Sometimes I don't know what's happening

From what I know, Beloved is a classic. When I pulled the red-covered book out of my bag, my mom said, “Aw man, that’s a great book.” There has been similar reactions by every single adult in my life. Now, as a relatively smart student, I tend to find the books we read in class to be a breeze.

Jane Eyre—Easy!

The Scarlet Letter—A little bit harder, but not too bad.

But I have to admit that while reading Beloved, every couple of pages I check in with myself and realize I have no idea what the hell is happening. I know Mr. Heidkamp said the flashbacks and confusing bits would start to make more sense as the story went on, but the only way I can get through this book is by reading very slowly in complete silence, waiting for Mr. Heidkamp’s explanations, and doing little check ups with sparknotes—I’m not ashamed. 

My question is, how on earth is this a classic? Yes, I understand that it is an amazingly written story, stuffed to the brim with symbolism. However, I don’t understand how so many people could read it. If I had been trying to read Beloved alone, I would have given up after the first few pages. Maybe everyone is just a much better reader than me. Or maybe only a few people truly understood what was happening in this book and everyone else just stumbled, like me, through the metaphors and symbols, pretending to know.

Don’t get me wrong, It’s an amazing book.

Beloved and Exit West

After letting both books sink in for a while, a similarity between the two works really started to make sense. Both works are set in real-world places and real-world times with real-world problems, Exit West is set in what seems to be civil-war ridden Syria and Beloved is set in the brutal time period of American slavery. However, they both have one element that distracts from the real world and adds a deeper level of meaning, making the story truly powerful.

The magical doors in Hamid’s novel and the reborn baby in Beloved serve add much more to the story than just a bit of spice and fantasy. Beloved serves as a metaphorical representation of the collective memory of slavery, coming back long after its abolition to haunt its victims and their loved ones, and the doors play with the idea of an immigration crisis to combat the idea of restricted immigration laws.

I thought it was very interesting to see how effective placing an out-of-the-ordinary element in a very serious book could be in creating advanced statement about the real world and how it makes the book a work of art and not just a fun page-turner.

The End of Beloved

Finishing any novel is an accomplishment; more so on the writer’s part, but still noteworthy on behalf of the reader. However, when I reached the end of Beloved, along with a sense of accomplishment came a sense of confusion. Suddenly, after Paul D and Sethe find a somewhat hopeful resolution, the novel ends on a rather meta note, echoed by the refrain: “It was not a story to pass on”. Beloved, and in fact, all of the characters’ specificity is lost: the soles references to a specific thing or person are the mentioning of 124 and the last word, “Beloved”. After some equal parts thinking and Google-ing, I believe I can, at least a little, give my thoughts on the end of Beloved.

The Disappearance of Beloved

If anything is clear at the end of the novel, it’s that Beloved is no more, or at least, is no longer Beloved. Beloved becomes “disremembered and unaccounted for,” just a “bad dream” in the lives of those involved (323). In fact, she loses her name, likely indicating that all the love for her has vanished. But what’s interesting is that Beloved never goes away; people deliberately forgot about and never felt inclined to remember her. Although forgotten, Beloved’s presence is still there, even if she’s unacknowledged.

Beloved’s quasi-existence also begs the question of what she is. Throughout the novel, she acts and knows things like Sethe’s past daughter should such as the earrings and the song. However, the characters themselves note that Beloved is not as she seems: she appears fully-clothed and matured, she has seemingly supernatural abilities choking Sethe and moving Paul D, and her story and perspective is riddled with mentions to the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade and bridge that indicates some connection between the living and the un-living. These examples illustrate that Beloved is more than just a daughter, she’s the past, the dead, love, and slavery. So when Beloved stops being remembered, something more is going on than a successful ghost busting.

When Beloved says that “they forgot her,” I believe that “they,” like Beloved, refer to more than the characters in the novel (323). As a symbol of slavery and the past, the forgetting of Beloved represents the collective amnesia surrounding slavery.

Like we learned in class, the stories of slavery haven’t been preserved well. The only documents surrounding the dehumanizing Middle Passage came from the recordings of former captors. So when Morrison writes that, “It was not a story to pass on,” I believe that the “it” of the refers to the history of slavery (323). The statement then demonstrates the failure of our nation to remember the terrifying extent of slavery.

Finally, the line “This is not a story to pass on,” although contradictory, makes sense within the context of slavery. The story of our nation’s forgetfulness of slavery will not continue: we will remember.

