The “Infant Ancestor”: Toni Morrison’s Beloved
In Beloved, Toni Morrison radically reinvents the ancestor theme by creating an “ancestor” younger than the living characters. The ghostly presence of the murdered baby known only as “Beloved” – the only word her mother, Sethe, could afford to have carved on her marker – fulfills all the roles of an ancestral presence, yet is obviously a product, and not a forebear, of Sethe’s life. Morrison achieves this through a deep understanding of what bonds ancestors to the living, in any family situation.
It is usual to believe that Beloved is a spirit, and a very active one, not at rest because the shame and pain of her mother cannot allow it to be. This is true, certainly to an extent; the circumstances of Beloved’s death are as tragic as any in ancient Greek drama, and the possibility that she is nothing but a creation of Sethe’s grief and remorse only adds mystery and power to the ghostly figure. We all conjure our own ghosts, Morrison seems to be saying, because we cannot bury what was a violation of life.
However, the talent of Morrison serves to invest Beloved with all the elements of a true ancestor. Any appearance, real or imagined, of one in literature is “ghostly” by its very nature; the dead are either being sought, or are intruding on life because there is a need to do so. The ancestor spirit is there to reinforce the living presences, as it provides context for the living. It informs them of the scope of the family’s existence. It stands as evidence of the cycles of life and the obligations of the living to be true to all of it. The ancestor presence may be gentle or painful, but it is always there because it is, somehow, required.
Beloved does all of this. Confusion and grief surround her, as spirit or as living incarnation, and it is all ancestral because the links between the living and the dead are not defined by whomever came first. The murdered baby is gone, and that is enough to establish her “ancestral” power as a removed member of the family. Morrison understands and relates how everything an ancestor can be may be found in those who are, or were, younger, but are taken away.