read. Many of the older boys in the public school were bullies. Chloe sometimes suffered from their racial slurs and physical abuse.

Chloe shared in chores at home from an early age, assisted in the care of her grandparents whenever she was needed, did above-average school work, and worked for other families from the time she was 12. Although her employers could be cruel to her, her father reminded her that she did not live there. Her father told her to do the work and come on home; Chloe learned not to let others determine her feelings about herself.

Chloe attended high school in Lorain. She studied hard, was a member of the honor society, worked outside the home, and still found time to read the great novels of Russia, France, England, and America. Chloe graduated from Lorain High School in 1949.

Chloe was admitted to Howard University in Washington, DC. Chloe’s parents recognized the intelligence of their daughter and wanted to help her succeed. Her father worked three jobs simultaneously to help pay her way; her mother took a job as a restroom attendant.

At Howard, Chloe’s classmates recognized Chloe as an actress. She traveled with the Howard University Players and visited the South for the first time with this traveling group. Drama became important to her.

Chloe majored in literature. During her college years, she changed her name to Toni. In 1953 she received a B.A. in English, and in 1955 she earned an M.A. from Cornell. Her thesis topic was Suicide in Faulkner and Woolf.

Toni accepted a teaching position at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. She went back to Howard as an instructor in English and the humanities; there, she assumed many duties, teaching general composition and literature classes while serving as faculty adviser to the English Club. Toni lectured on prominent black rights activists, such as Stokeley Carmichael and Claude Brown while she was at Howard. Brown brought her an 800-page manuscript to critique; this manuscript became Manchild in the Promised Land, a novel hailed as a modern classic.

Toni joined a group of writers and poets with monthly meetings. At every session they each shared something they had written. When Toni used up all her high school writings, she wrote a story of a little black girl wishing for blue eyes. She took the idea from an emotional, real-life event. This was the beginning of her first novel and her life as a writer.

Toni met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architecture student, in 1957. In 1964 she left her job at Howard. She and Harold went to Europe with their young son, Ford. While in Europe, Harold and Toni separated. Toni was pregnant with their second child.

With Ford, Toni returned to family and friends in Lorain. After her second child, Slade, was born, Toni moved to Syracuse to become an editor for I. W. Singer Publishing House, a subsidiary of Random House.

Within two years Toni moved from textbook editor to trade editor. By 1967 she was Senior Editor at Random House in New York City, where she encouraged the publication of many new writers—particularly those writing about the black culture. She edited an autobiography by Angela Davis and another by Muhammad Ali.

After working all day and spending time with her boys every evening, Toni sat down alone each night to work on her own book about the little girl who wanted blue eyes. The Bluest Eye (1970) was Toni’s first novel. Her second novel was Sula (1973). Morrison found that when her children were growing up, it was easier to write in the family room with them around; she learned to tune out noise as she wrote.

In 1974, Random House published The Black Book, a collection of African-American culture, life, history, and narratives. Although her name did not appear as the creator, Morrison was the driving force behind publication of the book. During her research for The Black Book, she found the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who tried to kill her children so that they would not lose their freedom. This story became the basis of her much later novel Beloved (1987).

Morrison began teaching creative writing and African-American studies at Yale. Her novel Song of Solomon (1977) received the National Book Critics Circle Award and also the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Because her books were becoming best sellers, she was able to buy a three-story home for her family. Morrison’s Tar Baby appeared in print in 1981, and as a result of her recognition, she became the cover story for Newsweek.

Morrison was always working. She took a position as Associate Professor at SUNY Purchase and Bard College in New York. In 1984 she resigned her job at Random House and became the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at State University of New York at Albany. She wrote her first play while she was there.

On April 1, 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Morrison made it clear to her public that how she was ranked did not change her life. She was not writing for accolades or wealth. She wrote to satisfy herself first. Her popularity grew as more and more readers discovered her writings.

In 1992, her book Jazz appeared in print. In the same year, her collection of essays, titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, was published. Morrison found time to edit and contribute to another book of essays, Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.

Other honors followed. In October of 1993 Toni won the Nobel Prize for literature. She traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, in December to receive the coveted award. Reporters and the general public received her acceptance speech with acclaim.

Only a few days after her return from Sweden, a Christmas fire destroyed Morrison’s Hudson River home. Over 100 firefighters fought the blaze to no avail. Morrison lost much memorabilia in the fire.

She was acquiring new treasures, however. In 1995 she attended the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room in the Lorain Public Library, and she received a Matrix Award and the title Doctor of Humane Letters from Howard University.

But Morrison’s work is not done yet. Her literature, like her life, continues to enrich the lives of readers everywhere.

Historical Background
Sula is set in Medallion, Ohio. This small town with its close relationships among the neighbors essentially has two segments: the valley where the whites live and the Bottom where the blacks reside. Because Medallion figures prominently into the plot and because the geographic location and the physical features described in Sula are unique to Ohio, the setting is integral to—not a backdrop to—the action. The hills and the valley serve to clarify the conflicts and to illuminate the characters; these two features are a literal—not a figurative—part of the text.

The first date in the chapter titles is 1919, and the last date is 1965. However, Sula is nonchronological; the chapters do not progress sequentially as the reader might expect. In her writing Morrison predicts a time after the 1965 date and takes the reader to the time of slavery—much before 1919. Her depiction of a socially and racially divided town helps the reader to understand life in a small town in an earlier era.

Master List of Characters
Sula Peace—a little girl who grows into a woman in the Bottom; the best friend of Nel; granddaughter of Eva; daughter of Hannah.

Inhabitants of the Bottom—black people who live in the hills and are dissatisfied with their lots.

Inhabitants of the valley—white people who live in the valley.

Slave owner—man who gives his slave a chore with the promise of freedom and a parcel of land upon successful completion; talks the slave into taking hill land instead of fertile valley; says that the hill land is the bottom of Heaven.

Slave—performs the chores given to him and accepts the Bottom parcel of land.

Shadrack—a young man with a psychic war injury from World War I; founder of National Suicide Day.

Male nurse—the balding man who treats Shadrack in the hospital.

Reverend Deal—a minister of the Bottom who accepts National Suicide Day.

Cecile—great aunt to Wiley Wright and grandmother to Helene; took Helene from the Sundown House and reared her in New Orleans.

Helene Sabat—daughter of a Creole prostitute; born behind the red shutters of Sundown House.

Wiley Wright—nephew of Cecile; resided in Medallion, Ohio; married Helene Sabat when she was 16; a seaman in port only three days out of every 16; served as cook aboard the ship.

Nel—the daughter of Helene and Wiley Wright after their ninth year of marriage.

Henri Martin—New Orleans resident who writes to Helene to tell her of her grandmother’s illness.

Porter—the colored man who points Helene and Nel to the coach.

Conductor—the white man who calls Helene “gal” and who questions Helene’s and Nel’s presence in the white section of the coach.

Black woman and her four children—passengers who boarded in Tuscaloosa; the woman shows Helene and Nel the field that is used for a restroom.

Rochelle—Helene’s mother and Nel’s grandmother.

Eva—Sula’s grandmother.

Hannah—Sula’s mother; Eva’s oldest child.

BoyBoy—Eva’s husband and Sula’s grandfather.

Pearl—Eva’s daughter; real name is Eva; younger than Hannah; aunt of Sula; married at 14 and moved to Flint, Michigan.

Plum—Eva’s son; real name is Ralph.

Suggs family—gave food to Eva and her children; gave castor oil to Eva when Plum was constipated; poured water on Hannah when fire consumed her.

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson—gave milk to Eva and her children.

Eva’s adopted children—all three named Dewey; one with red hair and freckles, one perhaps half-Mexican, one deeply black; no individuality of mind.

Rekus—husband of Hannah; father of Sula; died when Sula was three.

Tar Baby—along with the deweys, first to follow Shadrack; came in 1920; had some—or all—white blood; mountain boy; alcoholic.

Mrs. Reed—teacher; gave all three deweys the last name of King and the same age.

Buckland Reed—husband of the teacher, Mrs. Reed; takes numbers from the residents of the Bottom; makes a comment about Eva’s leg being worth $10,000.

Ajax—21-year-old man with sinister beauty; a frequenter of the pool halls; calls Sula “Pig meat” when he sees her; Sula’s lover.

Chicken Little—a little boy whom Sula swings around; drowns when he slips from Sula’s hands and goes into the lake.

Patsy and Valentine—Hannah’s two friends who are visiting with her the day Chicken Little drowned.

Four white, Irish boys—newly arrived residents of the Bottom; taunted the girls.

Bargeman—the one who found Chicken Little’s body.

Iceman—delivers ice to the homes.

Willy Fields—orderly who saved Eva from bleeding to death and received her curse for doing so the rest of her life.

Jude Greene—tenor in Mt. Zion’s Men Quartet; 20-year-old bridegroom of Nel Wright; waiter at Hotel Medallion; leaves with Sula.

John L. and Shirley—a couple Sula and Nel remember from their youth.

Laura—the helper who had been living with Eva, Sula, the deweys, and Tar Baby.

Mrs. Rayford—the next-door neighbor to Nel and Jude.

Teapot—five-year-old son of Betty.

Betty—often called Teapot’s Mama because mothering was her major failure in life; reforms and becomes a good mother for a while; relapses.

Mr. Finley—was sucking on a chicken bone when he saw Sula and choked.

Dessie—Big Daughter Elk; saw Shadrack tip his imaginary hat to Sula and developed a sty on her eye afterward.

Ivy and Cora—Dessie’s friends.

Ajax’s mother—the only thing Ajax had ever loved besides airplanes.

Nathan—the school-age child who checks on Sula and runs errands for her periodically; discovers her lifeless body.

