Postmodernism, a literary period characterized by a loss of order and basic distrust of theories, ideologies and convention. As writers loss faith in extententialism, art and psychology quickly became a substitute for religion. Though modernist and postmodernist assault the traditional thought purported to tell us about the world, the belief that one can devise a theory or vision that can rationalize and explain the world is not shared. As we evolve from producers to consumers postmodernism, the post modern condition can be seen throughout American culture. No author depicts the postmodern condition more effectively than Toni Morrison. Postmodernism is examined through Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Perhaps Morrison’s most heralded novel, Beloved explores the effects of slavery on the African-American family. The novel chronicles the transition from enslavement to freedom through a vehicle that Morrison refers to as “rememory.” Throughout the novel Morrison exemplifies the tenets of Postmodernism and establishes herself as a true literary genius.
After World War II, literature began to break away from the trends of the time as writers began to explore how “radically different realities coexist, collide and interpenetrate” (Harvey 41). This is best exemplified in Morrison’s Beloved. Postmodern literature exceeds that tenets of modernism and delves into the psyche. The most prevalent fact about postmodernism is “its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity and the chaotic” (Harvey 44). In Beloved, Morrison tells the story of a mother whose desire to protect her children from slavery lead her to take drastic and deadly measures. Although the novel chronicles the lives of slaves, Beloved differs from other slave narratives: “Beloved is more explicit than most early slave narratives, which could not reveal fully the horror of slave experience, either because their authors dared not offend their white abolitionist audiences or because they too could not bear to dwell on the horror” (Bower 213). In the novel, Morrison explores the effects of slavery on a family torn apart by guilt and repressed memories. In many postmodern works of fiction the characters “often seem confused as to which world they are in and how they should act with respect to it” (Harvey 41). This is especially true of the female characters in Beloved. Sethe, Denver and Beloved each have a questionable sense of self and a fragmented identity.
Sethe is a mother who is so devoted to her children that is unwilling to relinquish them into the trauma of slavery. To prevent this, she tries to kill them, however she only succeeds in killing the youngest daughter. Since the death of her daughter, Sethe’s home has been thought to have been haunted. One day when a woman shows up at her house, Sethe is unsure of the girls identity. Her inability to acknowledge her past leads her to ignore the signs that Beloved is the manifestation of her murdered offspring. Initially, Sethe is not able to recognize Beloved: “Remembering is part of reversing the ‘dirtying’ process that robbed slaves of self-esteem” (Bower 214). When Sethe realizes that Beloved is actually her long dead daughter, she believes that she has a second chance to be a mother to her. She thinks that Beloved’s resurrection gives her an opportunity to make things right. Sethe succumbs to her past and becomes like a slave to Beloved’s demands. Beloved is symbolic of the pain of the past that Sethe has fought for years to suppress. Having Beloved in her life, and her constant fixation on her, are crippling to Sethe and impeding her healing. Sethe is not able to move on with her life, while Beloved is around.
Sethe is finally able to reconcile her personal history with her present and come to terms with her inner demons. With Paul D’s help, Sethe comes to a realization: ” ‘Sethe,’ he says, ‘me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’ He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers. ‘Me? Me?'” (Morrison 288). Although she questions his statements, Sethe knows that Paul D is right. She, and not her children, is the best part of herself. As Bower points out that “Sethe and Paul D are able to help each other to a point, but until the original pain and the feelings it created that had to be suppressed, they cannot be purged of its paralyzing effect (215-16). Once she is able to extinguish the spirit of Beloved from her life, Sethe is able to function as an individual. Acknowledging herself worth apart from her children, enables Sethe to finally come to grips with who she is. By dealing with the past, Sethe and Paul D secure the possibility of enjoying a future together.
Whereas modernism is dominated by the author’s quest for truth, the postmodernist accept that there is no one truth. Morrison exemplifies this notion with the character of Beloved. There is no one clear cut answer as to who Beloved really is. Like Sethe and Denver, Beloved’s identity is heavily influenced by her past. Believed by many to be the manifestation of Sethe’s conscience, Beloved’s past is that of the victim of murder. The character of Beloved is introduced in the very first sentence of the novel. The first line two lines of the novel foreshadow the terror that the spirit has and will continue to cause: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (Morrison 3). Morrison wants the reader to know the spirit’s unyielding desire to cause destruction for everyone in the house. This sentence also identifies the baby as the spirit that haunts the house.
