Toni Morrison’s “Beloved:” some ideas to consider & some questions to ask

Some ideas to consider and some questions to ask when reading Part One of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Thanks goes to Stanford’s Great Works Program and to the observations of UCSC Professor Paul Skenazy.

Basic timeline:  Sethe came to Sweet Home at 13, chose Halle at 14, and was married to Halle for six years bearing two sons and one daughter by the time she is 20 and escapes Sweet Home pregnant with a second daughter in 1855 to live at 124 Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the beginning of the novel, when Paul D. from Sweet Home turns up 18 years later, Sethe is 38 and her youngest daughter Denver is 18.

1. Consider the epigraphs (read the Wikipedia definition here.) Review the first episode of Beloved carefully, and discuss your reactions to it. What expectations does the opening scene raise for the work to follow

2. Consider the novel’s complex structure. Why does Morrison choose this particular way of telling Sethe’s story? What does the way the story is told suggest about Morrison’s view of the human mind and its workings?

3. Slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, are the starting point of the African-American literary tradition. One of the biggest themes in Frederick Douglass’s story is the question of his name, or his identity. How does this issue relate to Beloved? If you are familiar with slave narratives, can you find ways that Morrison refers to, uses, or reworks the slave narrative tradition in Beloved?

4. Morrison makes a point of including traditional, folkloric, non-literary African-American culture in Beloved, some of which is derived from ancient African roots. What is the effect of this inclusion?

5. Among other things, Beloved is a ghost story. What are the special problems for writer and reader in having a ghost featured as a main character?

6. Give some thought to the presence of (and commentary on) white people in the novel. Why does the author make the choices she does in her presentations of whites?

7.  What have you observed about how and where Morrison uses the words “niggers”? Blacks? Negroes?

8. Part 1 is bracketed by two comings and goings: Paul D. and Beloved. What do you make of this? What might bracket Parts 2 and 3?

9. Early in the Part 1, Amy Denver tells Sethe, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (page 35 in my edition). How does this foreshadow much of the novel?

10. One site explains Sethe’s “chokecherry tree” this way: “Upon Sethe’s back is a maze of scars, referred to by Paul D as a “chokecherry tree.” It is the remains of an operation schoolteacher performed upon her back in an effort to determine how much she resembled an animal. The tree, which is ever-present but can never be seen, is symbolic of the burden which Sethe carries. It is her past, and it is the prejudice of white men against her. It is a mark made by people who believed her to be an animal.” What do you think of this analysis?

Some ideas to consider and some questions to ask when reading Parts Two and Three of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Choose one question to be an “expert” on and prepare to lead a discussion about it.

SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven’t finished Parts Two and Three, go no further!

According to the website Ohio History Central, Margaret Garner escaped slavery with her husband and children, but a group of slave owners found the family shortly thereafter: “Before the slaveholders captured the runaways, Margaret Garner used a butcher knife to kill her young daughter. Garner also tried to kill her other children, but she was unsuccessful in her attempt. Garner did not want her children returned to a life of slavery. Margaret Garner’s story of her willingness to kill her own child to prevent her from being returned to a life in bondage received national attention. The story of Margaret Garner was the basis of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved by Ohio native Toni Morrison.”

1.    Now that you’ve completed the novel, review the first episode of Beloved carefully, and discuss your reactions to it again. How does it function in relation to book as a whole?

2.    What judgments does Toni Morrison make on Sethe’s killing of her daughter? How does Sethe’s community judge her? How does Paul D. judge her? How does she judge herself? How do you judge her?

3.    Give some thought to the presence of (and commentary on) white people in the novel. Why does the author make the choices she does in her presentations of whites?

4.    Reflect on the detailed attention that Morrison gives to experiences that will certainly claim your attention (and will probably shock and disturb you): Paul D. on the chain gang, locked in the box; Paul’s experience of the bit; the milking of Sethe; School Teacher’s recording of the slaves’ animal characteristics; Sixo’s death. What is the effect of those experiences, on those who live them and on us as readers?

5.    What’s the significance of the number 124? Of the little “i” ?

6.     Toward the end of Part 2, Morrison uses some unusual narrative devices. Take note of who is the narrator of each of the “sections” or chapters in Part 2 and who’s perspective does the narration come from. In the chapter full of short sentences starting with “you” or “I” or “we,” who is speaking? Why do you think Morrison writes in this way?

7.    When you finish the book, note your reaction to the last passage. How do you feel about the ending? Why do you suppose the book concludes (or doesn’t conclude) in this way?

8.    The novel asks many questions, among them, what it means to be a “man,” to be human, and what it means to be “free.” What do you think it takes to be human? What does it mean to be free?

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