Mr. Hodges—man who hires Shadrack to rake leaves; Shadrack becomes aware of Sula’s death when he sees her on a table at Hodges’ home.

L.P., Paul Freeman and his brother Jake, Mrs. Scott’s twins—examples of the beautiful boys of 1921.


Themes and Meanings

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Sula is a novel about self-creation, about women, about men, and about a culture. The girls, Sula and Nel, realize early on that the world does not easily accommodate people such as them: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be.” They would be black women. That means something different to each of them. For Nel, it means becoming a wife and mother, sustaining the values of the community. For Sula, it means living an “experimental life,” rejecting commonly held values. Nel tells Sula, “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.” Sula will not accept such limitations. When Nel demands to know what Sula has gained from her choices—having no husband and no children; her grandmother put away in a nursing home; her mother, father, and uncle dead; residents of the Bottom all despising her—Sula responds, “Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.” Nel, on the other hand, has loneliness, an empty space that Jude used to fill, and another one Sula formerly occupied. Sula’s self-knowledge and Nel’s connection to other people are both essential to human existence. Each woman, even if only momentarily, comes to understand that.

Fire and water are recurrent devices throughout the novel, demonstrating the destructive forces always threatening the individual self. Two of Eva Peace’s children die by fire. Plum burns in a kerosene conflagration, and Hannah, her beautiful skin burned and melted, dies while Sula watches. Eva “remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.” Water also proves to be an agent of death for Chicken Little, who disappears in the river after flying from Sula’s hands while Nel watches. The warm January thaw and the soft, water-soaked ground lead to the deaths of many Bottom residents who follow Shadrack to the New River Road tunnel to be crushed or drowned. Some are victims of the powerful forces that can overwhelm human beings while others watch. Shadrack watches a little boy drown; he watches his neighbors die. Morrison has commented that “’watch’ is something different from ’saw.’ You have to be participating in something that you are watching. If you just saw it, you just happened to be there.” Eva, Sula, Nel, and Shadrack all watch the destruction of others.

Morrison uses the image of a gray fur ball to symbolize Nel’s indistinct anxiety that grows into gradual self-awareness. It begins after Sula commits adultery with Nel’s husband, Jude. It is a gray ball hovering, “a ball of muddy strings, but without weight, fluffy but terrible in its malevolence.” This ill-defined feeling remains with Nel for more than twenty-five years as she struggles to know herself and understand her friendship with Sula.

Such discovery and affirmation, however, must be personal and individual, as the residents of the Bottom also come to know. Waiting for the larger white society to provide validation through jobs, social status, or recognition only leads to self-destruction. Scores of people who die on Shadrack’s National Suicide Day at the site of the Bottom’s hope for a better life, the New River Road tunnel, demonstrate the futility of social redemption. Only the personal is possible.

Themes Developed

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Thematically, Sula might be best summarized as a domestic novel: it’s primary thematic concern is with the dynamics of family life. More specifically, Morrison focuses on the bonds of motherhood and sisterhood. Though these bonds give characters great strength and fill their lives with fulfilling companionship, they also lead to heartache and strife in some circumstances. The case of Sula Peace demonstrates the duality inherent in any close relationship: when a tight bond is formed supreme trust is given, but this trust is often betrayed.

Though Sula has real sisters, it is her adoptive sister, Nel Wright, that Morrison casts in the lead role for a drama about the complex bonds of sisterhood. Nel, sheltered by her aristocratic mother, takes to the free spirited Sula quite quickly: “Their friendship was as intense as it was sudden. They found relief in each other’s personality.” Sula is attracted to Nel in part because her life has a sense of order and formality her own boarding house existence lacks. Thus, Morrison sets up this close friendship as a classic example of the attraction between opposites. The friendship thus fostered gives the two young girls multiple opportunities for learning about the joys and burdens of womanhood: “Joined in mutual admiration they watched each day as though it were a movie arranged for their amusement. The new theme they were now discovering was men.” Of course, among the discoveries they make about men is their power over them. Walking through the town streets on summer days, the catcalls of the men arouse their notice of their own bodies. Unfortunately, they are also faced with the violence perpetrated by men against women, and Sula teaches Nel a valuable lesson about how one might face this threat. After weeks of harassment from a group of Irish boys, Sula finally grows tired of hiding from their torments. In a show of her own strength of will “she slashed off only the tip of her finger. The four boys stared open mouthed…. ‘If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?'” For Sula, strength in the face of torment is the key to adult life.

The strength of the friendship between Sula and Nel is repeatedly tested in the novel. The earliest instance comes when, playing a cruel game with one of the town’s children, Sula hurls him into the river. He never resurfaces, and Nel is charged with keeping Sula’s terrible secret. This she does for many years, showing the strength of her bond to her surrogate sister. After they reach maturity, the bond between Sula and Nel is strained again when Sula, having returned from an absence of decades, seduces Nel’s husband. Though Nel never forgives her childhood friend for this callous act, she does, in Sula’s final days, reconcile herself somewhat. She manages to minister to some of Sula’s dying needs and finally comes to terms with her friends’ transgressions. Thus, a friendship runs its course, with various trials alternately weathered and endured.

The pseudo-sisterhood enjoyed by Nel and Sula is no less complex than the bizarre version of motherhood Morrison presents with Eva Peace. Clearly, Eva is a deeply committed mother. Her children, however, have a difficult time recognizing the beneficence in her mother’s actions. Her only son, Plum, returns from World War I withdrawn and addicted to heroin. Though she gives him a secure space in which to exorcize his demons, Plum never recovers from the violence of his experiences. Like the heroine of one of Morrison’s other novels, Eva decides that her duty as a mother demands that she put Plum silently out of his misery rather than allow him to wallow on. So, one night after wrapping her boy in a final embrace, Eva lights him aflame. This action baffles her daughters, but for Eva the act is one of liberation. Morrison thus emphasizes the strength of her matriarchal character.

Sadly, however, this strength of character comes into conflict with Sula’s own stubbornness. When she returns from college, Sula wants nothing from her mother but her house. Eva, therefore, is relegated to an old-folks’ home. This shows Morrison’s concern for the treatment of the elderly in a society filled with selfish children. Clearly, Morrison recognizes the devaluing of the experiences of elders as dangerous. Thematically, though, it shows the universal problem of unappreciative children. A mother’s gifts to her offspring are, Morrison suggests, too frequently overlooked.

Though Morrison’s consideration of the effects of racism is a social concern, her meditations on the causes of racial strife must be considered among her thematic interests. In addition to her novels, Morrison has written quite lucidly and astutely on the root causes of racism. Her collection of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), confirmed Morrison as a learned cultural critic and theorist. The reputation she acquired as a lecturer in various universities is confronted imaginatively in Sula. At numerous points in the novel Morrison considers how the white people of Medallion define, themselves against the black residents of the Bottom. At one point, she explains that for white outsiders ignored by Medallion’s established residents, the black citizens become the only group over which to assert their superiority; in this, the town supports them: “As a matter of fact, baiting them was the one activity that the white Protestant residents concurred in. In part their place in this world was secured only when they echoed the old residents’ attitude toward blacks.” The Irish immigrants she describes here can only gain the respect of their Protestant neighbors by joining in their racist practices. Eventually, Morrison asserts, differences in national identity and religion become subordinated by an overriding difference: race.

Themes Expanded

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Poverty and Hopelessness
Throughout the novel, the lives of the characters are shaped by poverty, as they have little or no money, unlike many of their white counterparts in the town. Although no one in the book is rich, the people of the Bottom are exceptionally poor. Eva has money only because she sacrificed her leg; others must make do as they can, with menial jobs or no jobs, because work for African Americans is limited by the racism of those who could hire them. When characters have dreams, like Jude, who dreams of doing a man’s work on the road crew instead of spending a menial day as a waiter, they are crushed.

Existence in the Bottom is precarious at best, and is easily disrupted. Near the end of the book, people’s hopes are raised by rumors that the new tunnel construction would use African-American laborers, and by the fact that an old people’s home that was being renovated would be open to African Americans. However, these hopes are forgotten when a freezing rain kills all the late crops, kills chickens, splits jugs of cider, and makes the “thin houses and thinner clothes” of the Bottom people seem even thinner. Housebound, they make do with what they have, since deliveries have stopped and the good food is all being saved for white customers anyway. Thanksgiving that year is a meal of “tiny tough birds, heavy pork cakes, and pithy sweet potatoes.” By spring all the children are sick and the adults are suffering from a variety of ailments.

All this suffering and malaise is accompanied by “a falling away, a dislocation.” Mothers slap their children and resent the old people they have to take care of, wives and husbands become alienated from each other, and people begin bickering about small things. Christmas that year is a misery because of the sickness, lack of good food, and absence of money for gifts. The only gifts they can get are bags of rock candy and old clothes, given away by white people.

This feeling of doom and hopelessness leads almost everyone in town to participate in that year’s celebration of National Suicide Day, with a feeling of reckless abandon at the idea of “looking at death in the sunshine and being unafraid,” as well as the feeling of “this respite from anxiety, from dignity, from gravity, from the weight of the very adult pain that had undergirded them all those years before…as though there really was hope.” This is the same hope that has kept them laboring in white men’s beanfields in hopes of bettering themselves, fighting in other people’s wars, kept them solicitous of white people’s children, “kept them convinced that some magic ‘government’ was going to lift them up, out and away from that dirt, those beans, those wars.” In other words, it’s a futile and misguided hope.

Caught up in the energy of the moment, seeking release, the crowd of people pours on down the New River Road toward the tunnel, where they see “the place where their hope had lain since 1927. There was the promise: leaf-dead. The teeth unrepaired, the coal credit cut off, the chest pains unattended, the school shoes unbought, the rush-stuffed mattresses…the slurred remarks and the staggering childish malevolence of their employers.” They try to destroy the tunnel, but in their desire to destroy it, they enter it and ultimately destroy themselves when the tunnel collapses under their attack.

