The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007

Excerpt

“Unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.” This is the prefatory phrase with which a character in Toni Morrison’s singularly influential novel Beloved characterizes the lyrical climax to come. What follows are four remarkable chapters in which we become privy, through Morrison’s words, to the unspeakable thoughts of three women: Sethe, a woman who escaped from slavery and murdered her daughter to prevent her being returned to a life as property; her surviving daughter, Denver; and the murdered girl, who has returned in the form of the titular character. Although the first three of these chapters are specific to a single character, their three voices meld in a fourth chapter, not only with each other but with the voice of an unnamed African woman who speaks in the present tense of her suffering as she survives the Middle Passage. These chapters offer a miniaturized version of Beloved as a whole, which is committed to showing that slavery continues to harm long after its prohibition. Yet the logic whereby the legacy of slavery is both preserved and transformed as it affects subsequent generations is exchanged for a model whereby the suffering of all the characters can be represented by the horrific violence of the Middle Passage. What is offered as unspeakable in these chapters is the horror of slavery, rendered through fragmented images of the mass death, manacles, starvation, and sexual abuse that defined life on the slave ship.

These chapters are small miracles of verbal virtuosity that render slavery’s horror with more vividness and emotional force than could be reasonably expected. And yet the novel insists that we not read this account as the bringing into language of a horror long since dulled by time and sanitized by collective bad faith. Nor are these “thoughts” unspeakable merely because they are too painful or socially taboo for the characters to speak about. Instead, Beloved insists that the horrors of slavery are fundamentally and intrinsically resistant to articulation in either spoken or written form. The insistence, against all evidence to the contrary, on the unspeakability of the story reemerges at the very end of the novel in the form of a challenge to the reader. The narrator vacillates . . .

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