The Measure of a Life: Toni Morrison
"I'm not trying to cast blame," explained author Toni Morrison in a recent interview about her racially revisionist literature. "I'm just trying to look at something without blinking." That is certainly an apt description of her approach to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved: In it she has focused her steady gaze on a dreadful episode in American history -- slavery and its aftermath -- and the result is a spellbinding masterpiece of both exquisite beauty and pain. Set shortly after the Civil War in rural Ohio, the story revolves around Sethe, a runaway slave literally haunted by the legacy of her past -- a past that she tries desperately to repress, but one that the supernatural forces in her house won't let her forget. Her home is "spiteful...full of baby's venom," and reverberates with the angry rumblings of her dead baby daughter. Eerie red light, rattling furniture, and overturned dishes are commonplace. Sethe's love for this child was so deep that it proved deadly: She murdered the girl rather than see her returned to a life of slavery. Terrorized by the ghost, Sethe's sons have run off; her treasured mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has died; and she lives in virtual isolation with her adolescent daughter, Denver. When Paul D. -- an ex-slave from the Sweet Home plantation where Sethe was held in bondage -- shows up on her doorstep, Sethe's life changes abruptly. Not only must she endure a surge of memories, but the previously incorporeal ghost suddenly manifests itself in the form of a strange but seductive young woman named Beloved.
Beloved is but one of many critically acclaimed works by the prolific Morrison. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison read ravenously as a child and went on to earn an English degree from Howard and a master's from Cornell University. She has held teaching positions at countless colleges -- Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers among them. Before devoting herself fully to her own fiction, she worked for 20 years as a senior editor at Random House. Since 1989, she has held a university chair in humanities at Princeton University, and has won numerous awards, most notably the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. As the eighth woman and the first African American to have received the award, she is now one of the most respected figures in American letters.
A vocal force in the once-silenced community of African-American women, Morrison is devoted to the potency and potential of language. "We die," she has said. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." If language is indeed the measure of our lives, then she has lived one of unparalleled eloquence. For her prose is unquestionably dazzling. Like an alchemist transforming dross to gold, Morrison turns words into living, breathing, shimmering entities, into pulsating colors, vibrant sounds, pungent smells. So vivid is Beloved's fictional world -- the white staircase in Sethe's house, Denver's boxwood hiding place -- that the reader becomes a part of it. And so acutely are the characters' emotions drawn -- Beloved's bottomless rage, Baby Suggs's bone-tired exhaustion -- that we identify with each of them. Whether writing in narrative form or indulging in occasional poetic riffs, Morrison taps into universal human dilemmas and reaches us at the deepest level.
This is not to say that her prose is easy. Her convoluted narrative style is often compared with that of fellow Nobel laureate William Faulkner. In Beloved, neither plot nor time is linear. The past overlaps the present; memory -- or "rememory," as she calls it -- bleeds into every scene. To maintain suspense, Morrison withholds information, but drops clues on every page -- tantalizing hints of Sethe's crime or Beloved's identity. The details accumulate until you find yourself suddenly gasping with comprehension, and then wildly rifling back through the pages to reread earlier scenes that only now make sense.
Readers intimidated by such complexity might be tempted to skip the book and head straight for the new movie adaptation, which producer Oprah Winfrey and director Jonathan Demme have handled with grace and dexterity. Their lushly photographed film stays faithful to the book's lyricism, dialogue, and memory-driven structure. The casting is ideal: Danny Glover makes an endearing Paul D., and Oprah Winfrey plays Sethe with just the right iron-eyed determination. Although Thandie Newton's portrayal of Beloved is at times over the top -- veering into Exorcist territory -- the uninhibited force she brings to the role is riveting.
And yet, no film adaptation -- not even one as artistic and insightful as Demme's -- can match the power of Morrison's novel. The movie shares the book's slowly unraveling mystery and its unflinching depictions of slavery, but it loses much, simply due to its medium. Three hours are not nearly enough to cover the array or depth of Morrison's characters. We only skim the surface of Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., and others. We never learn the intimate details of their pasts. Nor do we hear their internal dialogue -- so essential in a novel of ever-shifting perspectives. Plenty of vital characters don't appear at all. And the importance of the African-American community -- whose support, or lack thereof, plays such a huge role in all of Morrison's books -- is diminished in the film.
