Toni Morrison’s Beloved: The Modern Gothic Novel
The purpose of this paper is to explore the concept that Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a modern Gothic novel. It can be argued that Morrison uses many techniques derived from the Gothic period to master her story of Sethe, a former slave haunted by the ghost of her murdered daughter, Beloved. It is the many interwoven techniques of storytelling that make this novel a challenge to analyze but also so integral to the telling of America’s collective past. The novel encompasses trauma, making the reader uncomfortable with its subject matter.
Morrison tells a story not told before while weaving the spectacular into a very real situation. This novel makes the reader question, not only the content but how it is being conveyed, while masterfully, also complex in nature. Part of what makes Beloved and other modern Gothic novels so enthralling is its ability to convey mystery, darkness; the unknown as a realism to the reader.
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It parts its characters in situations that seem completely interesting, gives them a past that is tragic, maybe somewhat scandalous and puts the characters in a limbo of an unfamiliar place, where mystical events happen.
The modern Gothic novel builds from a varied thematic past where such techniques in conveying story seemed romantic in flavor but also horrific and fantastic. Prime examples of the Gothic novel come from the Bronte sisters. Both of them take a faraway location usually shrouded fog and create a mysterious romantic leading man whose behavior borders on villainous. They make the female overcome with lust for this anti-hero, painting the picture of a female character in distress, needing the strength of their man and his love. In this respect, the Gothic novel creates an atmosphere of suspense as strange events happen to the main character.
This notion of Magical Realism is not a new storytelling technique, but a forgotten one in need of evolution. The paragraph below examines in greater detail Gothic novel themes as a means of comparison for the modern Gothic novel, the Magical Realism used more and more today. Gothic Elements When many readers think of the Gothic novel, they think of horror, fantasy stories but what they do not think of is the beauty, the humanity conveyed in earlier works by the Bronte sisters. When considering the Gothic tradition, modern readers think of Anne Rice’s Vampire series and classic horror like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stroker’s Dracula.
Not many think of the tradition has its roots in Wuthering Heights. The paragraphs below will touch on this foundation and discuss how modern authors like Morrison, Rice and even the King of Horror Stephen King find their writer’s wisdom in the true Gothic style. It is interesting to see how many such as King deviate from the style at times to write a more gory tale while Morrison relies on more thematic techniques of storytelling which require exploration of the character’s psyche. Another good example of realism incorporating suspense with a fantastic element is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw:
I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantation and coming into view of the house. What arrested me on the spot—and with shock much greater than any vision had allowed for—was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. (25-6) The Gothic tradition is based in extremes. Traditionalists from the cannon like Stephen Dailly claim the Gothic novel “get its names from the barbarous Goths that invaded England during the medieval period” (1). Still many Gothic elements are founded in the mysterious and exotic (Dailly 1).
Characteristics are founded in the following elements: (1) morbid setting, (2) extreme characters: woman in distress and a villainess romantic hero, (3) mystical themes bordering on horror such as ghosts and strange visions or dreams, and (4) death and rampant dysfunctional sexuality. Not all elements are present but the majority is in novels like Beloved, Wuthering Heights and Interview with a Vampire. These elements make such reading, while uncomfortable, delicious in breaking some set rules. Gothic novels create a taboo, the reader recognizes as a guilty pleasure.
The first unsettling effect Gothic displays is the dark disturbing setting of a foreign place sometimes a castle. This is meant to dull the senses, throw the situation off guard (Berenbaum 23). Part of what makes the setting so eerie is the pretense that the main character usually female is not supposed to be there but is put into the situation because of a family member’s sudden death and her loss of social status. She is often painted as the innocent victim; pure and angelic (Devendra 19) but generally conflicted by her past tragedy or lustful thoughts for her foil; the romantic anti-hero.
While this may shock the reader, while the anti-hero like Heathcliff or Lestat should be generally hated because of his past indiscretions; she cannot help but see his humanity and beauty. It is the societal struggle that makes him interesting and creates the romantic dream for the female in distress. It gives her something to hold on to during the tough times she faces. This is also creates great conflict for both the reader and characters which is the ultimate element of Gothic “cannot exist without pain” and here in lies the paradox “that pleasure is found in pain” (Berenbaum 30).
While the argument can be made that Beloved displays many modern traits like Magical Realism, one can also argue that these were stolen from the Gothic tradition. The entire novel is shrouded in mystery, in gloom based from trauma. It is this trauma born out of post-Reconstructionism and the former slave experience that becomes the taboo. It is the guilty pleasure for many readers as they strive to understand the novel’s true meaning. Much of the mystery or confusion is created by Morrison’s storytelling technique of flashback.
