Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved, both drew remarkable acclaim in its time and remains a powerful, modern classic. The story and the writing combine to stamp on the reader’s consciousness a vivid and almost unbearably painful narrative, as the characters of Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, and Paul D have become ingrained in the culture as icons of fiction.
A great part of the novel’s appeal, and a substantial foundation for the massive amounts of analysis and criticism it has received, arises from the supernatural component. The child Beloved is a ghost, first and foremost, and Beloved is a ghost story. This is a premise as necessary and solid as the house in which Sethe and her family live, and it is presented from the book’s beginnings in no unequivocal terms. Mother and daughter Sethe and Denver seek to exorcise the spirit very early on, with no success: “So they held hands and said, ‘Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on.’ The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did” (Morrison 10). This is a ghost as persistent, as literal, and as fixed in their lives as their own presences.
The question has then become, for critics: what is Beloved, exactly? How can the supernatural be so ordinarily woven into a family’s story, as though it were nothing but a strange house guest? For some, the answer is that it cannot, and that the manifestations are all within the minds of Sethe and her family. For other critics and readers, the ghost is a real, if supernaturally induced, effect of deeply suppressed shames and guilt, created largely by Sethe herself.
Such arguments speak well for Morrison’s power as a writer and the subtle strength of her characters, but they miss the point. Morrison employs the supernatural in Beloved as a tangible, living thing because she has chosen to translate it that way. She does not waste anyone’s time in probing the mysteries of why, or if, ghosts can exist; she accepts it as a given because she also makes the case that it is the living who create the ghosts. They are there because we make them be there, or because we allow them in.
Moreover, Morrison is by no means willing to employ the supernatural as a metaphor:
“In the textual world of Beloved…the ghost of ‘strong feeling’ really does palpably surround things and hover within 124, occupying physical space…” (Erickson 18). For Morrison and for her people in Beloved, the supernatural is merely the natural extension of warped passions, wrongs done, and a past which cannot be dismissed. It is essentially the supernatural completely at home, and accepted, within the natural world.
Ghostly Motivation and Tradition
The tangible and persistent use Morrison makes of the dead baby Beloved is nothing new, of itself. Setting aside the active presence of ghosts and spirits in ancient Greek drama, the deceased have been exploited endlessly in fiction and on the stage, and in ways ranging as widely as the scope of human emotion. Ghost are comic, lovelorn, devious, and sometimes merely playful. Others are present for more serious and specific purposes, and no proper assessment of Beloved can be made without a look at what could be considered her “ancestor” in literature, Hamlet’s father.
Before Beloved, no other literary ghost has so triggered speculation. For centuries, critics and scholars have hotly debated the actual presence of this Shakespearean creation, arguing that he is a tortured expression of Hamlet’s mind and incipient madness, or a trite device employed by Shakespeare simply because it was an era for ghost stories, and the public loved them. What matters, of course, is removed from any criticism or speculation: the ghost of Hamlet’s father is absolutely essential to the drama as the foundation for all that will develop, as Beloved is the pained core of Morrison’s novel. If anything separates these two, immensely important ghosts, it is that Shakespeare actually challenges his; he has his hero test the ghost’s story. Morrison merely sets her in place as solidly as any of her other characters.
What is more important, in comparing the ghosts of Hamlet and Beloved, is that each is inextricably tied to the living. These are not spirits with mysterious agendas, nor do they pop in and out on whims. They are expressions of deep grief, and they have reasons for what they do. Hamlet’s father seeks vengeance, and Beloved wants something of the same thing, although on whom, exactly, is not initially clear. Even that, however, is less essential than the fact that, like Hamlet’s father, her death was an abomination and a crime, the living are living in its aftermath, and some retribution is necessary. For Hamlet and his father, this translates to bloody justice; for Beloved, it is ceaseless anger conveyed as malicious spite.
There is one other link between the ghost of Hamlet and Beloved: a very non-supernatural sense of practicality, or even convention. What renders Hamlet’s father less of a twisted fantasy and more of an actual presence is a degree of thought and judgment. He wants vengeance, yet he will not allow his son to harm the partner complicit in his murder, Gertrude. This is, as ghostly happenings go, strikingly discretionary. It points to human feeling and mercy, and gives natural dimension to what should not have any.