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Beloved is a ghost story, the tale of the dead returned to haunt the living. The story comes complete with a haunted house, strange lights, scents and sounds, and an animal that can sense the presence of the supernatural. We know of the shattering mirrors, the tiny handprints appearing in the cake, the kettleful of chickpeas on the floor, “the outrageous behavior of that place . . . turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air” (3,4). The ghost has uncanny strength, otherworldly features, mysterious knowledge and unexplainable powers. Women in this novel are acutely attuned to the spirit world, and they take for granted the principles that spiritualism found so “new” and appealing. Sethe and Denver live intimately with the spirit of the dead, “For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light,” and Sethe herself asserts that “nothing ever dies” (4, 36). We are told that Denver even finds the presence of the ghost comforting (37).
The women themselves, in this novel, act as mediums, interacting directly with the supernatural realm: “Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought, an exchange of views or something would help. So they held hands and said, ?Come on.?” (4). Sethe?s intimate contact with the dead extends beyond the ghost of Beloved, and is seen also in her post-mortem communication with Baby Suggs. She speaks to the spirit of her mother-in-law, bringing about a physical manifestation, taking on the role of the medium: “?Just let me feel your fingers again on the back of my neck? . . . Sethe bowed her head and sure enough — they were there. Lighter now . . .but unmistakably caressing fingers . . . Baby Suggs? long-distance love was equal to any skin-close love” (95).
The house itself acts as a medium,coming to life when animated by the spirit of Beloved:
“Denver approached the house, regarding it, as she always did, as a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits. Her steps and her gaze were the cautious ones of a child approaching a nervous, idle relative. (19)
Toni Morrison uses two major themes in her novels. Slavery and spiritualism is displayed throughout the plots in each one of Morrison?s legendary books. In Beloved she chooses to make the reader feel a sense of unreality. The book uses one character to change to entire theme. The actual character of Beloved is a spirit, brought back from the dead, to haunt her past. This book could be, and most likely was true except for the one factor that Beloved is a ghost. Fiction versus non-fiction can be seen in the ways in which Toni Morrison presents her imaginary character, Beloved. Morrison adds a simple twist to make this a fictional novel.
Both African teachings and 19th century spiritualism address the behavior of the improperly mourned and buried, the restless spirit who haunts. Sethe wonders, “Who would have thought a little old baby could harbor so much rage?,” and women in the Black community, such as Ella, know that “people who die bad don?t stay in the ground” (5, 188). Beloved?s death is indeed unnatural, wrought at the hands of a mother?s misguided attempt at protection– which we finally see resolved when Sethe?s more appropriate violence towards the source of her misery, the figure of the white man, eradicates the ghost at the novel?s end. Beloved?s burial and grave markings are, as spiritualism and African belief both warn against, unseemly — she is buried in a scantily marked grave, bought with ten minutes of sex. Because of her imprisonment, Beloved?s mother has not been able to grieve and bury her daughter properly. As a result of this unsettled, unnatural death, Beloved brings trouble to the living:
The mood changed and the arguments began . . . When once or twice Sethe tried to assert herself . . . Beloved slammed things, wiped the table clean of plates, threw salt on the floor, broke a windowpane. She was not like them. She was wild game . . . and little by little it dawned on Denver that if Sethe didn?t wake up one morning and pick up a knife, Beloved might . . .The news spread among the coloredwomen, Sethe?s dead daughter . . . had come back to fix her.(242, 250, 255)
Significantly, as Carol Schmudde points out, the sight of this haunting is located between the Ohio River, which marks the boundary between slave and free territory, and a stream marking “the watery boundary African myth places between the worlds of the living and the dead” (410). It is this thin line between realities that Morrison so adeptly confronts.
