[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]
On the psychological and historical sides to Toni Morrison’s haunting masterpiece.
A few years ago I wrote about (and, fortunately if belatedly, corrected) the shame of not having covered Moby-Dick in my first eight years of blogging in this space. Well, I could certainly say the same for Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), one of the most acclaimed American novels of the 20th century and a hugely important work of historical fiction, African American literature, postmodern fiction, and more. (I did write about it in a paragraph of this post on representations of the Middle Passage, if that counts for anything!) It was largely thanks to Beloved that Morrison became in 1993 the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, a truly groundbreaking moment in world literary and cultural history (and one, to be clear, that she deserved well before Beloved’s publication, but that was likely cemented by that book and moment). I’ve also had the chance to teach excerpts from or the whole of Morrison’s novel in many different classes, and have found that it’s one of those rare works that is both tremendously dense and demanding and yet entirely rewards all effort put into it. Beloved is quite simply a magisterial novel.
It’s also, at its heart, a ghost story (sorry, NYT, but I don’t agree with that piece!). Yet without minimizing the actual horror or thriller sides to Morrison’s novel (I hope by now it’s beyond clear to any consistent reader that I have absolutely no problem with genre fiction), I would argue that Beloved’s titular ghost is at least as symbolic and thematic as she is scary. Perhaps the clearest element to that symbolism is psychological: the novel’s protagonist Sethe, like her historical inspiration Margaret Garner, has killed one of her young children rather than allow her to be captured into a state of slavery; and it stands to reason that she would be haunted by the spectral presence of that lost child (or, more exactly, of the woman she might have grown up to be, and a symbolically pregnant woman at that). The historian Kidada Williams has researched and written powerfully about the psychological effects of racial violence; while of course Sethe’s and Garner’s acts of violence are far different from those committed by the Klan against African Americans, they are inspired by the same kinds and systems of racial terrorism and would certainly produce their own forms of psychological trauma. Of course it is Schoolteacher (the novel’s hateful slaveowner) who truly deserves Beloved’s ghostly presence and wrath, but it stands to reason that a sensitive and thoughtful character like Sethe would be far more haunted than a villain like Schoolteacher.
But as Slavoj Zizek (back when he was just an edgy psychoanalytical literary critic, rather than some sort of strange post-postmodern performance artist) argues in his reading of Beloved as part of his book The Fragile Absolute (2000), both the guilt and the haunting past symbolized by Beloved are as much communal as they are individual. That is, slavery was already by the late 19th century setting of Morrison’s novel a ghost, literally past but still haunting America in the present so fully and potently; and it’s fair to say that it was no less present and haunting in the 1980s moment of Morrison’s writing, nor in the 2010s one of mine here. To frame a historical novel of slavery as a ghost story might seem to lessen the realism and perhaps the significance of the historical representations; but Morrison’s novel proves that the opposite is true, that the ghost story metaphor offers a pitch-perfect form through which to confront the legacies and effects and presence of our darkest collective (as well as individual) histories. Which, in turn, makes the ghost story all the more scary and compelling.
Next GhostStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?