Reading Response Essay Example
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Much literature has been written on the subject of slavery and racism in North America. From Danticat’s ‘Farming of the Bones’ to Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, a particularly powerful theme in this area of fiction writing seems to be the power of memory. ‘Beloved’ has become a staple of American Literature and has been studied as a work Magic Realist, Trauma, Gothic, Feminist, Post-Modernist, Post-Colonial, and Grotesque literature among various other perspectives. However, it has not been viewed through the lens of memory as the means to creating the form of the book (Scheel 153-169). Memory, in this case is used as a metaphor and plays a huge role in the shaping of the novel and, it can be argued, is what gives this book its poetic quality. The ability to remember, forget, suffer, and hope creates a metaphor in this book which drives the plot and its characters. It shows a woman struggling with her past and longing for a future while trying to preserve herself and her sanity. This paper will also examine how and why it is memory and not trauma (which is what Scheel based his paper on) is used.
Through the book, the protagonist, Sethe, attempts to reconcile her past with her hopes for the future. Her past is manifested in the form of her dead daughter, Beloved, while her future is seen in the form of her living one – Denver. It can be argued that this book treats memory as a metaphor because Sethe’s memories are not relegated to flashbacks, soliloquies or other such devices, but are living entities. This is seen most clearly in the carnival scene where Sethe, who is accompanied by Paul D. and Denver, sees a girl asleep and “breathing near the steps of 124.” (Morrison 50). In this case it can be argued that Morrison wished to evoke the power of slavery in America by contrasting it with the subversive nature of the Carnival. Historically, the Carnival, as it took place in Europe, is a place where social norms are broken and a norm-less anarchy can be enjoyed by all present through the protection of anonymity. One would quite easily assume that even slaves would be free to enjoy themselves during the night of complete freedom, but here lies the crux of the matter – a slave is not counted on the social scale. Bakhtin’s idea of the Carnivalesque only included people who figured on the social scale – from the peasants to the aristocracy, not slaves (Bakhtin 250). The appearance of the sleeping girl in Morrison’s novel could be read as the sleeping presence of the spirit of slavery even in the moment of greatest liberation and freedom.
This image can be read as slavery on many levels – on the first level, it represents slavery to the reader who does not yet know who this girl is, on the other, it represents slavery to the protagonist, who can never rid herself of the shackles she was born with, ad finally, and most potently, it is slavery to her own memories. The girl is later found out to be the ghost of 124 which, though it does not wish to kill Sethe, sets her on a path to insanity. Ghosts, as many ghost stories will tell, are spirits of people who died before their time – leaving their souls to wander the earth trying to reconcile with whatever ‘unfinished business’ they had left. The ghost of 124, as far as the text reveals, has no such reasons to haunt the carnival grounds. On the other hand, she (the ghost) does spark the memory of Sethe’s most regretted crime – the infanticide of Beloved.
Sethe’s killing of her daughter is justified by a moral standard – she wished to protect her from suffering the same kind of slavery she had experienced, however, to kill another human being will weigh heavily on the conscience of any person, much more so when that human was one’s own daughter. What makes this death so much more poignant is the fact that the it was Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, who saved her son and second daughter. One of the most common literary tropes is that of the mother-in-law antagonizing her daughter-in-law for the ‘theft’ of her son (Hirsch 43-68). In the book ‘Beloved’ this ‘theft’ is compounded. This is because Baby Suggs could be said to have a certain level of control over Sethe because she augments her memories of her dead daughter. If Sethe had only killed Beloved and managed to save the other two, it might have acted as atonement for her killing. Morrison describes this act as follows – “Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them” (202).
As it stands, it was not she herself who saved the two, in fact, left to her own devices, her remaining son and daughter might have suffered the same fate as Beloved. So Baby Suggs’ act of saving her grandchildren not only put added strain on the mother-in-law – daughter-in-law relationship, it also wrenched atonement out of Sethe’s hands and turned it into a perpetual Damoclean sword in Baby Suggs’ hands over Sethe. The potency of this image is again derived from Sethe’s own memories. This is painfully described in the book as follows – “In any case, Baby Suggs’ fingers had a grip on her that would not let her breathe . . . she clawed at the hands that were not there. Her feet were thrashing . . .” (95).
