by Toni Morrison
Analysis: Narrator Point of View
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
Narrative voice is a tricky beast in Beloved. For starters, Morrison doesn't stick to just one narrative style. She'd rather make you aware of how diverse her characters are—translation: she'd rather make you work. To top it off, she switches between the different styles often and without warning. Sometimes she's so subtle that you might have a tough time noticing that anything's changed at all—until you suddenly realize that you're in some other character's head.
In a nutshell, Beloved breaks down into three narrative perspectives: third person omniscient, third person limited omniscient, and straight-up first person. But the majority of book goes back and forth between third person omniscient and third person limited omniscient. Let's take a closer look.
Oh, and buckle your seatbelts—you're in for a wild ride.
Shift it up
We'll start with a typical example of the shift between the two main styles. Our omniscient third person narrator begins with a description of 124:
124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. (1.1)
We call this third person narrator "omniscient" because she seems to know everything about the house, Sethe, and Denver to such a degree that we can't argue about it; we can only accept the narrator's information as a given fact. More to the point, the narrator speaks like she's outside of the scene, which gives her a better perspective.
Then, all of the sudden, we're no longer seeing things from the omniscient narrator's distant view. Instead, we shift right over to a third person narrator with Baby Suggs' limited perspective—i.e., the narrators knows everything, but only about Baby Suggs.
Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn't the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn't like the one on Bluestone Road. (1.3)
We no longer have the advantage of seeing things through the omniscient narrator's all-knowing super-wide lens. But being limited to one character's consciousness means we get to know the character in a more intimate way while still enjoying some of that broad truthiness that third-person narration can give us.
Bringing Out (All) the Voices
We can't be sure of Morrison's objectives, but we'd wager that flitting between third person omniscient and third person limited was an intentional move on her part.
The technique allows Morrison to float in and out of the minds and stories of a wide range of characters. It's how we get to know our main characters and even how we come to understand the deeper backstories of minor characters like Lady Jones and Ella.
The overall mood of Beloved is more communal this way than if Morrison just stuck with a distant omniscient narrator or used a (more limiting) first-person narrator all the way through. The resulting feeling of a shared story is super important considering so much of African-American literature comes from a tradition of oral storytelling—storytelling as a way of building community.
And that's what Beloved—both book and title character—is ultimately about.
Let's Get First Personal
Of course, Morrison doesn't just to stick to a range of third person narrators. The last thing she would want would be for you to get too comfortable.
Which might be why we get Part 2, Chapters 20-23—also known as first person takeover. Instead of our trusty third-person narrator, a chorus of first person narrators suddenly greet us. Sure, we can figure out that the narrators are Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, but it's not easy. None of these women name themselves, and they switch back and forth without so much as a warning.
It's massively tough to figure out who's talking, and once we get a handle on whose mind we're following, we still have to figure out what on earth they're saying. Don't worry if you get confused in these sections; we have a hunch that's exactly the effect Morrison's going for.
This segment of the novel tends to be the part that folks like literary critics (and, um, teachers) rave about. Here's a helpful Shmoop tip: whenever things seem way stranger than they need to be, chances are the smarty pants of the world are going to go gaga over it. Don't worry, though. Your friendly Shmoop team is here to help.
The Holy Female Trifecta
First in our string of tough-to-follow, we have a chapter completely devoted to Sethe's first-person perspective. It begins: "Beloved, she my daughter. She mine" (20.1). We're pretty sure Sethe is speaking, because who else could be Beloved's mother?
Then Chapter 21 comes along and, sure enough, we have another speaker, Denver: "Beloved is my sister" (21.1). Same deal as Chapter 20: the speaker's relationship to Beloved helps us identify her.
That leaves us with Chapter 22, which—you guessed it—showcases Beloved's dazzling (or dizzying, depending on your perspective) voice: "I am Beloved and she is mine" (22.1). The "she" probably refers to Sethe, although if you feel like "she" could mean "herself" or Beloved's self, don't let us stop you from making that argument.
Chapter 22 shows us pretty clearly how much Beloved melds (or wants to meld) with Sethe—so much so that they might as well be speaking with one voice or occupying one body. And you can be sure we're not the first ones to think that Beloved is a little like bodysnatcher, or at the very least, a little stalker-ish.
La pièce de résistance
And then we get to Chapter 23.
Think of Chapter 23 like the beginning of a chorus. Before it begins, we hear three soloists, all thinking through what it means for Beloved to be part of the family (read: Chapters 20-22). Then, in Chapter 23, the voices all join together. And that's when things get confusing. (But we're supposed to be confused, remember?)
The chapter starts out simply enough. You have Beloved as your first person guide. You might notice, too, that her words sound awfully familiar. If you spotted that, then pat yourself on the back because you're right on—her words are like a repetition of the words in Chapter 22 (which she also narrated).
The difference? She's actually starting to make sense.
Instead of speaking in phrases and unpunctuated sentences, Beloved's giving you something very close to a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. She's still talking about Sethe, only she's filled in all the spaces from the chapter before.
(And, by the way, this section of the chapter is how we can sort of understand what she's saying in part of the previous chapter. It's like we're being forced to read backwards.)
Why does she do this? Or, rather, why does Morrison decide to let Beloved tell a part of her story twice, in two different ways?
