Margaret Garner and 'Beloved' Essay

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Genre is a set of conventional constraints on the production and interpretation of meaning; providing a set of characteristics and conventions for authors to use as guidelines when writing their texts. Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved written in 1987 can be seen as a form of magical realism in terms of genre because it can be seen as being a distortion effect that points out the realistic view of the modern world while interconnecting the fantasy realm into it; which is what magical realism does to texts. It shows an alternative to reality and usually goes against political regimes; making readers question what is real and what is not. Hence why, Beloved includes both historical and supernatural elements throughout the text; made apparent through the usage of analepsis and prolepsis to make the transition from the present to the past apparent.

Beloved was set in Ohio and based on the editing Black Book in the 1970’s; which was written by Margaret Garner who reported the murder of her children to end their suffering instead of letting them go back to slavery, as she couldn’t reconcile the fact that they were to go back to the place that had to be endured during the slave trade.[footnoteRef:1] Similarly, the main protagonist, Sethe was an ex-slave who fled to South Ohio with her children after her act of infanticide; leading to her ostracisation in the community. Soon after a ghost was deemed to be haunting their house, known to be the daughter that she killed for the same reason Margret killed hers. In the final chapters, Paul D another slave who escaped and endured slavery with Sethe drives out the malicious spirit ruling the house. In its place, a more promiscuous and grown-up version of the ghost possesses the house. This is the title character, a mysterious, strangely child-like young woman of untold origins who does not explain herself clearly. Denver and Sethe soon conclude that this is the murdered infant, has returned, and assumed real-life proportions. [1: Sierra Walton, ‘Beloved: Parallels Between Sethe And Margaret Garner’, Imarreis, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019].]

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Therefore, because ‘Beloved’ is based on a true story, the text can be seen as being historical. However, it can also be deemed as being a gothic horror as the incorporation of what is perceived as being ‘Beloved’s’ ghost by the other characters makes it supernatural. This results in the novel having a magical realism genre as it can be seen as implementing the amalgamation of realism and fantasy. This allows for a hydrazation of the natural and the supernatural by focusing on specific historical moments to portray the present day as being a disjunctive reality. Presenting an outward direction toward postcolonial culture as the African diaspora is mythical and magical elements to express experiences without Western notions of history we are failing to address, by using a decolonizing tool; enabling readers to reimagine relationships, land, and the state. When applied to ‘Beloved’ the decolonizing technique is displayed through magical realism conventions such as myths, facts, religion, and historical elements of the piece. Allowing the genre to both enable, yet also restrict meaning.

Firstly, the novel can be seen as enhancing the text via the most important characteristic found in Beloved which is myths. Morrison mainly focuses on the oral culture of African Americans and black historical experiences to enhance her literature by forming a political meaning. This can be accessed by incorporating myths into ‘Beloved’ which brings back the identity that the ancestors built; this was lost through slavery during the 1800’s. She is representing the invisible as contradictory to the real or visible by including folklore of the black rather than authorized beliefs from the Western world. As a result, she commits acts of defamiliarisation by including a mixture of old legends such as the Abiku, Bakalu, and Orisha of West African Yoruba mythology. [footnoteRef:2] Semantically, Abiku is the return of the deceased spirit of a baby, just like ‘Beloved’ does in the text, ‘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 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 old—as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it; as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake’ (pg.3)[footnoteRef:3]. The number ‘124’ connotes the restless spirit that has been left behind after being murdered by Sethe and her uneasiness for revenge. It acts as a marker for the haunting of their house with his of the supernatural, ‘handprints appeared in the cake’ pragmatically relating to the myth of the Akibu babies who torment their mothers when they become spirits. Furthermore, the description of the baby as one who, ‘spits venom’ draws attention to the magical and unnatural element of the play, as it semantically labels the baby as being animal-like as she spits out poison like a snake and seeks revenge on ‘house number 124’. [2: K.S. Krishna Duth and Dr. K. Balakrishnan, ‘Postcolonial Perspective Of Magic Realism In Beloved’, Rjelal.Com, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019].] [3: Toni Morrison, Hortense Chabrier and Sylviane Rué, Beloved (Paris: 10-18, 2015), pp. 1-289.]

