Beloved by Toni Morrison

January 25, 2010 at 12:10 am 4 comments

A modern reader hoping to understand the realities of enslavement around the time of the Civil War through fiction faces several obstacles. While slave narratives exist, slaves were rarely allowed to read or write, and conditions were hardly conducive to writing until after the Civil War. So the most famous novel of the time concerning slavery is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an account written by white Northern woman.

In order to find an African-American comment on slavery, a reader is almost forced to turn to modern fiction. While The Wind Done Gone is one example, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is  the standard in this category. Beloved is story about a former slave woman who escapes to the North, but is still haunted by her experiences as a slave and the knowledge of what she did to make sure her former owner could never take her children.

Beloved reads as completely, emotionally true — it’s haunting in the way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin cannot be. While Stowe emphasized the inherent good in her characters in order to make her readers sympathize with them, Morrison emphasizes what terrible lengths a person, any person, can be driven to by being enslaved. The novel was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, a former slave who actually did kill her daughter in order to prevent her from being re-enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1860.

Can Beloved replace Uncle Tom’s Cabin on reading lists nationwide as the “official” Civil War novel? Probably not. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after all, was supposedly the book Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War (though that story is widely discredited), and it has a historical impact that Beloved can’t really compete with. But as a portrayal of the emotional realities of slavery, Beloved is certainly worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it earned its author.


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction. Tags: , , , .

Rereadings: The Historian Neil-a-palooza!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. silverseason  |  January 27, 2010 at 3:41 am

    found Beloved a tough book to read. True, but tough in that the reader is confronted with so many painful emotions and actions. Is the comparison with Uncle Tom’s Cabin fair? Both books were written by women who detested slavery, but the writers’ time and experiences were so different that they produced very different books, as one would expect.

    There was an incident in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were a slave mother speaks of drugging her baby to death so that the baby won’t experience what she has.

    • 2. KT  |  January 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

      Beloved was very tough for me as well, but I felt it was one of those books I needed to read.

      I agree with you to an extent about comparing Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Beloved — one of the points I was trying (and failing!) to convey is that both of these women face certain obstacles in respect to portraying a completely accurate slave experience. Stowe is limited by her race, Morrison is limited by living a hundred years too late, and both are limited by their lack of firsthand knowledge. I don’t mean to say that one work is better than the other, only that both authors seem to be writing toward the same goal, with very different results.

      I’m embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten about the woman who drugs her baby! Still, that woman is not a central character in UTC, and Eliza is never forced to make that decision regarding her own child, while Sethe is. Possibly this is a limitation of the time period. While a modern heart can break for any woman who is forced to kill her own child, a Victorian heart might see that action as proof against slaves’ humanity — what human mother could kill her child? — and therefore lose sympathy for that character.

  • 3. silverseason  |  January 30, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Your response makes sense to me. We are both talking around and about the same point, I think. No novel which involves a very big subject — slavery, immigration, love! — can do it all, but comes out of the writer’s own experience with and feeling about that subject.

    • 4. KT  |  January 30, 2010 at 10:46 am

      Yes, we’re definitely on the same page, so to speak ;)


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