I hope my point made some sense, and I hope I could, with my limited understanding of slavery and history, pay respect to Beloved’s legacy. Thanks for reading, and just remember.

Tiny Tobacco Box

One of my favorite examples of figurative language used in the novel is when Paul D describes his heart as a “tin tobacco box.” After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Georgia, he locks away his feelings and horrors from his past in this box, which, by the time Paul D arrives at 124, “rusted” over completely.

This is a comment on trauma. This way of dealing with trauma is so different then how Sethe deals with trauma. I thought it was so interesting that Paul D has to completely cut off his past whereas Sethe can’t seem to escape her own past. I thought the metaphor of a box rusted over was a very thought out way to express Paul D’s emotions.

By hiding from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage. Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by letting go of his feelings and gives up much of his self by repressing his memories.

Trauma is unique for every person even when they share some similar situations. Toni Morrison does a wonderful job of representing how trauma is a completely personal experience.

Hospice and Beloved

When I was thinking of songs that might possibly fit into a Beloved playlist, my mind immediately jumped to Hospice, a concept album by the indie rock band The Antlers. Hospice is an album where every song is about a hospice worker’s romance and deteriorating relationship with a patient, Sylvia, after her diagnosis with terminal cancer. The album’s story is fictional, but some details are so vivid that they appear autobiographical, and frontman Peter Silberman has refused to confirm exactly how autobiographical it is. It’s chock full of both beauty and brutality, and for that reason, I knew I had to analyze a song from it. That song is “Two”.

“Two”, subtitle: “(I Would Have Saved Her If I Could)”, is a story of death, emotional abuse, and refusing to let go. Not every single lyric is an exact parallel to Beloved, but enough matches that it’s worth going over the lyrics. I strongly recommend you listen to it first, though. With that said…

In the middle of the night I was sleeping sitting up

When a doctor came to tell me, “Enough is enough.”

The speaker here has a lot of parallels to Sethe (as well as Silberman), so that’s who I’ll “attribute” that line to, so to speak. Sethe has trouble sleeping with all of her past constantly at the forefront of her mind. The doctor here can represent Paul D, who comes to Sethe’s house and tells her that this situation has gotten out of hand.

He brought me out into the hall, I could have sworn it was haunted

The house is haunted with Beloved’s ghost. Pretty self-explanatory.

And told me something that I didn’t know that I wanted

To hear that there was nothing that I could do to save you

The choir’s gonna sing, and this thing is gonna kill you

Sethe is hanging on to her memory of Beloved and the rest of her past, convinced that it was her fault and that she has to make it right. But she can’t. The “you” here is referring to Beloved herself in our little world of comparison.

Something in my throat made my next words shake

Sethe is shaken and unsteady about her past, unwilling to share all of the details.

And something in the wires made the light-bulbs break

The ghost is still causing havoc throughout the house during the early part of the novel.

There was glass inside my feet and raining down from the ceiling

It opened up the scars that had just finished healing

Sethe has scars all over her body, especially on her back and feet. The arrival of Paul D and Beloved’s resurgence reopen those old scars, forcing her to face the painful events that created them.

It tore apart the canyon running down your femur

I thought that it was beautiful, it made me a believer

This line is harder to link to the book, but like Sylvia, Beloved also has a characteristic scar — one running across her neck. Whether Sethe thinks that scar is beautiful is up for interpretation.

And as it opened I could hear you howling from your room

Beloved as a ghost is angry and in pain, just like Sylvia is from her treatment.

But I hid out in the hall until the hurricane blew

Sethe mostly avoids or ignores the ghost, while Paul D (the “doctor”) takes a more active role in dealing with it.

When I reappeared and tried to give you something for the pain

You came to hating me again and just sang your refrain:

Sethe wants to resolve the guilt she has for what she did to Beloved, but nothing works. Beloved wants love, but she also wants vengeance, and nothing Sethe does ever satisfies her.

At this point in the song, the quiet singing and guitar strumming pick up with the introduction of drums and a piano. The song reaches its full volume and the beat picks up. This shift could be interpreted as the shift from the early segment of the book to its main events, which begin when Beloved climbs out of the river in human form.

[Chorus]

You had a new dream, it was more like a nightmare

You were just a little kid and they cut your hair

Then they stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying

They should have listened, they thought that you were lying

In the actual song, this section of lines is about chemotherapy (and I love the way it’s expressed), but it can also represent Beloved’s pain at the hands of the “men without skin”.