Good and Evil
A major theme running through the book is good versus evil, and the fact that what people think is evil may be good, and vice versa. Shadrack, who appears in the first chapter, is considered dangerous and evil by the townspeople, and when he says “Always” to Sula, she takes it as a threat. However, he is not evil, he is simply shell-shocked and misunderstood; throughout the book, he never harms anyone. Sula is also considered evil, especially in the second half of the book, and Nel is considered good, but by the end of the book, Nel realizes that she has evil thoughts and has done evil things, while Sula has inspired the most good acts that the town has ever seen.

Eva, Sula’s grandmother, is considered good, respectable, and a pillar of the community, but actually has a darker side. Her ruthlessness is hinted at by the rumor that she arranged to have own her leg cut off, a scene that is reflected by Sula when she cuts off the tip of her own finger to frighten off some harassing white boys. If she’s able to do that to herself, she tells them, they should just think about what she’d be able to do to them. Sula’s minor act of self-mutilation pales in comparison with Eva’s, and the unspoken question the book asks is, “If she’s able to do that to herself, what would she be willing to do to someone else?” The answer is, “Anything and everything,” including killing her own son by pouring kerosene over him and setting him on fire while he’s in a drug-induced haze.

The novel explores the relationship between the races, which is marred by racism and bigotry. In the opening scene, the founding of the Bottom is described; according to local legend, the area became the property of African Americans when a white man deceived a slave into thinking the high, dry, and eroded land was good for farming because it was the “bottom” of heaven. When Chicken Little is drowned, his body is found by a white man, who has no compassion for the dead child or his family, but who is merely annoyed at having to deal with the mess. On the train south, Helene and Nel experience degrading treatment at the hands of the white conductor and the white-run train system, which does not provide restrooms for African Americans. When Jude tries to get a job with the road-building crew, he is denied one, although the company hires scrawny whites who obviously can’t do as good a job as he can; he can only get a job as a waiter, which he feels is servile and degrading. When Sula returns to town after a ten-year absence, her erratic behavior causes the townspeople to spread rumors about her causing all of their misfortunes, and the most damning rumor about her is that she willingly sleeps with white men.

Mothers and Daughters
Throughout the book, the many mother-daughter pairs have strained, unhappy relationships, and the lack of love a mother has for her daughter is passed on through the generations. In Nel’s family, her grandmother, Cecile, disapproved of Rochelle, her prostitute daughter, and took Helene, Rochelle’s daughter, away from Rochelle. Rochelle and Helene don’t even know each other and are as alienated as Rochelle was from her mother. Nel, Helene’s daughter, who is similarly alienated from Nel, feels oppressed by her mother’s strictness and propriety, and feels stifled in her quiet, orderly house.

Eva, Hannah’s mother, is an outwardly upstanding and secretly ruthless woman, and it’s clear that her daughter, Hannah, didn’t feel loved by her. At one point, she even asks Eva if she loved her children, a question that makes Eva angry. Hannah is also ambivalent about her daughter, Sula; Sula overhears her telling some friends that although she loves Sula, she doesn’t like her, a comment that deeply wounds Sula. Because of this, Sula grows up feeling unloved and left out.


The Characters

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Toni Morrison has said of Sula and Nel that “the two of them together could have made a wonderful single human being.” They need and love each other, though neither recognizes that fact until it is too late. As little girls, the two are polar opposites. Sula is headstrong, independent, and courageous; Nel is quiet, obedient, and thoughtful. Together they are wildly happy—proud when Ajax and his friends in front of the ice cream parlor utter the words “pig meat” in their direction, excited when discovering their woman’s bodies for the first time under the trees by the river, and curiously joyful as Sula lets go of Chicken Little’s hands as he flies out over and into the water, to become “something newly missing.” He is a secret that closes the gap opened up between the girls at his funeral: “They held hands and knew that only the coffin would lie in the earth; the bubbly laughter and the press of fingers would stay aboveground forever.”

Nel and Sula grow into very different women. Nel represents women who choose selflessness, devoting their lives to bolstering their insecure husbands and rearing children. Nel becomes what Sula calls “one of them. . . . Now Nel belonged to the town and all its ways.” Sula, on the other hand, chooses herself. She has been to college, lived in various cities, and been with many men, only to return home as a stranger.

Nel appears to be the good woman and Sula the evil. A plague of robin deaths and a warm winter are all the proof the people in the Bottom need of Sula’s character. Morrison does not allow such easy categories. When Nel attempts a reconciliation near Sula’s death, Sula asks, “How you know? . . . About who was good. How you know it was you? . . . I mean maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me.” Sula, in effect, makes Nel question all of her assumptions about her own innocence and about Sula’s guilt. The matriarchal Eva Peace is drawn in strength. Morrison says of her: “Eva is a triumphant figure, one-legged or not. She is playing God.” She is a dignified survivor who commands respect. Seated in her rocker atop a child’s wagon, she rules her eclectic household.

The men in this novel, with the exception of Ajax, are presented as helpless, absent, irresponsible, or dead. Shadrack and Plum are casualties of war, driven by violent social forces to an orderly madness or drugs. Tar Baby—possibly “high yellow,” possibly white; no one seems to know—drinks his life away on cheap wine. Emasculated by a white racist society that will not employ black men in well-paying, respectable, and meaningful work, Jude too is victimized. He is incomplete and needy. Sula’s father is dead, Nel’s always away. Only Ajax appears strong. In a 1976 interview, Toni Morrison observed, “Although in sociological terms that is described as a major failing of black men—they do not stay home and take care of their children, they are not there—that has always been to me one of the most attractive features about black male life.” When Sula wants to possess Ajax, he follows the airplanes he loves. The negative expression of this impulse is Eva’s husband BoyBoy, who leaves her and three children for fast women and the city.

Characters Discussed

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Sula Peace

Sula Peace, the protagonist. Sula is different from the other women of the town of Medallion, as willing to feel pain and pleasure as she is to give them. Having lost her best friend, Nel, she looks in vain for friendship in men. After leaving Medallion to go to college and to travel, she returns as a pariah and is blamed for all the town’s misfortunes. She fuels the town’s hatred of her by sleeping with married men and with white men. Contrary to the beliefs of the townspeople, who believe that a brighter day will dawn after she dies, her death is followed by a severe ice storm and the catastrophic cave-in of the tunnel.

Nel Wright

Nel Wright, Sula’s best friend. Reared in an oppressive household, she decides to be her own person, not her mother’s daughter. Nel marries the handsome Jude Greene because she wants to be needed. She blames Sula when he leaves her, because Sula seduced Jude. Unlike Sula, she fears change, so much so that she refuses to buy a car. Long after her marriage ends, Nel realizes that she has been mourning for Sula, not for Jude.

Eva Peace

Eva Peace, the physically disabled matriarch of the Peace family, Sula’s grandmother. She is so preoccupied with her hatred of her womanizing husband and with keeping herself and her family alive that she is unable to show much love to her children. When her husband leaves her, she leaves her children with a neighbor, returns eighteen months later with only one leg, and builds a new home. Her arrogance is apparent in the fancy shoe she wears on her one foot. Strangely, she murders her own son and almost bleeds to death trying to save her daughter.


Shadrack, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I. When he returns to Medallion after the war, he earns the reputation of town character, spending most of his time catching fish to sell, cussing people, acting obscenely, and getting drunk. In 1920, he proclaims January 3 as National Suicide Day, and he commemorates the event every year thereafter by carrying around a hangman’s noose and ringing a cowbell. On January 3, 1941, he leads a parade of townspeople to the tunnel, where many of them die in a cave-in.

The Deweys

The Deweys, Eva’s three adopted sons, unrelated to one another. Surly and unpredictable, they resist all attempts to distinguish among them. They speak with one voice and think with one mind. After Eva is sent to a nursing home, they live wherever they want. Their bodies are never found after the tunnel collapses.

Hannah Peace

Hannah Peace, Sula’s beautiful and self-indulgent mother. After the death of her husband, Rekus, she takes a series of lovers because of her need to be touched every day. As a result, she is despised by all the women in town. She teaches Sula that sex is pleasurable but otherwise unremarkable. Hannah burns to death while trying to light the yard fire. Eva throws herself out a window trying to save her.

Tar Baby

Tar Baby, an alcoholic half-white man who rents a room from Eva. He is arrested for causing a wreck involving the mayor’s niece. Tar Baby dies in the cave-in.

Jude Greene

Jude Greene, Nel’s handsome husband and Sula’s lover. Frustrated in his attempt to find work building the New River Road, he marries Nel in his determination to take on a man’s role. Even after ten years of marriage, he still feels belittled by white society. Jude leaves Nel shortly after she catches him making love to Sula.

Albert Jacks

Albert Jacks, called Ajax, the one true love in Sula’s life, the son of a conjure woman and nine years Sula’s senior. Ajax loves women, airplanes, and hot baths. He is the only one of Sula’s lovers who actually talks to and listens to her. He senses that she is changing from an unpredictable, spontaneous, and untraditional woman to a more traditional one like those he has previously left. After he is arraigned for arguing with the police, he goes to an air show in Dayton, Ohio, and walks out of Sula’s life forever.

Helene Wright

Helene Wright, Nel’s domineering mother. She moves to Medallion to get as far away as possible from the New Orleans brothel where she was born. In the absence of a Catholic church, she joins the most conservative black church in town and spends her time forcing her daughter to be obedient and polite. Helene saves her own life by refusing to march in the parade to the tunnel.

