Is "Beloved" a Ghost Story?

In reading “Beloved,” a question arose in my mind. Is “Beloved” a ghost story? Clearly, there is a ghost or spirit of some sort in the form of Beloved. While Beloved is a spirit, what was Morrison’s motive to include a ghost in a story about post-slavery America? While one of Beloved’s main purposes is to haunt Sethe, what more does she represent?

There are a lot of questions there. But in my opinion, “Beloved” is not a ghost story. Personally, I think to call it so is simplifying Beloved as a character. To call “Beloved” a ghost story is to overlook many important events in the novel. As readers, we see many different time periods and events throughout African-American history throughout the book. We see a newly post-slavery United States through the “present” eyes of Sethe and Paul D. We also get to see flashbacks of Sethe’s and Paul D’s back to Sweet Home and slavery. We even get flashbacks to Sethe’s childhood and her mother, who spoke a different language, where Sethe would have been around people who could’ve remembered the middle passage. Morrison uses Beloved to fill some of the gaps missing in this history. As readers, we get vivid, horrible, brutal images of the middle passage through Beloved’s description. This is a part of the history that would not have been included in the story otherwise, but is very important in understanding the history of slavery in America. Beloved is also the one who asks Sethe so many questions about Sweet Home, providing the reader with more information about Sethe’s experience as a slave. Although Morrison could have found other ways to delve into Sethe’s past, Beloved is a natural and interesting tool that Morrison can use in order for us as readers to learn more about Sweet Home.

In this way, I think Beloved as a character serves a much larger purpose than just to be a ghost in the story and haunt Sethe. For this reason, to call “Beloved” a ghost story is a bit of an insult to the book because it holds so much more than that.

Did Beloved Really Exist?

In the novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe and the other main characters in the book are haunted by Beloved. Beloved is the child that Sethe killed to prevent from returning to slavery, who rises from the dead to live with Sethe, Denver, and Paul D.

Although Morrison portrays Beloved as a physical reincarnation, one may interpret that Beloved is just a memory so prevalent to Sethe that she believes Beloved is real. For instance, Beloved appears after Paul D’s return. Paul D is a fragment of Sethe’s past, so when he reenters her life he unearths a lot of her memories of life in slavery.

Ultimately, Beloved metaphorically consumes Sethe as she forces her to remember her life at Sweet Home. The more time Sethe spends with Beloved, the more she loses herself in her memories, which makes me think that Beloved may not actually exist in the physical sense at all. Beloved could be a metaphor for Sethe’s past.

In a broader sense, Beloved could also represent the collective experience of slavery that formerly enslaved people tuck away after becoming free (as in Paul D’s “tobacco tin”). Beloved only leaves once Sethe is so entirely consumed in her past that she literally relives the day she killed Beloved when she sees Mr. Bodwin riding up to her house. These occurrences lead me to believe that Beloved may not exist as a person, but instead as a memory so strong that it manifests itself in a physical form.

Beloved Is A Mess That You Have to Clean Up

Beloved tells the tale of Sethe and Denver and their life after the legal extinction of slavery. This book also offers the ability to take the perspective of several other characters that come into contact with Sethe at some point in her life. Flashbacks occur whenever something significant is brought up and it happens quite often. These flashbacks give the reader the puzzle pieces required to form the proper timeline of when everything occurs and at what point in someone’s life does it happen to them. However, these flashbacks create what seems like a small room filled with more toys than the room itself can hold. It’s overwhelming at times the further you read into the story and the reader is forced to clean this messy room into perfection. The story is complicated when read without much thinking, but if you read closely, you begin to realize and gain the skill of when a paragraph is talking about the past or current present. For serious readers, this is a skill required to successfully read and understand this book. Beloved starts the story in two places, one post slavery and the other during slavery. Toni Morrison does this so that the reader gains a better understanding of why everything happens in the present with our characters due to what life was like in the past. Without this, the story told in the present would leave a lot of questions unanswered, furthermore, taking the fun out of this different yet unique adventure.

The flashbacks serve more as that to wolves as a keystone species in Yellowstone park. If you remove the essential component, everything around it will soon begin to break apart. That’s why this book is so unique, so special. It takes historical events and instead of focusing on the bigger picture of the issue, it takes a close up view on how it has affected people in communities and/or families. These flashbacks only serve to explain to the reader what our characters went through and did during the times of slavery. The only frustrating thing is that the flashbacks are broken up to pieces. Whether the past be shown in little paragraphs or entire chapters, if you’re able to recognize between the past and present, then you successfully cleaned the what seemed like the impossible room.

