Safe Spaces in Women’s Writing? Toni Morrison’s Beloved


Like the novels of so many women writers, Toni Morrison’s Beloved begins with a reference to domestic space. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park begins by introducing us to “Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.” Emily Bronte’s mad novel Wuthering Heights likewise starts with the economics of ownership, with its first pages recounting a new tenant’s negotiations for Thrushcross Grange, while Katherine Mansfield’s reminiscence of her New Zealand childhood, “Prelude,” starts with boxes being packed and moving men arriving. In such company, the domestic setting which opens Toni Morrison’s outstanding novel Beloved is immediately shocking: “124 was spiteful,” Morrison writes, “Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” Here, as throughout this narrative, Morrison appears to be interested not only in domestic spaces, but also in the many nefarious, criminal and violent incursions upon those spaces wrought by American slavery and its aftermath. In Beloved , as in America after the passing of Refugee Slave Act in 1850, no space is safe. (

As Lori Askeland and Cathy Davidson have argued, Beloved is “a remodelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that examines … and revises it in a way that avoids reification of a patriarchal power structure. The parallels in the texts are numerous. Beloved is set in part in the same place and during the same period as UTC: Sweet Home’s northern Kentucky must be near the location of the Shelby plantations, and both novels’ initial action represents a response to the Fugitive Slave Act. Moreover, Beloved’s main action takes place near Cincinnati in 1873, which was the Beecher’s home from 1832-1849.”

African children on Slave Ship
From the start we know that 124 Bluestone is haunted, and in the early chapters the “sweet” “perfumed” boxwood hedge shimmering in “emerald light” in which Denver hides her secrets is also visited by a “chill wind,” foreshadowing the return of the troubled and troubling Beloved. Likewise, the house to which Sethe escapes, and in whose attic rafters she hides is not portrayed as a place of solace or freedom, but a prison in which she is tormented by heat, cold and insects. The irony of the name of the plantation upon which horrific violence is visited upon Sethe and Paul D is too grim to be funny: “Sweet Home.” In the world of Beloved, as in the world of slaves and their descendants, no space, no matter how inviting it may seem, is truly home sweet home. This week as we begin reading Beloved, we will be thinking not only of the domestic and public spaces portrayed by Morrison here, but also of the space which her ground-breaking novel has created in the canon of 20th Century American literature. Beloved received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award and Morrison herself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. “Heavy,” Beloved says when she enters 124 for the first time. “This place is heavy.”


12 responses to this post.

  1. When reading the commentary that no space is safe, I thought of the passage in Beloved where Sethe describes her body as one of these spaces. In taking her breast milk when she was pregnant, the slave masters took away her symbolic motherly ‘domestic space’.


  2. It appears that the way in which the novel is written also reflects this fear of not having any safe space. Often chapters are erratic and confusing, the text jumping between time and place. Sethe’s home is haunted by her daughter’s ghost and even her body is marked by the abuse she suffered there is no where she can truly be free, and this could highlight the fact that slavery is never truly over for those who lived it.


  3. Posted by Eliza on October 12, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Given that the slave trade was predicated on the displacing of a people, Morrison’s portrayal of the spaces within ‘Beloved’ as being hostile is completely in keeping with the alienating trauma of slavery. It may be said to go further than displacing a people from their home, but also to be a system that displaces people from their own bodies, and their own inner spaces. This is the real evil of ‘schoolteacher’ in ‘Beloved’; his treatment of Sethe’s body as an object to be studied, mistreated and used suggests the loss of Sethe’s right to her own body, and her own personhood.


  4. Posted by Eva Maere on October 13, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    In the novel we see the devastation that slavery has inflicted, and that it still haunts the characters. After having been treated like something less than human, like animals, the characters seem to be left with a destroyed sense of self. After slavery and dehumanization has destroyed a person’s identity, and when the memories of those events will always be there, can there ever be such a thing as a ‘safe space’?


