Throughout every human culture extending from the northernmost tundra to the southernmost desert, storytelling has formed the backbone of the community. In societies that did not develop writing systems for their languages, these stories were passed orally. The lyrical poetry of the Greeks, the Gilgamesh saga of the Babylonians, the dreamtime of the Australian Aborigines, the creation mythologies of the Native Americans, even the stories of the Hebrew tribes that eventually formed the Old Testament; all were rooted in an oral storytelling tradition. By the passage from generation to generation, communities preserved their unique histories and mythos, creating a continuity of heritage that linked the newborn child with the most revered elder.
The slave community of the Americas, however, torn from their geographically disparate homes in Africa and deprived of all freedom, dignity, and happiness by a viciously indifferent European-American culture lusting for ever-growing agricultural prosperity, faced a fundamental crisis as they tried to rebuild a sense of identity from the wreckage of the Civil War and the Great Migration. Traumatized by the barbaric, inhuman cruelty they had suffered, and the choices they had made in response to it, they found themselves with only an oral tradition of terror and misery related piecemeal and with reluctance.
Yet it was vital to reach for some sort of heritage, a root from which they could trace their individual lineage, if only for the assurance such connections with the past could provide. As Toni Morrison summarized in her final chapters of the novel concerning this quest for heritage, Beloved, "this is not a story to pass on," (290), neither to be handed down through the generations, nor to be forgotten. The nature of this paradox is communicated indirectly throughout the novel's first two parts in the thoughts and words of central protagonists Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, however no direct conclusions may be drawn from it until Part Three.
Here, a transition from third to first-person dialogue provides a group of chapters that serves as the locus point for the work as a whole. Each account provides a personal introspection on previous events from each woman's perspective, explaining their emotional significance and motivations and grounding each woman upon a base of representational meaning and symbolism in the context of African-American culture's quest for firm roots for its burgeoning family tree, born from a seed of blood, tears, and defiant but beleaguered hope.
The subjective perspectives of the three women provide a reference point from which significant but cryptic events previous to the monologues take on clearer relevance when set in their emotional contexts, resolving characters for the reader as Part Three begins. Sethe's experience, a traumatic life punctuated by equal measures of rage, sorrow, and guilt, takes on final clarification to give the reader a full picture of her emotions and motivations. The central horrific event of the novel, the murder of her child Beloved, appears to be a completely inexplicable action by a woman bereft of all reason or sanity, however from Sethe's first-person perspective she sees her action as perfectly justified.
'Rememories' from her past, experiences so traumatic that their implications still affect the present, catalyze her action. "They handled me like I was the cow, no, the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses" (210). Her very existence as a human being denied, the true significance of the breast-feeding incident before she fled Sweet Home, in which she was raped by her owners' sons in a grotesque and nauseating mockery of nursing, comes to light. It reveals itself as a question of dignity, dignity which she transferred to her children. She focused all of her efforts on the next generation, making her entire existence their love and protection. This love turned deadly as it was threatened by those 'outside the yard'. "She had to be safe and I put her where she would be" (210). She murdered Beloved because the child's safety was paramount to her, above all else, a safety from Sethe's own heritage.
Seeing that her rememories were standing before her, in the flesh, she smoothly reevaluated every basic notion concerning the divide between life and death, viewing the next world as an untouchable place where her children could find refuge. From this personal perspective, we gain a clearer, if tragic, sense of Sethe's emotions and motivations, so powerful that they could drive her to murder her own child.
Denver's emotionally withdrawn demeanor also finds its reasons in her first-person monologue. She expresses a fear of the outside world grounded in the event of her sister's murder. The action she attributes to her mother, but the catalyst for the action is to be found somewhere else. "Outside this house, outside the yard... it can come right on in the yard if it wants to" (215). The world beyond 124 is a place that can so distort individuals that they could murder their own children. This is the central basis for Denver's isolation, which she adopts voluntarily.
Her withdrawal is clarified even further by a revelation she only shares in the first person, her expectancy of her father's arrival, whom she expects to save her from both the turmoil beyond the yard and that within. "I thought it was him, my daddy. Nobody comes to this house anymore. But when I got downstairs it was Paul D and he didn't come for me" (217). Her perplexing response to Paul D's arrival, a sense of undeserved hostility, does not seem reasonable until its emotional underpinnings are brought to light. Paul D's very existence as 'not her father' immediately puts him beyond her safe realm and renders him a usurper, giving her neither comfort nor the sense of history she desperately desires.
