Simple is as simple does… Right?
If we're handing out awards for novels that are difficult to read—which, by the way, we're not—Beloved might just walk away with the grand prize. But you know what? It's not because the language is all that complicated. In fact, as contemporary novelists go, Toni Morrison is pretty streamlined.
Check out a few of Morrison's sentences to get an idea of what we mean:
They were not holding hands, but their shadows were. (4.58)
Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother's milk. (19.1)
See? Nice, short sentences. Nice, short words. Nothing too complicated, right? So what's all the fuss about?
"Write with All Your Senses!"
Well, Morrison's phrasing may be simple, but it sure packs a punch.
Check out the first sentences we quoted above. Like a lot of Morrison's language, it's pretty sensory. We can almost see how Paul D and Sethe and Denver look as they walk down the road.
On top of that, it's we've got some major symbolism going on. The touching shadows could symbolize their growing connection to each other, right? But wait! The fact that it's their shadows touching (not their bodies) suggests that maybe the growing relationship is just an illusion. After all, shadows have no substance.
Morrison's playing between two possibilities here, and this sentence captures them both: Are they a new, happy family? Or is the idea of a happy family all a dream?
Speaking of sensory language, check out that second sentence we quoted.
Talk about a sisterly bond. We know, we know. You've seen those movies where kids cut their hands and share blood. It's all very charming. But this—Denver drinking Beloved's blood along with her mother's milk? That's a whole new ballgame.
Morrison's use of the words "right along" ups the shock value of Denver drinking Beloved's blood. It's the kind of down-to-earth language that makes you appreciate at face value the image of an infant nursing on a bloody breast. Morrison is being upfront and in your face rather than tricky and obscure.
What's a Meta For?
Of course, Morrison's style isn't all straightforward. Think about Paul D, for example, whose imagination is so rich that he thinks of himself in terms of metaphors. Why? Well, metaphors can help express an idea or feeling in a compact image. Think of it as a shortcut for writers; they don't have to use long, winding sentences to relay a thought if they can use an object to represent that thought.
As for Paul D, our educated guess is that he's also using that shortcut for himself: those metaphors help him cope with and understand the various traumatic episodes in his life without having to talk or think about them in a totally unrepressed, logical way.
The Tin Box Heart
Example? Of course.
How about all those references to Paul D's "tin box" heart? If the tin box heart reminds you of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, you might be on to something. Like the Tin Man's search for a real heart, Paul D's progress through the novel is a lot like the gradual uncovering of his actual "heart" (a metaphor itself!) or his ability to feel emotional experiences again.
Paul D, though, has to contend with Beloved first:
"Beloved." He said it, but she did not go. She moved closer with a footfall he didn't hear and he didn't hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didn't know. (11.117)
See what Morrison is able to do with the whole tin box metaphor here? Instead of explaining how Paul D's encounter with Beloved makes him start to feel all sorts of strange emotions again, she just describes the way the tobacco tin is giving way.
The metaphor also allows Morrison to lead us to an approximate feeling or interpretation. It's not like we can really claim for sure: "the tin box equals Paul D's heart!" Morrison gives us a specific image—the rusty tobacco tin box opening—without giving us a specific meaning. Instead, the image points to a more general feeling or idea about what's happening to Paul D at this moment.
What feelings are those? (1) Paul D's opening up to some pretty strong feelings inside himself; (2) He will never be the same; and (3) The rest of the book will reveal how Paul D transforms into an "open" character.
Before we move on, a final thought on Paul D and his whole tin box deal: if Paul D's "heart" is an object, then that kind of means Paul D is an object himself. That means that he may not view himself as human as much as something that other people can use. How could he? Since Sweet Home, he's seen told that he's only partially human in the eyes of all the white landowners he's met.
Maybe that's why it's so easy for Beloved to move him all over the house (and even have sex with him) without his input. Not to excuse Paul D completely, but by linking Paul D to a metaphoric object, Morrison allows us to sympathize with the guy, even though we probably aren't all that excited about his actions.
After all, if he can't even control his heart, how can he control his actions?
Beloved's narrations are on a whole different level stylistically: they're about as close to imagistic play as Morrison gets in the book. Translation: a bunch of images get all mixed together in order to create an overall mood or feel.
How does Morrison's writing style get you to feel so gloomy about Beloved? With those non-punctuated sentences that feel more like poetry than prose. Here's a classic sampling of Chapter 22:
some who eat nasty themselves I do not eat we have none at night I cannot see the dead man on my face daylight comes through the cracks and I can see his locked eyes I am not big small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in if we had more to drink we could make tears (22.210)
How do we attack this style of writing? Well, first things first—no attacking.
Instead, think of this section like a really intense session of flow yoga. Try to go through the motions of reading it over and over again without stopping (except for a few occasional, breathy pauses). The more you get sucked into the smooth, natural rhythm of Beloved's speech, the more you might feel the lull of a ship undergoing the arduous journey of the Middle Passage. And that's more or less the setting for Beloved's memories at this point.
We can also think of Morrison's writing like an impressionist painting. If you read Chapter 22 not for its details but for its overall feel, you'll get what amounts to a Monet painting: an impression of the overall scene. And that can be pretty valuable.
The Unconscious Historian
As you read Chapter 22, think about how Beloved's narration is like a repository for the broader historical memories of the Middle Passage. Which, by the way, Beloved—the baby girl—could have never been through to actually remember.
Beloved's character lacks the typical boundaries of a real, human character like Sethe or Paul D, both of whom are bounded by space (Sweet Home and 124) and time (the 1850s and the 1870s). Beloved, on the other hand, allows Morrison all sorts of poetic license. She can turn Beloved into this almost mythical being who can recall experiences and memories far beyond the grasp of a real baby girl in the 1850s or a young adult in the1870s.
To capture that feeling of unboundedness in Beloved's consciousness, Morrison uses those long, unpunctuated (and therefore unending) "sentences" so that a historical consciousness—one full of tragedy, death, brutality and loss—can start to seep into our understanding of Beloved's fixation on and need for Sethe.
Some Final Thoughts
Here's our final Shmoop takeaway on Morrison's style: it can change quite a bit, but for good reasons. Her stylistic experiments aren't just there to trip you up; they help you get a solid feel for each of her characters and how they think.
Also, it's just straight up beautiful:
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.