Why you should read “Beloved”
Toni Morrison’s literary masterpiece is more important than ever
I wrote the following essay about reading “Beloved” in July 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests and in the early months of the pandemic. I couldn’t find a home for it, so it’s been hibernating on my computer ever since. The latest controversy over the novel inspired me to revisit it.
In recent weeks, Toni Morrison’s 1987 classic “Beloved” has become a political weapon in a combative Virginia governor’s race. Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin called out former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for vetoing the so-called “Beloved” bill, legislation that would allow parents to choose alternatives to books in the public school curriculum they find objectionable. Last week, Youngkin even released an ad featuring Fairfax County parent Laura Murphy, who complained “Beloved” traumatized her high school senior in 2013. The subtext of Youngkin’s strategy is that McAuliffe is putting experts’ decisions above parents’ rights and failing to protect students from inappropriate material.
Though the essay below predates the controversy in Virginia, it offers a response to it. Youngkin and Murphy question why we should read a novel that is so “explicit.” They assume the violence in “Beloved” is as gratuitous as a “Game of Thrones” episode — that it serves no purpose. They’re wrong. If “Beloved” is disturbing, it’s because the history of this country is disturbing. Closing your eyes to that violence doesn’t make it go away. The memory of it remains. “Beloved” is a testament to those memories. The novel asks us to open our eyes and bear witness to parts of our history that would be easier to ignore. As art so often does, “Beloved” illuminates uncomfortable truths some would prefer to keep hidden.
I originally titled this essay “The Radical Power of Reading Fiction” because I believe reading a book like “Beloved” is a radical act. We tend to think of reading as a passive activity — something we do for escape or entertainment. Books like “Beloved” challenge us to read differently. Reading literature is rarely passive. Literature demands too much of us as readers. We cannot sit back and “escape” in the pages of “Beloved.” The novel confronts us, jars us awake, insists we see and demands we act.
“Beloved” will change you if you let it. That’s why it’s powerful. And that’s why it’s feared. This isn’t the first time “Beloved” has been challenged, and it won’t be the last. For as long as there have been books like “Beloved,” there have been people who ban and burn them. The recent controversy in Virginia is just the latest skirmish in a centuries-old battle for control over what we read. The best way to fight back is to keep reading. So read on.
INTO THE LIVES OF OTHERS
“I am fascinated to presume, as a reader, that many types of people, strange to me in life, might be revealed, through the intimate space of fiction, to have griefs not unlike my own. And so I read.” – Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction”
Reading has always been my default response when I don’t know what to do. When I’m faced with a problem and haven’t a clue how to solve it, I read. Paralyzed by fear or anxiety? Books are my salve. I read when I’m sad, bored or stressed. And, too, when I’m inconsolable or overwhelmed. It has become my cure-all for uncertainty.
It probably isn’t news to you, dear Reader, that we live in uncertain times. A virus is terrorizing humanity and exposing many systemic inequities that have been hiding in plain sight. (Inequities that were clear to some of us all along.) Covid-19 has made visible the insidious impacts of institutional racism here in America, as people from certain racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of contracting the virus and experiencing significant illness due to what the U.S. Center for Disease Control describes as “long-standing systemic health and social inequities.”
Simultaneously, the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by American police officers have provoked a renewed call for racial justice and equality that has echoed across the globe. Communities all over are toppling statues, questioning institutions and identities, and reimagining what it means to be free. People who don’t wear their difference on their skin, like me, are looking inward to see what our role has been in shaping and supporting the old structures of inequality, while we envision what our new role might be in creating stronger, more equitable frameworks. In the midst of these changes — some of which evoke grief and others hope — many of us are unsure what the future holds.
Faced with this uncertainty, I did what seemed like the natural thing to do — I picked up my copy of “Beloved,” and I started to read. Why “Beloved,” you might ask, and not Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” or “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo? What could a fictional story about imaginary characters possibly teach me about racial injustice that a work of nonfiction couldn’t?
Good question. When I listed some of the reasons I read, above, I left out the most important one — I don’t only read for myself; I also read for others. Reading can be an act of solidarity with an “Other.” It’s a way of saying: I hear you, I see you and I want to feel what it’s like to be you. When I read fiction, though, I don’t just read about other people; I become other people. (At least figuratively.) While it isn’t possible to ever really inhabit someone else’s body or their experience, fiction enables me to get closer to others who, at least on the surface, are not like me. A story is one of the most powerful vehicles I’ve discovered to travel outside my own life and into the lives of others.