Beloved, who later sucks the life out of Sethe mercilessly, seems to be without reason for her spiteful actions. From her own perspective, however, the reasoning becomes clear. Identifying Sethe with a figure from far in the past, a slave along the Middle Passage who drowned herself rather than face the terror and humiliation of the slavery journey, Beloved states her fundamental objection. "They do not push the woman with my face through she goes in they do not push her" (223). The woman, who is a part of her heritage, made a choice to kill herself. Though circumstances left her no choice, she was nonetheless not forced.
Beloved cannot forgive this, just as she cannot forgive Sethe's crime. The emotional toll of seeming rejection is too great to bear. Taking actions that seemed without basis in the previous sections of the book and explaining them with a reasoning rooted in deep emotional reactions clarifies the events for the reader and resolves conceptions of the characters so they may move onward toward the book's climax.
Operating not only on a narrative, but also symbolic level, the women's three monologues serve as a guide to representational events throughout the book, elevating the factual to the ethereal to generalize their personal journeys to a wider view on the African-American search for heritage. A side note of sorts upon her first encounter with Beloved, Sethe's basic biological response grows to represent something more, as Sethe herself realizes as she speaks through her own voice. "The minute I saw you sitting on the stump, it broke" (212). Her unusually long period of urination, uncontrollable, comes to acquire symbolic meaning as the water-breaking of pregnancy.
Sethe makes this connection as she realizes the adult Beloved is a reincarnation of her child's spirit, supplying it to the reader as well. This may also be extended to a broader context as the birth of a new cultural heritage, one rooted not in the individual tribal communities of Africa but a mish-mashed and abused collection of individuals trying to reshape a new identity for themselves during and following their period of brutal slavery.
Denver's experience is also punctuated by moments of greater meaning. Significant to her development was the moment when she too became aware of her heritage. "The first thing I heard after not hearing anything was the sound of her crawling up the stairs" (215). Denver finds a new way to connect with the world by embracing the spiritual presence of Beloved, recovering from the shock of learning of her mother's crime by wrapping herself up in the comforting blanket of the past. The turning point at which she loses her deafness generalizes to a broader perspective on her view of her history.
The identity she embraces comes from the metaphysical and distant past, but she takes an entirely different approach to her immediate past; her elders. "It wouldn't harm me because I tasted its blood? she said the ghost was after Ma'am and her too for not doing anything to stop it" (220). Denver identifies with Beloved, she 'tastes her blood', but she is not affected by it as her parents are. This individual caution she recalls from Baby Suggs also suggests a symbolic view on the place of her younger generation. Denver does not feel she can be hurt by the past, no matter its horror, but acknowledges that it stalks and claims her elders.
Beloved makes an observation allowing the reader to connect Sethe with the entire lineage of slavery, from the moment the Middle Passage began to the flee from Sweet Home. "Sethe is the one that picked flowers, yellow flowers in the place before the crouching" (225). This symbolic statement gives the reader a better sense of Sethe's role in African-American heritage and provides the key for puzzling out some of Beloved's more cryptic statements.
Beloved also identifies the fundamental issue of the novel, the nature of the tainted chalice for which African-Americans reach as they try to reclaim a sense of heritage. "All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching" (221). The whole of the people's history is filled with the barbarity of slavery; it holds a death grip. Beloved, the representative of this heritage, cannot ever identify a time in which she is not on the Middle Passage, not surrounded by the unspeakable thing haunting the minds of every black American. There is no break from this horror in the past, nor will there be in the future.
By their direct statements in their own voices, the women clarify symbolic episodes in a manner that guides the reader toward Toni Morrison's conception of the quest for African-American heritage; it's absolute necessity to the children of slavery, yet it's irreconcilable horror and threat.
The shift from third to first-person dialogue that introduces Part Three of the novel Beloved allows the reader a clarifying insight on past events in the book, both supplying emotional context to the three female protagonists' sometimes inexplicable actions and giving representational and symbolic depth to events in the past. With this technique, Toni Morrison guides the reader to a tragic view of the African-American search for a shared heritage upon which they may rebuild their community. Like the cruelly salted soil of the city of Carthage, razed to the ground by departing Roman legionnaires, the oral legacy that African-Americans turn to cannot bear the fruit of a united community. It is filled to the bursting point with sorrow, terror, and suffering, rendering it unbearable.
Yet the former slaves and their descendants cannot sever themselves from this horrible history, as it is a part of them, it defines them even as they try to create individual identities. It is not a story to give onward, but it is not a story to be overlooked. It is not a story to pass on. By generalizing this saddening conclusion from the personal stories of three African-American women, Morrison brings the reader to an understanding of the true nature of slavery, giving voice to the unspeakable. It is a lesson that the entire American nation yearns to forget, yet one that we must never.
In the name of the Mother, and of the Daughter, and of the Cursed Spirit. Amen.