To further this idea that the Akibu myth reinforces the hatred that Beloved seeks on 124, readers can also see her being reborn multiple times throughout the novel to emphasize the fact that she is a dangerous spirit. At first as a ‘baby’ then as a grown woman who tries to seduce Paul D, ‘I want you to touch me on the inside part’. This sexual innuendo is rather disturbing as it is assumed that she is meant to embody the spirit of a deceased child, yet even though she is an incarnation of the past, she is the manifestation of the present as she uses her promiscuity of present her desires to Paul D ten though she is meant to be a baby. This represents the abnormality created by magic realism as the Akibu spirits are always hungry, and never know the feeling of being fulfilled, as their life is left fulfilled after becoming deceased at such a young age. ‘It was though sweet things are what she was born for’ and ‘Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, or an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there’ (pg.288) represents her as never being able to leave and being stagnant; never being able to let go as ‘come and go’ suggests that even though she is shown as being gone at the end, she never really leave and is left craving revenge. Critics Duth and Barkishnan suggest that the African American heritage has an immense power to be transformative. It was able to break the assumptions of Western empiricism and question the contradictory terms that magic has from a real viewpoint of another narrative that lacks those assumptions and oppositions. Application of magic realism into the hegemonic Western native binary on which Western realism is based. Moving the discursive power from the comelier to the colonized.[footnoteRef:4] [4: K.S. Krishna Duth and Dr. K. Balakrishnan, ‘Postcolonial Perspective Of Magic Realism In Beloved’, Rjelal.Com, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019].]

However, this interpretation can be criticized for being too deterministic by looking only at the supernatural elements of magical realism. Instead, Beloved can be seen as being an amnesic runaway whom Sethe projects the identity of her dead baby girl as ‘especially her skin, which is so smooth it's ‘like new’ it's what a neighbor tells Paul D that there was a runaway girl who had been kept captive by a white man in a nearby house. Therefore, representing the death of an author theory by Roland Barthes, as the magical realism genre helps readers become more open-minded to interpretation.[footnoteRef:5] While the idea that she is an amnesic runaway is more realistic, the earlier interpretation involving the Akibu myth is juxtaposing because while one takes on a more realistic view, the other is more spiritual. [5: Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ and ‘From Work to Text’ in Image, Music, Text, ed and Trans Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-148; 155-164. ]

However, critic Hendrix claims that the incorporation of myths can be quite limiting for ‘Beloved’ as gothic horror is all about competition. Making experience visceral and immediate is not considered the territory of horror anymore unless you’re describing over-the-top violence. Writing to convey the immediacy of the felt experience is considered the purview of literary fiction, often dismissed as ‘stories where nothing happens’ because the author isn’t focused on the plot but on the felt experience of her characters. Horror has doubled down on its status as a genre, and that kind of writing isn’t considered genre-appropriate. Furthermore, the fact that Sethe, trying hard to ignore the ghost of slavery that threatens to destroy us if we think about it too long. But the bigger reason, as I see it, is that horror has walked away from the literary. It has embraced horror movies, and its pulpy 20th-century roots, while denying its 19th-century roots in women’s fiction. Horror seems to have decided that it is such a reviled genre that it wants no more place in the mainstream. Beloved could not be a better standard-bearer for horror, but it seems that horror is no longer interested in what it represents.[footnoteRef:6] Therefore, Beloved may only be seen as being that runaway girl, not the myth; limiting the interpretation and decolonization for readers. [6: Grady Hendrix and others, ‘Beloved: The Best Horror Novel The Horror Genre Has Never Claimed’, Tor.Com, 2016 [Accessed 3 May 2019].]

Yet, magical realism can be perceived as conveying meaning through the symbolic use of religion and nature; allowing the author to portray the trauma that the protagonist Sethe endures in a defamiliarising way. While the natural imagery of the trees serves primarily as sources of healing, comfort, and life. Denver’s ‘emerald closet’ of boxwood bushes functions as a place of solitude and repose for her. The beautiful trees of ‘Sweet Home’ mask the true horror of the plantation in Sethe’s memory and are used as a form of irony, due to the connotations of ‘Sweet Home’ representing a safe and happy place; yet being exactly the opposite where she was sexually assaulted by the boys who ‘took her milk’ and she was enslaved in. However, regardless Paul D finds his freedom by following flowering trees to the North, and Sethe finds hers by escaping through a forest. By imagining the scars on Sethe’s back as a ‘chokecherry tree’ Amy Denver sublimates a site of trauma and brutality into one of beauty and growth. But as the sites of lynchings and of Saxo’s death by burning, however, trees reveal a connection with a darker side of humanity as well. Furthermore, the religious aspect allows for Beloved’s epigraph, taken from Romans 9:25, to bespeak the presence that Christian ideas will have in the novel. The ‘four horsemen’ who come for Sethe reference the description of the Apocalypse found in the Book of Revelations. Beloved is reborn into Sethe’s world drenched in a sort of baptismal water. As an infant, ‘Denver drinks her sister’s blood along with her mother’s breast milk’ (), which can be interpreted as an act of Communion that links Denver and Beloved and highlights the sacrificial aspect of the baby’s death. Sethe’s act so horrifies the schoolteacher that he leaves without taking her other children, allowing them to live in freedom. The baby’s sacrificial death, like that of Christ, brings salvation. The book’s larger discussions of sin, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, love, and resurrection similarly resound with biblical references.[footnoteRef:7] Displaying the modern traits of magical realism as the novel is shrouded in gloom based on trauma. It is this trauma born out of post-Reconstructionism and the former slave experience that becomes the taboo and the guilty pleasure for many readers as they strive to understand the novel’s true meaning. [7: Sparknotes. Com,' Sparknotes: Beloved: Motifs’, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019].]

