by Toni Morrison
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Elegiac; Ominous; Hopeful
Don't know what an elegy is? We're here to help. Okay, now that you're the expert, why are we calling Morrison's tone is elegiac? Well, the dedication to the novel gives us our first clue. It's written for the "Sixty Million and More" who died during slavery—definitely an elegy right there.
Once we've made our way into the novel, pretty much all of the characters are obsessed with the dead. If they're not already dead themselves, that is. Paul D can't forget what he saw at Sweet Home. Sethe can't forget her dead baby. Beloved, when she gets the chance to narrate, just sees dead faces in the water.
Plus, there's just this overall sense of how things are past and how we can't do much about the past except to remember it. Take a look at the final page of the book:
By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
How can you not feel sad just reading that? But in case you're not feeling the waterworks, let's get to analyzing. Morrison's narrator first tells us how everything about Beloved is gone and forgotten, so much so that the only thing left behind is "just weather." Then, once you get the idea that no one in the novel is even remembering the memory of Beloved, the narrator just hits you with the simple reminder—as the last word of the novel—of her name: "Beloved."
It's kind of like asking for a moment of silence during the middle of a noisy day or attending a silent vigil. Nothing else can be said about Beloved except her name and the fact that she's gone—we think.
In fact, we're probably ruining the moment for you right now just by analyzing it to death, so let's give our respects and move on.
Don't Look Behind You
Of course, Morrison's tone is also pretty ominous. What would you expect from a novel about a baby ghost come back from the dead? It's definitely some bone-chilling stuff. Somewhere between the horrors of slavery and the unknown something that haunts Sethe's house, there's just enough creepy and downright awful stuff going on in this novel to give anyone a case of night terrors.
Plus, Morrison knows how to build up some serious suspense. It's sorta like the theme song from Jaws: you know something bad is about to happen, but you're not quite sure what it will be.
Take a look at Denver's thoughts:
Denver noticed how greedy she was to hear Sethe talk. Now she noticed something more. The questions Beloved asked… How did she know? (6.39-40).
By staying solely within Denver's consciousness, Morrison shows us know what one of her characters is thinking while withholding information about Beloved. We're sure something is up. We just don't know what.
Or what about that part when Beloved seduces Paul D, and Paul D is left saying "Red heart. Red heart. Red heart" (11.117). The Shining, anyone? (Can you hear "red rum, red rum" echoing in your head? We know we can.) Maybe Toni Morrison should go into the screenplay business.
With all this creepiness, it's sometimes easy to forget that Beloved is filled with a whole lot of love and, sometimes, that love really is the warm, fuzzy kind rather than the sharp, stabby kind.
Think about the reconciliation between Paul D and Denver, or more poignantly, Paul D's reunion with Sethe:
Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.
"Sethe," he says, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. "You your best thing, Sethe. You are." His holding fingers are holding hers.
"Me? Me?" (27)
So what do you think? Is this part uplifting, inspiring, or even—dare we say it—romantic?
In our softie opinion, you'd have to be made of stone not to feel how sincere and giving Paul D is in this moment. The whole scene is all about Sethe: how she looks, how she treated him, how she feels.
More than that, it's about how Paul D wants to give Sethe back to herself ("You your best thing") so that she can leave the past behind and move into the future with him. All of the sudden, the possibility that Sethe won't waste away mourning Beloved and the past becomes significantly greater, now that Paul D's back in the picture again. And that's saying something, since Sethe pretty much seemed like a goner before this part of the book.
So if anyone tries to tell you that Beloved is just a total downer of a book, just show them this scene and go "Nuh uh!" (Sometimes there's nothing more inspiring than being right.)