Your daddy was an asshole and he fucked you up

Built the gears in your head, now he greases them up

Halle was not an asshole, as far as we know, but considering that we’re interpreting the lines from Sethe’s point of view, this represents the guilt Sethe feels for what she did to Beloved and how Beloved resents her for it (although Sethe doesn’t exactly regret what she did… her situation’s complicated).

And no one paid attention when you just stopped eating

“Eighty-seven pounds!” and this all bears repeating

This line doesn’t really apply to the book (unless you consider Sethe’s slow deterioration as Beloved eats all the food as representing this line), but… it’s a pretty brutal line. I felt like that was worth pointing out. Onward to the second verse.

Tell me when you think that we became so unhappy

Self-explanatory.

Wearing silver rings with nobody clapping

Nobody gets married in Beloved (well, aside from flashbacks), but the silver rings could also represent Sethe’s earrings, or the lack of a formal wedding for Sethe and Halle.

When we moved here together we were so disappointed

Sleeping out of tune with our dreams disjointed

Sethe’s life in 124 has never been easy, and her family was only happy for less than a month before all hell broke loose. Their house is a disjointed and broken one.

It killed me to see you getting always rejected

This line applies to Denver more than Beloved: Sethe watches from the sidelines while Denver runs away from school because the children question her about her mother.

But I didn’t mind the things you threw, the phones I deflected

As a ghost and a human, Beloved is violent, but Sethe doesn’t mind. She’s just content to have her daughter there.

I didn’t mind you blaming me for your mistakes

Self-explanatory.

I just held you in the door-frame through all of the earthquakes

Sethe just hangs onto Beloved regardless of the horrible things that happen.

But you packed up your clothes in that bag every night

I would try to grab your ankles, what a pitiful sight

But after over a year, I stopped trying to stop you from stomping out that door

Coming back like you always do

I don’t really know how to apply this to Beloved, necessarily.

Well no one’s gonna fix it for us, no one can

You say that, ‘No one’s gonna listen, and no one understands.’

Sethe and Beloved both refuse to engage the community, and even the rest of their family, when dealing with their issues.

No there’s no open doors and there’s no way to get through

There’s no other witnesses, just us two

Title drop, and an emphasis on Sethe and Beloved’s isolation, even as others try to reach out to them.

There’s two people living in one small room

At one point in the book, Sethe and Beloved are effectively living by themselves in the house.

From your two half-families tearing at you

Denver and Paul D, perhaps? If we consider the size of a family as “two”, then each person is indeed a half-family.

Two ways to tell the story, no one worries

There are two sides to every story, and storytelling is a major theme in Beloved.

Two silver rings on our fingers in a hurry

Return of the rings motif.

Two people talking inside your brain

Beloved seems, at some points, like she’s two different people — one desperate for love, one bent on vengeance. She’s also torn between two modes of existence, physically and mentally.

Two people believing that I’m the one to blame

Both Sethe and Beloved blame Sethe for her actions. Similarly to the narrator of “Two” and Sylvia, unfortunate circumstances lead to an abusive relationship.

Two different voices coming out of your mouth

While I’m too cold to care and too sick to shout

As Beloved gradually subsumes Sethe’s energy, she grows more apathetic and weak.

[Chorus]

Yeah. Beloved is about an unfortunate victim who drags someone else into an abusive relationship. So is “Two”. Go listen to Hospice; it’s very good. Thanks for reading.

A Musical Theater Nerd’s Guide to Beloved

*This post includes a spoiler for the musical Next to Normal. And also for Beloved, but my guess is that part won’t be a problem for the majority of this blog’s readers.*

I love musicals. So when Mr. Heidkamp suggested that we blog about an addition to the Beloved soundtrack, a couple of show tunes immediately popped into my head, even though the musicals they are from have pretty different stories from Beloved. I wanted to share them in hopes they make the soundtrack, so here goes:

  1. I’m Alive” from Next to Normal

While, in my personal opinion, the lyrics of this song fall somewhat short of Toni’s Morrison’s signature originality, I feel like it has to be part of the Beloved soundtrack because it is just so on the nose. It is sung by the son of the main character, who died as a baby and now returns to “haunt” the main character in the form of her hallucinating that she sees his teenage self. (I told you it was on the nose!) Like Beloved, Next to Normal explores a mother’s grief at losing a child and how it contributes to mental illness in her life. Gabe, the main character’s son and the character who sings this song, wants to pull his mother back into the past and prevent her from moving on and confronting the reality of her present, much like Beloved does with Sethe. 