I chose “Beloved” because its author, Toni Morrison, writes about Black characters and their lives with a clarity that helps me know those characters more intimately and see their lives more vividly. I read “Beloved” once before. It disturbed me so deeply that I never wanted to pick it up again. Fifteen years later, it still haunts me. It’s a story loaded with troubled spirits. A book about troubles, I thought, might help me find meaning in these troubled times.
‘Beloved’ forces me to stretch my emotional range. It asks me to consider a perspective that is so very different from my own. It is a lesson in empathy.
THE STORY BEHIND NARRATIVE EMPATHY
“Beloved” might not seem like a natural fit for a reader who is searching for connection. It isn’t exactly a story that welcomes you with open arms. The book is difficult to access on many levels. Its nonlinear plot and indirect narration make it hard to follow. The language morphs and shifts as often as the timeline does, moving from one character’s point of view to another, from past to present, and from the conversational dialogue and interior thoughts of the characters to the polished prose of the narrator. The story is told through a collection of voices that are, at times, hard to distinguish. Most of all, the book is heavy with emotions that don’t come easy for readers like me.
The novel tells the story of Sethe, an enslaved African-American woman and mother in the pre-Civil War South who is sexually abused by her captors before escaping to freedom with her family. After one of their captors finds them and threatens to bring them back, Sethe cuts her baby girl’s throat so her daughter won’t have to endure the inhumanity of slavery. As a mother, I can’t imagine having enough pain, rage and sorrow to kill my daughter to protect her. And that’s precisely the point. “Beloved” forces me to stretch my emotional range. It asks me to consider a perspective that is so very different from my own. It is a lesson in empathy.
Readers have long praised fiction’s empathy-inducing qualities. Now the scientific community is backing us up. The connection many readers develop for fictional characters is an increasingly studied phenomenon scholars call “narrative empathy.” In her book “Reader, Come Home” neuroscientist and reading scholar Maryanne Wolf explores what happens to our brains when we read fiction and examines the scientific evidence for reading as a form of empathy-building. “When we read fiction, the brain actively simulates the consciousness of another person, including those whom we would never otherwise even imagine knowing,” she says. “It allows us to try on, for a few moments, what it truly means to be another person, with all the similar and sometimes vastly different emotions and struggles that govern others’ lives.”
Wolf argues that “the act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions” of deep reading. She presents a compelling case for how reading fiction closely engages a variety of cognitive, social and emotional processes that can expand our understanding of others.
Wolf points to research from cognitive scientist Keith Oatley that suggests reading or watching fictional narratives, particularly literary fiction, improves both empathy and theory of mind, or the ability to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling. Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator.” He theorizes that fictional narratives allow us to simulate social situations, including interactions with others, that may not occur in our daily lives. In the imaginary space of a fictional narrative, we can test out what it feels like to meet, and sometimes even become, someone who is completely different than we are in real life.
Interestingly, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to translate to nonfiction. One study by literary scholar Frank Hakemulder found that readers who read a first-person fictional narrative about an Algerian woman living in a fundamentalist culture felt more strongly about Algerian women’s rights than subjects who read a similar nonfiction critique. This finding could be explained by Oatley’s theory that the content of what we read and how engaged we are when we read it significantly impact our emotional connection to the material. Oatley argues that literary fiction, which often features complex characters and complicated emotional and social situations, enables us to immerse ourselves more fully into the mindset of an Other.
Psychologists call this experience “transportation.” In “Reader, Come Home,” Wolf poignantly summarizes what happens when we’re transported through fiction: “When we pass over in our deepest, most immersive forms of reading…[we] welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves, and sometimes we become Other. For a moment in time we leave ourselves; and when we return, sometimes expanded and strengthened, we are changed both intellectually and emotionally.”
Literature is neither escape nor a surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in. – Toni Morrison
PASSING OVER INTO “BELOVED”
Wolf’s theory that we pass over into a cognitive space where we “welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves” when we read fiction is particularly moving when we consider it through the eyes of Beloved, the title character from Morrison’s novel. Beloved is the spirit of the daughter Sethe killed. She haunts the house Sethe and her family live in and serves as both the figurative and embodied representation of Sethe’s past, which has come back to haunt them. At the beginning of the novel, Sethe actively represses her painful past — it is an unwelcomed Other. But as the story progresses, we see Sethe piece together the fragments of her fractured history. Eventually, she welcomes Beloved, and the past she represents, as a guest within herself.
