I will be blunt.
Belovedby Toni Morrison is not for the faint of heart. That being said, this does not mean it’s not for literature classes. It’s a brilliantly written book and one that should be admired for its balance of beauty and intensity. At the same time, however, it is a highly complex book that is discussed at all levels from high school to college because of the themes represented within the book: race, gender, the affect of slavery on a person’s psyche. As I read the book I was struck by the paradox of it. At the same time that it’s simple, it’s difficult. It’s ambiguous and explicit which makes the writing of it ingenious, perhaps one of the many reasons why Beloved is not only a Pulitzer winning novel, but the reason why Toni Morrison was awarded the Novel Prize for Literature.
For those not completely aware of what Beloved is about here’s it as simply as possible: When she was a slave, Sethe ran away to Ohio with her children. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a gang of slave catchers finds Sethe and returns her and her children to the plantation. However, just before she is returned, she attempts to kill her children so that they won’t have to live in slavery. She succeeds in killing her two year old, who is unnamed and buried in a grave marked “Beloved.” Now the war is over, has been for years. Sethe and her daughter Denver have returned to the house in Ohio where the tragedy of the baby’s death took place. Except . . . the baby haunts the house.
There you go. That’s the premise of the story.
The book has been challenged on numerous occasions by parents of students in (predominately but not always) AP literature classes. The parents challenge this book based on various themes, the most prominent being: sex, violence, and a baby’s gruesome murder. In a recent case in Michigan at the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, these issues were brought up, as well as the idea that Beloved provided too fictitious an account about the issue of slavery.
Fictitious even though the premise of Beloved, that of a slave woman killing her infant daughter because she saw it as a better way than allowing the child to be returned to slavery, is based off the case of Margaret Garner who escaped to Cincinnati with her family, was captured by slave catchers, and killed her own daughter because Garner didn’t want her daughter to go back to slavery.
Sex. This seems to be a predominate reason why many books are challenged. However, in the case of Beloved, I can see why parents would pick up on this. There is sex in this book. It’s hardly a porn book, however. This is where Morrison’s talent for paradoxical writing comes in. At once the scenes of sex are ambiguous, yet there is absolutely no reason for the reader to not know what’s going on. This is one of the reasons why reading Beloved can be so unsettling. Because some of these scenes deal with rape. Deal with gang rape and bestiality, though I only caught one scene where bestiality is mentioned and it was more of a character remembering than the actual act itself.
Which if you are prone to nausea and are overly sensitive to all things sex related Beloved is not the book for you.
The baby’s murder. How else is one supposed to write about a child’s murder than in ways that unsettle the reader? The whole idea behind Sethe’s reason for killing the child is unsettling. Just thinking about it is unsettling. To overly simplify the idea: How far would you go to ensure the safety of your child? Would you kill it?
Beloved, I believe, raises the bar for literature. It illuminates the corners of actions people don’t want to acknowledge, the idea that people weren’t just hurt physically because of slavery, people were hurt mentally and that opens up a whole closet full of skeletons that people are too afraid, even today, to sort through.
I’m still trying to fully process this book. I finished it three days ago, and usually I try to write the review the day I finish it. But Beloved is certainly something else. Like the baby haunting the house, Beloved wants to be noticed, wants to be acknowledged, and wants to be put to rest.
In my opinion, as Beloved is predominately an AP literature book (as most of the challenges I have researched stem out of AP literature courses), one should leave it alone and allow it in the classroom. Teachers are more than willing and, in some districts, required to let the parents know the list of books the class is reading ahead of time, so Beloved shouldn’t be a surprise. And if the student is in an AP literature course, that usually means that the student is above average of the current grade level and should therefore be pushed to broaden his or her mind. Thinking critically shouldn’t start in college, it should start in high school, maybe even before that.
Therefore, I believe Beloved by Toni Morrison is not only a credit to the written word, a credit and example of American literature, but a must read for everyone.
Age Rating: A 16+ on the age rating, mainly because of the content, but because of how the content is presented, someone younger may not be able to fully appreciate or understand the book until then. Unless, of course, said student is several grade levels ahead. But this is definitely a book where parents and students can have open discussions and speak about a whole host of ideas.
**Beloved was made into a movie in 1998. It’s rated R which is understandable. The trailer isn’t anything graphic.