Beloved is a roller coaster of emotions; but that is what makes it so good. Only when you understand the entire story will you realize how much life Toni Morrison gives all the characters in the book. Each one has an important role that adds to the vibe that Beloved displays. It’s a book I will always enjoy reading and cleaning up after.

Girl Power

Beloved has many themes throughout the novel, but a theme that I noticed is the strong female presence. Throughout the Novel, woman are represented and show as strong and independent despite going through unimaginable situations. The start, Sethe was a slave and successfully escaped from her plantation. She kept pushing when she was escaping and believed in her own abilities.She was able to value her life as more than just as a slave but as a human being, choosing to escape. All of the women in the novel, despite their struggles and the obstacles they must combat, work together to make the best life possible, Denver and Sethe where doing well working together long before Paul D showed up. Denver has a good mother to look up to, I mean Sethe crawled through woods and gave birth in the middle of the woods to Denver. Although Denver quite different from her mother in certain aspects of her personality, she is able to recognize when Sethe is no longer to continue the household duties, and she must venture down the road to get food, and get steady work, to support the household. Beloved at its core is about women helping each other, and the strong bond they have with each other.

Beloved's Last Appearance

Although she disappears after Sethe left her side to attack whom she thought was Schoolteacher, Beloved’s presence is very much felt during the last chapter. Beloved has left town and the townspeople (after finally coming to Sethe’s aid) try to put the memory of Beloved to rest. They keep repeating that Beloved’s story was not one to pass on to future generations. Yet Toni Morrison concludes the novel with the word “Beloved” alone as it’s own paragraph.

This represents the everlasting reminder of the horrible past our country has. Beloved represents the pain and suffering from Sethe’s past coming back to her constantly and she is never able to escape it. Although the townspeople want to escape the past and end the memory of Beloved, she is there in the end and continues to remind people of our brutal past.

Time after Time after Time and Again

The novel Beloved is a story of an escaped slave and her new twisted reality that is weaved into her even more twisted past. The story of Sethe and her family connects very well to the song Time after Time by Cyndi Lauper.

Time after Time begins with the lyrics:

“Lying in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you
Caught up in circles
Confusion is nothing new
Flashback, warm nights
Almost left behind
Suitcase of memories”

Beloved is written in a very interesting and intricate way where different perspectives from the past and present are used to complete a story. The novel goes, quite literally, back and forth between the past and the present which smoothly bridges to Lauper’s song. The part in the first verse which says “suitcase of memories” especially connects to Paul D’s tin box which held his memories.

The second verse stated,

“Sometimes you picture me
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said
Then you say, “go slow”
And I fall behind
The second hand unwinds”

That part strongly reminded me of when Beloved recalled when Sethe left her alone on what we think is the slave ship. The verse obviously differs from the actual event Beloved remembered but it ties into the loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned.

Although the connection is very simple, the theme of the song surrounds the topics of past, present, and love. All of those things are largely important in Beloved as well.

Why are Eyes so Prevalent in Beloved?

“Halle’s girl-the one with iron eyes” 

“It must have been her eyes that kept him both guarded and stirred up”

“Sethe’s eyes bright but dead”

“The man without skin, looking. He is looking at her.” 

Moving through the course of the story, I noticed a repetitive nature when discussing the characters eyes. I pondered over the reasoning behind Morrison’s discussion of the gaze at vital moments, such as the point where Beloved pushes Sethe around and the first intimate moment between Paul D and Sethe. 

When analyzing the meaning behind Morrison’s discussion of the character’s eyes, I realized that it serves as a window into past experiences. As the story focuses on different moments of time, and the impact that slavery had on the present lives of character, the repetitive use of eyes furthers emphasizes the individualized trauma that characters experienced. It does this by giving direct insight into lives and their emotional state. In fact, the repeated mention of eyes connects to the larger theme of the novel, the idea that while trauma negatively impacts individuals, they must acknowledge it to recover rather than repress. 

At first, I found the book a little challenging to process. The constant shift in not only perspectives but also time make the novel a more abstract than most. However, both the emphasis on eyes and technical elements used in the novel ultimately made the story a powerful and unique piece of literature.