In which I muse on some of the things I found interesting about memory in Toni Morrison’s Beloved…

When I set out to write this piece, I only knew that I was interested in the idea of ‘rememory’ in Beloved. I thought I might compare the text to something ancient Greek, as I usually do, and wondered about infanticide (Medea), trauma (Electra, Hecuba) and collective, communicative trauma (as in my PhD work on the Odyssey and the Trojan Women).[1] When it came to it, however, it began to turn into a pretty massive project and though I might have the time at the moment, while on holiday from school, I do not have the brainpower right now. What I have written is a consideration of some of the aspects of memory and trauma represented in Beloved, informed in particular by Marianne Hirsch’s theory of ‘postmemory’, and in the background by Alexander’s (et al) Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity.

Beloved is set in 1873 and concerns Sethe, a woman who had escaped from slavery eighteen years previously, and who had, when her owner had come to take her back, killed her young daughter and attempted to kill the rest of her children, rather than have them experience the slave life that she had lived. When Paul D, a man who had been enslaved alongside her at ‘Sweet Home’, appears at her door and the two of them remember traumatic events from their shared and separate pasts together, the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter is driven out from the shadows of the house and appears in the flesh as a young woman. Gradually, the daughter, known as Beloved as that is the only word on her tombstone, drives everyone and everything else out of Sethe’s life, including her work, Paul D and finally, Denver, the only one of Sethe’s children who remained with her; while Sethe begins to waste away, Beloved thrives, growing increasingly demanding, ‘thunder-black and glistening’ in her pregnancy.

Just as it seems that Beloved is about to subsume Sethe completely, Denver goes out to seek help from the community. She and her mother have lived cut off from those around them. Some have kept away due to their judgement of Sethe for murdering her daughter, while others blamed her for what they saw as her pride in not asking for help when she needed it after her release from jail. However, as she reaches out, so the community warms to her and when a group of black women assemble outside Sethe and Denver’s house, singing, Beloved is driven from the house and the characters are able to resume their lives and find a future together.

I am going to start at the end. As Claudine Raynaud points out, ‘the novel does not end with the closure of the love story between Sethe and Paul D’ but rather with a section about Beloved, including the repeated sentence ‘It was / This is not a story to pass on’ (“Beloved or the Shifting Shape of Memory”, in The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison, ed. Justine Tully (Cambridge, 2007), 45). Raynaud draws attention to the move from ‘was’ to ‘is’, showing the transition from past burden to present, and ‘It’ to ‘This’, showing how Morrison’s novel has ‘encompassed’ the original story of Margaret Garner. She argues that the final word, ‘Beloved’ which evokes Sethe’s daughter’s tombstone, draws attention to the novel’s own intended status as a monument to ‘the “Sixty Million and more” … the dead of the Transatlantic Passage’ in the epigraph, and that it also refers to the reader, ‘bringing them into a communion around the grief, of a mother, a family, a people, a nation.’

I love this! But what also really interests me here is the fusion of forgetting and remembering in this passage and why, if it was ‘not a story to pass on’, Morrison has passed it on. My hunch is that Marianne Hirsch’s theory of ‘postmemory’ will be useful for thinking this through.

According to Hirsch, ‘“postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before’ and it is communicated by the older generation through stories, images and behaviours. Its ‘connection to the past is thus actually motivated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection and creation.’ The ‘post’ as in the ‘post’ of ‘postcolonial’, does not refer to temporal delay, but rather the ‘troubling continuity’ of traumatic memory into the present (The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York, 2012), 5-6). So Sethe attempts to keep the stories of her traumatic past from Denver, telling her only stories of her miraculous birth at Sethe’s moment of escape, but her trauma is nonetheless communicated by her violent actions, of which Denver learns from another child and is herself stricken with a form of psychosomatic – traumatised – deafness as a result.

In thinking about Morrison’s writing, Hirsch’s discussion of ‘the ethics and aesthetics of remembrance in the aftermath of catastrophe’ is also critical, and seen in her questions ‘What do we owe the victims? How can we best carry their stories forward, without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without, in turn, having our own stories displaced by them? How are we implicated in the aftermath of crimes we did not ourselves witness?’ Morrison has chosen to do this via the story of Margaret Garner, her historical inspiration for Sethe, around whom she ‘would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual in order to relate her history to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility and women’s “place.”’ In doing so, she writes that she hopes the reader will ‘be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another… without preparation or defense’. She also writes that she hoped ‘the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive’. To reach for another theory of trauma, she hopes that the reader will become empathically unsettled, experiencing at second hand the trauma of slavery (Dominick LaCapra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca and London, 2004).

So towards the end of the novel, in 124 (the house in Beloved) we have Sethe, a woman traumatised by her past slavery and the action engendered by that trauma (the infanticide), her daughter Denver, who has suffered a kind of transgenerational trauma via her mother’s actions, and Beloved, the pregnant embodied ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter. Beloved’s pregnancy might superficially be explained by her ‘fixing’ of Paul D and their sex in the cold store but I would like to offer a metaphorical reading of this as well. The narrative of Beloved makes it clear that Beloved is not simply Sethe’s daughter, in the middle passage, she is also the ‘original’ slave, the young girl en route from Africa, raped on board the ship and pressed in by other bodies, some alive and some dead. She is, then, not just the embodiment of Sethe’s trauma, but the embodiment of slave trauma as a whole.  Paul D is attracted to Beloved; he describes her as ‘gilded and shining’ which he sees as very seductive and from which he protects himself by satisfying his appetites with Sethe every morning until Beloved drives him away from the main house. By personifying Beloved as the trauma of slavery itself, then, Morrison shows the dangerous seductive allure of traumatic memory. Beloved ‘fixes’ Paul D – she has him in her power – and he gives in to her night after night. Her attraction for Sethe is not sexual but is directly tied to her nurturing role as mother. Beloved asks her questions about her past, such as about her earrings but she finds that she likes sharing her stories with Beloved, who is described as having a ‘thirst for hearing’ them. Morrison refers to it as ‘a way to feed her’ and this becomes more apparent when Paul D moves out and Sethe realises that Beloved is her returned daughter. Beloved grows as Sethe ‘feeds’ her, first with ‘fancy food’, then when the money begins to run out, with basics: ‘If the hen had only two eggs, she got both.’ Denver sees Sethe herself trying to get by on scrapings burnt onto the stove ‘and crusts and rinds and peelings’, while Beloved grows fat. But Sethe also feeds Beloved with memories: lullabies, games, stories of how she had cared for her baby, protected her, carried her and slept with her on her chest, memories which pleaded her love for Beloved, to explain or excuse her murder of her child.