To me, some really key lyrics of the song are when Gabe sings, “I’m your wish, your dream come true/And I am your darkest nightmare too.” He also asserts that he is both, “what you want me to be” and “your worst fear” and that he will both “hurt” and “heal” his mother. Like Beloved, he represents the past as both a place of comfort that people can be nostalgic for (because it was a time when a lost loved one was alive) and a place of horrors and trauma (in Next to Normal, because of Gabe’s tragic, premature death; in Beloved, not only because of Beloved’s tragic, premature death but also the many other horrors Sethe faced). And although this strange dichotomy exists, it is also true that part of what makes the past so dangerous to dwell on is how good parts of it were– that is the seductive part that keeps people from moving on, recovering, and getting to a better present. 

  1. Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening

This song deals with a young woman’s resentment toward her mother because her mother shelters her and wants to keep her a “baby” forever rather than allow her to learn about the harsh reality of the world. While I have never actually seen Spring Awakening, and so don’t entirely know the young woman’s mother’s motivation for sheltering her daughter, this song reminds me of how Sethe wants to protect her children from everything. Not only does Sethe attempt to kill all of her children to prevent them from being enslaved, but before the reader even finds out about that, she is shown keeping Denver inside 124 and treating her like she is much younger than she actually is, much to Paul D’s frustration. As Sethe says on page 54, “‘I don’t care what she is. Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that supposed to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing.’” (54) I find “Mama Who Bore Me” a really beautiful song, and think its general theme, as well as its use of motifs that also show up in Beloved (such as sleep, religion, and fire), would fit the Beloved soundtrack very well. 

One other thing that is interesting about this song that also reminds me of Beloved is that the character who sings it at first sings that her mother made her “sad” and then later sings that her mother made her “bad.” I feel like this relates to how the pain and suffering that Beloved experienced (for example, on pages 248-252, when she recounts being on what seems to be a slave ship and being abandoned by the one person she loves and feels like is “herself”) is what causes her to become a toxic person who drags other people down. Beloved is not just a “devil-child” who derives pleasure from doing evil, but rather a character who is so deeply sad and broken that she cannot help but poison everyone around her with the sadness and brokenness that seeps out of her through her behaviors (such as clinging to Sethe and not permitting her to take care of herself in any way). She is “bad” because she is “sad.” I think this holds true whether she is merely a ghost of Sethe’s daughter or a personification of past sadness.

Silent “human”

One day when I was reading the Beloved, I encountered an unfamiliar word. It was not a rare thing for me as a foreigner. I looked it up in the dictionary but couldn’t find a suitable meaning. Surely, it was not a unit, an adjective or something for horse inside Paul D’s mouth. Definitely, it can’t be such item. So, to prove my thoughts, I opened my browser and googled it. A iron mask with belts and necklace which fix the equipment on one’s head was all I saw. I was really confused about what the purpose of such a weird mask at first, however, I got astonished after went through all the passage under that picture.

The iron bit was something invented by cruel slaveholders to punish the slaves. Inserting the bit is considered abnormally painful and horrifying. Equipping the iron bit would let the user lose the ability of speech. What’s more, it also prohibited people to eat or drink even his or her own saliva since the inner part of the mask prevents the tongue from lifting. What’s more, the outspread hook attached to the necklace plus the heavy weight of the whole mask made it impossible for the victim to run, escape or rest. Generally, the iron bit is designed to torment slaves both physically and mentally.

According to Toni Morrison, she believed the bit has a deeper meaning that is silence. I fully agreed with her since the iron bit is not similar as other instruments of torture—it focus on mouth. The biggest difference to distinguish us human from animals I would say is language. Animals don’t have a whole system of language, they often use different voice for informing, threatening or giving other simple signals without detail. As a human we own colorful language. It is an advanced way of signaling because we include emotion, personality and those special beauty owned by each person. With language, knowledge can be spread out; with language we encourage those deep inside the abyss; with language, we become unique and inscribed by others forever.

The brutal punishment of depriving human’s basic right is definitely dehumanizing. One’s endless desire drives the appearance of such tragic object. Now people trace back to the dark history, but how we suppose to know those silent but deep deep scars under the heavy and thick iron piece.