Sethe’s journey symbolizes what could be seen as the novel’s shadow narrative — the story of how we resurrect, confront and amend America’s history, a past that is still haunted by slavery. This narrative takes the form of what Morrison once called “the exploration of an interior life that was not written, and the revelation of a kind of truth.” In “Beloved,” these unwritten interior lives are the personal stories of enslaved Black Americans, many who never had the chance to speak for themselves.
Nineteenth-century slave, or liberation, narratives are part of what Morrison calls her “literary heritage” in her book of collected essays “The Source of Self-Regard.” Black men and women who had escaped captivity authored these autobiographies to educate a mostly White audience about the evils of slavery (and often to convince those readers of their humanity, too). Their stories are a critical piece of America’s narrative history because they document the experience of slavery from the perspective of those who were enslaved.
However, Morrison notes, “in shaping the experience to make it palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate it, they were silent about many things, and they ‘forgot’ many other things.” (Explicitly, the sexual abuse, psychological torment and “unspeakable” violence many suffered at the hands of their captors — details White editors considered too graphic and too “real” for White readers to hear.) Also, Morrison adds, “there was no mention of their interior life.”
In “Beloved,” Morrison revives the interior lives of these silenced slave-narrative authors through the novel’s characters Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D. and Stamp Paid, who describe their experiences of captivity and liberation with an unfettered freedom those real authors weren’t allowed. The novel engages in what Morrison calls “re-membering” the people, voices, bodies, families, communities and histories that have been dis-membered by the violence of White subjugation. As Sethe and the other characters reconstruct their “rememories,” as Sethe calls them, they reveal the true story of America’s history.
While Sethe is an imaginary character, the woman whose life inspired the novel was real. Margaret Garner was an enslaved African-American who, like Sethe, fled captivity and sexual abuse in Kentucky and crossed the Ohio River, along with her children, in hopes of finding liberation and sanctuary in a free state. Like Sethe, Garner was discovered, and when the authorities came to arrest her, she killed her two-year-old daughter so she would not be raised as a slave. Garner was jailed and tried, not as a person who had murdered her daughter, but as a piece of property that had violated the Fugitive Slave Law. The authorities claimed she was guilty and sent her back to her captors. During the journey, her boat capsized and her other daughter drowned. Garner later reported that she was glad her daughter had died and that she had tried to drown herself, too.
I think about Garner as I read the scene in “Beloved” where Sethe kills her daughter and attempts to kill her other children. I try to imagine how impossible life must be to envision a future where my child is safer dead than alive. I try. But I struggle.
Empathy is usually an easy emotion for me to access: I see someone else’s sadness or grief and I feel for them. Of course, it’s easy to feel narrative empathy when a character’s experiences mirror our own. Most of us don’t have to transport ourselves far to imagine the shame of childhood humiliation or the suffering of unrequited love. But how many mothers know what it’s like to fear your child will be tortured, raped or murdered because of their race? Sethe does. Margaret Garner did. Tamika Palmer, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Michelle Kenney, Allison Jean, Samaria Rice, Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr and too many others do, too.
In “The Source of Self-Regard,” Morrison claims that “delving into literature is neither escape nor a surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in.” “Beloved” doesn’t necessarily transport its readers by allowing us to relate to the novel’s characters on a superficial level. It forces us to move beyond causal engagement and easy associations into rougher territory, to a place we may be unwelcomed, where our minds may fear to tread. The novel takes us on a journey into America’s troubled past and in doing so reveals much about our troubled present.
When Baby Suggs grieves the loss of her children, including several who were sold before she could say goodbye, and reflects on “sixty years of losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit it out like a fish bone,” I remember how today Black mothers are still grieving the lives of children who have been taken from them.
When Sethe, Ella and Paul D. recount how their captors abused their bodies and how they coped with that abuse, I remember the ongoing abuse of Black bodies and the physical, mental and emotional toll Black people pay for it. I remember that Black women are still more likely to be survivors of sexual assault. I remember that Black men are still more likely to suffer and die at the hands of “masters” who abuse their power.
When Sethe struggles to hear how her husband, Halle, witnessed their captors sexually abusing her and what happened to him afterward, I remember how Black citizens and journalists who watch and report stories of Black trauma are themselves being traumatized by having to relive their suffering and witness the continual suffering of their community.
