by Toni Morrison
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Let's start by talking about the dedication:
Sixty Million and more
The sixty million to whom Morrison dedicates Beloved refers to the estimated number of black people who died during the Atlantic slave trade.
But what about that "and more?" Well, maybe Morrison might have an even broader dedication in mind. After all, Beloved is about the after-effects of slavery. Every character in the novel seems to be scarred in one way or another by the brutality of this particular period of American history. So even if they aren't part of the sixty million, they're still victims of suffering and intense brutality.
A lot of bigwig professors argue that Morrison's dedication is reminiscent of the tallying of the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Some critics even go so far as to suggest that Morrison is pretty much saying to the Jews, "More blacks died from slavery than Jews from the Holocaust."
We're not on Team Criticize Morrison, but we do think pairing slavery to the Holocaust can lead you to some pretty big questions: How do we determine how important any given historical event is? Can something as traumatic as slavery (or the Holocaust) ever be measured? And, most importantly, how do we remember the dead?
While you're chewing on all those big ideas, we'll move onto the epigraph.
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Morrison's quoting the New Testament here; the King James translation of Romans 9:25, to be specific. And when we say quoting, we mean quoting—word for word.
For those of you who could use a little refresher on your biblical history, in Romans, the apostle Paul is writing a letter to—you guessed it!—the Romans. He's talking about God's love, which he wants to suggest is for everyone, especially those people who seem excluded.
If that doesn't make the connection to Beloved obvious enough, there's that whole bit about "her beloved/which was not beloved." We're guessing it would be pretty safe to say that Morrison's title comes from these lines. But we're also guessing that Paul wasn't thinking about a dead baby girl coming back to life when he wrote those words.
So why would Morrison find inspiration in this Biblical passage for her title character?
On one hand, you can read Morrison's use of the Bible simply. In the letter to the Romans, Paul refers to the idea that God has always loved Gentiles (non-Jews) and Jews alike. Maybe Morrison is suggesting that God's love isn't just for Gentiles and Jews—it's also for those blacks who were condemned to slavery.
But before you totally go all in on that interpretation, you might want to consider the fact that Morrison's really not a simple writer. She's far more interested in getting you to ask hard questions.
For example, since Beloved is really about Sethe's love for her children (specifically, the daughter she killed), does that make a mother's love as great as God's love? And if so, wouldn't that mean Morrison is kind of making Sethe equal to God?
Or how about this: if Beloved shows how a mother's love can be murderous, what does that say about God's love? Can it be just as destructive as Sethe's love? And can Beloved ultimately only find peace with God and the afterlife because of slavery?
A lot to think about, right? Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
P.S. If you're feeling like you want to dive deeper into the epigraph, take a look at all the commentary on Romans 9:25.