Though Beloved is Morrison's undisputed masterpiece, all her books are remarkable. Each bears her trademark touches: elegant prose, fantastical occurrences, striking characters, and racial tension. Her first and perhaps most accessible novel is the short and searing The Bluest Eye, in which a girl is driven mad by her hunger for an unattainable symbol of white beauty -- blue eyes. Her second novel, Sula, is an oft-overlooked gem, a portrait of female friendship between a conformist and a rebel. Song of Solomon, winner of the 1977 National Book Critics Award, distinguishes itself from her other works for its straightforward plot flow and its male protagonist, who must embrace his heritage in order to mature. Although Tar Baby, with its Caribbean setting and its privileged characters -- a pampered black model and a rich white couple among them -- is sometimes considered Morrison's most commercial book, it is as provocative and sumptuously rendered as the rest. Her most challenging books are her most recent ones: a trilogy of novels (each with a different cast of characters) intended as a retelling of the black experience in America from slavery to the present day. Jazz, the second in the trilogy after Beloved, evokes a jealous love triangle in early black Harlem, in a literary style as dizzy and ingenious as a Coltrane improvisation. And in Paradise, the third and most controversial of the series, a posse of men from an all-black town descends upon a convent of wayward women to murder the inhabitants. Published earlier this year, Paradise is a complex work that has received plenty of praise, but also substantial criticism. In addition to her seven novels, Morrison has written a play, "Dreaming Emmett," and a book of essays entitled Playing in the Dark.
"My job," she says, "is to make sure whatever journey I invite a reader to, I am there to accompany them, to offer a palm to hold." And it is our job, as readers, to take that hand and to dive fearlessly into the fictional worlds she has created. To decline Morrison's invitation would be to deprive ourselves of some of the most sublime, transformative literature of our time.
When Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House, she edited The Black Book, an anthology/scrapbook of African American history. While working on the book, she ran across a newspaper article about a woman named Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her children, slitting the throat of one and bashing in the skull of the other, to prevent them from being recaptured by the slave hunters hot on their trail. This upside down story of motherly love expressed through child murder haunted Morrison for many years and finally manifest itself in fictional form in her Pulitzer Prize-winning fifth novel, Beloved. A poetic chronicle of slavery and its aftermath, it describes how that inhuman ordeal forced cruel choices and emotional pain on its victims and gave them memories that would possess them long after they were released from their physical bondage. Morrison uses the story to address a key question for black people then and now: How can we let go of the pain of the past and redeem the sacrifices made in the struggle for freedom?
The novel's main character, Sethe, escapes from a plantation where she was viciously abused and perversely cherished by her master for her "skills" as a childbearer. When the slave hunters come looking for her, she kills her infant child to prevent her from becoming a slave. After slavery, Sethe finds work and devotes herself to her surviving daughter, Denver, but is haunted by memories of cruel life on the plantation she escaped and by the vindictive spirit of her murdered infant, Beloved. Paul D., an almost supernaturally charming former slave from the same plantation as Sethe, arrives and temporarily banishes the ghost of the infant Beloved. But Beloved returns in an older and more dangerous form and sets out to destroy Sethe's household by seducing Paul D., driving Denver away from her mother, and feeding on Sethe's body and spirit.
Beloved is both beautiful and elusive: beautiful for its powerful and captivating language, and elusive not just because of its reliance on visions of haints and apparitions, but in its narrative interweaving of the past and present, the physical and the spiritual. For all of its supernatural elements, however, Beloved is most notable as a powerful tribute to the real-life struggles of a generation of black men and women to reconcile the horrors of the past and move on. The spirit of Beloved and the recurring memories of the tribulations Sethe endured on the plantations she
lived on and escaped from were both testaments to the tangibly powerful hold that slavery had on her. In the end, she is able to recover her life only by finding within herself and her community the spiritual tools strong enough to exorcise her of this haunting. In this, Sethe's struggle is the struggle of all African Americans:
the struggle to redeem ourselves, our families, and our communities from the wreckage of the past even as we honor the sacrifices made for survival.
A brutally powerful, mesmerizing story . . . read it and tremble.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Mixed with the lyric beauty of the writing, the fury in Morrison's . . . book is almost palpable...a haunting chronicle of slavery and its aftermath'' set in rural Ohio in the wake of the Civil War. The "brilliantly conceived story . . . should not be missed.''
Powerful is too tame a word to describe Toni Morrison's searing new novel of post-Civil War Ohio. Morrison, whose myth-laden storytelling shone in Song of Solomon and other novels, has created an unforgettable world in this novel about ex-slaves haunted by violent memories. Before the war, Sethe, pregnant, sent her children away to their grandmother in Ohio, whose freedom had been paid for by their father. Sethe runs too, but when her "owners'' come to recapture her, she attempts to murder the children, succeeding with one, named Beloved. This murder will (literally) haunt Sethe for the rest of her life and affect everyone around her. A fascinating, grim, relentless story, this important book by a major writer belongs in most libraries. -- Ann H. Fisher, Radford Public Library, Va.
