“Spiteful” is a shocking word, seeming too small, too intimate. But then it is the right word for the novel, since the novel circles upon—upon wheels within wheels—a trauma that is claustrophobic and intimate; the political gesture of the novel is to insist that the most narrow confines of experience, an individual’s body, memory, relationships within a dissolving, dissolved family, are the proper locus for understanding the historical trauma of generations of enslavement. The insistence is carried by the form of the novel. “Form”—conceived of as something of a loose baggy monster of a concept—is very much the challenge that Beloved poses to a reader, not because the form struggles to contain so much, but because it contains what is, in effect, a single incident, something that the novel doggedly denies us the grounds for calling an “event,” and is a record of its perpetual return. It is not, in fact, a novel of magical realism; it is instead as pure an instance of the gothic as can be imagined, in which the psychological compulsion to return and relive what cannot be fully spoken or remembered, is figured forth, and experienced, in the arrival of a figure whose origins and purpose defy comprehension—who is very much apprehended, in Morrison’s novel, apprehended affectively and bodily, and only by Denver, who is a degree removed from the incident of violence, through the more overt devices of questions.
The question that the characters in the novel turn away from, that they cannot even attempt to answer, is what her reality means; they already know and they cannot say; this too is the double bind of their trauma. In reverse, it is the bind of the novelist who would write about slavery: it can be told, because grammar permits us to speak and think what defies the world we know, but it cannot, despite that, be known. Morrison saw—and this must have been a jolt in the creative process—that the Gothic could allow her to register the limits of the imagination, through its seeming excess: its excess expresses what cannot be otherwise expressed, gives it presence and substance in a narrative, while remaining fundamentally opaque. Not derivative, but genuinely in the tradition of Conrad and Faulkner, and above all the Faulkner of Absalom, the opacity of the novel is less in its prose, sentence to sentence, than its very subject matter. The prose serves the opacity not by generating the psychological miasma of historical inheritance (as in Faulkner) or turbid moral confusion (Conrad), but by establishing a provisional spoken voice, a voice that responds to the moment of telling, and that implicitly reminds the reader that this could be told another way. There is a life and world that exceed the telling, that are shaping this telling, but that are not commensurate with it. There is an excess that is apprehended by the words; we feel them fail to fit tightly onto what we know, and in the space, there is the sound of something beyond understanding, Beloved herself, but—more than Beloved herself—the relationship of Sethe and Denver and Paul D with Beloved herself, and with the past that led to that single moment, that incident, in which she died, from which she was born.
That difference, felt as the excess of material to language, rather than an excess of language to material (Faulkner when he goes bad suffers this latter, but he does so aspiring to the astonishing moments when the former happens), and the space between the experience and the telling, is the scar of trauma. The trauma is not the incident itself; it is all that the incident contains of the past that led to it, that brought it to take place, and it is the novel’s formal achievement—the wheels within wheels—to place the death of the infant within the memories that reveal its significance, and to place them against Beloved’s appearance, so that Beloved is not felt as a rebuke, but as a consolation that poisons, a transfiguration of the thwarted, denied, violated love, emotional and erotic, of which the act of killing was only the last perverse instance: itself an act of love, such as slavery made conceivable, the indictment of slavery—and not the only indictment that the novel offers—being that this most human relation of love was, not made impossible, but made to be a source of inconceivable suffering. The name, of course, “Beloved,” an adjective but also a desperate imperative: be loved. When she appears, Beloved demands that she be loved, demands a devotion as if to compensate for all that could not be given before, but that, being still of that past, turned against it and emanating from it, cannot strengthen—though it does provide the strength for the act of revenge against the whiteness responsible for the suffering, bodied forth in a person of moderately liberal politics, but identifiable with the culpable ideal of whiteness nonetheless.
The greatest verbal gambit of the novel is the word “rememory,” suggesting as it does that memory is not always a repeated, creative act; but something else is meant, the “re” a force of return, and agency, as well as repetition, the past imposing itself at will, traumatizing the present. Beloved is the most salient expression of “rememory,” but we are asked to recognize that Sethe lives trapped by rememories, that they are the confines as narrow as the house itself; the Gothic house is always both psychological and physical construction, the isolation from society felt in both respects. Sethe’s isolation from society (and, not equivalently but equally, from sex), her daughter’s consequent isolation also (and her isolation from her own age, having passed through puberty), and the rememories and house in which she lives, is deepened, rather than broken, by Beloved’s appearance, and the novel’s progress is a formal tightening, a formal closing, which only Paul D breaks (I wonder what the novel might have been without him? Too closed-in on itself for writing, perhaps, too hopeless for narrative); his intrusion, his recounting a past that Sethe does not know, both brings about and counters the effect of Beloved, providing an occasion for a shared telling, a listening and speaking to, that Beloved’s presence denies. If the novel is a work of overcoming, his presence permits it. The intimacy of the past, on this telling, is the source of its devastating continual presence, as well as the source of potential healing. That healing is also mundane, sexual, conversational, routine, and only possible to a point, because the habits and grooves of conversation, meals, sex, and the corresponding language of realism once it has conquered the experience of the Gothic, once it attempts to cast the experience of the Gothic in a narrative that can be heard and retold (Morrison wants this; Faulkner in Absalom does not seem as concerned with casting it in such a form, which is perhaps why some passages cannot be understood) will not be able to adequately account for the meaning of what has happened—though it can account for the more general circumstances that have made such particular accounting necessarily inadequate.