In accordance with African belief about the dead, the ghost of Beloved is linked to the collective history of slavery, and to the memories of the dead and the survivors. As Baby Suggs recognizes, “death was anything but forgetfulness” (4). We know that in the world of the novel, as in the American historical landscape, slavery has left its ugly mark on both the dead and the living: “Not a house in the country ain?t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro?s grief,” says Baby Suggs. “We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband?s spirit was to come back in here? or yours? . . . You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side” (5).
This haunting has everything to do with the ghost of collective history and painful memory, and a healing re-empowerment comes through the spirit world itself. The ghost of Beloved, as a representative of the past, of the “ancestor” spirit world, connects Sethe to and helps her come to grips with both the collective history and its manifestation in her own personal history, the one she has struggled to leave untold and unremembered. The ancestor-ghost-child Beloved reconnects Sethe to spiritual wholeness. Beloved has a thirst for stories from the past, and Sethe begins to heal in the remembering, the telling (58).
So, as Handley aptly puts it, the girl Beloved inhabits both West African and American cultural spaces; she is “emblematic of both African survival and American loss” (679). Morrison taps into this duality and reclaims Africa?s spiritual legacy. The recognition that a popular, empowering, “new” understanding of the world emerged for Anglo women at the same time that African-American women attempted to recover from the painful shadow of slavery cannot be lost on Morrison. Her novel, as we know, is made of characters for whom these beliefs are an ancient and valuable inheritance, not a new-found religious alternative. These characters must face and learn to re-claim a history and a collective memory, both the pain of slavery and the heritage of a homeland which preceded it — and the ghost plays a vital role. Beloved is not just the spirit of Sethe?s dead baby come back to haunt the living. She is Sethe?s lost African self (Rigney 232).
Morison?s version of the 19th century novel recontextualizes the tenets on which spiritualism was based, returning to Black Americans, and to women in particular, an African foundation of tradition and belief. She re-writes the slave narrative and the 19th century women?s abolitionist novel, which frequently contained ghostly hauntings and other elements of spiritualism. During slavery, as these texts often depicted, the ghost story and other tales of supernatural activity were used by masters to frighten and control slaves, to prevent them from wandering about freely (Smith-Wright 142). Anglo slave owners exploited the African connection to and awareness of the power of the spirit world. Morrison?s novel re-endows African-Americans with an empowering, as opposed to a controlling and demeaning, connection to this spirituality. Sethe and Denver struggle alone, and on their own terms, with very real ghosts — the dead baby, the pain of slavery and loss, the collective memory of millions of dead Africans. They negotiate their own communication and their own peace with the realm of the dead, and ultimately discover anew the spiritual memory of power from an African past.
We see this strength of spiritual negoriation most vividly when the women of Sethe?s community join together to confront the spirit world head-on, with power and efficacy. I argue that Morrison designates this spiritual power particularly to women in the novel — After all, we know that despite Paul D?s passionate and violent attempts to eradicate Beloved, the spirit of the dead not only remains outside his communicative abilities, but rather continues to control him, seducing him sexually and moving him out of the house at will (18,114, 117). When we read the lines “It took a man, Paul D, to shout it off, beat it off and take its place for himself,” we know the irony, the prematurity, of the pronouncement (104). We know that the only members of the household to be successfully driven out by the ghost are the men — Paul D and Sethe?s sons — while the women of 124 Bluestone Road endure (37). Morrison sees, with clear vision, the female ability to “open locks the rain?s rained on,” to connect with mystery and the so-called super-natural (275). Just as spiritualism did for Anglo women in the 19th century, Morrison?s text empowers Black women by giving back a valuable spiritual birthright. No longer are Black women of 19th century America excluded by history, by slavery, by skin color, from a powerful female spirituality — It was theirs all along.
In the end, the kind of new religious authority given through spiritualism to 19th century Anglo women is appropriated and historicized as an inherent,empowering force for African-American women. What had been “Anglicized” is returned and re-valued. In a novel ultimately concerned with death, gender, memory, history and power, spiritualism and its original rootedness in African belief serve as a rich foundation from which Morrison builds a truly historic work of fiction.
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