Plum Peace

Plum Peace, Eva’s shiftless, spoiled son, to whom she had planned to bequeath everything. He almost dies as a baby because he shoves pebbles up his anus. When he returns to Medallion after serving in World War I, he steals, takes trips to Cincinnati, uses heroin, and sleeps for days in his room with the record player going. Believing that Plum cannot live as a man, Eva sets him afire while he is asleep.


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The title character haunts most of the novel with her unusual brand of moral ambiguity. In the book’s early scenes, Sula represents the inherent strength in women as she shows Nel how to stand up for herself in a world that little values the personal contributions of a black woman. Sula’s strength of character endures as she leaves the Bottom and, in the space of one of Sula’s many time-jumps, becomes the only person in town to acquire a college education. Though thus endowed with a marker of upward mobility, Sula is too self-absorbed to push for better things for either her family or her town. Therefore, while she is the vehicle for Morrison’s explorations of the destructive force of self-involvement, Sula also remains a pinnacle of strength and personality. Curiously, she is as much to be admired as derided.

Sula’s friend Nel is the novel’s only unambiguously good character. She is a model of consistency. When abandoned by her husband, she, like many of the novel’s other characters, manages to persevere. Nel thus functions as a stable center against which to measure the actions of Sula’s other characters.

Like her friend Nel, Sula’s mother functions in part as a sympathetic character with which to contrast the mostly-unlikable Sula. Eva is industrious, generous, and impossible to ignore. As a business owner, single mother, and civic institution, Eva is clearly an exception. Other characters seem bland in comparison to her flamboyance. Thematically, Eva is essential to Morrison’s meditations on the tricky bond which ties mothers to their children.

One of Eva’s children, Plum, along with the mysterious Shadrack, calls attention, albeit somewhat tangentially, to the horror of war. Though the event occurs before the narrative begins, World War I casts a tangible shadow on Sula’s action. Shadrack is driven mad by the experience of trench warfare and introduces his hometown to his invented holiday, Suicide Day. The war, it seems, has led Shadrack to the conclusion that life is a tenuous joke. Plum is similarly affected by the horrors of the war. His struggle is endured privately, however, as he anesthetizes himself with drugs. Unable to watch her son suffer, Eva eventually kills Plum. In the process, she raises unanswerable questions about the justice of her action and about the duties of a mother.


Form and Content

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In Sula, Toni Morrison explores a community’s role in the individual’s search for wholeness. The story begins at the end, after the African American community known as “the Bottom” has been destroyed and replaced with a golf course. The narrator reveals the history of “the Bottom” forty years before it was destroyed, in chapters titled simply by the year of focus, beginning with 1919 and ending with 1965.

The community gained its name from a joke played on a slave by a white farmer. After promising his slave freedom and land upon the completion of some difficult chores, the farmer did not want to part with his choice land. So he told the slave that the hilly land—difficult to plant and plagued by high winds and sliding soil—was the bottom of heaven, the “best land there is.” Consequently, the slave accepted the land, and “the Bottom” is where Sula Peace and Nel Wright are born.

Nel, her mother Helene, and her father live in a home Nel considers to be oppressively neat. Carefully groomed by her mother, who is admired in the community for her beauty and grace, Nel prefers the disorder that she finds in Sula’s home, where “something was always cooking on the stove, . . . the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions” and “all sorts of people dropped in.” During her only trip outside Medallion, ten-year-old Nel meets Helene’s estranged mother and sees her own mother’s usual grace disturbed by Southern remnants of racist oppression. Nel and Helene must sit in the “colored only” car of the train, and because there were no “colored only” restrooms past Birmingham, they urinate in the woods when the train stops. Helene is pleased to return home. After Nel insists, Helene welcomes the young Sula into her home, in spite of Hannah Peace’s reputation for being “sooty.”

Sula and Nel’s development into adults follows some predictable and some unpredictable patterns. Nel becomes a carbon copy of her mother. She marries, has children, and bases her entire identity on the roles of mother and wife, an identity disrupted by her best friend. After attending college and traveling to some major American cities, Sula returns to Medallion, where she continues her mother’s legacy of promiscuity and has her mean-spirited grandmother placed, against her will, in a home for the elderly.

To Nel’s dismay, Sula has sex with Nel’s husband, Jude. Feeling betrayed by her husband and her best friend, Nel says that her life and her “thighs . . . [are] truly empty and dead.” After nearly three years of not speaking to each other, Nel visits Sula after hearing that she is sick. Nel leaves unsatisfied with Sula’s shallow reason for having sex with Jude. Sula dies of an unnamed illness at the age of thirty.

On January 3, 1941, the National Suicide Day after Sula’s death, Shadrack continues his tradition, although with less passion since he misses Sula. This year, many town members participate in his parade. They march gayly to “the white part of town,” distinguished by the tunnel excavation and beginnings of remodeling for the city. Angered by not being permitted to work on the renovations, many citizens of “the Bottom” crowd into the tunnel as an action of self-assertion and protest. Unfortunately, the tunnel collapses, killing an unspecified number of them (approximately twelve to fifteen).

By 1965, the hills of “the Bottom” are largely populated by whites, and the narrator laments the lack of cohesion among the African Americans who have moved to the valley. As the narrator notes, there were not as many spontaneous visits and everyone had his or her own television and telephone. After Nel visits Eva in the home for the elderly, Nel remembers calling the hospital, mortuary, and police after Sula’s body was found—eyes open and mouth open—in Eva’s bed. Only after Nel leaves the cemetery does she discover that all the pain and loneliness that she had been feeling was from missing having Sula in her life, not Jude.

Places Discussed

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Medallion. Imaginary Ohio town in which the main action of the novel is set. Morrison grew up in the small town of Lorain, Ohio. Bordered by Kentucky to the south but a Northern state in the Civil War with important Underground Railroad sites, Ohio functions in many of Morrison’s novels as a place of alternating prejudice and freedom for the black characters.

The fictional Medallion’s geography shows the distinctions between black and white characters: The white characters live in the fertile valley, protected from the harshest winds of winter, while the black characters inhabit the rocky, unproductive hillside where the poorly built houses cannot protect their residents from the elements. During a particularly difficult winter, when ice coats the ground and does not melt for days, the black residents lose their jobs in the valley because they cannot get down the steep hill in the ice.

By the end of the novel, the Bottom, the black neighborhood, is disappearing because the wealthy white people have decided the hillside on which it stands is desirable for a golf course and for luxury homes. The new development reflects the town’s power structure as did the earlier layout.

The Bottom

The Bottom. African American neighborhood in Medallion. Local legend holds that the neighborhood’s first settler was tricked by a white man into taking the rocky hillside land rather than the fertile valley land below. The neighborhood’s ironic name refers to the “bottom of heaven.” The residents are not consoled that they can “literally look down on the white folks.” The neighborhood eventually disappears as the homes of wealthy whites and a golf course are put in on the hillside. A tunnel built by white laborers offers a focus for the rage the Bottom’s residents feel at their economic and social privation. In their attempt to destroy it, many are killed when it collapses.

The residents of the Bottom interpret and pass judgment on events and actions of the novel’s characters. Morrison’s giving a communal voice to a place is reminiscent of a technique of William Faulkner, on whom Morrison wrote a master’s thesis. Like Faulkner, Morrison creates characters who seemingly could not exist in different settings.


Train. After Helene’s grandmother dies in 1920, Helene and Nel travel to New Orleans on a train. Their ride provides a vivid picture of the unequal treatment that African Americans received in the Deep South during the days of rigid Jim Crow segregation. The train’s conductor is extremely nasty when Helene accidentally gets on the coach for white passengers. The train stations do not even have rest rooms for black passengers. Although Helene is disgusted by the way she is treated on the trip and by the cold welcome she receives from her mother, her ten-year-old daughter Nel finds the experience exciting. The new sense of self she develops from her journey makes her feel brave, so that she starts talking to Sula Peace, who will become her best friend.

Helene Wright’s home

Helene Wright’s home. House in which Nel grows up. Like its mistress, the house is orderly and attractive, to the point that Nel finds it oppressive. Sula, coming from a more chaotic household, loves to visit the house.

Eva Peace’s home

Eva Peace’s home. House in which Sula grows up, also inhabited by her grandmother Eva, mother Hannah, uncle Plum, three boys all named Dewey, and various others over time. The house was constructed in pieces and contains rooms and stairways in no particular arrangement, in contrast with the orderly Wright home. Nel prefers the Peace home to her own.


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Morrison’s exploration of friendship between African American women makes Sula a major link between Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Furthermore, the friendship between Sula and Nel does not depend on or revolve around men. Morrison explores this friendship, its maturity and its eventual dissolution.

Nel and Sula’s relationship blossoms out of mutual admiration, for Sula appreciates the quiet orderliness of Nel’s home. In stark contrast, and in addition to Hannah’s sexual liaisons, the Peace home is characterized by Eva’s unpredictability. Sula’s grandmother has one leg, and the town rumor is that she either placed the other on a railroad track or sold it to a hospital. In either case, Eva provides food and shelter for her family. Yet Eva is not simply a provider; she is also a sacrificer. When her son, Plum, returns from the war in a questionable mental and physical condition, she burns him to death as he sleeps in his room.

Helene, Nel, Sula, Eva, and Hannah continually challenge stereotypes as the narrator reveals these women’s thoughts, fears, and concerns. Morrison’s depictions stress the fact that women cannot be limited to select roles; they are too wonderfully diverse. Not unlike Hurston, Walker, and a host of other female writers, Morrison gives voices to the many women who remained silent when required to choose between severely limited life options.

Although the possibilities for women in American society have expanded since the publication of Sula in 1973, the novel reminds its readers of a time that should be remembered. In the late 1960’s, the women’s liberation movement was in full force to combat sexual discrimination and gain legal, economic, vocational, educational, and social rights and opportunities for women that were equal to those of men. It is important to women, and clearly important to Morrison, that the history of this struggle and the stories of these women not be forgotten.