Sethe’s memories become metaphors because they do not remain abstract mental images, rather, they manifest themselves in Sethe’s behavior. This is not to say that abstract memory cannot act as metaphor, rather it is that memory as physical metaphor is what crafts this book and gives it the form and substance it is known for. Moreover, the guilt which Sethe feels, while clearly abstract, is directly manifested in her attempts to appease her daughter’s spirit.
Sethe’s attempts to appease her daughter result in crippling her emotionally to the point where she could not longer provide for her family. Morrison described this as follows - “Anything she wanted she got . . . she wanted Sethe’s company for hours . . . the thirty eight dollars of life savings went to feed themselves with fancy food and decorate themselves with ribbon and dress good . . .” (241). In this case, more than a crutch or anchoring, memory becomes a millstone. It weighs down without providing any benefits, in fact it is an extreme paralytic. It is here that Denver truly begins her part as hope for the future. Denver and Beloved are contrasts on every level, right from their name. Beloved, though seemingly a positive name, has deeper implications than love alone. It shows a kind of dependency – the one to whom the other is beloved depends on their existence for some reason. Even in the Bible, it is shown in several places that to be beloved to god is to have gained his favor and be in a position to expect his help. Likewise, in this case, Beloved exacts a ‘tribute’ of love from Sethe. In contrast, Denver, who shares her name with the city and county of Denver, Colorado, is, like her namesake, a consolidated hope. The city Denver is nicknamed ‘Queen City of the Plains’ due to its important role in pushing the western frontier (Nelson et al. 9-10) – an act which instrumental in creating America’s image of a nation of freedom and liberty.
Furthermore, while Beloved is a constantly seen and heard image to Sethe, Denver forges her own path and keeps much of her actions a secret from her mother. Denver finds a job and begins to look after her mother. More importantly, she connects (or reconnects) with the black community and asks them to help her by exorcising Beloved’s spirit from her mother’s house.
This final act which, at last, brings peace to Sethe breaks the metaphor of memory and allows the novel to wind down to its close. It can also be argued that Paul D’s subsequent pledging of his love for Sethe is the last nail in (Beloved’s) coffin which brings Sethe out of her memories and into the manifest present and the possible, and hopeful, future. This can be seen as the act of forgetting. Once Sethe begins to look to the future, the past no longer holds her in her thrall. This is seen in the passage towards the end of the book – ‘Then the moods changed and the arguments began. Slowly at first a complaint from Beloved, an apology from Sethe. A reduction of pleasure at some special effort the older woman made.’ (283) This ‘reduction of pleasure’ implies forgetfulness, not fully seen at this point but a forgetfulness which will eventually lead to Sethe finding peace.
Finally, it should be noted that the word ‘trauma’ has not been used in this paper. This is because Scheel’s paper has done ample research on reading this book as a work of trauma literature (Scheel 156-160). Moreover, this paper treats memory as separate from trauma because trauma implies a direct connection between past hurt and present behavior. For the book to have been effective, there needed to be a break in this link. This break created the possibility to read the book not as a work of Trauma Literature, but as a Memory Metaphor. Between the traumatic past and the painful present, there is the ‘enactments of memory’ which is where the novel derives its force. Furthermore, Elizabeth B. House’s paper argues that the ghost of Beloved is not Beloved at all, rather is merely a young woman who is herself a survivor of the horrors of slavery (House 17-26). Regardless of the validity of this claim, the fact remains, Sethe’s projection of her memory does serve as a metaphor.
Having looked at the novel as a powerful statement of the trauma of slavery and the power of memory, the ways in which Morrison causes memories to be manifest in the book ‘Beloved’ is undoubtedly metaphoric. The transportation of meaning as experience in Sethe’s past to meaning as behavior in Sethe’s present and Denver’s response to it creates a powerful and poignant novel which explores many aspects of the African-American experience.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. "25 Carnival and the Carnivalesque." Cultural theory and popular
culture: A reader (1998): 250.
House, Elizabeth B. “Toni Morrison’s Ghost: The Beloved is not Beloved.” Studies in
American Fiction 18.1 (1990): 17-26. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminisim.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.
Nelson, Sarah M. et al. Denver: An Archeological History. Boulder, Colo: University
of Colorado Press, 2009. Print.
Scheel, Charles W. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Traumatic Book on the Trauma of
Slavery?” Syllabus Review: Humanities and Social Sciences, Universite Paul
Verlain. (2009): 153-169. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
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