In light of this, we could see Beloved’s baby as engendered by Beloved herself, an embodiment of original trauma, and Paul D’s and Sethe’s own traumas; it thus represents a new generation of traumatic memory and I wonder whether this might explain the ‘story not to pass on’. Beloved will, if unstopped, pass her trauma on to the next generation, damaging them with the damage of her ancestors. Even when she is both ‘disremembered’ and dismembered, ‘erupt[ing] into her separate parts’, her presence threatens the happy ending of the novel. The people who saw her ‘deliberately forgot her’, while those who knew her intimately forgot her because ‘Remembering seemed unwise.’ There is a deliberate intention to both of these, not so much a forgetting as a suppression, so that moments such as ‘the rustle of a skirt’ or ‘the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep’ threaten to overturn the fragile oblivion. Nonetheless, in the moment of the ending, trauma is banished and while Beloved’s baby threatened the future with the trauma of the past, Morrison’s story – her creation – transmutes that trauma into something restorative.

There are two aspects of this which I would like to unpick a little further: one is the communal, collective aspect to Beloved’s defeat and the other is the notion of ‘rememory’. I’ve only read a couple of Morrison’s novels so far (though I plan to read many more), the other being Jazz, but what they seem to share is the idea that where Afro-Americans have been able to overcome the trauma of enslavement and the brutality of life under the ‘Jim Crow laws’, it has been by finding strength in each other. Jazz imagines this in its very narrative structure as a theme, developed by narrative ‘solos’ in the voices of different characters, which weave together as music, bringing characters together and finding strength and happiness in each other. In Beloved, the pregnant woman is not vanquished by violence but simply disappears in the face of the combined song of the local women. The reaction of the local women is focalised through the character of Ella, someone who has been mentioned earlier but whose character is only developed in this final moment. She herself spent the years of her puberty being ‘shared’ by a father and son and though ‘she understood Sethe’s rage in the shed’ when she attempted to murder her children, she ‘junked her’ after her ‘prideful’ reaction afterwards. However, the thought of one of her own babies – referred to only as ‘that pup’, a child fathered by one of her masters and which had died after she ‘had delivered, ‘but would not nurse it’ – ‘coming back to whip her’ goaded her into action on Sethe’s behalf. The women are galvanised first by Denver reaching out from 124 and then by Ella’s efforts, but finally, Beloved is exorcised by the united voices of the women singing together, not in a recognisable song but in ‘the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words’, a sound which ‘baptized [Sethe] in its wash.’ In its non-verbal communication, the shared trauma possesses the power, paradoxically, to vanquish even itself. Sethe is cleansed of Beloved’s stranglehold and both she and Denver find futures outside of the scope of their trauma.

Finally then, ‘rememory’. ‘Rememory’ is a term Sethe uses which is almost synonymous with memory but which, in its prefix of ‘re-’ suggests (in the manner of memory theory in the wake of Neisser and Tulving) that remembering is a repeated process rather than a fixed entity or repository such as the term ‘memory’ conjures. However, she also sees a ‘rememory’ as a kind of ghostly entity which has an independent life outside of the mind. She speaks of having a ‘picture floating around there outside my head’ which remains ‘Right in the place where it happened’ which can be ‘bump[ed] into and experienced as she lived it, by someone else. For this reason she insists that Denver never go to Sweet Home because even though it’s ‘over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you.’ So, she tries to protect Denver from the trauma of her past. When Denver presses her to talk about it, Sethe says so much and then ‘She stopped’ and Denver knew that ‘Sethe had reached the point beyond which she would not go.’

And this brings me back to the idea that this is ‘a story not to pass on’. Sethe does not pass on her story to Denver in words. She wants to protect her daughter, the future, from ever experiencing the horror of her past but the silences result in a strain and a distance between mother and daughter, and the daughter’s own experience of trauma in her childhood deafness, until Denver is edged out completely by Sethe’s all-consuming relationship with Beloved. The story of trauma is passed on, as Hirsch outlines, in the ways that Denver fills the silences, in her ‘postmemory’. Indeed, we might almost see Denver as willing Beloved to life in her imaginative friendship with her, especially when Paul D arrives and banishes the ‘haint’ from the house. Morrison does not ‘pass on’ Margaret Garner’s trauma in this way; she articulates it and communicates it through multiple voices, giving it the power to unsettle but not to overwhelm the psyche. In the re-creative process by which she ‘invent[s]’ the thoughts of Margaret Garner and ‘plumb[s] them for a subtext’ she creates a kind of ‘rememory’ of slavery for others to bump into and walk around in, spreading an awareness of the traumatic past but with the hope for a better future.

[1] If you are interested in reading more about this, the link is here:

Published by sophieraudnitz

English teacher, Classics PhD, teenaged boys and dogs

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