Hardcover reprint of the acclaimed, and now virtually canonized 1987 novel. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
The ordinary spars with the extraordinary in Morrison's books. What would be a classically tragic sensibility, with its implacable move toward crises and the extremes of pity and horror, is altered and illuminated by a thousand smaller, natural occurrences and circumstances. -- Ms. Magazine
New York Review of Books
A work that brings to the darkest corners of American experience the wisdom, and the courage, to know them as they are.
A masterwork…wonderful…I can't imagine American literature without it!
John Leonard, Los Angeles Times
From the Publisher
“A masterwork. . . . Wonderful. . . . I can’t imagine American literature without it.” —John Leonard, Los Angeles Times
“A triumph.” —Margaret Atwood, The New York Times Book Review
“Toni Morrison’s finest work. . . . [It] sets her apart [and] displays her prodigious talent.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Dazzling. . . . Magical. . . . An extraordinary work.” —The New York Times
“A masterpiece. . . . Magnificent. . . . Astounding. . . . Overpowering.” —Newsweek
“Brilliant. . . . Resonates from past to present.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A brutally powerful, mesmerizing story. . . . Read it and tremble.” —People
“Toni Morrison is not just an important contemporary novelist but a major figure in our national literature.” —New York Review of Books
“A work of genuine force. . . . Beautifully written.” —The Washington Post
“There is something great in Beloved: a play of human voices, consciously exalted, perversely stressed, yet holding true. It gets you.” —The New Yorker
“A magnificent heroine . . . a glorious book.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Superb. . . . A profound and shattering story that carries the weight of history. . . . Exquisitely told.” —Cosmopolitan
“Magical . . . rich, provocative, extremely satisfying.” —Milwaukee Journal
“Beautifully written. . . . Powerful. . . . Toni Morrison has become one of America’s finest novelists.” —The Plain Dealer
“Stunning. . . A lasting achievement.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Written with a force rarely seen in contemporary fiction. . . . One feels deep admiration.” —USA Today
“Compelling . . . . Morrison shakes that brilliant kaleidoscope of hers again, and the story of pain, endurance, poetry and power she is born to tell comes right out.” —The Village Voice
“A book worth many rereadings.” —Glamour
“In her most probing novel, Toni Morrison has demonstrated once again the stunning powers that place her in the first ranks of our living novelists.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Heart-wrenching . . . mesmerizing.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Shattering emotional power and impact.” —New York Daily News
“A rich, mythical novel . . . a triumph.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Powerful . . . voluptuous.” —New York
Read an Excerpt
124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years oldas soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny band prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at oncethe moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.
Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn't the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn't like the one on Bluestone Road. Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two creeping-off boys. Her past had been like her presentintolerableand since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
"Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don't."
And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life's principal joy was reckless indeed. So Sethe and the girl Denver did what they could, and what the house permitted, for her. Together they waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light.
Baby Suggs died shortly after the brothers left, with no interest whatsoever in their leave-taking or hers, and right afterward Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought, an exchange of views or something would help. So they held hands and said, "Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on."
The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.
"Grandma Baby must be stopping it," said Denver. She was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying.
Sethe opened her eyes. "I doubt that," she said.
"Then why don't it come?"
"You forgetting how little it is," said her mother. "She wasn't even two years old when she died. Too little to understand. Too little to talk much even."
"Maybe she don't want to understand," said Denver.
"Maybe. But if she'd only come, I could make it clear to her." Sethe released her daughter's hand and together they pushed the sideboard back against the wall. Outside a driver whipped his horse into the gallop local people felt necessary when they passed 124.
"For a baby she throws a powerful spell," said Denver.
"No more powerful than the way I loved her," Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I'll do it for free.
Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten "Dearly" too? She had not thought to ask him and it bothered her still that it might have been possiblethat for twenty minutes, a half hour, say, she could have had the whole thing, every word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say, surely) engraved on her baby's headstone: Dearly Beloved. But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old; the appetite in it quite new. That should certainly be enough. Enough to answer one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust.
Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver's son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil.
"We could move," she suggested once to her mother-in-law.
"What'd be the point?" asked Baby Suggs. "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband's spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don't talk to me. You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don't you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody's house into evil." Baby Suggs rubbed her eyebrows. "My firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember."
"That's all you let yourself remember," Sethe had told her, but she was down to one herselfone alive, that isthe boys chased off by the dead one, and her memory of Buglar was fading fast. Howard at least had a head shape nobody could forget. As for the rest, she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. Unfortunately her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field, running practically, to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap from her legs. Nothing else would be in her mind. The picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard. Nor was there the faintest scent of ink or the cherry gum and oak bark from which it was made. Nothing. Just the breeze cooling her face as she rushed toward water. And then sopping the chamomile away with pump water and rags, her mind fixed on getting every last bit of sap offon her carelessness in taking a shortcut across the field just to save a half mile, and not noticing how high the weeds had grown until the itching was all the way to her knees. Then something. The plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed herremembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.