When Beloved narrates the scene that takes place on the Middle Passage, I remember the “Sixty Million and more” Africans who died during that journey, the unidentified people to whom Morrison dedicated “Beloved.” I remember that the ghost who goes by the name Beloved is Sethe’s dead daughter, but she also represents so much (and many) more. I remember that Beloved isn’t really her name — it is the one-word inscription on the tombstone of Sethe’s “crawling-already?” child, the one who is never named. “Dismembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name?” asks the unnamed narrator at the end of the novel. I remember why we must “say their names.”
When she is ultimately forgotten again, “like a bad dream,” but her footprints resurface, I remember how Morrison said: “In so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past — its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.” And then I remember something Jennifer Allen, a Yale University professor who specializes in memory politics, said during a conversation about how we remember history: “Memory is not just the things that we recall on a moment-to-moment basis. Memory is something that also means something in the world; what we decide is important to remember is something that is collectively determined, and the politics, the negotiation, the conversation by which we determine what matters and what doesn’t.” I remember that the removal of colonial relics and the insistence that “Black Lives Matter” are kinds of signs, like footprints. They ask us, who did we remember then and who will we remember now?
When I read these characters’ stories, I reflect on all the interior lives that weren’t written, all the truths that never got told — what Morrison calls the “erasures and absences and silences in [our] written history.” I hear the “unspeakable thoughts” become spoken by these characters. I see the erasures being made visible through their stories. And when I pass over into Beloved, Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., Stamp Paid, Ella and the other Others, I become a part of the re-membering of those narratives — legacies told in fragments at first and then in a flood of voices who demand to be heard. Their stories are not my stories and their experiences are not my experiences but, in the words of Paul D., they “move me” all the same.
Beloved ‘is now the responsibility of those who have shared, participated in, witnessed the story’ – Toni Morrison
MOVING BEYOND THE BOOK
Reading fiction can transport us to new emotional landscapes. The question is, where do we go? What do we do with these newfound connections? What happens after we close the book?
In a lecture Morrison delivered at Cornell University in 1998, she claimed “the act of reading […has] public consequences and even public responsibility.” When readers reach the end of her novel “Jazz,” she says, they “can infer something is to be done, something is to be reimagined, altered, and that something is literally in the reader’s hands.”
Similarly, “Beloved’s” ending “play[s] an advocacy role, insisting on the consequences of having read the book, intervening in the established intimacy between reader and page, and forcing, if successful, a meditation, debate, argument that needs others for its fullest exploration,” says Morrison. “The figure of Beloved summoned in the book’s ‘afterlife,’ is now the responsibility of those who have shared, participated in, witnessed the story.”
If Beloved is our responsibility, then how do we readers care for her? If she represents America’s past wrongs, then how do we right them? Morrison herself suggests a path forward by acknowledging that “social acts complete the reading experience.” Perhaps the part where we transform our narrative empathy into action is the final unwritten chapter of “Beloved.” (Or possibly the start of a new story.)
A group of interdisciplinary academics led by Princeton psychology professor Diana Tamir studied the role of simulation in fiction and concluded that “readers of fiction can transcend the here-and-now to experience worlds, people and mental states that differ vastly from their local reality. The consequences of reading, however, extend far beyond the subjective experience of any one individual.”
Tamir and her colleagues explained how other researchers have “credited literacy as a possible explanation for such fundamental societal shifts as the decline in human violence over the past few centuries, the development of desire-based over rule-based social interactions, and the advent of ‘modern subjectivity.’” These sweeping cultural changes, they revealed, are rooted in the collective civic actions of individual readers, who are more likely to volunteer, donate and vote than their nonreading counterparts.
Reading fiction is not the solution to the world’s problems. But it might be a place to start. As Maryanne Wolf notes in “Reader, Come Home”: “Developing the deepest forms of reading cannot prevent all…tragedies, but understanding the perspective of other human beings can give fresh, varied reasons to find alternative, compassionate ways to deal with the others in our world…It may also be our best bridge to others with whom we need to work together, so as to create a safer world for all its inhabitants.”
Wolf’s words make me reconsider why I read. The purpose of reading fiction isn’t just to expand my own perspective — it’s to take that imaginary immersion as “the Other” and use it to build a better reality for us all. “Literature allows us — no, demands of us — the experience of ourselves as multidimensional persons,” Morrison reminds us. “And in so doing it is far more necessary than it has ever been.” What better reason to dust off a book that moved you once, so you can find out what it moves you to do now.
This essay is about one reader’s journey through “Beloved,” but I know there are infinite others. I imagine a reader whose ancestors were enslaved might have a very different experience reading the novel. Have you read “Beloved”? What was your experience like? What did the novel move you to do?