Furthermore, the analepsis included in magical realism is seen as an effective technique for the text as it creates an innately visual through her inclusion of a series of cinematic flashbacks where the past intrudes on the present. Yet, while Morrison’s pen was able to omnisciently zoom in and out of her characters’ minds, Demme’s camera was confined to third-person observation, calling for selective scene adaptations and shifting close-ups to accommodate visual art historical timeline to map slave history within the continental United States; instead, the author addresses the impacts of slavery on the internal landscape. [footnoteRef:8] The declarative sentence, ‘Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. She comes back to me of her own free will and I don't have to explain a thing. I didn't have time to explain before because it had to be done quickly. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she is back now.’ Represents Beloved as being taken for a character who reflects the real experience of native Africans who lived through the Middle Passage. In respect thereof, Beloved comes back to reclaim her past. Nevertheless, while Beloved is seen as a ghost by Sethe and other characters in the story, she is meant at the same time to be taken as an actual survivor of a slave ship. In this sense, she is flesh, a human being with her own horrifying story to tell: I am Beloved…I am always crouching the man on my face is dead’. As a traumatized victim, Beloved remains incapable of telling her story except in painful bits and pieces. But these fragments are worked in the text in such a way that what she tells Sethe and Denver and what they think she says are two different things – and yet the same. As a result of this interpretation Beloved can be seen as enabling trauma to be shown through the symbolic representation of a spirit, which Sethe uses as a coping mechanism to heal from slavery. Furthermore, because Beloved terrorizes them, it represents her as being more dominant and putting down those who once put her down; making history visionary and decolonizing the text. [8: Robyn Wilson, 'Magical Realism In Application To Toni Morrison’s Beloved. - Ppt Download', Slideplayer.Com [Accessed 3 May 2019].]

However, some critics do not believe that this is an empowering text, created to make ethnic minorities more dominant. Instead, they claim it is a postcolonial hangover, a category used by 'whites' to marginalize the fiction of the “other.”[footnoteRef:9]. [9: Derek Alan Baker, ‘Escaping The Tyranny Of Magical Realism? A Discussion Of The Term About The Novels Of Zakas Mda’, Postcolonial Text, 4.2 (2008), 1-20 .]

To conclude, ‘Beloved’ can be categorized as being a magical realism text as it incorporates the convention of the genre via the inclusion of myths, natural and religious imagery, and flashbacks. These conventions enable the text to reinforce the different realistic, supernatural interpretations that readers have of the main antagonist Beloved. Furthermore, it emphasizes her revenge on the house, while also representing Sethe and Paul D’s trauma and healing after encountering enslavement in ‘Sweet Home’. However, some critics do not believe that Beloved can be classed as being a gothic horror, therefore limiting it from having a supernatural and mysterious effect on readers. Additionally, other critics argue that Beloved was only written to marginalize the ‘white’ while excluding the black by incorporating the Civil War and the slave trade into the text. But, the limitations of magical realism are outweighed by the enabling mechanisms and conventions; making the genre more advantageous to the text rather than hindering it.

Bibliography

    1. Alan Baker, Derek, ‘Escaping The Tyranny Of Magical Realism? A Discussion Of The Term About The Novels Of Zakas Mda’, Postcolonial Text, 4 (2008), 1-20
    2. Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’ and ‘From Work to Text’ in Image, Music, Text, ed and Trans Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-148; 155-164
    3. Hendrix, Grady, Stubthe Rocket, Tobias Carroll, Keith DeCandido, Keith DeCandido, and Natalie Zutter, 'Beloved: The Best Horror Novel The Horror Genre Has Never Claimed', Tor.Com, 2016 [Accessed 3 May 2019]
    4. Krishna Duth, K.S., and Dr. K. Balakrishnan, 'Postcolonial Perspective Of Magic Realism In Beloved', Rjelal.Com, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019]
    5. SparkNotes. Com,' Sparknotes: Beloved: Motifs’, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019]
    6. Morrison, Toni, Hortense Chabrier, and Sylviane Rué, Beloved (Paris: 10-18, 2015), pp. 1-289
    7. Walton, Sierra, 'Beloved: Parallels Between Sethe And Margaret Garner’, Imarreis, 2017 [Accessed 2 May 2019]
    8. Wilson, Robyn, ‘Magical Realism In Application To Toni Morrison’s Beloved. - Ppt Download’, Slideplayer.Com [Accessed 3 May 2019]
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