by Toni Morrison
The year is 1873, and at a former station on the underground railroad, the ghost of a vengeful slain baby shatters mirrors, strews food on the floor and leaves tiny handprints in the icing of cakes. Seemingly exorcised after years of haunting, the baby disappears. But now a mysterious young woman waits at the door for the family’s return. Calling herself only “Beloved,” she insists she doesn’t know who she is or where she comes from. But she’s has an ominous scar under her chin. And she’s strangely familiar with the secrets of the woman of the house, Sethe, from the earrings she never wears to the songs she sang only to her children. And who has been ostracized from the colony of former slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio, for killing her young daughter eighteen years earlier.
While still recovering from the birth of her youngest child, escaped slave Sethe and her four children were tracked down by her former owner. She managed to cut the throat of one child before being caught. attempted to kill all her children, but only succeeded in cutting the throat of one daughter, a children just learning to crawl.
“I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was,” Sethe tells her lover, Paul D, when he confronts her.
But though Sethe believes her action was the only way to protect her child, how could she explain that to her tiny dead daughter?
While researching an earlier book, Toni Morrison came across an 1856 newspaper clipping that provided the real life inspiration for the story of Sethe and her family. Entitled “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child,” it quoted escaped slave Margaret Garner saying she “would much rather kill (her children) at once, and thus end their sufferings, than have them taken back to slavery, and be murdered by piecemeal.”
(Margaret Garner was not tried for murder or attempted murder, but for what the courts of the time believed to be her real crime, escaping from slavery.)
The story seared Morrison. Ultimately, she decided to concentrate on the emotional life of Sethe and her fellow slaves instead of reconstructing the historical mother’s situation. The result was her 1987 novel and Pulitzer Prize winner, Beloved, followed by a 1993 Nobel Prize for literature.
Whatever Margaret Garner may have finally felt, the family of Beloved was shattered, both by Sethe’s actions and devastation of slavery, separating Sethe from her own mother and her children’s father, Halle, who she believes died during a failed escape attempt; deadening her will, her initiative, her ability to love.
“I got us all out. Without Halle, too.” Sethe tells Paul D. “Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. . . Maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love.”
And he understands. “To get to a place where you could love anything you chose--not to need permission for desire--well now, that was freedom.”
The threat of losing that freedom terrified Sethe enough to kill. And would terrify her again and again, until the ghost of Beloved is finally--but is it finally?--exorcised.
In both book and movie versions, Beloved is widely available. And for Morrison’s own thoughts about the writing of her book, see “Toni Morrison: Beloved” at
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a November of fantasy with Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.)