In the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a family is tortured by the past, and yet torn apart by change. In the beginning of the novel they live in isolation, attempting to ignore and forget the traumas that have haunted them for decades. They are ex-slaves who have trouble coping with painful memories, and with developing their own identities. They are petrified by the inability to accept their horrific past, and to build something new. The early reconstruction period was difficult for the ex-slaves, who suddenly had the legal and social right to live independently. Not only had they been culturally deprived of the knowledge and means to function, but traumatic memories created a paralysis in many groups. Morrison shows that the reconciliation of painful memories is itself a painful and arduous process, but it is absolutely necessary.
Despite their recent emancipation, the family distances themselves from the rest of society. And despite the violent apparition that haunts them, Denver and her mother Sethe remain in the house, called 124. Sethe believes that the ghost is her miscarried child. The ghost killed their grandmother, made her two boys run away, caused epilepsy in their dog, and commonly throws things around the house. The introduction of Paul D and Beloved create turmoil in the family, bringing terrible memories to the surface, but eventually healing Sethe, and re-establishing identity for everyone.
A predominant component of this piece is the development of persona. This leads into Posner’s argument that books are amoral. Not necessarily that books are incapable of having morals, but that there are other elements which can be more important. “We have an immense sense of human possibility. We feel bigger; we are transported, exhilarated. This is not a simple hedonism; but it is something that a Nietzsche or a Heidegger can understand better than the most sensitive moralist can, for it has to do with a sense of power and selfhood rather than with the moral sense” (74). The development of identity is an amoral concept. And yet this process is instigated by the evils of bondage and persecution. How does Posner address the fusion of moral and amoral elements?
Posner believes that moral works do not make moral people, but instead are at their most basic level simply provide knowledge. “Nussbaum makes the claim more concrete [than does Putnam] by arguing that literature can enlarge our empathetic awareness of injustice, and of moral issues generally. I agree that literature is one path, though not the only path, to a better understanding of the needs, problems, and point of view of human types that we are unlikely to encounter at firsthand. But I do not think that a better understanding of people makes a person better or more just” (71-72). Posner further clarifies this formulation: “The possession of knowledge, whether of oneself or of others, does not dictate its use for moral ends” (73).
One might think of the social pariahs of the Christian world, who at least in times past were often highly religious and superstitious. They knew that they were going to hell, but they were compelled to commit heinous acts despite their knowledge of their wrongness, typically because of social and economic pressures. Posner would then say that it is their human elements–authenticity, love, and ambition–which command the story of their lives. But isn’t this decontextualizing them? Let’s examine an overtly moral piece.
Posner professes and modifies Wilde’s view, saying that the technique of the written piece supersedes its moral purpose. Though Wilde continues to argue that there is no moral purpose. Posner says that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is badly written. He states: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin has not survived as literature–the only interest that it holds for us is historical–even though its author’s opposition to slavery now commands universal assent” (69). But it was not as straightforward when it was published, instead it dichotomized opinions on slavery. It’s purpose was purely moral, and Posner completely misses this point, just as moralists often miss the amoral components.
Booth in contrast, believes that all books have some inherent morality. “Though many modern authors try to disguise [their ethics] by dealing overtly with character qualities not ordinarily thought of in moral terms–such virtues as uncompromising as pursuit of existential truth or honest probing of postmodernist mysteries–I can think of no published story that does not exhibit its author’s implied judgements about how to live and what to believe about how to live” (26). As a moralist, Booth certainly misses the amoral concepts which Posner adorns. But Booth describes some of the implicit morality within literature. “Whether we use the word ‘intentions’ or not, we are all dependent, in everything we say about a work, on an implied relation between our intentions and the intentions imbedded in the author’s choices” (28). And he continues: “But if there is an author inflicting choices upon me, I have not only a right but a responsibility to think about whether those choices are ethically good or bad” (29). And what about choosing between two good options, or two bad options? Then the criteria isn’t necessarily moral, but aesthetic and arbitrary.
Booth makes a good point that one cannot eliminate the moral question. Even if one claims a relativist stance one is still making a moral statement. However, it is within the amoralist framework that relativism primarily concerns itself, and hence its literature is not making moral arguments.
So is Beloved an ethical piece or not? While it certainly has ethical components, and the characters have many flaws, the underlying story is essentially a coming-of-age epic. The development of persona is the driving force of the plotline. And while slavery is a major evil, it’s not seeking to prove that. Now the moral sphere does enter in an interesting way, because there are moral and amoral components of a developing persona, as when Paul D’s internal monologue reveals that he is not genuinely attracted to Sethe, but more of the idea of her, and what she can do for him. He is disgusted with Sethe’s naked body, and he cannot see the ‘tree’ on her back, all he sees is scars (21). All the men in the novel have an inflated sense of manhood, which is a source of pride, wickedness, and foolishness; but without it they wouldn’t be anything. Without that role of masculinity they would be paralyzed much in the manner that Sethe and Denver are–whose womanhoods have been stolen.
