Language plays a fundamental role in not only generating discourses, but also in maintaining and sustaining them over the course of history. Realizing the potency of the language and the profoundly inexplicable deficiency of female narrative voice as well as narrative space in African literature, eminent Afro-American novelist Toni Morrison, through her novel, Beloved projects the female perspective on the Black African experience, thereby essentially qualifying her work as a herstory , in comparison to history.
Herstory contrary to his-story is basically history written from a feminist perspective , encompassing and highlighting the truths generally suppressed by male authors or writers. Janet Frame and Sarah Dunant stand as the prime pioneers of this school of narrative fiction and non-fiction. Apprehending the fact that women in literature are generally represented, instead of being in a position to represent themselves, the novel Beloved by Morrison stands as a herstory , and also fits in the criteria of what eminent feminist Helene Cixous in her article , “Laugh of Medusa” labels as an Ecriture Feminine (880) since she too rightfully believed in the essential need for women to place “themselves into the text” and therefore “into history” (879).Analyzing Morrison’s novel Beloved in this context manifests her aspirations towards not only highlighting the harrowing experience of black slaves in America, but also sheds light upon the gendered American society , where female deviation from social norms was not only deemed a threat to patriarchy but was also an aberration , worth condemnation.
Critic Kristine Burdeau in her article , “Pain and Unmasking of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” remarks that Morrion’s novel cannot be viewed as a mere projection of slave narratives only since slave narrative presents potent arguments for the abolition of slavery, whereas characters in Morrison’s novel are not put in ordered narrative. Their “reasoning and thinking process has been thwarted” due to prolonged subjection to “torture”(453).As a consequence, their language holds meanings on various levels. It alludes not only to their collective memory, their present stature as black Africans dwelling in America, but also to the gender politics permeating and defining the black community itself.
From a reader’s perspective, it can be said that Morrison employs a discourse that is more conducive to projecting the female experiences, making it come across as a herstory instead of a history. The poetic style of writing, characterized by a regular usage of puns, spaces and silence makes her convey the female side of the black experience. There is a certain fluidity evident in her style of writing. “…She hurt me …I want her face.. I am loving her too much” (255).This fluidity is something that Cixous too alludes to in her essay “Laugh of Medusa” , with respect to ecriture feminine, where she contends that the feminine writing “continues “ without “discerning contours”(889).Similarly Morrison too makes full use of language without discerning contours.
The narrative of Morrison’s Beloved is essentially circular and not linear. This circularity is what links it to the style of female speech. Since female speech , even when it is “theoretical” or “political” is “never linear” instead is “generalized” since the female writer “draws her story into history”(Cixous 881), Morrison recurrently exhibits circularity in thought , content and style of her novel Beloved, thereby creating a feminine discourse by coupling individual history with national history.
Circularity is exhibited in the relations that exist between different characters. The characters of Seth and Paul D are main examples of this. Seth, the protagonist of the story is unable to throw off the shackles of her harrowing past. The memories of the Sweet Home where she works as a slave “haunt her beyond measure” (36). During the course of the story, when Seth meets Paul D, an old accomplice who worked as a slave with her at Sweet Home, torn she finds herself unable to communicate the reason of why she ended up killing her very own daughter, since she knew “if he didn’t get it off right- she would never be able to explain it” (192).
A pertinent circular metaphorical image is that of “ghost hands circling Seths neck”(119).As Seth sits in the clearing , she feels ghost hands circling her neck. While at first they appear to be soothing, later on she feels choked. Soon afterwards Beloved comes to massage her neck. This entire episode impels Denver to accuse Beloved of trying to strangle Seth. Beloved defends herself by saying that she only tried to “kiss” Seth’s neck and “not choke it”. Instead it is the “iron collar” that choked it. By saying so, Beloved alludes to the collective past of the Black Americans. The iron collar she refers to could be a symbolic reference to the slave collars worn by members of the slave community in those days, something constricting and containing their personal selves as well as growth.
The novel qualifies as a herstory since Morrison through it examines the notions of female desire , and sexuality under the yoke of slavery. The immense pain and suffering at the hands of the White masters, impels the Black slave women to be estranged from their bodies. Seth’s back which is basically a “collage of scars” and blooms as a “cherry oak tree” symbolize the torture she has been through in an abusive atmosphere of racial prejudice(321).Her breasts are described by Morrison as “tired” .This further sheds light upon her difficult maternal role. Seth’s sexuality and drives are further manifested in the scene where Paul D offers to bathe Sethe. Seth wonders, that if Paul D “bathe her in sections” so will “parts hold”(321).Her body is a reflection of the variant parts of her Self, the lover, the slave and the mother. Seth fears the parts falling apart. Therefore, it can be said that Seth’s body discourse sheds light upon the exhaustion she feels , yet her need to put herself in someone else’s hands.
From a readers perspective Morrison’s Beloved qualifies as a herstory since it primarily voices the grievances of women in slave communities defined by fractured identities of self .These women are robbed off their right to fully claim themselves in different social roles, be it that of a mother , a daughter , a wife or a friend. Baby Suggs , the mother-in-law of Seth while reflecting on her life realizes how she has lost her individuality and her Self. At one point in the novel, readers see her pondering over whether she has been a “pretty woman” , a “faithful wife” or even a “good friend”. This manifests how she lacks confidence in herself and believes to have failed in roles that she believes she should have succeeded in.
Seth too manifests same confusion and loss of personal identity and individuality. Her trajectory emanates from the fact that she was denied access to a maternal figure when she was a child. As a result of which she seeks subjectivity and recognition from her children, and her murdered daughter. She believes her children to be the most perfect part of herself since she identifies through the maternal.Critic Kirwan in her article “Looking Into the Self that is No Self: An Analysis of Subjectivity in Beloved”, alludes to the same contention, remarking that “in giving birth to her own children , Seth desires to attain subjectivity of Self” since when she was a child , she was denied the “maternal look”.
Beloved stands as a herstory that not only alludes to the harrowing reality of slavery in America , but also lays bare the torturously harrowing metal horrors that women were specifically subjected to during the days of slavery. Morrison through the power of the word , the language itself , manages to a carve a representation of black women , who have since long been misrepresented , or underrepresented in the cannons of literature. In doing so she does what critic Edward Said deems to be the primary function of a writer, “to disturb the status quo”, thereby qualifying herself as a sagacious writer, penning down women’s thoughts, their bodies and their fears in history, something that finds rare parallels the literary realm.
Boudreau, Kristin. “Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Contemporary Literature. University of Wisconsin Press.pp.447-465.
Cixous , Helen. “ Laugh of Medusa.” JSTOR, vol.1, no.4, 1976, pp.875-93.
Holden-Kirwan, Jennifer L. “Looking Into the Self That Is No Self: An Examination of Subjectivity in Beloved.”. Indiana State University. 1998. Pp. 415-426.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books.2001.pp.120-325.