What makes the novel uncomfortable is Morrison’s structure for a non-linear storyline. At times the reader does not know they are in the middle of a flashback and this adds to the building of emotion. Valerie Smith argues this flashback technique or method of telling the story in circles makes waves as it feeds off itself over and over while remaining unconvoluted; it still “limits hegemonic authoritarian systems of knowledge” (346). Much of what we believe about the story is based on what Morrison is educating the reader about.
This explains not only the setting of the story but the historical context and Sethe’s inability to assimilate into her own present time to tell her account. The flashbacks continue in circles acting as symbolic technique to explain how life works. It is the historical taboo of post-slavery that influences the reader’s reasoning because there is nothing that can be done to intervene. There is nothing that the reader can do to make Sethe’s present condition better except continue reading but this acts as a motivation to keep the reader glued (Spargo 118).
This can be seen in other post-traumatic accounts found in modern literature such as Sophie’s Choice. This type of historical influence creates taboo, the shock but it is not applicable to just the African American experience but to the human experience. Gothic Setting and the Far Away Location Much of the novel happens in the setting of memory, the continued revisiting of one moment in time and how the decision for a mother to murder her own child impacts her present.
The setting of Beloved uses flashback to create gloominess but it is the feeling of Sethe and other residents of the house traveling not only in physical distance but also the passage of time that creates a haunting quality. While she is stuck in the past, she is also stuck in her new home in Ohio on 124 Bluestone Road. Part of what makes the setting gloomy is not just the historical context of recovering from human bondage but it is the collective notion and ideology of the passage of time. Not even time can heal the wounds.
The Underground Railroad while found in many undisclosed physical locations is really a state of mind but so is that period of history called Reconstructionism. For the novel, setting is more about time and characterization but as Margaret Atwood discusses “the setting is similarly divided: the countryside near Cincinnati, where the central characters have ended up, and a slave-hold plantation in Kentucky” (par 2). But the setting is also defined by people who believe in magic, folklore but also influenced by a broken society where they are themselves ghosts; shells of people.
While there is the memory of physical removal from Africa, there is also the notion of that: Slaves are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their kin. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again…as a matter of everyday legal policy” (Atwood par 7). Sethe: Female in Distress, Exploring the Unknown, and Horror/Terror Elements Sethe is the female in distress but not in the traditionalist view of Gothic female character. She is a feminist. She is defined by her past, conflicted by her past decisions and not blinded by lust for an anti-hero.
Much of her is defined by her sexuality as a powerful tool. While her decision to murder her daughter made her powerful as she gave her child freedom in death that she still cannot attain in life; it takes on a shocking quality for the reader and can be seen in sexual symbolism later in the novel. In a time when slaves are seen as property, worth less than a cow or a dog to the white man, she pulls above this lack of humanity and uses her sexuality as a tool to facilitate her survival. This does not make her actions right on moral grounds but makes her a strong female role model in literature.
Throughout the canon, the female sex is seen as taboo, symbolic in fruit and nature. Beloved has sexual overtones because of Sethe’s ability to bear fruit. This is a common symbol found in literature; motherhood; the bearing of fruit and nourishing the child with milk. What makes Beloved different in expressing these overtones is when they happen. These sexual symbols present themselves as Beloved’s ghost materializes. Sethe begins to lactate when Beloved appears, “Just like the day she arrived at 124—sure enough, she had milk enough for all” (106). Is the ghost manifesting in Sethe or is this past of post-trauma?
Or is it Sethe’s decent into insanity? Later she continues to use this tool as a means of acquiring proper burial for her daughter. While many readers would be appalled by such an action, others would see how because of slavery, Sethe does not see herself of any value. Rape is not something brutal to her but the notion of not giving her offspring a proper burial is. She believes that without this burial the soul cannot return home to God, but how does this explain Beloved showing up later. Because Sethe is still struggling with the past, so does the ghost?
It is from the setting and the past that the horror element; the impending doom that the flashbacks carry emotionally; the unknown is born out of her being trapped in the house and her belief in the supernatural. It could be the ghost is just a figment of her imagination as a post-trauma sufferer. Atwood writes, “the day had gone blue without its sun, but she could still make out the black silhouettes of trees in the meadow beyond” (par 16). The past is constantly impacting her present. The doom and gloom of the past is surrounding her, trapping her in that house.
This only intensifies the haunting that the ghost represents. It is the element of the ghost that furthers the notion of the unknown for the reader and allows one to analyze Sethe’s character. It is the haunting that brings her story to the forefront of attention, acting as a catalyst for her to grow and deal with the circumstances of the past. Before she can make a better life for herself, she must descend into madness. It is the pure physicality of the haunting that remains true to the Gothic tradition and not necessarily the horror. Today’s reader associates horror with gore thanks to the blood and guts of Hollywood.