Wordsworth says that the purpose of poetry or art is the giving of pleasure. Though I’m not sure that is true with Beloved. “However exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of the character of a Poet, it is obvious, that while he describes and imitates passions, his employment is in some degree mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering. So that it will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time, perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs; modifying only the language which is thus suggested to him by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure” (247-248).
The term pleasure denotes to me a superficial sense of solely entertainment. One could say that the horrors and suffering depicted in the book are ultimately cathartic, and therefore pleasing. This is not necessarily the purpose of a work, which may be more cathartic to the author than to the reader; may be solely an exploration of suffering itself; or may be commenting on some quality which is devoid of the emotional reward, and more directed towards the intellectual. The lengthy style of Beloved makes its pleasing aspects rather delayed. Like the balance model it knocks one off kilter and eventually mends it. Thus, I think the purpose of this novel is to explore the depths of the paralysis which is caused by the pain. Which seems also to be Morrison’s point, that it is imperative to work through the pain or one will never be able to escape it. This makes the novel extremely difficult to read, and not a pleasing piece. The novel might more accurately be categorized in the genre of wisdom literature.
Wordsworth says that such reproductions or simulations are proportionally less vivid or provoking than real experiences. “But whatever portion of this faculty [feeling and thought] we may suppose even the greatest poet to posses, there cannot be a doubt that the language which it will suggest to him, must often, in liveliness and truth, fall short of that which is uttered by men in real life, under the actual pressure of those passions, certain shadows of which the Poet thus produces, or feels to be produced, in himself” (247). If art is mere shadows of real experiences, why then should we produce or engage art at all? Wouldn’t it be far more rewarding to study the historical writings of great men and women?
In The Poetics, Aristotle points out the unique place which poetry, or art in general, holds within human nature. “The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood […] and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. […] Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he’” (21). It’s important to note that Aristotle is not saying that the audience or reader will blindly imitate what they see, as Plato argues; but instead that it allows the reader to imagine such scenarios and come to their own conclusions. This imparted knowledge is the purpose of some art, not any resulting pleasure.
Since Aristotle considers tragedy to be the most perfect genre, his examinations of it are also applicable to all other genres as his opinion of the best art. Aristotle says that the tragic plot unfolds from a human flaw in character which is neither immoral nor merely unfortunate (29), which suggests that he has some appreciation for the amoral components, and he still values the moral lesson. “In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. […] The second thing to aim at is propriety. […] Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The fourth point is consistency; for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent” (31).
Using Aristotle’s qualities to judge the piece, we may say that it is good (though not excessively moral); that it is proper (as proper as one can be on the topic of slavery, which is not very much at all); that its characters are truthful and very human; and that it has a consistent plot. However, one interesting ambiguity which runs throughout the piece is its realist/mythical duality. The novel is littered with supernatural events without explanation, but which could still be explained realistically. For instance Beloved might not have been Sethe’s baby but a woman who escaped from a kidnapping.
The overwhelming quality which stands out of these is the defining of being human. When Paul D walks in the house for the first time, it is filled with a red light that feels like death (4-6). The red light is a symbol of this depravity and pain. Paul D defeats the poltergeist, triggering the mystical series of events. Though all the characters have the potential to be fully human, they have been so deprived of their humanity and for so long that such dreams are a foreign concept to them.
One of the major turning points in the novel is when Sethe begins to tell stories to Beloved (58). Beloved loves these stories, and Sethe finally feels a motherly connection. But soon Beloved begins consuming Sethe’s soul, demanding more and more of her exclusively. This parasitism is again symbolic of the spiritual and emotional death which permeates Sethe’s life. While Paul D and Denver are catalyzing change in Sethe’s character, Beloved pulls her back towards paralysis. Sethe has to realize that her baby is dead and she has a real family that she can take care of now.
The development of persona is an amoral quest which is filled with moral questions. This paradoxical realization is not particular expressive within a singular piece but is recognizable within the whole of ethical criticism. This story has broader ramifications than merely slavery, which acts as a metaphor for any deep trauma we may face. We realize throughout the piece that though change may be painful it is essential to living and being well.
Toni Morrison. Beloved. 1987. print.
Stephen George. Ed. Ethics, Literature, Theory. 2005. print.
[Posner and Booth texts]
Charles Kaplan and William Anderson. Ed. Criticism: Major Statements. 2000. print.
[Aristotle and Wordsworth texts]