The scenes in which Beloved emerges in human form are integral to the understanding of both Sethe and Beloved. First, Beloved emerges from the water. Her emergence is representative of a child’s coming out from the womb. Critic Ann-Janine Morey points out that:
[W]ater or fluidity, representing the simultaneity of life and death, danger and redemption, overwhelms conventional realistic notions of the proper boundaries between physical/metaphysical and natural/supernatural. Thus Beloved is filled with sacred fluids-milk, blood and water-which finally are indistinguishable as they course through the beating heart that is the center of the novel. (250)
After her transition from the spirit to the physical world, she ends up at 124. As soon as Sethe sees her, she has to go to the bathroom. On some level she connects with the girl and her urgency to use the bathroom represent the breaking of water during childbirth. Sethe comments on the situation: “there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now” (Morrison 54). This is evidence that the mysterious woman and Sethe’s dead daughter are one in the same.
Once she establishes herself in the household, Beloved’s power comes from her ability to control and manipulate. When she feels that she is losing her control to Paul D and his presence in the house, she asks Denver to make him leave. When Denver does not do what Beloved tells her to, Beloved feels herself falling apart: “Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once…It is difficult keeping her head on her neck, her legs attached to her hips when she is by herself…When her tooth came out-an odd fragment, last in the row-she thought it was starting” (Morrison 140). Beloved is beginning to crack and for the first time since her arrival, she needs Denver. Beloved “hoped Denver’s arm around her shoulders would keep them from falling apart” (Morrison 141). Beloved’s reliance on Denver represents the fragility and fragmentation of her identity and the growing strength in Denver’s.
Sethe’s youngest daughter Denver is also affected by her past. Because of the isolation imposed upon her family, Denver essentially has no life outside of 124. As a result, she is very childlike and spends a lot of time alone. He only friend is the spirit that inhabits the house. Even when she is with her family, Denver often feels isolated and neglected. Her isolation leads her to find a refuge, a secret room in the woods where she feels completely free: [T]he place became the point. In that bower, closed off from the hurt of the hurt world, Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out. Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, and salvation was as easy as a wish. (Morrison 30-31).Denver’s perspective, outside looking in, will eventually lead her to better understand the situation at hand.
Denver defines herself in relation to those around her, namely Beloved. She immediately recognizes Beloved as the spirit that kept her company as a child. She will do anything to keep Beloved’s attention. Denver enjoys the change that has occurred in her life with Beloved’s presence: “…the old hunger-the before Beloved hunger that drove her into boxwood and cologne for just a taster of life; to feel bumpy and not flat-was out of the question” (Morrison 126). Denver refuses to go back to being invisible. Like every other member of her family, she craves attention and does not wasn’t to go back to not having it.
Denver was named for Amy Denver, a white woman who helped Sethe deliver her baby. For Sethe, Amy was her only hope for survival at that time in her life. Like her namesake, it can be assumed that Morrison sees Denver as the families only hope for salvation. Denver too, realizes that she is the only hope for her family: “So it was she who had to step off the edge of the world and die because if she didn’t, they all would” (Morrison 251). Denver is the only one who sees what is going on: As Denver’s outside life improved, her home life deteriorated…the bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness…Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it…Yet she knew Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning-that Beloved might leave. (Morrison 263).Denver’s isolation will essentially be her saving grace Realizing that she must take action and save her family, Denver leaves the house for help. This is perhaps Denver’s single most important act. She becomes the salvation of her family.
Once Denver gets help and Beloved is expelled from the lives of Sethe and Denver, they are able to reconcile their broken identities. throughout the novel, Morrison explores slavery’s destruction of and impact on one’s identity. In order to cope with the undeniable stresses of slavery, the slaves often had to disassociate themselves from their identity: “The struggle of Beloved’s characters to confront the effects of the brutality and to recover their human dignity, their selves ‘dirtied’ by white oppression-to transform their experiences into knowledge-is presented in the form of a slave narrative that can be read as a model for contemporary reader attempting to engage these brutal realities (Bower 213). By being treated as less than human, the slaves internalized these assertions and questioned their own worth. The inability to believe in oneself continued from generation to generation. As Morrison points out in Beloved, true healing only comes to the characters reconciliation of past and present. It is this incorporation of past and present, infused with the musical elements that she injects into her stories that establishes Morrison as a premier postmodern novelist.
Susan Bower. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Toni Morrison’s Fiction Contemporary Criticism. Ed. David L. Middleton. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997. 209-230.
David Harvey. The Condition of Post Modernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1990.
Toni Morrison. Beloved. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.