Beloved:Speaking for Women


This week’s topic is “Women’s Voices in the 20th Century”

And the texts we are studying are:

Last week we considered domestic spaces and the representations of all spaces as potentially dangerous for the female characters of Toni Morrison’s prize-winning historical fiction Beloved, , in which she portrays the violent historical past in the lives of runaway, and later, freed slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid to late 19th centuryAnother key subject of debate raised by Beloved  is the manner in which this novel, and other narratives of women’s lives might be seen as acts of ventriloquism in which the novelist and his or her characters are portrayed as “speaking for” women..

Many aspects of Morrison’s novel are drawn from historical sources. The horrific scarring of Sethe’s back for example, tree-shaped and branching out, refers to a famous image of a slave whose name is lost to history.


How, we must ask, can one human being do such a thing to another? Psychologically speaking, it’s quite simple: when we dehumanise other people, call them “cockroaches” rather than “refugees,” shave their heads and starve them and tattoo them with numbers instead of names, or see only one aspect of their person or situation: their colour, sexuality or gender – we have done what Simone de Beauvoir describes in “The Introduction” to “The Second Sex” which we will also be looking at this week: We are constructing ourselves and our experiences as subject, as central, as normative and judging the experiences of those who are not us as separate, different, less than, or in a word “other.”


I wonder then what we think when Morrison gives voice to in her novel to Sethe, whose story is partly based on the real-life tragedy of fugitive slave Margaret Garner, who, like Morrison’s character, kills her child rather than see her returned to slavery? In this act of fictionalisation, what kind of political/social and literary event has taken place? Is Morrison “speaking for” the other? For voiceless figure of Margaret Garner? Or does the intriguing and original narrative form of the narrative enable a different kind of interaction to take place?


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Natalie Brown on October 19, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    In the text ‘Who Speaks for Margaret Garner’, Mark Reinhardt critically examines the ways in which Margaret Garner was spoken for, and asks if Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ speaks for her in an act of ventriloquism, or exists to ‘speak about the unspeakable’ of the tragedy of Margaret’s story and others like her. In the essay he notes that the re-telling of the incident by genres such as the press in such a dramatic way had a powerful influence over American political culture, and yet the centre of the story always became Margaret killing her child. Though some demonised her, most writings attributed it to the horror of slavery, and to the humanity rather than inhumanity in her choosing freedom for her child over slavery.


  2. Posted by Salma AlTabari on October 20, 2015 at 9:46 am

    John Green made an interesting remark about Beloved in the question of how human beings can do such things to one another. He says that Beloved is “revolting because it forces us to look at our selves as we have been, and still are in many ways. […] Great books can show us the ways in which man can be a wolf to man.”
    In this light, it can be said that Morrison’s intention was not to speak for the characters, but rather to give form to the tragedies of slavery through a narrative, making it easier for people to grasp.
    I wouldn’t say that Morrison spoke for Sethe, or the woman her character was loosely based on. I think that what Morrison did was give a voice to everything that Sethe represents. There seems to be a closer concentration on the circumstances that the characters live through, rather than the characters themselves.


  3. Posted by Lukas on October 20, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Reading Beloved gave the impression that Toni Morrison knew well of the dangers of “speaking for” the other, as you say. There is a bit in the novel where Paul D and Beloved seem to fight over who gets to stay and spend most time with Sethe. The novel never reveals what Sethe wants, and neither Beloved not Paul D seem to think to much about whom Sethe herself wants to spend more time with.
    Similarly, the novel never reveals exactly how Sethe felt when deciding to kill her child, and I think Morrison has done this so that no one can claim she “speaks for” Margaret Garner in that aspect.


  4. I feel like the prominent women in Beloved such as Sethe and Denver are certainly being spoken for, as well as being almost rescued by the men. Even in the already marginalized community of the former slaves, the men (such as Paul D) are the women’s responsibility to keep happy and care for, and yet are simultaneously regarded as the administrator of the rebuilding of their lives; finding them employment and rebuilding the family unit with their presence. One quote which exemplifies this is when Sethe expresses the relief of Paul D holding the ‘weight of her breasts’; he is taking care of her in a way which suggests she cannot. While this is not as condescending as a more privileged character doing the same, it reminded me of the Simone De Beauvoir piece in that even within the community of shared slavery experience, the women such as Sethe and Denver are still interpreted as ‘Other’ from the men in the same space.


  5. Posted by Eliza on October 20, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    The use of the word ‘ventriloquism’ for the action of speaking for enslaved people is of particular interest as, in the act of using a dummy, the ventriloquist physically connects themselves to the dummy – with their arm and hand inside the wooden body, operating the mouth. This raises a question with regard to the idea of constructing identity around the concept of the ‘Other’, for in the act of ventriloquizing, the ventriloquist physically connects with the dummy in order to affect control, becoming ‘one’ with it rather than staying separate.