Chapters 22 and 23 give Beloved an opportunity to retell her story both as a child first coming into language and then as a person who has finally mastered language. This split mirrors Beloved's role as two different characters in the novel: (1) a baby girl who never got to grow up and (2) the young adult who appears one day at 124. So maybe she gets two chances to "speak" because she's both of those characters in one body.
Or could it be that she gets two chances because her story is just that important? We hardly ever hear from her except in these chapters. It's so easy to see Beloved as this evil succubus-like character because of the whole seduction of Paul D and her obsession with Sethe, so maybe it's good for us to hear her side of the story.
And behind door #3: Maybe we can think of Beloved's double narration as a form of "rememory," the word that gets tossed around in the novel every time you think they should be saying "memory" or "remember." Chapter 22 is like the memory itself, getting recalled in the most primal and impressionistic way—you know, like a bad dream in all its broken-up, recollected pieces.
Then the beginning of Chapter 23 arrives as a form of rememory—a second retelling of the memory, one that makes more sense because it's been thought through a little more, but one that's also less immediate and dramatic because it's in all these tidy, logical sentences.
Go ahead—compare the two for yourself. Here's Beloved at the beginning of Chapter 22:
I see her take flowers away from leaves she puts them in a round basket the leaves are not for her she fills the basket she opens the grass I would help her but the clouds are in the way. (22.1)
And here's Beloved again, at the beginning of Chapter 23:
Sethe is the one that picked flowers, yellow flowers in the place before the crouching. Took them away from their green leaves. They are on the quilt now where we sleep. (23.1)
Okay, sure. Beloved's still pretty cryptic in Chapter 23 (for example, "in the place before the crouching"), but hey, at least she specifically identifies who and what she's talking about.
At the same time, those sentences in Chapter 23 don't have the same kind of open-ended, ethereal quality that the Chapter 22 sentences have with their lack of periods and extra spaces. That's why we kind of feel like Chapter 22 is the breathier, more poetic sibling of Chapter 23.
But enough about us. You can probably come up with a few more ideas on your own about why Beloved gets two narrative takes. That's the beauty of the novel: you've got a lot of room for interpretation.
Let's Go Greek
But okay—what about the rest of Chapter 23? The part where, all of the sudden, a bunch of voices start to break into verse? This is the part that sounds and looks a lot like an old-school Greek chorus.
The only thing is, this Greek chorus starts out more like an intimate conversation between two people. First, it's Sethe and Beloved, basically avowing their love for and memory of each other: "You came back because of me?/ Yes./ You rememory me?/ Yes. I remember you" (23.4-7).
Then it's Denver and Beloved (although, if you ask us, this conversation seems pretty one-sided): "We played by the creek./ I was there in the water./ In the quiet time, we played./ The clouds were noisy and in the way./ When I needed you, you came to be with me./ I needed her face to smile" (23.30-35).
Note: Sethe and Beloved sound like their typical, codependent selves. It's all about "you" and "me." But Denver sounds more like a little sister tagging along after a totally self- (and Sethe-) obsessed older sister. Denver thinks and talks in terms of a "we," while Beloved talks and thinks in terms of herself. Sucks to be Denver, right?
And, then, the big finale:
You are my sister
You are my daughter
You are my face; you are me
I have found you again; you have come back to me
You are my Beloved
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine.
See what we mean by confusing? We could guess that this passage has Denver, Sethe, and Beloved speaking to each other in turns, but we can't know for sure.
The Big Picture
Looking back at that quotation, you'll see that there aren't any quotation marks. Also, it shifts between perspectives really, really quickly. That could mean a couple of things:
(1) By the time the women in 124 have spent all this energy and emotion coming to terms with Beloved's identity, they're exhausted. They're so wrapped up in each other that they don't have the energy to narrate a whole section on their own. That's why each of the women is speaking in fragmented phrases.
(2) Morrison's trying to build something like a collective voice here. If it works, she has allowed the novel to do what Beloved has always wanted to do: "join" the voices and the minds of Sethe and Denver with Beloved. It's all one, big, warm, melty, metaphysical, lovefest.
Beloved, the Musical
Formally, this section reminds us of the types of call-and-response music that play a big part in the cultural traditions of Black America. Call-and-response music works in pretty much exactly the way that you'd expect it to: one voice says something, and the other voices respond by repeating it or speaking back to it. When Morrison allows her characters to repeat "You are mine/ You are mine/ You are mine," she invokes this tradition pretty clearly.
Thinking about this passage in relation to music allows us to see how it relates to other parts of the novel, too. After all, Sethe and Paul D talk about how their "signal" to run away from Sweet Home was supposed to be "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," a traditional spiritual.
And let's not forget about those singing, screaming, dead-chicken-carrying women at the end of the novel. If it takes something like music to bring Sethe, Denver and Beloved together, then it also takes music to rip them apart.
The Return to Oz
You can breathe a sigh of relief, though—Morrison doesn't let us wallow in faceless voices forever. The novel snaps right back to a third-person omniscient narrative voice in the final few chapters. It's a bit of a shock, we know. After all of that crazy echoing "You are mine"s, we suddenly get this: "It was a tiny church no bigger than a rich man's parlor" (24.218).
In other words, we're back in the land of the all-knowing narrator. And that's how the book ends: with the gentle guidance of a narrator floating above everything, from a distance.