Can narrative do the work of theory? A look at Toni Morrison's Beloved

Here's a response paper I wrote for my Women's Studies class. We read Beloved by Toni Morrison and "The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition" by Satya Mohanty. We were asked to read Beloved as theory and also to connect Morrison's and Mohanty's work to the other material we read on experience in feminist theory. Mohanty, rejecting both the "ahistorical essentialism" of an uncritical acceptance of experience as a foundation for theory and the skeptical postmodern turn toward "experience" as completely discursive and the product of an individual interpretive framework, argues for a "realist" approach to cultural and political identity, in which you take as given that experience is mediated by discourse and by theory, but that you see experience as both cognitive and affective. Mohanty insists that experience can yield knowledge. That being said, when I finished Beloved and the Mohanty article, my head was swimming. I had read Beloved several times before, and I appreciate it more each time. I think I use this word pretty sparingly to describe things, but Beloved warrants it: it is monumental. There's just so much there. I read it once when I was writing a paper about folklore and alternative knowledge systems, and there's so much of that (for example, Amy uses the folk remedy of putting spiderwebs on wounds to stop the bleeding on Sethe's back, where she has been whipped). Anyway, here is the response I wrote, which I think I'll rewrite later, because I'm not satisfied with it right now.

This problematic has been a particularly difficult one for me to construct. Mohanty and Morrison both deal with a great number of issues in such depth, and I cannot address all the questions each raises. I will, then, try to touch on only a few issues. First, I am interested in the question of whether narrative can do the work of theory. I would certainly argue that narrative can do the work of argument, of persuasion in general. In my field, rhetoric, we call that “invitational rhetoric,” which is so persuasive because the reader does not realize that he or she is being persuaded. However, in the case of Beloved as a text that theorizes postcolonial identity, it is up to the audience to infer the specific theoretical claims about identity and experience that Morrison implies. Mohanty does an excellent job of this, but in my own prior reading of Beloved (I have read it several times over the years before reading the Mohanty piece), I did not understand Morrison's theoretical argument. I agree that narrative can support and facilitate the work of theory, but, like experience, the reading of the narrative must be mediated by theory in order for the narrative to be understood in a theoretical context. In other words, I doubt that Mohanty could have interpreted Beloved as a text that theorizes postcolonial identity had he not previously engaged postcolonial theory. While I do not think that narrative alone can do the work of theory, Beloved very powerfully facilitates the theoretical claim that experience should be taken seriously, as it shapes knowledge, identity, and community. The work of theory and the role of community are, to use Mohanty's term, “braided” together in Morrison's novel. At the end of Beloved, Paul D remembers Sixo's explanation of his feelings for the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind” (p. 272-73). A community helps a subject work through his or her experiences and interpret them coherently, in context, “in all the right order,” and theory, which is also composed in community, accomplishes the same task.

In the case of Beloved and postcolonial identity, Morrison uses one moral decision—that of Sethe to kill her children rather than allow them to be taken by Schoolteacher—as a point of entry into the question of experience's power to influence identity. Was she, based on her experiences, justified in killing Beloved? Experience lends legitimacy to Sethe's intense feelings of anger and fear. It is important to point out that Sethe is never thinking only about her own experience; experience is never a matter of just the individual. She is also thinking about Sixo's experience, her mother's, Baby Suggs', Halle's, Paul A's, Paul F's, Paul D's, and Ella's. Sethe has epistemological privilege enough to know that because her children are also Black, they will experience the same atrocities if taken by Schoolteacher. Identity is not singular. It is collective and cultural, and it is political. In order to own oneself, the postcolonial subject must bond with other postcolonial subjects as a group and confront her own experience and the experience of her group. When Paul D is alone, he is able to put his experiences in a tightly shut mental and emotional “tobacco tin.” Sethe, too, is isolated, shunned by the community. When Sethe and Beloved are together, they engage in “uncontrolled repetition, 'acted out' by the subject” (Mohanty, p. 60). The community's reacceptance of Sethe and Paul D, and Sethe and Paul D's reunion, help to facilitate a “cognitive reorientation” (Mohanty, p. 57). Morrison, then, engages our imaginations and emotions to show that common experience unites a group. Through the communal “gathering” of individual experiences and memories, the group makes knowledge and meaning. The experience is legitimized and integrated into a group identity.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

