Beloved: A Palimpsest Novel at its Best
A palimpsest, traditionally meant a manuscript page. However, here it is taken to refer to an object, a piece of literature that reflects history. Palimpsest novels speak of a certain event, the history of a significant cultural phenomenon, or the history of a particular group of people. This paper delves into the merits of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved as a palimpsest novel. The novel will be described shortly and then thoroughly analyzed in order to show the truth in the statement that Beloved is indeed a palimpsest novel at its best.
Beloved is a palimpsest showing the history of African American culture, of the autonomy of their culture, and of the history and strength of their independence. Toni Morrison’s Beloved focuses on the lives of Sethe and Denver, her daughter.
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The two escape from slavery and try to rebuild a new life together. Their efforts are undermined, however, when one day a girl named Beloved shows up at their house. Sethe believes that Beloved is her daughter; one she murdered when the child was two years old, slitting her throat with a chain saw in order to save the baby from growing up and entering a life of slavery.
Sethe believes the girl named Beloved is her murdered child because of the fact that her baby’s tombstone had read “Beloved”. Two other characters in the novel are Paul D. and Stamp Paid who watch as Sethe becomes centered on Beloved to the point of obsession, to the point of forgetting Denver’s needs and even of forgetting her own. Paul D. and Stamp Paid are also shown to be struggling with memories of their past, memories they try to repress and then later on finally come to terms with. (Morrison, 1-342)
It is through the lives of these characters that Morrison is able to show the history of African American autonomous culture in a way that it has never been shown before. The violence and hardships previously skirted around by other slavery novels are directly addressed in Beloved. It is through this graphic and honest portrayal that Morrison is able to show the need and drive of these individuals to attain independence and autonomy. Beloved is a strong novel about the pains of slavery. Through its characters, it shows how African Americans were able to transcend this pain through links of humanity, surpassing racist assumptions and barriers.
(Greenbaum, 84) One link of humanity that is used in Beloved as a means of overcoming the pains of slavery is song. Morrison explores the dynamics of slave songs and allows her characters the power of these songs. Unlike past authors, Morrison’s portrayal of slave song is more inclusive of the actual topics of real slave songs. (Capuano , 99) She is able to do this because, unlike past authors, she is not fettered down by thoughts of having to inform her audience, of having to fight for abolishment of slavery and establishment of autonomy, of avoiding the committal of offence.
(Capuano, 95) Thus Morrison uses slave songs in the most graphic way they have been used yet. Beloved is most successful in its portrayal of African American history. The novel reestablishes apocalyptic writing, writing established before Morrison’s time and which emphasizes the fact that African American culture underwent a period of darkness but will eventually come to the light. (Bowers, 59) In Beloved, this period of darkness is the era of slavery and the period light indicates the attainment of autonomy, of African American’s freedom from slavery.
Beloved presents apocalypse not as something that is survived. Beloved offers African American an attempt of freeing them from a past full of guilt and suffering. Morrison shows that despite the holds of history on all African Americans, the holds of a past of slavery, the holds of a traumatic psychological legacy, there is a way to freedom. Directly confronting slavery and addressing the effects it wrought on all those who survived and even to those who did not allows all African Americans to be able to break loose and start anew. (Bowers, 73) Beloved shows slavery in a light of complete truthfulness.
It is because of the completely honest portrayal of the black and dim past of African American slavery that Beloved is able to break loose from the litany of novels holding the same topic. It is what sets Beloved apart and allows it to be dubbed as a palimpsest novel, a novel of the history of African American autonomy, at its best. However, it is not only the quality of its description and assessment of slavery that allows it to shine. It is the fact that through its honesty, Beloved is able to provide for its readers an insight into African American culture and suffering.
It also offers African American readers a way to come to terms with their past, a way to break free from the holds of that past. Toni Morrison was able to take a well-worn storyline and create a new angle from it. She viewed slavery in a way it had never been done before. She viewed it through the eyes of a writer not bound by social taboos and social decorum. By taking slavery and showing it for what it really was, she was able to show history with more impact. Beloved thus became more than just another slavery novel, it became one of the best palimpsest novels.
The fact that Toni Morrison became a Nobel Laureate because of this book stands as firm proof of its merit as a palimpsest of African American autonomy. References Capuano, Peter J. “Truth in timbre: Morrison’s extension of slave narrative song in Beloved. ” African American Review 37 (2003): 95-103 Greenbaum, Vicky. “Teaching Belloved: Images of transcendence. ” English Journal 91 (2002): 83-87 Morrsion, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred Knopf Inc, 1987 Susan, Bowers. “Beloved and the new apocalypse. ” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 18 (1990): 59-77