Who is Toni Morrison speaking for through Beloved? Blog post by Camara Butler

Toni Morrison’s phenomenal novel speaks for the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade who were unable to speak for themselves. Beloved is based upon the factual event of Margret Garner who felt it necessary to murder her own children after a failed attempt to escape slavery. Garner committed this crime because she felt it was better for her children to die than grow up as slaves. Due to her social standing as a slave, and the brutality of her actions, her story remained quashed until Morrison decided to write it in 1987. Due to a lack of recording of the events surrounding Garner’s decision, Morrison has fabricated the majority of the novel, basing it upon records of the lives of other slaves around the same time that Garner was alive.

Despite the majority of the narrative being fictionalised (particularly the supernatural aspect and Garner/Sethe’s freedom), Beloved gives a voice, not only to Garner, but to all female slaves. While it is true, that since the 1960’s the world has been exposed to more and more accounts of the lives of slaves, through media and fiction, such as Alex Haley’s Roots, or Steve McQueens Twelve Years a Slave, few have focussed on the lives of black women. So why did Morrison? Why did she focus a novel around the lives of women? Perhaps because their suffering was so often merged in with the suffering of men, or presented in how it hurt men. It would be wrong to say that enslaved women suffered worse than their male counterparts, but it is fair to say they suffered differently. It is true that writers like Haley did document the rape of black women, but it was simply as a means of moving the narrative along, he does not focus on the damage this would have had on, not only the woman (his ancestor), but also her son. Morrison does! Morrison has focused on the abuse enslaved women suffered, abuse so horrific it drove Margret Garner to kill her own children because she honestly believed death was better than the life awaiting them. Morrison highlights this idea in her novel by only killing one of Sethe’s children; her eldest daughter. In Beloved, Sethe could see a real person emerging and could no doubt imagine, more vividly than she could with Denver, the life this enslaved woman would lead.

The events based around Garner are only half of the central narrative in the novel, the other is the suppressing of these events. Sethe spends the majority of this novel suppressing her actions, ignoring them in the hopes they will disappear, until she can’t because Beloved returns in a physical form, disrupting her life. Here, Morrison is writing to those who ignored the terrible events of slavery, presenting her view that one day a physical reminder will be brought. In many ways Morrison’s novel is that physical reminder, as through it she also speaks to those who may want to ‘move one’ from slavery. Beloved demands that society opens their eyes to the travesty’s of slavery in order to heal.

Thus, Morrison’s Beloved is an essential piece of literature for all people, as it gives a voice to black women, and also to the African American community as a whole. Men are given a voice, through the character of Paul D, mixed race people are given a voice, black culture and beliefs were given a voice. What is more, Morrison has achieved all of this without vilifying white people, speaking for those who disdained it or attempted to destroy it. She has even spoken to those who attempted to uphold slavery in the past and today by ignoring it. This novel doesn’t just speak for the black community, it speaks for and to everyone, of all ages, sex and race. One would be hard pressed to find a person Toni Morrison has not spoken for through Beloved.


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Fern on October 17, 2017 at 10:30 am

    I really enjoyed reading your blog and the points you raised are similar to my own. /in your discussion as to why Morrison decided to write this novel due to the lack of African-American woman writers who were enslaved, leads me to thinking of the novel Kindred by Octavia Butler. She also, describes in detail, about rape and how women were mistreated in the slave trade, whilst also links back to modern society today. The use of such descriptive language emphasises the impact it left on many women and highlights in today’s society, how degrading slavery was.


  2. Posted by Ella Bukbardis on October 17, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Hi Camara,
    Great blog entry, the points you picked up were really important, especially that many books/films are focused on male slavery. Obviously the book tackles the very difficult subject of a mother murdering her own child, yet you depicted the subject very eloquently in your writing.


  3. Great blog post, Camara. I agree with you completely, and I think Morrison did a fantastic job with her novel. She managed to avoid the ‘ventriloquism’ discussed in our critical reading by Reinhardt, and I think this is because Morrison herself is a black woman so, whilst much of the story is fictionalised, the story does not present us with the power imbalance of a black woman’s life being told through a white person’s words.