your blog entry from three years prior saved my ass today

Hi Clancy,
I read "Beloved" for my African American lit class, and was blown away (as you were). It made "Song of Solomon" look like a fairytale. I was at a loss for words when my journal entry for this text came due in class. I knew I wanted to tackle cultural trauma and how it connects to individual identity, but had no idea what direction to go in, until I googled and your blog came up. Anyways, after reading your entry on "Beloved", and looking at a few formal articles on post colonial theory, I came up with the following. I wanted to thank you for being so public with your thoughts. The below still needs work, but you really helped me consolidate. Thanks again!
Beloved Journal Entry

(A conversation between Sethe and Denver about Sweet Home)

“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go, pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place-the picture of it-stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”
“Can other people see it?” asked Denver.
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes. Someday you will be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away. Even if the whole farm-every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there-you who never was there-if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over-over and done with-it’s going to always be there waiting for you. That’s how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what.”
“If its’ still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies.”
Sethe looked right in Denver’s face. “Nothing ever does,” she said. ”

In the article Colonial Trauma/Post Colonial Recovery, David Lloyd argues that one’s relation to the past is “strictly not a relation to one’s own past by to a social history and its material and institutional effects and is in no simple way a matter of internal psychic dynamics . The above conversation between Sethe and Denver illustrates this complicated and somewhat vague (to me) relationship. Furthermore, Lloyds’ argument is reflected in the passage where Beloved experiences the Middle Passage in a dimension accessible, despite disparities in time and place.

Places and people in Morrison’s Beloved are constantly manipulated by external forces, mostly the past. Sethe so intimately experiences within the present past situations both through her internal psyche as well as through the psyches attached to all external environments that she doubts time exists. How then, is Sethe’s internal identity distinct from the cultural trauma of the past? Do her personal traumas of the past become part of the larger cultural trauma shared by African Americans in regards to slavery? Is Sethe’s identity impacted by both equally?
Morrison’s theme of healing through the support of the larger African American community in the novel suggests that personal trauma can be alleviated by friendships within the larger community, a community whose members are decided by the cultural trauma all have in common. How connected personal and cultural traumas are may be reflected in different relationships within the novel and how conducive to healing each relationship is. In Beloved, the power of one person to heal or help another appears to depend on what extent the two share on a culturally traumatic level. For example, the white woman Amy saves the life of Sethe and Denver. Amy is a white slave. Mr. and Mrs. Bodwin, both white abolitionists, are able to give housing and jobs to previous slaves, but do not save lives. Perhaps this is because less cultural trauma is shared between the twins and the ex-slave African American community. In contrast, Paul D reflects on how his relationship with Sethe is healing in the same way as the relationship between Sixo and the Thirty Mile Woman. “She is a friend of the mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind .” Paul D and Beloved, like Sixo and The Thirty Mile Woman, share the same culturally traumatic past.

“At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of
other human beings, we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning .”
If one could assume the above statement valid, no blame can be placed on Sethe’s decision to kill Beloved in the woodshed, as her internal dialogue suggests loss of meaning, control and connection.

She was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right though her head cloth into her hair and beat their winds. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on .

1.Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987, pp. 44-45.
2. Lloyd, David. “Colonial Trauma/ Post Colonial Recovery.” Interventions: international journal of postcolonial studies, Volume 2, Number 2: 1 July 2000, pp. 212-228(17).
3. duration regarded as belonging to the present life as distinct from the life to come or from eternity; finite duration
(Source: "time." Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Random House, Inc. 06 Dec. 2006.

4. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987, pp. 321.
5. Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
6. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987, pp. 192.

Glad to be of help!

...though I'm a little confused by the conclusion, which is a blockquote from the novel.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.