Why Should You Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? An Animated Video Makes the Case

“Tell me,” said Beloved, smil­ing a wide hap­py smile. “Tell me your dia­monds.”

The unfor­get­table por­tray­al of Beloved, the mys­te­ri­ous, 20-year-old woman (Thandie Newton)—who appears in Sethe’s (Oprah Win­frey) home mys­te­ri­ous­ly just as the infant ghost haunt­ing the fam­i­ly disappears—leaves an indeli­ble image in the mind’s eye in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film. We may learn about the his­to­ry of slav­ery in the U.S. through a wealth of recov­ered data and his­tor­i­cal sources. But to under­stand its psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­rors, and the lin­ger­ing trau­ma of its sur­vivors, we must turn to works of the imag­i­na­tion like Beloved.

So why not just watch the movie? It’s excel­lent, grant­ed, but noth­ing can take the place of Toni Morrison’s prose. Her “ver­sa­til­i­ty and tech­ni­cal and emo­tion­al range appear to know no bounds,” wrote Mar­garet Atwood in her 1987 review of the nov­el. “If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-emi­nent Amer­i­can nov­el­ist, of her own or any oth­er gen­er­a­tion, Beloved will put them to rest.” The nov­el’s Amer­i­can goth­ic nar­ra­tive recalls the “mag­nif­i­cent prac­ti­cal­i­ty” of haunt­ing in Wuther­ing Heights. “All the main char­ac­ters in the book believe in ghosts, so it’s mere­ly nat­ur­al for this one to be there.”

“Every­one at 124 Blue­stone Road,” the Ted-Ed video les­son by Yen Pham begins, “knows their house is haunt­ed. But there’s no mys­tery about the spir­it tor­ment­ing them. This ghost is the prod­uct of an unspeak­able trau­ma.” Demme’s film dra­ma­tizes the hor­rors Sethe endured, and com­mit­ted, and tells the sto­ry of the Sweet Home plan­ta­tion and its after­math upon her fam­i­ly. What it can­not con­vey is the novel’s treat­ment of “a bar­bar­ic his­to­ry that hangs over much more than this home­stead.”

For this greater res­o­nance, we must turn to Morrison’s book, writ­ten, Atwood says, “in an anti­min­i­mal­ist prose that is by turns rich, grace­ful, eccen­tric, rough, lyri­cal, sin­u­ous, col­lo­qui­al and very much to the point.” The nov­el brings us into con­tact with the human expe­ri­ence of enslave­ment:

Through the dif­fer­ent voic­es and mem­o­ries of the book, includ­ing that of Sethe’s moth­er, a sur­vivor of the infa­mous slave-ship cross­ing, we expe­ri­ence Amer­i­can slav­ery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best—which wasn’t very good—and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imag­ined. Above all, it is seen as one of the most vicious­ly antifam­i­ly insti­tu­tions humans ever devised…. It is a world in which peo­ple sud­den­ly van­ish and are nev­er seen again, not through acci­dent or covert oper­a­tion or ter­ror­ism, but as a mat­ter of every­day legal pol­i­cy.”

Morrison’s fic­tion­al­iz­ing of the true sto­ry of Mar­garet Gar­ner, an enslaved moth­er who killed her child rather than let the infant become enslaved to such a future, “points to his­to­ry on the largest scale, to the glob­al and world-his­tor­i­cal,” Pela­gia Gouli­mari writes in a mono­graph on Mor­ri­son. Mor­ri­son uses “Garner’s 1856 infanticide—a cause célèbre—as point of access to the ‘Six­ty Mil­lion and more’: the vic­tims of the Mid­dle Pas­sage and of slav­ery.”

Per­haps only the nov­el, and espe­cial­ly the nov­els of Toni Mor­ri­son, can tell world-his­tor­i­cal sto­ries through the actions of a few char­ac­ters: Sethe, Den­ver, Baby Sug­gs, Paul D., and Beloved, the angry ghost of a mur­dered daugh­ter and a des­per­ate mother’s trau­ma and the trau­mat­ic psy­chic wounds of slav­ery, returned. Learn more about why you should read Beloved in the ani­mat­ed les­son above, direct­ed by Héloïse Dor­san Rachet, and dis­cov­er more at the TED-Ed lesson’s addi­tion­al resources page.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear Toni Mor­ri­son (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech on the Rad­i­cal Pow­er of Lan­guage (1993)

Toni Morrison’s 1,200 Vol­ume Per­son­al Library is Going on Sale: Get a Glimpse of the Books on Her Tribeca Con­do Shelves

Toni Mor­ri­son Decon­structs White Suprema­cy in Amer­i­ca

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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