The second section includes the actual return of the murdered girl, now nearly 20, to the house, to Sethe and her surviving sister, and is the forward motion of the story. They do not suspect her identity at first. Paul D has seen plenty of “odd clusters and strays of Negroes wander[ing] the back roads and cowpaths from Schenectady to Jackson. Dazed but insistent, they search each other out for word of a cousin, an aunt, a friend who once said, ‘Call on me’.” Beloved must surely be one of those “strays”. Soon, however, the inhabitants of 124 come to realise that Beloved knows too much, and her presence in their lives is far from random. Beloved is home. What happens to this family in the last section of the novel as the result of Beloved’s return with all her pain and all her unresolved trauma and anger is the driver of the rest of this story, a trauma that stands in for the trauma of multitudes and generations.
The story is told through flashbacks, with multiple points of view, and, when I read beloved the first time I was like a pre-language baby reading it. I was willing to follow Toni Morrison’s voice but only partly understanding the lyricism, the time shifts, the fractured language, and dream-like sequences. Morrison did not write fairy tales, but her characters believe in the magic of the other world that abuts our own, the permeable membrane of that world of spirit in constant contact and conversation with our usual plane of existence. Over years and many readings, I have acquired layers of her meaning and intention about family, slavery, memory, misogyny, and the persistence and insistence of the past.
Beloved, a young woman, clingy and angry, reminded me of myself, both of us at the tail end of our adolescence, both needing something we couldn’t name from our people, both looking for some damn body to pay attention. Morrison’s stories of the honest struggle of living, of squalor and occasional abundance, of every kind of pain, did not centre on pathology or educating white readers, but on the characters’ ability or not to successfully navigate their circumstances. For Morrison’s Beloved part of these circumstances are certainly structural racism and the legacy of slavery. However, Beloved is the story of a family who negotiate their lives of accommodation and survival with pragmatism about what cannot be changed, with their great or limited resources as they are able, and as the situation demands. They get to be themselves carrying on like the individuals they are.