True Gothic does not rely on blood but the suspense built from the unknown. It is the fear of the unknown, the life without love that makes the story so compelling. “And, for some reason she could not immediately account for, the moment she got close enough to see the face, Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity” (Morrison 54). While the house is physically haunted by Beloved’s ghost, it is also haunted by the collective experience of all its residents. The story is told not only in flashback but also from different points of view. This adds to the suspense but building eeriness.
While the ghost is grown up, it has the mentality of a toddler while her sister Denver’s attitude is that typical of a boy crazy teenager. As it seems the trauma acts as a haunting embodied by the ghost, as the trauma becomes more real; it comes to the surface of Sethe’s reality; the more terror-ridden Beloved can be felt to Sethe and the others. As Sethe starts to deal with the past, Beloved starts to slip away. “She feels her thickness thinning, dissolving into nothing” (Morrison 129). Still by using varying points of view allows for differing tones of morality.
While no one can blame Sethe for her actions, in a way not only does Paul D lack compassion for her situation because her inability to share her story, while this fact distresses her a lot, she is punishing herself by allowing the trauma to continue. It is in her need to identify herself by a man that weakens her ability to learn from the ghost. It builds the suspense of the unknown further. By allowing the unknown to takeover, she is riddled with fear of Paul D leaving, and taking her esteem with him. She is afraid of anything changing and possibly surrendering to her guilt.
Morrison works to create the doubt that Beloved’s ghost is even real. Is she just a by product of Sethe’s trauma? A real ghost, a lost soul trying to get to Heaven? Is she a coping mechanism created by the folklore of post-slavery life? Is she a combination of things, a means for explaining the unexplainable? Or just a literary device? Maybe she is just part of the journey into the unknown that Sethe must take in order to heal from her experiences. In many ways, the ghost leaving is part of Sethe’s growth process and redemption.
By making the ghost a real person, physical to everyone, it is allowing Sethe to acknowledge Beloved’s existence. This in itself has a powerful cleansing influence upon her character. She starts acting differently, stronger and less defined by her setting and the people around her. First of all, she leaves the house to go to a picnic in which Sethe stands up to the white man. In this way, she now defined by her self-esteem and her own humanity and not the past. No longer is she a shell of a woman but someone who can function in reality.
The scene in which the ghost leaves is a pivotal moment for Sethe but also the other women of her new community. By unloading the baggage of Beloved’s death, she is about to have a future. The picnic acts a coming together of strong women with knowledge of who they are. While they are defined by their collective past, they are also looking to the future for the first time. It is only in the realization that Sethe is not alone that she rediscovers her strength as a person (272). She allows herself a taste of humanity. This story works to capture the essence of slavery’s aftermath for its characters.
It tells a truth created in flashback and ghost story. It aims to create mysticism only memory can illustrate. “The novel is meant to give grief a body, to make it palpable” (Gates 29). The characters are trapped in the present because they are imprisoned by the horrors of slavery. They are literally held hostage in their home, isolated from the outside world. In many ways Beloved represents a geographically realistic neo-slave narrative by presenting in flashback the experiences of Sethe. This story also has the fantastic element of a ghost who later becomes flesh and bone.
The paragraphs below explore the characters memories and the magical realism of a ghost. Memory affects the character of Sethe in a way that illustrates the pain and grief of her past enslavement. Sethe is living with the memory of killing her two old year daughter to save her from the horror of slavery while she herself was struggling to attain freedom. As a result of this action, she is unable to forgive herself and lives trapped in this memory. As much as this is a very private pain, it dominates her and comes to life in her house.
The memory affects the other occupants of the house and even drives her sons to leave. Sethe believes that nothing can destroy a memory, not even destroying the physical evidence. The following quote exhibits this idea: It’s so hard for me to believe in [time]. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. . . . 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. (Morrison 36)
In essence, this means that the soul takes every experience with it. I believe her relationship with this memory only deepens over time and does not change for the better. Even the attempt to leave her happy with her new marriage leaves the reader feeling that she is still coping. Morrison writes, “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” (42). This signifies that her memories leave her static in the present. It is almost as if nothing new can happen to her until she lets the past go.
Still this is likely as Morrison writes “but her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day” (70). It is through the flashback images the reader learns of slavery and Sethe’s experience escaping but it also through Morrison’s description of the present that reader begins to understand the environment of Reconstruction. These are people still being defined by their enslavement. “The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind.