    In this way, we could see the act of ‘speaking for’ a person, whether as abolitionist or slaver, as a greater act of violence than the physical punishments meted out against slaves, an action which shows a clear physical separation between the two people involved, slave and master. In ‘speaking for’ enslaved people this enslaves them further, whatever the intention, as it unites the slave with the oppressor to the point where it isn’t just their physical body that is enslaved, their subjectivity is also appropriated. Toni Morrison avoids the act of ventriloquism in Beloved; rather, as Reinhardt shows, she appreciates that some experiences are beyond expression, and doesn’t presume upon them. She, therefore, ‘chooses to emphasise that limit to speech’ in her writing of the narrative.


  6. Posted by Kirsty on October 20, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    As we understand Morrison’s “Beloved” to be influenced by the story of Margaret Garner, I feel that Morrison is not attempting to assume to take a stance on knowing how Sethe (or Margaret Garner) could possibly feel about the murder of her child, and such is not speaking for Margaret Garner directly, but has instead been influenced by the story, wanting to explore the ways in which such an act can affect a person and those around them, rather than how one feels about performing the act (having the story set so much so in the future lends itself to this).
    In “Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?” it says, very early on ’The act is difficult to come to terms with now, and all the evidence suggests it was difficult then.’ This is what I feel Morrison is opting to do in “Beloved”; working through people coming to terms with the ‘unspeakable’ act that took place, not, in fact, directly attempting to speak for any one.


  7. Posted by Eva on October 20, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    I agree with Eliza in the idea that ‘speaking for’ someone is an act of violence because it implies that they have no voice of their own, and in that way it sort of takes away their humanness. Morrison is not speaking for the Other, but rather humanising the characters by making the reader empathise with them and see them as equals. However, she is telling a story based on real events, and in this way also giving a voice to the sufferings of people such as Margaret Garner.


  8. I think that we can use this in a much wider context especially in relation to what is going on around us now. While the refugee crisis now may not be the same as slavery, these people are still being treated as the ‘other’ in society, being moved place to place and denied basic human rights. I do not think that we will ever eradicate mistreatment and focus on someone being the ‘other’ in society but by reading about slavery, the holocaust and the current issues in the world we can gain a better understanding and try to question who is being ‘spoken for’ and what they are really saying.


  9. It is interesting to think of a historical fiction novel, such as Beloved, as an act of ventriloquism. The danger in ventriloquism is that it can be used to strip away a person’s own voice, thus their identity, alike the act of slavery itself. However, within this novel although Toni Morrison is re-envisaging the tragic story of Margaret Garner, Morrison does not speak for the characters, or for Margaret Garner herself but rather to educate on the appalling crimes committed against humanity during slavery. Ventriloquism can also be linked to Simone De Beauvior essay ‘The Second Sex’, during this essay De Beauvior explores how men throughout history have oppressed women and through this oppression, has left women voiceless. She quotes Rapport d’Uriel , ‘….Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ This ideology reinforces the concept of men acting as a ventriloquist, speaking for women who they believed did not have a mind or voice of their own.


  10. Posted by Phoebe Deans on October 20, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Something which I found to be of particular interest in Mark Reinhardt’s ‘Who Speaks for Margaret Garner’, is his attention to Lucy Stone, a women’s rights activist and abolitionist, and her presentation on Garner. Reinhardt addresses Stone’s ‘bravery’ and ‘the barriers’ she faced as a woman herself, taking on Garner’s radical case. He notes the press often referred to Stone as a ‘manwoman’, deeming her political success to be a result of her masculine qualities – this highlighting further how men typically speak for women.


  11. Posted by Christie on October 20, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    In terms of writers ‘speaking for’ and taking away ‘the other’s’ voice, I found page 113 of Mark Reinhardt’s ‘Who Speaks for Margaret Garner?’ particularly interesting and insightful. Reinhardt speaks of Garner’s murder of her own daughter as a radical expression of her own ‘honourable’ ‘preference for death over slavery’. He then exposes that for a slave to be deemed honourable, is to ‘undercut the very core of the ideology of slavery’; a recognition of honour in a slave is effectively a recognition of fitness for a life of freedom. Thus, whilst Reinhardt admits that the silencing of Margaret Garner by multiple writers and voices cannot be justified, it can be seen that Garner herself in fact ‘”spoke” powerfully’ through her own actions, committing an act which renders attaching a valid pro-slavery moral to her story almost impossible. Garner can therefore be seen as one who expressed her voice to a great and alternative extent, leaving me to agree with Reinhardt’s question, ‘What purpose can speaking for Margaret Garner serve now?’


  12. Posted by Wafaa on October 21, 2015 at 7:15 am

    Morrison’s portrayal of a slave’s story is in a way unique to the way it engages the reader more through the character’s actions than their thought process. As readers, I don’t think she tries to make us understand any of the characters but more that she tries to depict the experience of Sethe’s life which is partly inspired by Margaret Garner and helps us to decipher some of the situation of a slave and that the being black made one a slave with no real voice or place to be understood. Reinhardt makes us think about Garner’s silence and how that made a bigger statement than any words that she could have said at the time. The picture above shows us how inferior one was perceived as a slave let alone to be able to speak or to be heard and understood.


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