Nearly all novel writing advice will tell you that the first pages of the novel have to orientate and hook the reader/agent/editor. They should provide the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY of the story, and ask sufficiently interesting questions to make them want to read on. This blog post tries to understand how Toni Morrison achieved this with her Pulitzer prize winning novel Beloved. I also want to identify any additional literary devices he uses to lure us into the world of the novel.
You can read a summary and the opening pages of Beloved here. The extract doesn’t include the dedication ‘Sixty million and more’, or the epigraph ‘I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. ROMANS 9:25’ both are pertinent to the story.
I remember the first time I read Beloved feeling very disorientated with the opening pages. A couple of times I started again thinking I had missed something. Bear with it please.
The opening sentences are:
‘124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.’
And there it is, an unexpected, shocking opening that immediately grabs your attention. The shortness of the sentences give them a certain authority, they are stating indisputable facts. The reader, I think, should go with the contradictions both sentences contain. How can a number be spiteful? What is baby’s venom? We soon find out 124 is a house.
…by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen…
So we have the WHEN of a historical novel and a list of characters who used to live at 124.
The narrator then lists some of the ‘insults’ the house committed; mirrors shattering when looked at, two tiny hand prints appearing in a cake, chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor.
It doesn’t sound very spiteful, more like pranks. Neither does it seem quite real and we are asked to suspend our disbelief.
…the house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far
Now we have the WHERE of the setting, America. We then have a flashback to Baby Suggs before she dies.
‘Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead…Her past had been like her present-intolerable…’
Some lines are more or less repeated in the narrative, such as the fact that Baby Suggs took no interest in the brothers’ (her grandsons) leaving. Retold in a way that a distressed older person might repeat themselves. She dies soon afterwards.
‘Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so… “Come on. Come on.You may as well just come on.” The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.’
Again this is not realism but is told in matter of fact way that makes it believable. When Denver wonders why the ghost does not appear…
‘”You forgetting how little it is,” said her mother. “She wasn’t even two years old when she died”…Outside a driver whipped his horse into the gallop local people felt necessary when they passed 124.’
Through the action of the horse diver we find out that the house and probably the incident of the child’s death are known to locals and the occupants of 124 probably live an ostracised existence.
Sethe, thinking of the dead baby girl then remembers when she chose a gravestone. She exchanges sex, up against the gravestone, for ten minutes of the engraver’s time. This equates to only seven letters. Beloved. The engravers son watches this transaction which speaks volumes about the inbalance of power in the transaction.
‘She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old:the appetite in it quite new…Enough to answer one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust.’
Sethe was counting on some kind of peace from the ghost by giving the child a decent burial, her soul is stilled but the baby’s is not. Still they lived in a
‘…house palsied by the baby’s fury at having its throat cut…’
Another shocking, horrific, statement, an act barely imaginable but told as a matter of fact. It doesn’t need to be sensationalised. Such a fact will not be missed.
And the narrative is on its way. The WHY was the baby killed in this terrible manner and WHAT will happen if Sethe and Denver continue to try and summon its ghost will take the length of the novel to answer.
The narrative does wildly flick backwards and forwards and this reader, for one, did become disorientated as if spun around at regular intervals and sent off to explore in a different direction. I think this is intentional, another way to immerse you deep into the narrative. The story that follows is harrowing, part horrific dark folklore (perhaps to make the unpalatable reality slip more readily into our consciousness?) but mostly based on the horrific dark truths of the lives of slaves and their owners.