Historical Context

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The events in Sula span much of the twentieth century, during a time of great changes in civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups.

African Americans in World War I
When the events of the book open, in 1919, veterans like Shadrack and Plum are returning from service overseas. Like Shadrack and Plum, many of them were emotionally and physically scarred from the experience of war, but African-American veterans did not receive as much respect for their service as their white counterparts. In the book, Shadrack is discharged from the hospital because there’s no more room, and when he hits the streets, whites assume he’s drunk, and he’s arrested and taken to jail. All he has to show for his service is “$217 in cash, a full suit of clothes and copies of very official-looking papers.”

During the war, more than 350,000 African-American soldiers served in segregated units. When they returned, many began working for civil rights, reasoning that if they were considered good enough to fight and risk their lives for their country, they should be given full participation in society. Both African Americans and whites joined the newly formed NAACP to fight discrimination and segregation, but it would be many years before segregation laws would be overturned.

African Americans had only recently been given the right to vote in the United States. Although they had supposedly held this right for much longer, various loopholes in the law ensured that few did. One law stated that an African-American man could vote only if his grandfather had. Poll taxes, literacy tests, voting fraud, violence against those who voted, and intimidation also kept people away from the ballot box. The NAACP fought successfully against the “grandfather clause,” and it was overturned in 1915, but some of the other blocks to voting remained for many years.

The Great Depression
In 1929, the stock market crashed, leading to widespread depression and deep poverty. Skilled and unskilled, African-American and white, few people escaped the suffering involved. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he presented “New Deal” programs that would help housing, agriculture, and economic interests. Although African Americans had fewer opportunities than whites to benefit from the New Deal programs, they did participate in some of them.

Through laws known as “Jim Crow” laws, Southern states were forcefully segregated, with separate facilities for travel, overnight lodging, eating, drinking, school, church, housing, and other services for African Americans and whites. These facilities were separate, and many times not equal; those for African Americans were frequently substandard or nonexistent. If an African American failed to obey the segregation laws, he or she could be arrested and imprisoned.

World War II and the Civil Rights Movement
Many African Americans served in World War II, and like those who served in World War I, returned home and were outraged that they could serve their country but yet not have equal rights in it. The civil rights movement grew with protests, nonviolent resistance, boycotts, and rallies, which received increasing attention in the national media. In addition, activists challenged the segregation laws in court. In 1948, President Harry Truman eliminated segregation in the United States armed forces. Through other battles, segregation in other areas of life, such as on buses and in schools, was attacked and outlawed, although racist incidents continued to cause trouble for African Americans, and other areas of life were not yet integrated.

In 1963, more than 200,000 people joined the March on Washington, calling national attention to the problems of segregation and discrimination. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for racial equality.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act finally outlawed the use of literacy tests and other methods to exclude African Americans from voting. Before this law, only about twenty-three percent of African Americans were registered to vote, but after it, registration jumped to sixty-one percent.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, known as the Fair Housing Act, more forcefully ensured that African Americans were legally entitled to all the rights that went with full citizenship in the United States.

Literary Style

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Point of View
The novel is told from the point of view of a wise, omniscient narrator, who sees into all the characters’ hearts and minds with tolerance and acceptance. The use of such a narrator is interesting; the characters are all given equal time, and no one, even Sula—for whom the book is named—is more major than anyone else. In addition, the use of varied points of view allows the reader to see all the sides of any event and understand the complexity of what really happened. In the book, horrendous events are depicted, but the narrator avoids making judgments about them; they are simply presented, and the reader sees various characters respond to them and is allowed to come to an independent determination of what these things mean and whether they are good or evil.

Realistic Dialogue
The author frequently uses dialect speech, bringing the characters to life and letting the reader hear them talk, in a very natural way. For example, in the following dialogue between Eva and Hannah, Hannah has just asked Eva if she loved her children and played with them when they were little, and Eva deflects the question by telling her about the hard times she went through:

“I’m talkin’ ’bout 18 and 95 when I set in that house five days with you and Pearl and Plum and three beets, you snake-eyed ungrateful hussy. What would I look like leapin’ ’round that little old room playin’ with youngins with three beets to my name?”

“I know ’bout them beets, Mamma. You told us that a million times.”

“Yeah? Well? Don’t that count? Ain’t that love? You want me to tinkle you under the jaw and forget ’bout them sores in your mouth?”

By using dialect speech, Morrison allows us to hear the characters as real people, and shows their social class, education, and attitudes without having to explicitly discuss these aspects. We know from their talk that the characters are African American, poor, and most likely rural. They express themselves directly, with no social posturing or pretension; their speech is vigorous and active, full of energy and passion.

Although white people rarely appear in the novel, when they do, they also speak in dialect. In the case of the conductor on the train to the south, it’s southern: he asks Helene, “What was you doin’ back in there? What was you doin’ in that coach yonder?” When she tells him she made a mistake and got in the white car by accident, he says, “We don’t ‘low no mistakes on this train. Now git your butt on in there.” His dialect talk makes him seem uneducated and harsh at the same time that it underlines his similarity to the African Americans he despises, since the things he says, and the way he says them, could easily have been said by anyone in the Bottom in the same way. This similarity provides a subtle commentary on the misguided nature of racism, which erects artificial boundaries between people. He thinks he’s “better” than the people in the “colored” car, but he is not as different from them as he’d like to believe.

Use of a Prologue
Sula, like many other novels, but unlike any of Morrison’s other works, has a prologue that describes the Bottom and its origin, and makes the reader aware that this is a book about African-American people, set in an African-American settlement. In a discussion about the book in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Morrison noted that her original beginning simply began, “Except for World War II nothing ever interfered with National Suicide Day.” After getting some feedback about the book from others, she realized that this was too sudden a beginning, and that it didn’t make clear to the reader where the book was set or what was going on. She thought of the prologue as a “safe, welcoming lobby,” and believed it was necessary to make readers comfortable in her African-American world before they could move on with the story. She said that she would not need this “lobby” now, and indeed, none of her other books have this “lobby”; they refuse, she said, “to cater to the diminished expectations of the reader or his or her alarm heightened by the emotional luggage one carries into the black-topic text.” She also said, “I despise much of this beginning,” and noted that her other books “refuse the ‘presentation’; refuse the seductive safe harbor; the line of demarcation between…them and us.”

Literary Techniques

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Morrison’s greatest talents lie in her descriptive abilities. Her prose is extremely poetic, full of lush, vivid descriptions of the setting and characters. Even the opening sentences blend mundane historical detail with careful description:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river… . One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley.

The descriptions of the towns’ foliage is more than an effort toward botanical accuracy. Morrison’s use of words simultaneously invokes an imagined vision and a sense of sadness at the neighborhood’s loss. Throughout Sula, Morrison adeptly gives her language this double meaning.

Morrison’s characters are as vividly drawn as her descriptions of the natural environment. Eva, Sula and the rest of the Peace family are entirely believable characters, as are the rest of the Bottom’s residents. One technique that makes Morrison’s characters seem more real is their moral ambiguity. The actors who perform the drama laid out in Sula’s pages cannot be conveniently categorized as good or bad. Each character, like people who populate the real world, demonstrate the capacity for both benevolence and spite. Eva, for example, is at turns cold, calculating, and sublimely nurturing. In the same way, her daughter shows a penchant for betraying her loved ones, including her childhood friend Nel as well as her own mother.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Sula is a fascinating study of black life in rural America during some of the nation’s most trying moments. While appealing as a document focused on a particular time and racial group, Morrison’s novel also expounds on universal themes concerning familial ties, love, jealousy, and ambition. Its characters are complex individuals, each capable of committing acts of unmatched devotion and extreme cruelty. There is not a sense of absolute morality in Morrison’s created world. Instead, characters have relative merits and faults understandable only in the context of their entire lives.

Operating behind the individual dramas Morrison crafts is a national movement toward greater acceptance of African-Americans. Sadly, however, this acceptance moves far too slowly and never raises itself beyond the level of tokenism. Sula’s denouement demonstrates the extent of African-American frustration at the white community’s failure to adequately address the calls for equality of opportunity emanating from the nation’s black neighborhoods. Spanning years from the 1920s to the early days of the Civil Rights movement, Sula tracks profound changes which struck the United States during the middle years of the twentieth century. Unlike a conventional history, however, Morrison’s novel is intensely personal, highly dramatic, and profoundly moving.

1. Shadrack appears only momentarily in the main body of the novel. Only at the very beginning and in the final pages does he contribute significantly to the plot. Why, then, is he a part of Morrison’s story? What thematic function does he fulfill in his brief appearances?

2. Does Morrison’s novel contain any truly sympathetic male characters, or are they all potentially callous, abusive womanizers against which Morrison contrasts her strong female characters?

3. Put the events related in Sula on a timeline. Though it follows conventional chronology for the most part, Morrison’s novel clearly makes free use of the medium’s capacity for distorting time. Why might Morrison take such freedom with her story’s narrative sequencing?

4. Explain the significance of the River Road to the residents of the Bottom.

5. Consider the relationship of Eva and her daughter Sula. Is Sula justified in the anger she feels towards her mother in the novel’s concluding sections? Is Eva a good mother?

6. Why do the Bottom’s residents react with such fury at the end of the novel? Who is ultimately responsible for the deaths that occur in the final pages?

7. Was Eva justified in burning her son, Plum?

8. At one point in the novel, Hannah asks her mother if she loves her children. Eva responds by saying that she does. What do you think? Given the information you have on their relationship, do you think Hannah was justified in asking her mother this question?