When the last of the chamomile was gone, she went around to the front of the house, collecting her shoes and stockings on the way. As if to punish her further for her terrible memory, sitting on the porch not forty feet away was Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men. And although she could never mistake his face for another's, she said, "Is that you?"
"What's left." He stood up and smiled. "How you been, girl, besides barefoot?"
When she laughed it came out loose and young. "Messed up my legs back yonder. Chamomile."
He made a face as though tasting a teaspoon of something bitter. "I don't want to even hear 'bout it. Always did hate that stuff."
Sethe balled up her stockings and jammed them into her pocket. "Come on in."
"Porch is fine, Sethe. Cool out here." He sat back down and looked at the meadow on the other side of the road, knowing the eagerness he felt would be in his eyes.
"Eighteen years," she said softly.
"Eighteen," he repeated. "And I swear I been walking every one of em. Mind if I join you?" He nodded toward her feet and began unlacing his shoes.
"You want to soak them? Let me get you a basin of water." She moved closer to him to enter the house.
"No, uh uh. Can't baby feet. A whole lot more tramping they got to do yet."
"You can't leave right away, Paul D. You got to stay awhile."
"Well, long enough to see Baby Suggs, anyway. Where is she?"
"Aw no. When?"
"Eight years now. Almost nine."
"Was it hard? I hope she didn't die hard."
Sethe shook her head. "Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part. Sorry you missed her though. Is that what you came by for?"
"That's some of what I came for. The rest is you. But if all the truth be known, I go anywhere these days. Anywhere they let me sit down."
"You looking good."
"Devil's confusion. He lets me look good long as I feel bad." He looked at her and the word "bad" took on another meaning.
Sethe smiled. This is the way they werehad been. All of the Sweet Home men, before and after Halle, treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.
Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed. For a man with an immobile face it was amazing how ready it was to smile, or blaze or be sorry with you. As though all you had to do was get his attention and right away he produced the feeling you were feeling. With less than a blink, his face seemed to changeunderneath it lay the activity.
"I wouldn't have to ask about him, would I? You'd tell me if there was anything to tell, wouldn't you?" Sethe looked down at her feet and saw again the sycamores.
"I'd tell you. Sure I'd tell you. I don't know any more now than I did then." Except for the churn, he thought, and you don't need to know that. "You must think he's still alive."
"No. I think he's dead. It's not being sure that keeps him alive."
"What did Baby Suggs think?"
"Same, but to listen to her, all her children is dead. Claimed she felt each one go the very day and hour."
"When she say Halle went?"
"Eighteen fifty-five. The day my baby was born."
"You had that baby, did you? Never thought you'd make it." He chuckled. "Running off pregnant."
"Had to. Couldn't be no waiting." She lowered her head and thought, as he did, how unlikely it was that she had made it. And if it hadn't been for that girl looking for velvet, she never would have.
"All by yourself too." He was proud of her and annoyed by her. Proud she had done it; annoyed that she had not needed Halle or him in the doing.
"Almost by myself. Not all by myself. A whitegirl helped me."
"Then she helped herself too, God bless her."
"You could stay the night, Paul D."
"You don't sound too steady in the offer."
Sethe glanced beyond his shoulder toward the closed door. "Oh it's truly meant. I just hope you'll pardon my house. Come on in. Talk to Denver while I cook you something."
Paul D tied his shoes together, hung them over his shoulder and followed her through the door straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood.
"You got company?" he whispered, frowning.
"Off and on," said Sethe.
"Good God." He backed out the door onto the porch. "What kind of evil you got in here?"
"It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through."
He looked at her then, closely. Closer than he had when she first rounded the house on wet and shining legs, holding her shoes and stockings up in one hand, her skirts in the other. Halle's girlthe one with iron eyes and backbone to match. He had never seen her hair in Kentucky. And though her face was eighteen years older than when last he saw her, it was softer now. Because of the hair. A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes. Halle's woman. Pregnant every year including the year she sat by the fire telling him she was going to run. Her three children she had already packed into a wagonload of others in a caravan of Negroes crossing the river. They were to be left with Halle's mother near Cincinnati. Even in that tiny shack, leaning so close to the fire you could smell the heat in her dress, her eyes did not pick up a flicker of light. They were like two wells into which he had trouble gazing. Even punched out they needed to be covered, lidded, marked with some sign to warn folks of what that emptiness held. So he looked instead at the fire while she told him, because her husband was not there for the telling. Mr. Garner was dead and his wife had a lump in her neck the size of a sweet potato and unable to speak to anyone. She leaned as close to the fire as her pregnant belly allowed and told him, Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men.