Exercising Memory as Narrative Technique in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

           In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, exercising memory encapsulates the central narrative technique of the story. Storytelling itself parallels the novels focus point which seeks to memorialize the unacknowledged families of America’s past. Storytelling becomes a way to heal, or at least, a way  to search for healing. In Beloved, the narrative “process of bonding requires the willingness of characters to share stories about what they do not want to remember, stories that frequently focus on lost kin:”

In the process of the telling, the characters begin to rid themselves of the invisible chains that have left them locked in psychological bondage almost a decade after slavery was legally abolished. Bound neither by slavery not by blood, they choose to claim the freedom of love and protect each other. (Wall 85)

Morrison, “re-conceiving the historical novel as a memorial,” reconstructs the life the Margaret Garner  who murdered her to “prevent her recapture into slavery” (Rody 98, 93). Beloved is an act of searching the past, much like the novel’s title character, in effort to gather the grain from the weeds.

            However, “the storytelling transaction between Sethe and Paul D is different: the lovers engage in a mutual understanding of the past in the hopes of a mutual healing and future together” (Rody 103) Morrison stated that the novel “had to have a sound, a very special sound” (Wall 87). This uniqueness of this sound is most prominent in two scenes. First, the highly climatic confrontation of the thirty volunteers standing outside 124, beholding Beloved. Also, sound functions as consciousness in the  scene where Paul D’s escapes the flooding boxes along with all forty-six of “the best hand-forged chain in Georgia” (Morrison 107).

            Ella is the most appropriate character to initiate the rescue, the attempt to free Sethe from Beloved’s supernatural bondage. Ella is discerning and doesn’t believe the spiritual other-side is justified to carry out this kind of revenge regardless of what Sethe did to her child. Ella is different from everyone else in the story. She has her own story and doesn’t object to retelling it. Her own experience is how she measures the experiences of everyone she encounters. She is also the story-hearer in the novel. Ella, like baby Suggs’ represents how “story telling becomes the text’s self-conscious task: many scenes present a character narrating his or her own life to a listener. The novels distinctive tone arises from the very difficulty of telling for those recovering from the trauma of slavery” (Rody 99). Where Beloved longs – demands – to hear about the past from Seth, Ella discerns the experiences she hears on the other side of the river, at the opening gate to freedom. She is a guardian in many senses and leads the women in an effort to meet Sethe on the other side of the river once more at 124:

When they caught up with each other, all thirty, and arrived at 124, the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves. Younger, stronger, even as little girls lying in the grass asleep…Baby Suggs laughed and skipped among them, urging more…there they were, young and happy, playing in Baby Sugg’s yard. (Morrison 258)

They wait, astonished, as though waiting for a sound. As though waiting for Hi Man who “alone knew what was enough, what was too much, when things were over, when the time had come” (Morrison 108).

            The narrative device of sound is embodied in the rememory of the journey of the community. During the rescue, as the women observe, “the only means of restoration for Sethe, and the community is the guidance of baby Suggs’s spirit and her teaching, as a preacher in the Clearing, the space she chose as her pulpit” (Reed 56). At the Clearing, sound is embodied as direction through Baby Suggs; direction for celebration and mourning, laughter and crying, and for dancing.  Baby Suggs’s ceremonial directing the Clearing represents conversion as restoration. It is a place of conviction much like the place Ella and the others find themselves in front of 124. As Bruce D. Dickson Jr. notes in his article,  “Religion and Culture in the Old South: A Comparative View,”

The stage of conviction was a major part in the conversion process. In camp meetings this was the phase during which people were physically exercised, but in any setting conviction markedly affected the individual. Under conviction the potential saint was not only aware of his own sinful nature but was also aware of his inability to do anything about his situation. This sense of helplessness most impressed the plain-folk under conviction. (Bruce 403)

Baby Suggs reverses the assumption of helplessness. Naturally, Baby Suggs recounts the Old Testament representation of an angry and jealous God who instructs us to chose life and encourages us that we succeed over the New Testament God that is love, but still instructs us to chose suffering and tells us that we can’t do it alone. Baby Suggs negotiates these theological principles she and turns on it’s head the male role of religious authority as “Baby Suggs’s represents a challenge to the tradition male dominance of the black church” (Reed 59). Beloved’s possession of 124 in Beloved, and representations of the supernatural other in “Morrison’s larger body of writing complements other culturally relevant themes that establish the historical core of Beloved‘s narrative. Particularly, in African philosophy and theology, the ancestral spirits work in conjunction with deities to provide direction and empowerment to the living” (Reed 56).

            In the Clearing, as Baby Suggs’s separates and reunites the children from the adults, the women from the men, she is untying history and mending it in new fabric. Her style of preaching is allegorical of Christian conversion and the parable of the wineskin’s.

The extramusical utterances – the growls, groans, and moans…are all varieties of the cry and the defining of hymn raising in the black cultural tradition [and] suggest syncretism between culture and history…within this culturally specific framework, the cry, in juxtaposing word and song also juxtapose male and female, rendering it a natural agent of common restrictions. (Reed 71)

In relating the shared historical experiences through the characters in Beloved, Morrison stated that her  “job [became] how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’” (Wall 94). Relating the past is viewed as essential to the process of healing. “Sethe remembers small victories” in the novel quite easily, but “Beloved prevails upon Sethe to remember” everything (Wall 99). Still, through the exercise of memory, the novel does not relinguish Beloved completely as “she is a possession rescued from the past, a mirror-image of the daughter who searches backwards in time” (Rody 112). Though she vanishes when confronted by the thirty women and Sethe’s possessed and failed attempt to kill MR. Bodwin, she lingers on in some fashion. After beloved is gone, Denver is asked by Paul D is she believes that was truly her sister, “At times. At times I think she was – more” (261).

Bruce, Jr., Dickson D. “Religion and Culture in the Old South: A Comparative View.” American Quarterly. 26.4. Oct 1974. (399-416). JSTOR Web. 10 Oct. 2011.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. Print.

Reed, Roxanne R. “The Restorative Power of Sound: A Case for Communal Catharsis in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 23.1. Spring 2007. (55-71). Project Muse Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Rody, Carolina. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, ‘Rememory,’ and a ‘Clamor for a Kiss.’” American Literary History. 7.1. Spring 1995. (92-119). JSTOR Web. 12 Nov. 2011.

Wall, Cheryl A. Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Print.