Social Concerns

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As a historical novel, Sula’s social concerns are particularly focused on the time and place in which the novel’s action occurs. Spanning the months following the conclusion of the World War I to the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement, Sula is concerned primarily with the struggles against poverty and racism faced by the African-American inhabitants of a small Ohio town. Relegated to the curiously named “Bottom” neighborhood (which actually consists of the homes on hills surrounding the white district) Medallion’s black inhabitants are both figuratively and literally separated from the prosperity and security enjoyed by their white counterparts.

Throughout the novel, the African-American residents of Medallion wait patiently for the opportunity to work on the road and tunnel which runs out of town. Until the end, however, the work remains available only to white residents. At one point there are hopes that the work will become integrated, but these are quickly dismissed:

For three years there were rumors that blacks would work it, and hope was high in spite of the fact that the River Road leading to the tunnel had encouraged similar hopes in 1927 but had ended up being built entirely by white labor—hillbillies and immigrants taking even the lowest jobs.

The exclusion of even highly educated and skilled black men from the work of the road explodes the notion that American society works as a meritocracy, benefiting those who work hardest or best. Morrison thus infuses her novel with constant references to the discrimination that kept people of color from sharing the prosperity enjoyed by the United States from the 1920s through the post-war years (except, of course, during the Great Depression). For Morrison’s characters, the Depression is just another decade, bracketed on both sides by periods of exclusion and want.

This want is often extreme. The world of Medallion is one without the social safety nets we enjoy today. Numerous female characters lose their means of support when husbands die or abandon them. One such character is Eva, the grand matriarch of the Peace family. The disappearance of her husband, Boy Boy, comes after years of unhappy marriage and at a time when Eva is particularly susceptible to the privations his loss causes:

After five years of a sad and disgruntled marriage Boy Boy took off. During the time they were together…. [h]e did whatever he could that he liked, and he liked womanizing best, drinking second, and abusing Eva third. When he left in November, Eva had $1.65, five eggs, three beets and no idea of what or how to feel.

This passage, of course, points to two social concerns simultaneously: the precariousness of women dependant upon their husband’s incomes and the abusiveness endured by these women.

Fortunately, the former concern is dealt with by the generosity of Eva’s community. Morrison asserts that this generosity—which manifests itself in donations of milk, meat, and other necessaries by Eva’s neighbors—is an integral part of black neighborhood life. In a community where all the residents face privations because of their exclusion from white means of prosperity, individuals naturally buoy each other up in times of trouble.

The callous behavior of men towards their wives, on the other hand, seems to be a social problem for which Morrison does not have an easy solution. Even when they are not physically abusive, Morrison’s male characters seem particularly lacking in the moral strength which makes her mothers and wives such supportive individuals. Nel’s husband, for example, sacrifices his wife and children to a moment of physical pleasure with Nel’s friend Sula. Though Morrison thus identifies the root cause of her male characters’ penchant for abandoning their wives, she does not offer a prescription or mode of behavior designed to improve them. Morrison’s strong women can endure men, but they cannot substantially improve their behavior.

In addition to economic concerns, Morrison demonstrates an interest in the way American society deals with deviance. More specifically, Morrison’s novel betrays a concern about the marginalization of the mentally ill. The novel’s primary narrative stream begins with the return of Shadrack from France where he fought in World War I. The experience left him unstable; only a break in the text marks the passage of time from his first charge across the wasteland to his realization that he is in a hospital in the United States. Unfortunately, the medical treatment of the time does adequately deal with his shell shock, and he is released.

More pressing than the inadequacy of treatment is Morrison’s concern about the criminalization and neglect of the insane. Upon his release, Shadrack, unable to operate normally, is picked up by a policeman and thrown in jail. Released from this second confinement, Shadrack, relying only on his own capacity to make himself well, pulls himself together enough to set up in a shack along the Bottom’s river. There his antics are eventually tolerated: “Once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fix him, so to speak, into the scheme of things.” In a sense, Shadrack’s plight parallels the condition of his black neighbors. Both are misunderstood by those around them and degraded only for the differences over which they have no control. Shadrack can no more make himself well than his neighbors can make themselves white.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: More than 350,000 African-American soldiers, who serve in segregated units, return home from World War I.

Today: The United States armed forces include large numbers of African Americans, who serve in every capacity and are no longer segregated; some African Americans, such as General Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State during the administration of George W. Bush, achieve the highest rank.

1920s: Overall, the unemployment rate is about 5.2%, but this figure is much higher for African Americans because of prejudice against them.

Today: Unemployment ranges between 5 and 6 percent and African Americans are integrated into all sectors of society, though they still experience a higher level of unemployment than whites.

1920s: “Jim Crow” laws, which were implemented in the late nineteenth century, segregate the South, mandating separate spheres of existence for African Americans and whites. Restaurants, stores, buses, hotels, transportation, housing, and other areas of life are rigidly separated, and African Americans who cross the barriers can be arrested and imprisoned.

Today: The widespread and growing civil rights movement brings increasing attention to the problems caused by discrimination and segregation. Although old laws restricting African Americans from voting and full participation in society were finally overturned in the 1960s, racism, bigotry, and other prejudices still exist and act to restrict full participation for many people.


What is symbolic about fire and water in Sula?
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The imagery of fire and water in Toni Morrison’s Sula creates an important juxtaposition. Both fire and water are used to describe death. A few characters die by fire, and a few die by water. Historically, both fire and water have been used to purify, and both fire and water were also used during the trials of witches as symbolic purification. It is no different in Morrison’s novel.

In the novel, Sula sees people die by both fire and water. Although she finds “comfort,” for lack of a better word, in the part of fire in death, she does not find the same comfort in that of water. Sula finds fire to be comforting and destructive, a paradoxical tool used in many literary pieces. The fact that she finds fire beautiful allows her to accept the deaths as necessary—fire allows Plum’s suffering to end.

Water, on the other hand, is only seen as destructive. Sula feels responsible for Chicken’s drowning. He did not need to die like Plum in order to end her suffering. Instead, Sula is distraught by his drowning. For her, water does not possess the same beauty as fire


What type of symbolism is in the book Sula?
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Fire is an important symbol in Sula. In arguably the two most important scenes in the story, Hannah Peace and Plum Peace are both killed in a fire. In the case of Plum’s death, fire does not simply end life, it purifies the soul. Eva deliberately sets Plum on fire to put an end to her son’s torment over his chronic drug addiction. In doing so, she feels that she is somehow purifying a soul corrupted by sin.

Likewise, the death of Hannah can also be interpreted in much the same way. Like her brother Plum, Hannah has led a life marred by sin; in her case, it is sexual promiscuity rather than drugs that has tainted her soul. Although we never know for sure whether Eva is responsible for Hannah’s death, she stands and watches her burn to death all the same. Once again, fire is used as a symbol of death and spiritual rebirth, a symbol that has enormous significance in the Christian tradition




Please explain the concept of “re-memory” used in Beloved.
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Beloved by Toni Morrison explores the concept of rememory —the process of returning to memories again and again, in such a way that they affect a person’s processing of their present. Sethe, especially, is haunted by memories of her time at Sweet Home and how she murdered her daughter so she wouldn’t be enslaved. She is unable to completely separate her past from her present.

Sethe explains the concept of rememory to Denver, her surviving daughter, saying,

Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, 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.

Her point is that memory isn’t just a concept of the past. It’s something that affects the present; it’s in the world, not just in her memory.

Morrison demonstrates this when Paul D first comes to visit Sethe. He interrupts her in a memory of Sweet Home. Her greeting to him shows just how deeply that memory is ingrained. Morrison writes, “And although she could never mistake his face for another’s, she said, “Is that you?” The question, to Sethe, is whether Paul D is there in person or as another haunting memory, because at times she cannot distinguish between the two.

Morrison shows that Sethe’s memories of Sweet Home are stronger than anything, even the more recent memories of her sons who have run away. She remembers the landscape of the plantation more clearly than her sons, and “it shamed her—remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys” (7). Her memories are a weight she bears that impacts the present, which is what the concept of rememory is all about. However, when Paul D appears, he sweeps the past out of 124 and allows Sethe and Denver to live free of its weight for the first time, to some extent.

Beloved herself, when she appears, is the opposite of Sethe, who is weighed down with the vivid memories of her past that play such a role in creating her present. Yet Beloved herself brings a barrage of negative memories and recriminations, from forcing Paul D to relive his enslavement to punishing Sethe for what Sethe has done in the past. Ultimately she traps Sethe even more than the years of memories; she feeds off her until Sethe is wasting away and Beloved is growing even larger.

When Paul D returns and the women in the community force Beloved out, there is hope for Sethe. Paul D tells her, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” The constant reliving of her past through the rememories that haunt her may be pushed back so that she can have a real future.


How does Beloved show the characteristics of magical realism?
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Technically, magical realism is a literary mode that only refers to a temporally and geographically specific form of writing: writing to emerge in Latin America in the mid-twentieth century, epitomized by famous Boom writers like Gabriel García Marquez and Alejo Carpentier. Magical realism, a blend of fantasy with quotidian reality, was used by these authors to address the normalized but “unbelievable” violence and thwarted political projects in the history of the region.

That being said, the issue of what might more appropriately be called the supernatural or the spectral in Beloved is of extreme importance. The main element of the supernatural, the return of Sethe’s dead daughter, communicates an essential message of the work: that for the victims of historical violence, the inheritance is so real and traumatic that it as if the past were made present and flesh. Psychological studies into transgenerational trauma—most famously in the case of children of camp victims in the Holocaust—have shown that the descendants of victims inherit the traumatic burden of the past, without ever having actually experienced it themselves.


