Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison's Beloved

By Carden, Mary Paniccia | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison's Beloved


Carden, Mary Paniccia, Twentieth Century Literature


One of the great moments of ideological negotiation in any work occurs in the choice of a resolution for the various services it provides. Narrative outcome is one place where transindividual assumptions and values are most clearly visible, and where the word "convention" is found resonating between its literary and social meanings. Any artistic resolution . . . can, with greater or lesser success, attempt an ideological solution to the fundamental contradictions that animate the work. Any resolution can have traces of the conflicting materials that have been processed within it. It is where subtexts and repressed discourses can throw up one last flare of meaning; it is where the author may side-step and displace attention from the materials that a work has made available.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (3)

There is always something more interesting at stake than a clear resolution in a novel. I'm interested in survival--who survives and who does not, and why--and I would like to chart a course that suggests where the dangers are and where the safety might be. I do not want to bow out with easy answers to complex questions.

Toni Morrison (qtd. in McKay 402)

Women writers, Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues in Writing Beyond the Ending, search out and project possibilities "beyond" restrictive plots centered in romance and directed toward domesticity. She defines "writing beyond the ending" as "the transgressive invention of narrative strategies... that express critical dissent from dominant narrative" and fashion a text that "denies or reconstructs seductive patterns of feeling that are culturally mandated, internally policed, hegemonically poised" (5). For Toni Morrison, an African American woman addressing a "dominant narrative" in which black women have been secondary or invisible, "writing beyond the ending" means interrogating the historical implications that romance assumes when infused with ideologies of race. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, intersecting narratives of romance and slavery lead to dual endings, which, in their refusal of resolution, represent the double dilemmas of divergent narrative perspectives and goals.

Most of the voluminous commentary produced on Beloved since its publication in 1987 approaches the novel as a meditation on the enduring repercussions of slavery as personified in the character Beloved, with a substantial portion of the criticism focused on the text's negotiations of female identity, subjectivity and embodiment and on its treatment of mother/ daughter bonds. [1] Although these readings have shed light on key aspects of Morrison's project in Beloved, they often overlook her placement of this thematic side-by-side with the emergence of a romantic heterosexual couple. Morrison devotes significant textual space and energy to the relationship between Sethe and Paul D, but many critics relegate the romance strand of the novel to the status of subplot. While much of the criticism on Beloved approaches it primarily as a story of the consequences of slavery and only secondarily as a romance story, I will argue that the novel demands to be read with both narrative lines in the foreground, and that thi s double sidedness produces contradictions and oppositions that are never more powerfully problematic than in Morrison's choices for narrative outcome. The novel's action concludes with the projection of a happily-ever-after romance scenario for Sethe and Paul D, a scenario loaded with possibilities for both resistance and reinscription of the gender role expectations that have consistently failed them. Morrison then writes "beyond" this tenuously romantic ending by writing another. Beloved ends twice: first with the construction of new domestic arrangements at 124 Bluestone Road, then with the deconstruction of Beloved. That these two endings with their contradictory movements--coming together and flying apart--sit so separately together indicates the novel's ambivalent investment in the heterosexual couple as the site where history assumes its shape and meaning. …

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