A year ago, I tried to read this book, and left it. I was not familiar with magical realism and modernist writing. It was too difficult for me. Even now, the essence of such writing eludes me. But from whatever knowledge I gained from reading a lot for a year, I can now appreciate the importance of this book.
Beloved is probably the most complex novel by Morrison. The plot, the characters, the setting, the language—everything is very complex.
Right from the beginning it is obvious how ambitious Morrison is with this book. She set out to write a masterpiece, a novel so important and horrifying and beautiful that it gained her the recognition of a great writer. And undoubtedly she is.
To give an idea about how meticulously Morrison drew the book, (yes, she drew, not wrote), let’s discuss the significance of a simple thing: the number ‘124’, the identification of the haunted house. Quoting Morrison:
It was important to name this house, but not the way “Sweet Home” or other plantations were named. There would be no adjectives suggesting coziness or grandeur or the laying claim to an instant, aristocratic past. Only numbers here to identify the house while simultaneously separating it from a street or city—marking its difference from the houses of other blacks in the neighborhood; allowing it a hint of the superiority, the pride, former slaves would take in having an address of their own. Yet a house that has, literally, a personality—which we call “haunted” when that personality is blatant.
On one symbolic level, the numbers 1 + 2 + 4 add up to 7, the number of letters on Beloved’s [B-E-L-O-V-E-D : 7] headstone. In Christian lore, the number 7 represents charity, grace, and the Holy Spirit, as well as completion and perfection. As we will see later in the novel, Beloved’s death signified the end of all of these elements in both Sethe’s life and the life of her family. The family became incomplete and imperfect. The number 124 emphasizes this incompleteness when examined sequentially. The number 3 is missing from the sequence, just as Sethe’s third child (Beloved) is missing from the family. A more complicated arithmetic equation denotes Sethe’s arrival at Sweet Home and her selection of Halle as her husband, an act that leads to four children, doubling of one into two and two into four.
Then comes Water: something that recurs repetitively throughout the novel. Denver was born in Water, Beloved comes out of the Water and when returns to Sethe, drinks four cups of water. Water is sometimes seen as a veil between this world and the other world. Water simultaneously symbolizes life and death. That line I’ll never forget: “A fully dressed woman walked out of the water.” Wow!
Feet are also significant in portraying freedom and love and sanity. Paul D reminds how many feet Sethe had: two, not four. Indicating what she did was animallike. Beloved’s baby-steps were marked portraying freedom. Sixo’s feet were cooked first; signifying death of another slave.
This book is full of such things (colors, manhood and more). I can go on for pages after pages showing how brilliantly she manages to do so much within mere 320 pages.
The following is not only a description of corn:
The jealous admiration of the watching men melted with the feast of new corn they allowed themselves that night. Plucked from the broken stalks that Mr. Garner could not doubt was the fault of the raccoon. Paul F wanted his roasted; Paul A wanted his boiled and now Paul D couldn’t remember how finally they’d cooked those ears too young to eat. What he did remember was parting the hair to get to the tip, the edge of his fingernail just under, so as not to graze a single kernel.
The pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound always convinced her it hurt.
As soon as one strip of husk was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed at last. How loose the silk. How quick the jailed-up flavor ran free.
No matter what all your teeth and wet fingers anticipated, there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you.
How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free.
The narration is stunning and beautiful. Innovative. Sublime, too. I learned a lot about language and how to handle it from this book.
Saying all this, I’ll say this is not the best work of Morrison in terms of language. This is the most important book, no doubt, but in a few scenes when emotionally disturbing events come into play, I felt she overdid with poeticism (only a few times, though), trying too hard to make the reader feel things, which is, well, not an example of great art to me. I’d say, in terms of language and narration, Love is a better book.
Till now I have read some five books by Morrison and this one will remain one of the most memorable books I have ever read.
A.S. Byatt rightly said: “A magnificent achievement.”
Even the trailer of the movie gives me chills.