How are racism and the institution of slavery presented through the characters by the symbolism associated with Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?
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We ought also to consider the fact that Beloved says that she walked out of the water, and she describes the place where she was before she showed up on Bluestone Road as though it were a slave ship. She talks about people sleeping on top of her, being taken above decks to get fresh air or watch another dead body get dumped into the sea. She talks about the “men with no skin,” presumably the white men, who would bring the slaves their “morning water”—likely their urine—to drink. Thus, it seems that Beloved symbolizes not only her own family’s history and experiences with slavery but, in addition, the history of slavery in general. She seems to recall the Middle Passage, the slave ships that she never traveled in, and her walking out of the water—as well as Sethe’s “endless voiding” of liquid when she first sees Beloved—seems to symbolize Beloved’s rebirth.


What can we say about the subject of repression and expression in Beloved?
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A more prevalent interpretation of Sethe’s killing of her child at the end of the novel is one, not of repression, but of expression. Rather than have her child live as a slave, Sethe frees her of this condition by sending her soul into the next world. This act, then, for Sethe is an act of love, an act initiated to defy the world that has oppressed her for so long.

And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them.

For Sethe, the demarcation between life and death is fragile, no more than a “veil” placed before her children. She acts upon instinct and sends her child to the other side rather than let her be a slave.


In Beloved, why does Sethe seem to “urinate endlessly” after seeing the girl on the stump?
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It is as though Sethe’s body recognizes what her mind cannot yet process. She’s always had a really physical connection to her children: when she sent them ahead to Cincinnati and stayed at Sweet Home to search for Halle, her biggest concern was getting her milk to her baby girl at the time (recall, too, that she was pregnant with Denver then). The thing that upset her most about her sexual violation by schoolteacher’s nephews was that they took her milk, milk that she said belonged to her children. Sethe responded really physically, too, to the threat presented by the arrival of schoolteacher at 124 Bluestone some twenty eight days after her escape. When Beloved first arrives, Sethe does not make the conscious connection between this young woman with new skin and a neck scar who cannot speak or hold her head up and her dead daughter. It takes until Beloved hums a song that Sethe only sang to her kids for Sethe to make the conscious connection; however, her body seems to have immediately recognized that her daughter has returned to the world, and she urinates with as little co


What are some examples of feminism in Beloved?
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Traditional feminism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”. This means that women should be equal to men in economic, political, and social status. Another type of feminism, as seen in literature, occurs when traditional gender roles are reversed.

The novel Beloved by Toni Morrison has many examples of feminism. One example of feminism is the simple fact that many of the main characters are women. Sethe, the main character, lived as a slave and escaped from her plantation. By believing in her own abilities, valuing her life as a human being rather than just as a slave, and choosing to escape, Sethe is being a feminist. All of the women in the novel, despite their struggles, work together to make the best life possible.

The fact that Sethe decides which men she will join in relationships is another example of feminism in the novel Beloved. Sethe chooses not to marry, an idea that was not common in the 1800s when the novel takes place.


What is the significance of pregnant Beloved’s disappearance as Sethe is enveloped by the praying women in Beloved?
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What a great question! Ironically, there isn’t a clear answer that doesn’t involve opinion. However, with that being said, I will be happy to share my own opinion on the subject! The significance of pregnant Beloved’s disappearance is that Beloved truly was a supernatural entity sent to wreak havoc on Sethe through revenge. Beloved’s true demise begins when Denver is brave enough to exit Sweet Home to find help for Sethe (in many forms). Denver is able to outsmart the supernatural in this way, at the exact moment that Beloved is having her sweet revenge. In my opinion, the fact that the prayer vigil is the gathering that “upsets” Beloved the most provides some proof of her as supernatural entity. Ironically, this fact doesn’t take away from Sethe being just as upset that Beloved is gone. Luckily Paul D does end up convincing Sethe that Beloved was not, in fact, Sethe’s “best thing.” Thus, the novel ends on a note of self-reliance.


In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in what sense is Sethe in danger, and what ultimately saves her?
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Sethe is in grave danger because of Beloved’s death grasp upon Sethe’s fragile mental and physical condition. “The thirty-eight dollars of life savings went to feed [Sethe & Beloved] with fancy food and decorate themselves with ribbon, . . . shiny buttons and bits of black lace” (240). Physically, Sethe is dying from hunger while she gives Beloved every ounce of the meager food she has left after their thoughtless splurge on frivolity. Sethe no longer has any knowledge of or desire for the future for her little family. Beloved has, literally, taken Sethe out of the real world and given Sethe only one goal: to plead her case to Beloved (indirectly) as to why Sethe ended her baby’s life. There is no winning this battle, which is breaking Sethe mentally; therefore, Sethe wastes away to practically nothing.

The reason behind Sethe’s salvation remains open to interpretation. A case can be made that the townspeople save Sethe from Beloved through exorcism. Likewise, one could argue that the simple disappearance of Beloved in itself saves Sethe. Yet another idea could be that Paul D saves Sethe through his strength by convincing Sethe, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are” (273).

Ultimately, however, it is Denver who saves Sethe. Denver, the girl who was always afraid to leave the house, now becomes Sethe’s salvation by doing just that. “Little by little it dawned on Denver that if Sethe didn’t wake up one morning and pick up a knife, Beloved might” (242). Denver has a revelation and realizes “so it was [Beloved] who had to step off the edge of the world and die because if she didn’t, they all would” (239). Physically, Denver’s emergence from the home sustains the family. Mentally, Denver’s emergence from the home renews the family’s strength. Indirectly, Denver’s emergence sparks the “exorcism” that happens near the end of the book. Denver, then, is the savior in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.


Please explain the concept of “re-memory” used in Beloved.
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Beloved by Toni Morrison explores the concept of rememory —the process of returning to memories again and again, in such a way that they affect a person’s processing of their present. Sethe, especially, is haunted by memories of her time at Sweet Home and how she murdered her daughter so she wouldn’t be enslaved. She is unable to completely separate her past from her present.

Sethe explains the concept of rememory to Denver, her surviving daughter, saying,

Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, 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.

Her point is that memory isn’t just a concept of the past. It’s something that affects the present; it’s in the world, not just in her memory.

Morrison demonstrates this when Paul D first comes to visit Sethe. He interrupts her in a memory of Sweet Home. Her greeting to him shows just how deeply that memory is ingrained. Morrison writes, “And although she could never mistake his face for another’s, she said, “Is that you?” The question, to Sethe, is whether Paul D is there in person or as another haunting memory, because at times she cannot distinguish between the two.

Morrison shows that Sethe’s memories of Sweet Home are stronger than anything, even the more recent memories of her sons who have run away. She remembers the landscape of the plantation more clearly than her sons, and “it shamed her—remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys” (7). Her memories are a weight she bears that impacts the present, which is what the concept of rememory is all about. However, when Paul D appears, he sweeps the past out of 124 and allows Sethe and Denver to live free of its weight for the first time, to some extent.

Beloved herself, when she appears, is the opposite of Sethe, who is weighed down with the vivid memories of her past that play such a role in creating her present. Yet Beloved herself brings a barrage of negative memories and recriminations, from forcing Paul D to relive his enslavement to punishing Sethe for what Sethe has done in the past. Ultimately she traps Sethe even more than the years of memories; she feeds off her until Sethe is wasting away and Beloved is growing even larger.

When Paul D returns and the women in the community force Beloved out, there is hope for Sethe. Paul D tells her, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” The constant reliving of her past through the rememories that haunt her may be pushed back so that she can have a real future.


How are racism and the institution of slavery presented through the characters by the symbolism associated with Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?
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We ought also to consider the fact that Beloved says that she walked out of the water, and she describes the place where she was before she showed up on Bluestone Road as though it were a slave ship. She talks about people sleeping on top of her, being taken above decks to get fresh air or watch another dead body get dumped into the sea. She talks about the “men with no skin,” presumably the white men, who would bring the slaves their “morning water”—likely their urine—to drink. Thus, it seems that Beloved symbolizes not only her own family’s history and experiences with slavery but, in addition, the history of slavery in general. She seems to recall the Middle Passage, the slave ships that she never traveled in, and her walking out of the water—as well as Sethe’s “endless voiding” of liquid when she first sees Beloved—seems to symbolize Beloved’s rebirth.


What is the overriding theme presented in Beloved?
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Part of what makes Morrison’s work so intricate is that it takes the history of enslavement and the narrative of social and self hate into different psychological avenues. I think that you can pull many different themes from the story. In my mind, the tension between remembering the past and being trapped by it is probably one of the most telling elements of the narrative. It distinguishes itself from other works in depicting characters who are mindful of the past, but also struggling to overcome it. Sethe is a prime example of this. In seeing her world in black and white and devoid of emotional interaction, she is both a product of slavery and struggling to overcome its horrific effect. It is Sethe’s character and her relationship with Beloved and Paul D where this dynamic is most evident:

Beloved seems to have ‘disremembered’ almost all of her past, and when Sethe comes to believe the girl is her lost daughter she ‘was excited to giddiness by the things she no longer had to remember.’ Her words seem to imply that Sethe tortures herself with memories as a sort of punishment…” The conclusion of the novel seems to imply that finally putting the past behind her will enable Sethe to survive. ‘We got more yesterday than anybody,’ Paul D. tells Sethe. ‘We need some kind of tomorrow.”

It is the need for “some kind of tomorrow” that compels Sethe to recognize herself as “her best thing.” This is a balance that Morrison brings out in the work, causing pain to turn into a source of strength.


