How Stories break the Silence in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2013 20 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Backgrounds
1.2 History
1.3 Value of History in the book
1.4 Story
1.5 Memory
1.6 Identity

2. Silence and Holes

3. Telling Stories – Gaining a Voice

4. Stories about Sweet Home - Sethe

5. Paul D

6. Being together – Sethe and Paul D

7. Denver

8. The function of Beloved

9. Songs

10. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

I will tell you something about stories, [he said]

They aren't just entertainment

Don't be fooled

They are all we have..

So they try to destroy the stories

let the stories be confused or forgotten

They would like that

They would be happy

Because we would be defenseless then. (Silko, 1977)

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it is Sethe, a black woman and a former slave, who tries to find her own identity within herself through stories. She has to go back to the stories of her ancestors and to the memories she has of her life on Sweet Home in order to find out what being free really means. While trying to start a new life she listens to many stories about her past and is confronted with her own stories. In whichever form, told, sung, or danced out in front of her, the stories appear, they mark her, her daughter, and her companion’s identity.

Throughout the novel the characters have to decide whether they want to keep on keeping their silence or whether they are ready to face their past and can start telling their story. What seems to be an easy task is exposed as a painful and frightening experience in a world were those who have not shared the same stories are hardly able to understand. “[…] The novel opens with characters still traumatized many years after their escape from slavery. They are numb, almost incapable of emotion because they have suffered so deeply and seen such terror” (Bowers, 2000, p. 215). That could be one reason why Toni Morison ends her novel by telling the reader that this “was not a story to pass on” (323). But still Morrison does pass it on because, as she puts it in an interview with Marsha Jean Darling, sometimes it is the stories that nobody wants to hear and nobody wants to tell that need telling the most (cf. Darling & Morrison, 1988, p. 6).

This paper will argue that stories are the marker of one’s identity. Stories, that are based upon personal experiences and tellings of others, which enter ones mind and never let go are the stories we live by and those we are to tell since “we are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell” (Mc Adams & Ruthleen Josselsson, 2006, p. 3). Furthermore our “[…] identities are the stories we live by” (Mc Adams et al., 2006, p. 4).

After giving some background information to the book the paper is going to define the concepts of story, history, memory and identity, which are relevant for the thesis, afterwards it will be analyzed what impact stories can have on the life of a person and various examples from Beloved will be discussed. It will be tried to explain in which form the stories appear and how the characters del with their life stories. In conclusion, it will be analyzed how the stories, by which Toni Morrison’s characters live, can break the silence.

1.1 Backgrounds

Toni Morrison was inspired to write Beloved by two different stories she had come by over the years. One of those stories was about Margaret Garner who, being a run-away slave in Kentucky in 1856, was accused of trying to kill her four children and having killed her baby girl. This woman also stated that she did not want her children to go through the same stories she had to go through and that she thought it better for them to be dead rather than enslaved. The other story was about a young girl who had been shot by her lover and who died because she kept silent and would not go to a hospital or tell anyone else about what had happened to her. This girl lost her life because she was not able to share her story. Inspired by those two women Morrison decided to write a book about a woman who almost kills herself by keeping silent and who loves somebody else more than herself (cf. Moglen, 1993, p. 23; Rushdy, 1992, p. 569).

1.2 History

History can be described as a chronology of events that have taken place before our time and during our lifetime, including everything that is remembered and written down (cf. Free Dictionary, online, FARLEX)[1]. History tells us how the past came to be and how it influences the present (McAdams, 1993, p. 102). History is made up of stories and can be described as a “[…] narration of […] incidents; a narrative, [or] a story” (Oxford English Dictionary)[2]. ‘History’ is also defined as a “[…] continuous methodical record of important or public events, esp. those connected with a particular country, [or] individual etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary)[3].

1.3 Value of History in the book

Throughout the novel the reader is presented with many examples and references from history. One can see that the history of the American slaves and their experiences are to be shared with the reader. Beloved is supposed to be a story that enables the reader to think about the horrors of slavery in a way which makes it possible to digest the stories but still remember them (cf. Darling & Morrison, 1988, p. 5). Morrison writes about the Middle Passage, the Ku-Klux-Klan and the Fugitive Act. She almost never mentions those historical events directly but lets them flow into her story through the tellings and experiences of her characters. Sethe runs away from Sweet Home in Kentucky, which was a slave state back then, to Cincinnati, a free state. She thought that she and her children would be free after they had crossed the border to Cincinnati but the Fugitive Act of 1850 enabled their former owners to claim them back when they manage to find them. Upon seeing the Schoolmaster’s hat Sethe knows that they will be given the right to take her and her children back to Sweet Home and that knowledge makes her kill one of her baby girls while trying to kill the other three kids as well. When Beloved comes back to them years later she enters the world coming out of the water. Toni Morrison later explains that Beloved stands for all those people who are no longer able to tell their story of coming to America across the Atlantic on a voyage called the Middle Passage. She wanted to give those people who died during those voyages a voice and give them a chance to be included in the stories people tell today (cf. Darling & Morrison, 1988, p. 5). The Ku-Klux-Klan is mentioned several times in the novel and once Paul D says that he thinks Cincinnati is infected by the Klan which is ready to shed black blood, black schools get burned down, women get raped and kids beaten up (212). The mentioning’s of all those historical events enable Beloved to make the horrors of slavery subjects of discussion and lets people connect to them through Sethe’s and her families story. Without even giving the exact dates or without even defining any of those incidents the reader is enabled to somehow connect to the past and can take what he read into the future. Therefore not only do the character’s stories break a silence for them but also Beloved breaks a silence for the reader.

