Critical Essays Beloved and Its Forerunners


An offshoot of the universal literary tree, Toni Morrison — for all her feminism and her historical, cultural, and social background — shares much with the white male writers who have also delineated journeys of the spirit.

As in Henry James's Turn of the Screw, her characters in Beloved confront an elusive ghost, which deprives Sethe of the ability to nest and to know contentment.

Sharing an obsession with social injustice with John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Morrison's novel recreates an emotional landscape that moves beyond historic fact to individual suffering. Not unlike Rosasharn Joad, Sethe communicates maternal love through breast milk.

Mirroring the despair of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, Beloved details a clinging ambivalence fed on a past so lurid and unrelenting that it will give the suffering mother no respite. In Styron's novel, visions of Sophie's daughter handed over to Nazi child-burners lead to mental disintegration and alienation from love. In Morrison's, Sethe's torment refuses to dissipate, threatening not only her own well-being but that of Denver.

Like Hester Prynne, who is consumed by secret sin and alienation in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Sethe's paralysis and longing alternately confine and impel her toward a new and healing love and ease Denver into a supportive community of women. At the end of Beloved, Sethe has withdrawn from the world, much like Hester at the end of The Scarlet Letter. However, whereas Hester's isolation is caused by her relationship with Arthur Dimsdale, Sethe's relationship with Paul D appears to be an impetus for her to re-enter society.

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury influence Morrison's preference for circular narrative and the pervasive theme of human bondage, which the surrender at Appomattox failed to obliterate.

James Joyce's "The Dead" and Ulysses, composed in enigmatic glimpses of motive and response, influence Morrison's richly evocative narration, set with jewels of dialogue and conscious thought, both of which lead the characters through a hell of learning how to grasp happiness and security.

Critics find strands of other influential themes and stylistic mannerisms in Beloved, notably the insupportable corruption that demands retribution in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; the burden of the desperate act and its equally desperate denouement in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime; the consuming guilt of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno; Charles Dickens's symbolic character names; Alice Walker's submergence in the yearnings of motherhood in The Color Purple; the lovingly supportive alliance of one black and one white in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; and the dark reflection on hard scrabble community life, which generates uncharitable rivalry between haves and have-nots, as delineated in Richard Wright's Black Boy and Native Son.

Obviously, Toni Morrison is well schooled in literature, yet the urgency and pathos of her characters and situations are uniquely her own.