Narrative and Community Crisis in Beloved

By Hinson, D. Scot | MELUS, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Narrative and Community Crisis in Beloved


Hinson, D. Scot, MELUS


Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) teems with violence. Morrison, who claims that "aggression is not as new to black women as it is to white women," has written that "there's a special kind of ... violence in writings by black women--not bloody violence, but violence nonetheless. Love, in the Western notion, is full of possession, distortion, and corruption. It's a slaughter without the blood" (qtd. in Tate 122, 123). Toni Morrison acknowledges that the secrets of violence are safeguarded within the African American communities she writes about. She claims that she chose the first line of The Bluest Eye, "Quiet as it's kept," for its conspiratorial quality, for the phrase signified that between "black women conversing with each other" at the back gate, a "secret" was about to be shared, some "secret between us and a secret that is being kept from us," a "conspiracy" both "held and withheld, exposed and sustained" ("Unspeakable Things" 21). The violent secret in The Bluest Eye, for example, is the secret of "illicit, traumatic, incomprehensible sex coming to its dreadful fruition" and the secret of a "pollution, ... a skip, perhaps, in the natural order of things" ("Unspeakable Things" 21). Morrison's Beloved discloses the "secrets `we' shared and those withheld from us by ourselves and by the world outside the community" ("Unspeakable Things" 21).

In Beloved, Morrison reveals that the violence within African American communities is originally imposed from outside by white oppressors, whose search for scapegoats translates into a similar search within the black community. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon describes how oppressed peoples, who have no other recourse, vent their frustration and anger on each other:

   If this suppressed fury fails to find an outlet, it turns in a vacuum and
   devastates the oppressed creatures themselves. In order to free themselves
   they even massacre each other. The different tribes fight between
   themselves since they cannot face the real enemy.

   (Preface 18-19)

In Beloved, the community denies its propensity to focus its anger and humiliation on its weaker members. The community represses and is unable to identify the violence, white oppression, that is the root of its collapse and entrapment in cycles of violence. Consequently, Beloved labors to return to the more immediate origins of violence in the community, a system of slavery that pits members of the same community against each other, creating conflicts that must be reckoned with before the community can find peace in the present. Those horrors from the past constantly intrude on the text, dominating both it and the lives of Beloved's characters, demanding that they be acknowledged and worked through as past.

Beloved departs from Morrison's other novels in its willingness to identify slavery and white oppression as the roots of violence in African American communities. (1) Morrison depicts how, when a white man rides into Sethe's yard to take her and her children back into slavery, she strikes out at one of her own, exerting herself in the only way possible in the face of the violence of slavery. She shows how Beloved's murder continues a chain of reciprocal violence that entangles the community in the past and initiates a plot which is equally bound to the past. The community's crisis of violence is reflected in a recursive narrative pattern, shaped out of repetitions and returns of the repressed memories of white violence in slavery. Through this recursive narrative, Beloved speaks the unspeakable secret of violence in the African American community.

In Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard writes of communities embroiled in mimetic desire and reciprocal violence. In Girard's terms, at the heart of the chaos in the community surrounding 124 Bluestone is a destructive desire to possess that which another possesses: underprivileged black communities desire the wealth, privilege, and status that the dominant white society possesses. …

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