Beloved Book Review – One of Two Novels You’re Supposed To Read

I recently got assigned Beloved, a book by Toni Morrison, to read in college. It’s an older book, one that I’d claimed was my favorite book even though I’d only really kind of read it before. This is my Beloved book review.

Me holding a copy of the book, Beloved. Beloved book review.
My copy of Beloved that I had to buy for both classes that assigned the book.

According to my high school English teacher, there are 2 books you have to read to be properly educated in American Literature. One of them is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Reading the book 12 years ago under duress by my teacher is one of the only memories I have of a specific assignment back in high school.

The former high school me reads things, kind of. I mean, it’s high school. To be fair, I wasn’t even sure why I was in an AP English class in high school.

Beloved is a pretty advanced book.

Since AP classes are for college credit, it’s inclusion in the curriculum is pretty understandable. However, reading big important books too early in one’s academic career risks the student not getting what they need to get out of the reading. That definitely applied to me. I used that high school trick of relying a lot of class discussion.

A mother kills her children to save them from slavery. The ghost of the slain child returns as a mysterious woman with little memory. The history of slavery weighs down on every character. Sethe is all but banished to a quiet life at home because of what she tried to do to her children. Paul D, Sethe’s friend from the plantation, is doomed to a life of roaming, unable to settle because of his history on the plantation, Sweet Home. It’s a story about how Sethe and Paul D come together to understand their past and move on from it. It’s such a great story.

The tracking of movement in the book alone is worthy of so much analysis that it’s easy to forget about even the obvious themes in the book, including themes of slavery, motherhood, and womanhood. Even more obvious is the magical realism involving the title character, Beloved. This book is the reason that I often still claim that magical realism is my favorite thing, and it’s because of this book.

I often cite Beloved as my favorite book.

It’s even listed as my favorite book on my Facebook account. Before college, rereading the book again felt impractical. For all that I was concerned, I read the book already in high school. When I started college after I got tired of working at Subway and Wal-Mart, I milked the fact that saying Beloved was my favorite book made me look sophisticated, literary, and smart. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for her work on it. It’s literary.

Fast forward to my last semester where the novel is assigned in two classes. The book was in both syllabi the same week, one class ending the novel just before a weekend and the other class assigning the last pages to be read the following Monday. Those weeks were the easiest weeks I’ve had in college. Knowing what happened in the story already, I didn’t have to worry about staying caught up with the reading. Being my last semester, other 500 level courses required papers and reading as well. I read Beloved for the first time for what felt like nothing but complete and total pleasure. Every bit of what had stuck with me since high school was there, and more.

If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly suggest you do. I’m surprised at the number of people who haven’t yet read it.

So here’s my Beloved Book review.

The tracking of movement in the book alone is worthy of so much analysis that it’s easy to forget about even the obvious themes in the book, including themes of slavery, motherhood, and womanhood.

Disclosure: the book cover image and link below are affiliate links to the book on Amazon. I make commission on your purchase if you click the link. – link to buy the book on Amazon.

Reading this book again after it being assigned TWICE this semester, I can still say that Beloved is my favorite book. The prose was easy for me to read in high school, but the density of the content was hard for me to find my way through. It’s still hard, but having more experience reading literary fiction in college helped me to get more out of it. It’s also a book that encourages rereading, with its complexity of themes and the arrangement of the story. Even after seeing the film many years ago, the book still holds up.

The pacing is a lesson for myself as a writer of a lot of speculative fiction. Thinking that the television show LOST holds the title as the king of flashbacks and narrative structure is a mistake. Beloved moves in an out of time slippages so flawlessly that I don’t think there is another story that works quite like it. Well, okay, except for maybe LOST, which has a big advantage going for it; it’s a film.

While a lot of the discourse about the book revolves around Sethe, her daughter Denver, and the mysterious character named Beloved, one of my favorite characters is Paul D. Sure, it could be that it’s because he’s a man, like me. I think it has to do more with the dynamic of movement he brings into the story. Paul D, a character obsessed with movement throughout the novel, is trying to live and be a lover to Sethe, the character obsessed with NOT moving in the story. It creates such an interesting push and pull between the characters that the tension remains escalated throughout the entire book, even in the quiet moments.

A common thesis about Beloved in scholarly essays is that it’s a text about moving on from the past.

The book’s obvious themes are about the issues of race and slavery. Many critics of Beloved, such as Vickie Greenbaum, suggest that the book shouldn’t be viewed a history of slavery. Critics suggest the book asks the question about how to make the future better by learning from slavery.

However, expanding further onto my analysis of movement and non-movement within the text, I’d even go as far as to suggest that Beloved includes the issue of gender identify. The text juxtaposes Paul D’s manhood alongside Sethe’s womanhood. Given the complexity of gender identity that we now know today, it’s also tempting to suggest a possible reading that alludes to sexual identity. It is a book that will make you think in ways that you didn’t believe possible before finishing it.

So many questions.

What’s the significance of Paul D’s questioning of his own manhood after being dehumanized on Sweet Home?

What’s with the obsession with movement? Non-movement?

What’s with Sethe’s need to give her children her milk after it being taken from her?

Why is Morrison juxtaposing gender in this way? Is gender being offered as an issue to overcome?

How does retrospective change the results of transcendence?

While I’m sure many of you have read Beloved, I encourage you to read it you haven’t. If the last time you read it was in high school, or if the last time you read it you weren’t able to grasp what you needed from it, I strongly encourage you to read it again. While it’s a obviously a book that was written to fit into the discourses of slavery, race, women, and motherhood, I especially encourage you to read it if you’re of a privileged class: a man, especially if you’re straight, and especially if you’re white.

If you read it, let me know your interpretation.

What do you think about it? Are you getting what I’m getting out of it? I’m really going to put my foot down on the gender thing, but the sexuality thing I’ll admit I’m still trying to find a good path into.

Comment below with your thoughts. Contact me over on the About page with other or business related inquires.

Works Cited:

Greenbaum, Vickie. “Teaching Beloved: Images of Transcendence.” The English Journal. July 2002, vol. 91, no. 6, pp 83-87.

Greenbaum’s essay discusses how the book should be viewed as a novel about “transcendence”, not African American history or as a guide to the history of slavery.

Daniels, Steven V. “Putting ‘His Story Next to Hers’: Choice, Agency, and the Structure of Beloved.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 44, no 4, 2002, pp. 349-367. Project Muse.

Daniels does a careful reading of the structure of the book, putting Sethe’s story alongside Paul D’s. This essay is how I got the idea for tracking the movement and non-movement of the characters.

By Eric Shay Howard

Eric Shay Howard lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He's the author of the fiction collection, Crushes, and is a literary editor. He also works at a law firm and is writing his second book. He's a graduate student in the Bluegrass Writers Studio MFA in Creative Writing program at Eastern Kentucky University.

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