Organizing my bookcase is a comfort thing. Sometimes I switch up the categories: by genre, by author, by period, by connection to my life. Today I even set some books free, passing them on to my brother’s girlfriend. But Beloved (both copies,) always stays on the top shelf, one signed by Toni Morrison, a treasured gift from Chelsea, and one highlighted to the binding. Tucking the pair in between my RHS graduation cap and The Great Gatsby, I remembered the paper I wrote on Beloved for Children’s Literature in the fall, inspired by a line from The Chocolate War and an article by Madeline L’Engle. This is what Beloved meant to me:
Emily L. White
Professor A. Pearce
Literature for Children
11 November 2004“Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” – Both Sides of Beloved
In high school, Toni Morrison’s Beloved struck me deeply and in a way that no other book had before. The contrast between the dark content and the artistic poetry of Morrison’s writing mesmerized me. Her beautiful characters and the intensity of their stories thrilled me. As Madeline L’Engle would say, Beloved in a “both/and” novel; it is both frightening and poetic, violent and passionate, disturbing and tender, physical and emotional (L’Engle 217). The story’s beauty is not connected to peace, warmth, or even happy endings. It sobered me, but I found the beauty in its furious passion and realistic truth.
Sethe is a character who disturbs her own universe again and again. She shakes up every world she enters; enchanting men on the plantation, escaping slavery, and finally shocking Cincinnati when she kills her baby daughter to protect her from life on a southern plantation. By the time the reader is introduced to her, Sethe seems to have resigned herself to a life where nothing but loss and loneliness can be counted on. But she has maintained her fire through it all, remaining a beautiful character for her undying courage. Though Sethe’s spark seems latent at first, Morrison’s language and writing style awakens the reader, and by the second chapter, Sethe has come alive again, ignited by Paul D.’s presence. I found beauty in the electric poetry of Morrison’s writing and Sethe’s raw emotion. Alongside the pain, fear and death, I found so much life in her story. L’Engle writes, “To be alive hurts. It is dangerous,” but it is real and that is where the story’s magnificence lies.
As an author, Toni Morrison was challenged about Beloved and its controversial plot. But critics who understood the story’s significance would agree with L’Engle’s belief that “a story has its own life” (220). Morrison’s story is frightening, but readers can find value in her writing’s vibrant truth and intensity. She gives Beloved and its characters life beyond the disturbing themes and events.
Most of my classmates revealed that they were more disturbed than touched by the book. Beloved repelled them with some of the same intense elements that attracted me. Most were especially bothered when Sethe murdered her own child. Morrison’s passion had ignited enough of a passion in me that I took it upon myself to disturb the class further; I defended Sethe as a character and argued the value of the story. I never advocated infant homicide, but I proposed that Sethe’s actions were inspired by fear and love so powerful that I felt them myself as I read. To me, her emotions were so deeply sincere and honest that they deserved a reader’s respect.
Even I was shocked, at first, to find that I could appreciate the beauty within Sethe’s character, but I could not deny her courage, and I challenged my classmates to see that side of Beloved. And the novel truly has two sides. It is the emotion, passion and truth that make it both frightening and beautiful, disturbing readers’ universes with its intensity.