  5. The comment that no space is safe, is made more potent by the fact that Sethe kills her daughter and attempts to kill her sons in an effort to send her children to a place where no one can hurt them. “She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they could be safe.”(Beloved, p.163)
    ‘This place’ then, is 124, America, the world, Life and over there is possibly ‘Heaven’. The only space that is safe is other worldly.


  6. Posted by Phoebe Deans on October 13, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    Despite having been running for over 90 years, in 1993 Morrison was the first black African-American woman to receive a Nobel Prize for literature – this being a clear demonstration of the previous dismissal of black women’s writing. It is important to recognise that Toni Morrison created a ‘space’ for black female writers within a previously white male dominated canon.


  7. Posted by Christie on October 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    I find Graham Huggan’s exploration of the excessive ‘paratextual’ additions made by editors to texts written by authors of ethnic minority groups – such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved – interesting, as it suggests that whilst Morrison has achieved publishing and become a renowned and established author, this publishing is not taking place in a ‘safe’, objective market. Huggan exposes the way in which editors publish these texts with additions such as cultural, bibliographical facts about the author in an attempt to rationalise the editors own choice to publish the text, and confirm the author as an ‘authentic’, ‘ethnic’ author. Huggan gives this as an example of ‘cues of interpretation’ and the editor influencing the way in which a reader reads the text.
    (ref: extract of Huggan’s ‘The Post Colonial Exotic’ in the Feminist Literary Theory Anthology)


  8. Posted by Kirsty on October 13, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    There’s a constant to-and-fro in regards to what is and what isn’t a “safe space”, in varying degrees and forms; the house Sethe escapes to is meant to be a safe space, away from her past, and yet isn’t for that very reason; she’s haunted by her past. The carnival Paul D takes them to is supposed to be a “safe space” for them that day, and yet they still suffer prejudice against them by those performing at the carnival. Sethe’s own body should be a “safe space” for her, and yet she is abused, and taken advantage of, stolen from.

    The beginning of ‘Beloved’ in some ways reminded me of ‘Yellow Wallpaper’, and the theme of this lacking a safe and secure place to reside in echo in the two of them, while their story may be very different, both in main character, and the things these characters must suffer through, it may be interesting to consider how the spaces the characters reside in effect them in the varying ways, and the ways race influence these differing experiences.


  9. Posted by Lukas on October 14, 2015 at 10:38 am

    When reading the beginning of Beloved I wondered why Sethe insisted on not leaving 124 like everyone else. Surely it was not a stable home, and not a good place to raise children. As the story unfolded I understood that any place and space Sethe had ever known had been far less safe than 124, and that she might fear that if she leaves, she will find herself in a place similar to Sweet Home.


  10. Posted by Olivia Laudat on October 17, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    In Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ space is an imperative feature to the novel. For the protagonist, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver there seems to be no safe place for either of them. The ghost of Sethe’s child haunts their home of 124 Bluestone Road, and although this is where the characters fled to for safety, I believe that this is a symbolism of slavery. The haunted house reflects the idea that although now ‘free’ from slavery itself, the characters ‘space’ is entrapped in its painful memory and refuses to set them free.


  11. Posted by Salma AlTabari on October 20, 2015 at 10:05 am

    I think another space to consider is the characters’ belonging within the social spheres of their own, how they identify themselves: as mothers, daughters and wives. There is a clear disruption of these relationships throughout the entire novel; Sethe never truly knows her mother, she is nursed by another woman; Sethe and Halle never have an actual wedding ceremony, they are to be married without any official documentation and Halle is unable to defend her when she is abused by the white men; Sethe kills her own child, though this can be seen as an act of love, it contradicts how a mother is expected to treat her child.
    This space of where one fits into the world, one’s role, is also unsafe. There is a recurring theme brought up by several of the characters, about trying not to love anyone or anything too much, because it might be taken away from you.


  12. Posted by Wafaa on October 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    I think the way that Morrison wrote this novel is not exactly ‘safe’, so in a way the reader is as much apart of feeling displaced as the characters are feeling and no matter what, they will always lack the comfort of not knowing where and how they fit in to place in 19th Century American society. I find that the book puts us in a disposition of being just as unstable as Sethe’s mind and psyche.


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