And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life-every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem” (256). This theme is never so evident than with Morrison’s use of magical realism in the form of Beloved the ghost. “This awkward spirit shakes the furniture, puts tiny handprints on the cakes, shatters mirrors, Sethe and Denver live stolidly in the chaos, emotionally frozen” (Gates 28). The physical ghost acts as an embodiment of Sethe’s sorrow and guilt.
The consequence of Beloved’s actions only feed Sethe’s inability to function in the present. Whether or not the ghost is an embodiment of Sethe’s guilt, insanity, folklore, an actual real ghost, the symbolic representation of the house’s negative feelings due to historical context, or the collective sadness and unknown of the residents’ terror; remains to be seen. This is an unknown; a mystery Morrison leaves for the reader to decide. Conclusion In conclusion, Beloved connected with the reader on many levels. In times of war and tragedy, such themes are not uncommon.
One is reminded of Sophie’s Choice where the heroine had to make a similar yet devastating decision about her children. Still Morrison used a ghost to exhibit just how much the past has followed Sethe. Such technique can be found in other modern novels by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez where the fantastic take on realistic qualities. The purpose of this paper was to explore the concept that Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a modern Gothic novel. It can be argued that Morrison used many techniques derived from the Gothic period to master her story of Sethe, a former slave haunted by the ghost of her murdered daughter, Beloved.
The novel has many interwoven techniques of storytelling that make reading a challenge to analyze but also so integral to the telling of America’s collective past. As a collective, our history has pain that can be found beautiful. The novel encompassed trauma, making the reader uncomfortable with its subject matter, mainly Sethe’s sexuality as a powerful, feministic tool. Morrison tells a story not told before while weaving the spectacular into a very real situation and therefore created a much different storytelling style furthering the evolution of the modern novel.
This novel made the reader question, not only the content but how it was being conveyed, while masterfully, also complex in nature. While it is considered a modern novel, it redefined many Gothic elements. Part of what made Beloved and other modern Gothic novels so enthralling was its ability to convey mystery, darkness; the unknown as a realism to the reader. It put its characters in situations that seemed completely interesting, gave them a past that was tragic, maybe somewhat scandalous and put the characters in a limbo of an unfamiliar place, where mystical events happened.
Atwood, Margaret. “Jaunted By Their Nightmares. ” New York Times 13 Sept. 1987, natl. ed. : Arts and Entertainment section. Atwood explains Morrison’s story of grief and death of Sethe’s little girl touching on Slavery’s influence on modern society. She looks at Gothic techniques used to tell a modern story while discussing Sethe’s insanity and humanity. Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination. East Brunswick, New Jersey: Associated University Press, Ltd. , 1948. This author analyzes Wuthering Heights from the thematic view point of Gothic novel stylings.
She looks to Bronte’s writing as a means of justifying the non-horror of Gothic novels but the humanity involved. In doing this, she paints the novel as being very Gothic and also scary. In this respect, the argument backfires but also legitimizes the Gothic novel as a genre. Dailly, Stephen. “The Gothic Novel. ” Online. Internet. Available FTP: http://www. btinternet. com/Stephen. dailly/writing/resources/gothic. htm Devendra, Varma, The Gothic Flame. London: Arthur Baker Ltd. , and Morrison and Gibb Ltd. , 1957.
Author looks to traditional thematic elements of Gothic novel to argue that Gothic novels display two worlds. He also looks to history to back up this point. Gates, Henry Louis and Appiah, K. A. , ed. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, Inc. , 1993. Editors analyze Toni Morrison’s writing, specifically Beloved in order to argue that the novel does not reflect the negative victimism of slavery but uses storytelling as a means to entertain such a serious subject. They argue that Beloved can also be seen as ghost story.
James, Henry. Turn of the Screw. New York: Pocket Books, 1941 James’ tale of suspense and woman haunting the man who done her wrong and is one of the first times in literature a ghost seems realistic. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Morrison’s groundbreaking story of one woman’s life after slavery and ghosts that remain in the present. This story by using flashbacks tells the story of a woman murdering her baby daughter so that that daughter does not have to live in slavery. This novel displays how one’s action’s continues to live on inside of them and later materialize as a ghost.
It also conveys how even in American modern society, the collective history still remains in shadows and needs to be addressed, no matter how uncomfortable. Smith, Valerie. “Circling the Subject: History and Narrative in Beloved. ” Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 342-55. Smith analyzes Morrison’s use of flashback as a cyclical technique not used before in literature. Spargo, R. Clifton. “Trauma and the spectres of enslavement in Morrison’s Beloved. ” Mosaic 35. 1 (2002): 113-130. Spargo discusses history as a grounds for telling fictional stories.