1.4 Story

The Oxford English Dictionary [4] defines ‘story’ as a narrative which is either true or assumed to be true and which relates to important events or people of the past. A story can be a historical work and can sometimes even be describes as a book of history. Furthermore a ‘story’ can be fictitious and is often told to amuse the hearer or reader (cf. Free Dictionary, online, FARLEX)[5]. It can explain something from the past and be relevant for everybody but it can also be a personal story which is only told amongst family and friends.

1.5 Memory

The word ‘memory’ encompasses the ability of the mind to save information from the past (cf. Oxford English Dictionary, online)[6]. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘memory’ also as a store of things that can be made up of specific experiences (cf. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online)[7]. Toni Morrison herself defines memory as a way of keeping connected to the past which is of uttermost importance to all of us if we do not want to get lost in the present (cf. Rushdy, 1992, p. 567). Our memories are made up of those stories that influenced us the most, which angered us the most, which made us laugh and which made us cry. Our memories are the stories we live by. “”Rememoring” is what Morrison’s characters call it, and it is the central activity in Beloved. Because of it the narrative moves constantly back and forth between past and present, mixing time inextricably, as memory escalates its battle against amnesia” (Bowers, 2000, p. 214).

1.6 Identity

There are many identity researchers who identify identity as something that is achieved individually and which develops over time (cf. Mc Adams et al., 2006, p. 6). A person’s identity is not static and can change throughout his or her lifetime although it seems as if some aspects of that persons character always stay the same (cf. Mc Adams et al., 2006, p. 7). The identity of a person supplies his or her life with meaning, unity, and purpose (cf. Mc Adams et al., 2006, p. 5). Identity is the one “thing” that makes us all different from each other but which is also able to unite us in one way or the other. All people do have a life story of their own, which you could compare in some general aspects but they are never entirely the same (cf. McAdams, 1993, p. 83). Identity is shaped by the social environment in which we grow up and spend our life in. This environment has a huge impact on our moral values, beliefs, and traits (cf. McAdams, 1993, p. 84). “We come to understandings about truth, beauty, and goodness through conversations with our friends and family […]” (McAdams, 1993, p. 84). Identity is shaped by the stories we listen to when we are little kids and also by the stories we start telling ourselves and others (cf. McAdams, 1993, p. 84). Additionally identity is said to be the one thing in life which holds everything together (cf. McAdams, 1993, p. 117).

2. Silence and Holes

This story of silence has been written to give African Americans their voices back (cf. Bowers, 2000, p. 213).

With Beloved Toni Morrison wants to break the silence. She dedicated the novel to the “Sixty Million and more” people who are no longer able to tell their story and who have been killed, damaged and silenced through slavery and its aftermath. Scholars say that all of Morrison’s works are about silence […], whether that silence is metaphysical or physically enforced by circumstance. […] The point of Morrison’s novels, in fact is to give a voice to the voiceless, to speak the unspeakable on the part of the speechless (Rigney, 1991, p. 21).

Throughout her novel her characters get the chance to talk about their life stories and are therefore able to break a silence that had affected their lives for many years. Most of the times the characters do not talk about their past willingly but are forced to do so by circumstance. It is very hard for Sethe to remember her life on Sweet Home and she tries to push the memories and the stories away from her. Sethe “counts on the stillness of her soul” trying to forget” (5) but is enforced to tell about her past to beloved who won’t stop asking her for it. Only through facing her fear of talking about her past she gets the chance to heal. By telling their stories the characters realize that they are not alone, that they are in fact more than two, more than three, more than four.. who have gone through the same stories and that together they are able to confront their past (cf. Darling & Morrison, 1988, p. 5).

Not only do the characters keep silent for a very long time during the novel but silence exists also in the text of Beloved itself, as, according to Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson Weems, was the case in the original slave narratives, characterized by not what history has recorded … but what it has omitted. The central paradox, however, is that the silence of women echoes with reverberation, speaks louder than words […] (Rigney, 1991, p. 26).


[1] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/history

[2] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/history

[3] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/history

[4] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/story?q=story

[5] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/story

[6] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/memory

[7] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/memory


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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
stories silence toni morrison beloved



Title: How Stories break the Silence in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"