The idea of a ghost story or horror story has long since been introduced into the world of American literature starting in the late 18th century. These works played with the idea of life after death and its effects on the present. The term gothic or gothic horror has been used to describe this form of literature. The literary meaning of the gothic style of is hard to define, but to give it a simple meaning the gothic is when the supernatural encounters the natural. In the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison this form of the gothic is used. The story involves Sethe, an ex-slave, whom the ghost of her dead daughter haunts. The ghost of this novel is a two year old who is young in age, yet strong in power. The character Sethe, is based on the real life story of the slave Margaret Garner. On Jan. 28, 1856, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter rather than have her sent back to slavery due to the fugitive slave law. Garner was later found guilty and sent back to the plantation she fled in Mississippi. The story of Beloved delves into the most painful part of the African American heritage, slavery. The memory of this horrifying time is presented in what Morrison calls “rememory”– actively making the past real in the present. The novel is set during the Reconstruction(1870-1890) which follows the Civil War and emancipation. Much of the characters’ pain occurs as they themselves try to “reconstruct” their families, communities and their own sense of identity. While this novel has been compared many times to that of a slave narrative, Morrison chooses to use the gothic to tell her story. Yes this novel does use slave narrative form, but it explores a greater range with the gothic. Morrison chooses to use the gothic because it allows her to explore the true effects of her characters and their effects on each other. Beloved comes back to haunt not only Sethe but everyone around her. She feels that her life has been taken away from her and for that reason she wants to “suck” the life out of Sethe, Paul D, and Denver. The novel is broken into three major parts. As part one opens Morrison introduces the house with, “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom. The woman knew it and so did the children” (Morrison 3). Immediately the reader is thrown into this house with a ghost that is spiteful. The only surviving members of the family are Denver, the child Sethe was carrying in her escape to freedom, and Sethe. With the gothic, Morrison is able to show just how horrifying slavery and its effects are. Morrison goes into great detail to describe the horrors of Sweet Home and the people who lived there. As the reader hears of these effects the emotion is relased. Sethe describes one account saying ” after I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they come for. Held me down and took it.” ( Morrison, 16) Paul D instantly gets rid of the horrifying presence that has consumed this house for so long, and up to this point had only been physical as red light. With this sense of relief Paul D, Sethe, and Denver go to the local fair. Later they return home to find a mystical woman who is referred to as “Beloved”. Denver identifies the woman as the returned ghost in now human flesh and receives her as a sister. This is where the novel begins to take on its own existence. Beloved becomes the focus of everyone’s attention. Beloved has both mental and physical difficulties. Parts of her body threaten to fall off; some teeth do fall out. She has a scar on her throat. Her infrequent speech is childish. Although apparently she is a stranger, Beloved knows intimate things about Sethe, one of which includes the lullaby that Sethe sang to her babies. Denver takes a great liking to Beloved. Having been isolated for so many years, Denver finally feels that she has a friend. Soon, however, she is frightened to discover that the spirit is covertly attacking Sethe. For example, while pretending to massage Sethe neck, Beloved tries to choke her. Paul D on the other hand, dislikes Beloved but finds her sexually irresistible. Under some kind of spell or conjure, he has sex with her. The presence of this ghost now in human form thus disrupts every relationship. With this “rebirth” of Beloved, Sethe is forced to remember the past. Sethe now beings her emotional journey form slavery to freedom. At first, Sethe recalls only being shown a mark under her Ma’am breast as a way to identify her. This mark was probably the result of ritual scarification, an African tribe that recognizes an person’s transition into adulthood with a visible sign that they belong to a particular tribe. When Ma’am was lynched and burned, her body is too badly damaged that he mark does not show. Symbolically, slavery has wiped out African identity. Another critical part of identity is language, and the African language has also been taken away from the slaves. Sethe eventually recalls Nan’s stories of Ma’am.
Kubsitschek, Missy Dehn. Toni Morrison a Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. History Behind Beloved . 19 Jan 1999. Bontemps, Arna .Great Slave Narratives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The novels of Toni Morrison .Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991 Solomon, Barbara H. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison’s Beloved . New York: G.K. Hall&Co., 1998. A Past that can not be Forgotten by Shavone White African American Literature Dr. Dudley