  4. Posted by zoha on October 18, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    hi Camara,
    I really enjoyed reading this blog. I agree with how Morrison has given a voice to the female and how she is talking about the female slave’s experience. Sethe becomes a representative of all those women who suffered under the burden of slavery. We had Frederick Douglas’s ‘Narrative’ which heavily focused on the male experience, while the women in the novel were not addressed as much. I feel that Morrison and other female writers finally wrote about the female experience because it was different than the male slave’s experience; the female slave was oppressed on two fronts, the fact that she was a woman and coloured; it was an issue of both race and gender. When in the case of the male slave it was only his colour. I think that the character of Denver represents this.
    Morrison is able to capture the suffering of the slave woman, the cherry tree imagery representing the brutalities and pain of the slaves.


  5. Posted by Sara on October 18, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    This is a great blog and it really reflects the lack of representation and the way African Americans are silenced through history as it is often white-washed. If we were to interpret that Beloved is a manifestation of Sethe’s deceased baby, as a character, she symbolizes the way in which Sethe is continuously silenced by her memories of her past life as a slave and the ordeals that came with that position. Morrison’s choice in reintegrating the past with the present clearly shows that Sethe’s identity is not whole, this is reflected through her silence in the beginning of the book, and through her interactions with Beloved, she gains a new identity and not just a mere shell of her past.


  6. Posted by Becky Gawn on October 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Really enjoyed reading your blog and agree with the points you noticed. I think this novel is important to many for the themes it addresses. Not only is it from a female perspective but the way Morrison also looks at Sethe’s journey and what she has had to overcome is something not highlighted in other fiction. I also agree with Amber in the way Morrison has been able to avoid the ventriloquist unlike other texts where this has not been possible.


  7. Posted by Rachel Chandar on October 18, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    This was a great blog post to read, I really enjoyed reading it. I liked your point on how Morrison directs her writing to those who have merely ignored and dismissed the terrible circumstances slaves underwent. Morrison uses Beloved as the central figure to the novel, giving a voice to those who did not have a say in anything and those who did not survive. The return of Beloved marks the looming and constant reminder of the slave experience that cannot be repressed, as Morrison states in her introduction that the ‘herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive’.


  8. Posted by Carmen Luis on October 18, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    I liked reading your blog as it incorporated similar ideas I has whilst reading the novel. I thought your comparison between Morrison’s and other contemporaneous writers was rather interesting because as you said they typically focus on male protagonists and their suffering. By using Margaret Garner’s story as inspiration, Morrison is highlighting the mental trauma associated with the events of slavery as Garner felt that she had no other choice but to kill her children in order to free them.


  9. Posted by Georgia on October 18, 2017 at 5:50 pm

    Hi Camara,
    I think this reads really well, and the points you make are very interesting. I also agree with the other posts here that Morrison very vividly depicts the story of a female slave, when many texts that have been about slavery have focused on a male perspective. The detail she goes into and the language she uses can be shocking but also the harsh truth of that history. I also agree with the points raised on the ‘ventriloquism’ as it comes from a black female writer.


  10. Posted by Ruzina on October 18, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    The points you have made definitely highlight the main themes in Beloved. Sethe’s intention in killing her own daughter was for the ultimate protection from slavery. This may seem ironic however, both Reinhardt and Morrison emphasise the tragedy of the slavery system. I agree that, by giving a voice to the spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter, Morrison acknowledges the forgotten people in the history of slavery.


  11. Hi Camara, thanks for sharing your points. I agree with your points about the lack of focus specifically on female slavery in literature, and think that this makes Beloved an even more important novel. The issue of motherhood in slavery is a taboo subject, and rarely mentioned in other works of literature/media. The controversy surrounding Margaret Garner’s child murder is thoughtfully and sensitively dealt with in the novel, and she is given a voice through the character of Sethe.


  12. Posted by Lily Money on November 22, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    This is a really interesting blog entry. I liked your point about it being different to other novels, about slavery. Whereas, in the past it would usually be focusing on male slavery. We see the character Sethe, as a woman, a Mother and daughter captured in a life of slavery and how this gives a voice to the females, which we so little see of in other novels. I especially liked your point on how Toni Morrison writes this novel and in no way does she attack anyone.


  13. Posted by Bronagh on November 22, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Great blog post Camara! I found the point that you raised on Morrison giving a voice to not only Garner, but all slaves really interesting! Very few male slaves and even less female slaves were literate and so there are very few first hand accounts of their experiences. Yet, it is so important to remember what happened, so that such atrocities are never allowed to happen again. However, this makes me wonder, who has the right to tell another persons story?


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