The following is a “response” (not really a book review, but more of an analysis) that I did for an MFA back in 2011.
In Beloved, Toni Morrison utilizes magical realism as a major technique to convey the slave experience in a way that is personal, believable, and yet does not destroy us as readers. By the latter, I mean that the details of the subject matter—slavery—are similar to the holocaust, in that they can overwhelm the reader into avoidance, or perhaps worse dehumanizing the experience rather than dealing with it. By using magical realism Morrison is able to keep us engaged and intrigued, while not abandoning the reality of the slave experience.
A number of definitions for magical realism exist as I peruse Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. The aspects that Morrison employs the most in Beloved are: time is not linear, authorial reticence and a sense of mystery. If I had the time and space I would explore her use of point of view and folklore/folk story telling as aspects of magical realism, but space does not make that possible.
I suppose one has to examine the magical, the fantastical, part of Beloved, before moving on to the fore mentioned aspects. Magical realism differs from popular fiction fantasy in that the magical is simply part of the world of the characters in a world that is still our world. In Beloved, the primary magic is that ghosts are real and the locus of the book is a house that is haunted by a murdered two year old girl. I say locus, but given the lack of linear time, it is really the returning locus. Sooner or later we always return to the house 124. Often at different times, but that is where we start and where we return. The major magic of a haunted house is laid out within the first paragraph of the novel.
There are minor magic, such as Baby Suggs sensing something bad approaching, or her ability to draw people to the grove for her preaching, or even her ability to feel the bad vibes from the black community [find citation] when she has the audacity to provide too much for her community. She senses the bad feelings are black, not white. All this is simply accepted. The characters don’t see it as fantastical, or necessarily special. It just is.
Within the first three pages we have jumped around in time from 1873, to the months preceding to an indeterminate time right after the baby’s death, to some unknown time after the baby’s death but before Baby Suggs death, to eight years after Baby Suggs. These are not done as flash backs, simply as a non-linear time. However, despite a non-linear movement through time there is a temporal locus to the novel, just as there is a spatial one. The temporal locus is Paul D and his interaction with Sethe and the house.
The authorial reticence that works so well in Beloved is how Morrison never explains to us, the reader, whether the young woman Beloved really is the baby Beloved returned. The daughter, Denver, and Sethe both never doubt it. We are given some evidence that she is, but it is never explained fully, nor do we feel it needs to be. In a mainstream fantasy, this would be generally demanded.
Morrison combines the authorial reticence with the lack of linear time. This is done through repetition. She uses repetition quite a bit, from saying the same phrase multiple times in one page, or even one sentence, to revisiting a scene over and over, with a slightly different interpretation. One example is “nobody saw them falling” is repeated three times in one page (201). Scene revisits are numerous, one example Sethe revisits Paul D’s arrive to 124 several times in her mind, each time that revisit is within a different context. Time is not linear and through this we get a fuller perspective of events than if it were.
The sense of mystery that Morrison employs is different from the authorial reticence. The mystery is the reader’s search for the hidden meaning to it all as one reads. This saves us from being swallowed by the realities of slavery we are experiencing as readers. Again, from the very beginning, we are presented with this. Sethe has sold ten minutes of sex for one word engraved on her daughter’s headstone. Rather than beat us over the head with the brutality of the sold sex act, with the engravers son watching, we are more drawn into the mystery of choosing the word “Beloved” from the sermon on the child’s death, the questions as to whether it was enough, what were the details of the murder that we already suspect the mother has done, why were those minutes more alive, more pulsating than her baby’s blood soaking her fingers. We are drawn into the mystery of not just the murder and the ghost, but the mystery of this world. We quickly allow for the temporal and spatial jumps believing it is all interconnected somehow and that this world view is acceptable. We don’t need the standard POV shifts and cues. This is the sense of mystery that magical realism refers to and that Morrison utilizes, almost relentlessly, throughout the novel.
The mystery is the metaphors that are not cliché; that give us new insight into people. One of many examples is:
Beloved was shining and Paul D didn’t like it. Women did what strawberry plants did before they shot out their thin vines: the quality of the green changed. Then the vine threads came, then the buds. By the time the white petals died and the mint-colored berry poked out, the leaf shine was gilded tight and waxy. That’s how Beloved looked – gilded and shining. (78)
This type of long metaphor gives us the feeling that everything in the magical world has meaning and is worth exploring and thinking about. This, despite the author’s own admission that she did not always intend for there to be hidden meanings and metaphors. In an interview with Time magazine in 1998 she says:
I think all of the sexual or sensual implications of the book are overt. There was no covert or hidden sexual metaphorical language. I certainly did not mean to suggest that the canoe itself was anything more than a canoe which was the means by which she could cross the river and at the same time provide a place where the baby could be born like a cradle.
This does not detract from the mystery of magical realism as a technique, rather it shows that if done well that we find meaning even where the author was not consciously working on it. This is the power of the technique.
I find it curious, that while utilizing the techniques of magical realism, in particular the lack of linear time and mystery, that Morrison also utilizes a technique of breaking up the novel into three parts. My observation is that part three in particular is a shift in person focus: it centers on Denver more than the other characters. Morrison seems comfortable jumping spatial locale and temporal locale throughout, but when she really wants to focus on one character—beyond the experience of slavery as a whole, she has moved it to a different part. Part two focuses on Sethe and uses the first person much more than any other part of the book. Within each part, the elements of magical realism remain, but each part has some minor independence and different focus. Ultimately, this technique works also, allowing Morrison to have a modestly upbeat ending in part three, where Paul D still wants to stay with Sethe, without detracting from the power and the tragedy of parts one and two.