Beloved is written in a stream of consciousness style and is extremely hard to get into. The reader soon comes to realize, though, that any confusion is likely to be explained in the following chapters, and a trust builds up between the author and the reader. Another aspect that becomes clear is that any ambiguity is likely to remain as Morrison continually delves into the psychological state of her characters and flirts with both perceptions and reality. There are no clear answers in this story and it is almost as if the book is experienced or consumed rather than read.
The events that unfold in the present time in the novel cannot be separated from the central themes in the book. Without the circumstances of slavery, punishment, physical and sexual abuse, betrayal, dehumanization and degradation it is unlikely that the characters would have ever made the choices that they made. Perhaps importantly, Morrison based the book on actual events and the story of an escaped slave Margaret Garner who had murdered her own child rather than see her returned to slavery.
Morrison explores the loss of self as the characters attempt to divorce themselves from the events of the past. Beloved seems to have no memory whatsoever of her life leading up to the present and this would certainly be the case if she had been forced to repress memories of an extremely painful and abusive past.
Another important theme is dehumanization as the characters were often treated as animals and they had bits put in their mouths; they were whipped; Sethe’s milk was stolen and Paul D was kept in a hole in the ground. Humanity is explored and the reader has to question whether Sethe’s actions were a desire to protect her children or the irrational workings of a damaged mind.
You can listen to Toni Morrison discuss the book Beloved at the BBC’s World Book Club in February 2009 (.mp3). She says at one stage that “some parts were paralyzing to write,” and I get that. I really get that. Some parts of this book were devastating to read and it is such a powerful experience. I was really touched by the book and felt chills in my body and tears in my eyes at several points throughout the book.
Beloved is indeed one of the best works of literary fiction I have ever read. It is not an easy book, but if you persevere, it is certainly a rewarding experience. I would recommend it to all lovers of good fiction.