by Toni Morrison
Gothic Fiction; Family Drama; Literary Fiction; Coming-of-Age
Beloved opens with a ghost slamming the daylights out of the house on 124 Bluestone Road. Ghost stories usually take a little bit of time to build up some suspense, but this novel doesn't pull any punches. With all that slamming and banging—not to mention children rising up from the dead—we're definitely working withgothic fiction. A fine example of American gothic fiction, at that.
In case you're wondering, there's a pretty easy way to tell American gothic from British gothic. Here's our helpful Shmoop tip for the day: watch out for the castles. See, the Brits have it easy. The whole country is crawling with tumbling-down castles, which are pretty perfect settings for scary novels like The Castle of Otranto or Frankenstein. American gothic novelists, on the other hand, were a bit short on castles. What they lack in tumbled-down turrets, though, they make up for in creepy woods and tumbled-down shacks. Sort of like 124 Bluestone Road, come to think of it.
Gothic differs from straight-out ghost stories in one very important way: when you're reading it, you're never sure that there are really ghosts. Gothic fiction's really just a big tease. Sure, Beloved could be a ghost. But then again, she could just be a woman with an uncanny ability to read Sethe's mind, right?
Morrison never lets the reader rest on one conclusion or another—or not for too long, at least. She's pretty happy to mess with our minds while we try to figure out just what on earth is going on.
Beloved's not just a gothic novel, though. It's also a good old-fashioned tale about a screwed-up family. Believe us, Sethe's children could probably give the guests on the Jerry Springer Show a run for their money. They've got all sorts of problems: infanticide, hauntings, love triangles, baby daddies and baby mammas, and of course, a baby girl rising from the dead. Need we say more?
By the way, if you want more historical oomph, check out this rundown on slavery and its effect on slave families.
The way that Morrison writes about all those family problems is why we can call Beloved literary fiction.
We know, we know, it's a weird category. After all, isn't all fiction literary? Well, yes. But no.
Here at Shmoop, we've got a special section for authors who've won so many awards that they have to rent extra storage space for all their medals. And calling it "Really, Really Prestigious and Well-Respected Fiction That Your Teachers Are Probably Going to Make You Read and Well They Should" just sounds strange. Hence, "literary fiction."
It's not just about awards, though. Morrison shares a common thread with all those lesser known "serious" writers: the drive to make their literature speak to our higher senses and sensibilities. Literary fiction writers want us to think about "the big idea," "the greater significance"—all those concepts that would make for a great thesis statement on your next essay.
In other words, these writers might use major family drama or the presence of ghosts in their stories, but they are not just about shock value. And how do they get you to think these big, important thoughts? Well, you can find it in the way they use different narrative techniques or how they experiment with words or describe a scene.
Another way to tell? If it's difficult to read and understand, you can probably bet that it's "literary fiction."
Beloved definitely isn't the same type of historical fiction as, say, Margaret Mitchell's famous 1936 novel Gone With the Wind. After all, we don't get all these lush details about the way people dressed or what their columns and buttresses looked like back in the 1800s.
What we do get, though, is historical context. If Gone With the Wind was about a romance set during the U.S. Civil War, then Beloved is about how romance (and a lot of other things) goes awry both during and after the Civil War for ex-slaves.
To be more specific, Beloved is a novel that can't exist without two very important historical markers: the actual story of fugitive slave Margaret Garner and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (check out "Setting" for more on that). Those two historical made it possible for Morrison to even dream about characters like Beloved, Sethe, and Denver. So, if you ask us, that makes Beloved about as historical as you can get.