What is “Slavery” through Sethe’s eyes?
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I would say that “having too many yesterdays” is an integral part to Sethe’s conception of slavery. Certainly, the institution of slavery, America’s “original sin,” would constitute much of what Sethe’s vision. Yet, I think that one of the most powerful elements of Morrison’s work is the idea that individuals can become imprisoned by their past. This happens on emotional and political levels and is one that is quite relevant when discussing slavery and its effect on the individual. It is the horror of Sethe’s past that imprisons her, causing her to not trust, and not be able to place faith in love. When Paul D says to her that “she is her best thing,” her response of “I am?” helps to underscore that from an emotional point of view, the shackles are still placed on her soul. The inability to see tomorrow and be trapped only in the curse of yesterday would be one element of this slavery that Sethe experiences.


How can one link the themes in Toni Morrison’s Beloved with the themes in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner?
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You might look at a few common themes:

(1) Both works deal with the need for unity among groups who are oppressed and the terrible consequences when individuals in these groups betray each other.

(2) Both works deal with the burden of guilt for actions taken in the past.

(3) Both works deal with generations and generational differences–father/son in The Kite Runner or mother/ daughter in Beloved.

(4) The children find their own way to cope with the pasts that were bequeathed to them, and ultimately become saviors of sorts.

These might be some ideas to get you started.


How much time is covered in “Beloved”? Are there multiple plots? Is the plot complex or simple?
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The first event in the novel occurs when Baby Suggs is born into slavery in 1795. The Last even in the novel occurs in 1875 when Sethe stabs Mr. Bodwin and Beloved disappears. This time period takes the characters from the time of slavery to tumultuous time after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The plot is complicated and difficult to follow because it jumps back and forth in time (a style typical of Modern literature). There are several strains of plot that all come together into one cohesive story. Try to make a time-line of events as you read.


How much time is covered in “Beloved”? Are there multiple plots? Is the plot complex or simple?
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The first event in the novel occurs when Baby Suggs is born into slavery in 1795. The Last even in the novel occurs in 1875 when Sethe stabs Mr. Bodwin and Beloved disappears. This time period takes the characters from the time of slavery to tumultuous time after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The plot is complicated and difficult to follow because it jumps back and forth in time (a style typical of Modern literature). There are several strains of plot that all come together into one cohesive story.


+++ SOS

Explain Magical Realism in song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
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Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon incorporates spiritual, mythical, and legendary elements into her otherwise realist narrative. This narrative is centered around the Yoruba folktale of the Africans who escaped slavery by flying; in fact, this what the title alludes to as those mourning sing the song. It alludes to the ballad about the flight of Milkman’s ancestor, Solomon, who leaps from a high rock in order to return to Africa. However, he left behind a grieving wife and twenty-one children.

Here are some elements of magical realism in Song of Solomon:

The bereaved sing this song of loss, this ballad of the flight into oblivion of Solomon, who leaped from a high outcropping of rock to return to his native Africa, leaving a grief-stricken wife and twenty-one children.
Pilate births herself by crawling out of her mother’s womb, leaving her with no navel. She has a knowledge of magical potions, one of which she gives to Ruth Dead, which moves her husband who wants nothing to do with her to give her a son, Milkman.
Milkman finally discovers the secret of the song of his ancestor, so he travels to learn the origin of his name and to reunite with his people.
The feathers may soar
And the children may know their names.

Milkman sings the song of loss when Pilate dies, and like Solomon, his ancestor, he leaps–even soaring in the air–to his confrontation with Guitar, left ambiguous as to its outcome. This ending is what Miguel Angel Asturias called “an annulment of reality.”


What is the role of sex in Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon? Why do you think she used so much sexual imagery and what effect do you think that is supposed to have on the reader?
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I would say that Morrison used such a strong array of sexual imagery in the novel for several reasons. First, passion in general plays a strong role in all of Morrison’s work, and sexual desire is a powerful passion. Second, there is a longstanding stereotype about Black sexuality, and I think Morrison is playing against and exploding that stereotype. Another way she’s writing as a Black writer is by writing about how the African-American position in society places undue weight on people, distorting them; the odder sexuality in her work is sometimes evidence of this. Finally, Morrison is writing something like modern myths or American magical realism, and uses the sex as a kind of barely naturalized magic.


What are the common themes between The God of Small Things and Song of Solomon?
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The major theme that Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon share is that of incestuous relationships. In Song of Solomon, the protagonist, Milkman Dead, is nicknamed so after one of his father’s employees sees him nursing from his mother. The reason the incident sparked such a nickname is the fact that Milkman is four years old at the time. He and Ruth are meant to feel shame that Milkman wasn’t weaned from the breast long ago. Because his nickname sticks, the shame of the incident also sticks to Milkman throughout the novel. Additionally, Milkman’s father (Macon Dead II) grows suspicious of his wife’s relationship with her own father. While it’s not clear whether Ruth’s relationship with her father was ever incestuous, she does idealize her father; the suspicion of incest with him affects her family relationships.

Incest is the engine of the plot in The God of Small Things. Rahel and Estha, twins and co-protagonists, are very close in their childhoods and seem to have the extrasensory perception often ascribed to twins. When Rahel marries, she and Estha are apart for several years, though their fondest memories are of each other. When they reunite, as adults, they have consensual sex and are happy about it, when up until this point they have both been unhappy. A symbolic reading of this act in the novel could suggest that the world can only be in balance through the harmony of yin and yang.

Other themes that both novels share are themes around ghosts of the past, violence, the legacy of ancestors, oppression, and the bonds of shared culture.


Discuss the role that women play in representing the value systems available for Milkman to adopt. (Be selective; choose characters who best support your thesis.)
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Milkman’s mother, Ruth Foster Dead, his aunt, Pilate Dead, and his cousin and lover, Hagar Dead really seem to embody three different value systems that Milkman could adopt. His mother is, in many ways, the quintessential old-fashioned wife and mother: she works in the home, is responsible for meals, raising the children, and so on. Her role is to take care of her husband, and he expects to be taken care of by her. In return, he provides financially for her and their family. These are the major values of this particular system.

Pilate Dead represents quite a different system. Here, men are practically nonexistent. The men in Pilate’s and Reba’s lives have really just been sperm donors, though — one imagines because of the way she welcomes Milkman and Guitar in — men could theoretically be more involved if they wanted to be. Pilate values raw and unconditional love, honesty, and pleasure. She eats what she wants when she wants, makes and sells fruit wines to support her family, and is unfailingly loving and truthful. Life is much more fluid and much less rigid than it is for Ruth because Pilate is so independent and cares not at all about what people think of her.

Hagar, Pilate’s granddaughter, embodies a more modern sort of a sensibility: she doesn’t want to just take care of her man — she wants him to take care of her too. She wants to dress well and look good, and she cares a great deal about things that Pilate and Ruth do not. She doesn’t seem to do anything by way of work, like Ruth and Pilate do, so this would imply that she has an expectation of being taken care of; also, she needs to feel desired, something that Ruth would like but Pilate doesn’t really care about. Hagar wants a passionate relationship where she is desired and cherished and cared for; this is a major value for her.


* A. S. Byatt is a well regarded literary critique and novelist. According to one reviewer, Byatt is a gifted observer who is, “able to discern the exact but minor details that bring whole worlds into being.” Here recent work, Possession, it is said, is not just a novel but a collection of poetry, letters, journals and diaries, each with their own distinct voice. A tour de force of prose-wring skill, beyond the usual demands of fiction, written by a literary ventriloquist. The novel begins in the Reading Room in the London Library. Part-time research assistant Roland Michell, finds letters hidden inside a book. They were written by celebrated Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to Cristobel LaMotte, a lesser-known writer, suggesting an adulterous affair.

* Margaret Atwood is the author of dozens of novels and a number of collections of poetry. Her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, became a symbol of resistance against the disempowerment of women in the era of Donald Trump; its sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019 and won the Booker Prize.

* Hillary Mantel is an English writer whose work includes historical fiction. She has twice been awarded the Booker Prize (the first woman to receive the award twice), in 2009 it was for Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, and in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment of the Cromwell trilogy.

Toni-Morrison Obitury
Obituary on the cover of the venerable The New Yorker magazine, with artwork by one of the magazine’s most iconic of illustrators.

Toni Morrison
Today, “Toni Morrison” is a subject of research and study.





I was dead, deader than dead because, I was still alive.
Ways of Escape ~  
“I was dead, deader than dead because, I was still alive.”
The Prophet is a book of 26 prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. The Prophet has been translated into over 100 different languages, making it one of the most translated books in history. Moreover, it has never been out of print.
The Prophet ~
“If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.”
The Essential Rumi, by Rumi ~ e.g. ~ “Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along.”
The Essential Rumi ~  “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”
Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was a French writer, philosopher and political activist. She is known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism.
The Second Sex
Delta of Venus
Delta of Venus
A Room of one's own
A Room of One’s Own
War and Peace is the 1869 novel by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It is regarded as a classic of world literature. (The novel chronicles the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families.) Tolstoy said War and Peace is "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle." Tolstoy regarded Anna Karenina as his first true novel.
War and Peace
Brave New World (1932) is a dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. Set in a futuristic World State, whose citizens are environmentally engineered into an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates huge scientific advancements in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning that are combined to make a dystopian society which is challenged by only a single individual: the story's protagonist (one Bernard Marx). In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Brave New World at number five on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th c.
Brave New World
Beloved is a 1987 novel by the late American writer Toni Morrison. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and, in a survey of writers and literary critics compiled by The New York Times, it was ranked the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006. The work, set after the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an African American who escaped slavery by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio, a free state. Garner was subsequently captured and decided to kill her infant daughter rather than have her taken into slavery.
The Grapes of Wrath


The English language
“Elizabethan era” / “Love letters”
French in English / Latin in English
Anthology / Chronology / Terminology
Phrases & idioms (with their etymologies)
Literary criticism: analysing poetry & prose
Glossary of works, writers and literary devices:
📙 Books       📕 Poets       📗 Thinkers       📘 Writers

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