I had to wait a whole year before I actually got to read this book, for reasons that will sound silly now. But the point is that the longer I waited, the more excited I got about reading the book and when I was finally done with it, I was glad that I waited that long. Glad for the simple reason that I matured a lot emotionally during that time and that helped me to identify and empathize with the intricately sketched characters in this Pulitzer prize-winning post-civil war drama.
Trying to describe Beloved in a few lines or compartmentalizing it to a restricted genre of books is not just impossible; it is an insult to this phenomenal work of the genius, Toni Morrison. So I wouldn’t attempt it. Briefly put, the story is about Afro-American woman, Sethe and her family as they attempt to survive with dignity through and after the civil war. Their struggles set against the background of racism and hate pre and post civil war, form the crux of this heart wrenching drama about surviving against the odds.
In the present tense of the book, Sethe lives with her daughter Denver. Her two sons have left her and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs has died. Paul D, a previous acquaintance and ex-slave moves in with her. Another daughter Beloved mysteriously comes back to her from the dead. At first it is about what is happening now. But as the book progresses, we keep getting glimpses of each character’s past life that builds the story, bit by bit; offering insights into the character’s psyche and the conditions that forced them to do what they did and what they do now. Morrison doesn’t attempt mere justifications; she lets us live their lives vicariously so that we don’t just empathize, we identify.
The storyline is not the kind that will generate immense enthusiasm at first go and I have to admit that for me, the first few chapters dragged on forever. I even contemplated giving up entirely, but there was something about the engaging and the down-to-earth writing style of the author that kept me going. And in the end, I was glad I did. Because as the story continued, I found myself living it in the real sense, becoming one of the members of the family, mute but capable of feeling their troubles, the hidden and the seen, rejoicing in their little happiness and praying that their woes end early.
The book is both realistic and fantasy-induced at the same time. Realistic, for its accurate, fact-based account of the inhuman treatment meted out to the slaves. I remember gasping in disbelief, several times as I read the atrocious and horrendous ways in which the whites treated the blacks, for this opened me up to a new level of torture and disregard that humans are capable of. My suffering and pain seemed so miniscule and insignificant in the face of the enormity of these people’s troubles that I felt lucky to be born as a free individual and be treated as a human being, independent enough to make my own choices and steer the course of my future. I felt lucky to be able to eat, drink and sleep by my will; to be able to work the way I want to; to have decent clothes and adequate shelter; to have use of my body and organs as I wish; to not be flogged for dropping a glass or be screamt at and whipped for looking straight into my employer’s face; to not have to be at gunpoint every minute of the day, afraid that the next shot would take my life; to know the identity of my mom, dad, my siblings; to have my family close to me and my friends, unafraid to rush to my side if I need help; to not be mistreated just because of my skin color; to be decently paid and praised for all the good work I do; to walk, talk, laugh and most of all breathe free.
The fantasy/horror element of the book is in the form of the baby ghost that haunts Sethe’s house and later as Beloved, who Sethe takes to be her own dead child, because of the similarities that are too good to be mere coincidences. However it does not distort the storyline, which essentially remains that of pain, struggle and survival. The best character in the book is that of Denver, who is shown to mature from being shy, reticent, and socially awkward to being the responsible, sensible adult, ready to take control of her life and her family. Her meticulous characterization and deftly handled transformation leaves a lasting impression. She is truly an inspiration, both in terms of the writing and the character.
All in all, it is one book to be slowly read, thoughtfully chewed and soulfully digested. Not one of the regular fast track skim-and-scan bestsellers!!
You might want to refer to the following for a better critical appreciation of 'Beloved' and many other books.
http://www.homework-online.com (listed under the literature study guides)