The opening paragraph of BELOVED is like the entire strange and beautiful novel in haiku form.
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but 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 years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once–the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away form the lively spite the house felt for them.
Not a condensation in terms of what happens, but all the modern operations the text will make. “124 was spiteful” is as interesting as it’s confusing. The reader can’t quite grasp what the opening sentences are really referring to. “Full of a baby’s venom”: baby’s venom is so striking that personally I missed the indefinite article, a baby’s venom. Even if you know that this story is based on the Margaret Garner incident I imagine it takes a little extra reading labor to comprehend this curtain-opener. That the first sentence is personifying their house, which will become a motif opening all three parts, is pushed toward the bottom.
We learn who the main players are and that two sons have run away, making 124 a feminine space.
We learn how the ghost of the baby works: it can do poltergeist-like things, and it’s also capable of “relief periods” from weeks to months at a time. Later on we see that the ghost is capable of violence, bashing the poor dog’s eye out: if she can do that to a doggie… That’s the main reason why Beloved’s return is really scary: it’s not that kind of novel, but you feel she could murder everybody and turn it into a horror story (it does have elements of southern gothic without the trappings).
“Within two months, in the dead of winter, [Buglar and Howard] leaving their grandmother…” it’s a slight time jump, from the present action of 1873 to an indeterminate span of two months when the boys run away. There are no plot lines but more like arc segments composing the circle containing a great trauma. It doesn’t feel unfair to defer the trauma to the middle of the book, because this is not the mediocre type of mainstream literary novel that simply leads us on to it: it has lots of other events and backstories going on. BELOVED is both on the McCaffrey 100 and Elias’s metahistorical romance: it’s both an ambitious Great American statement, and an experimental historical fiction. In the latter case, these are the best kinds, the ones that refuse narrative uniformity, which makes the past safe to consume.
Modernist experimentation bears witness to the past in a way that highlights the parts of history that defy representation, and highlight the responsibility it puts on us. Morrison’s 3rd person limited narrator cleverly re-plays the incident of infanticide, Rashomon style, from different viewpoints, including that of the racist posse. Each time we inhabit a new character, except for the white people, we’re get a sympathetic presentation of their ethical stance, and there’s a variety of them. Sethe is more insulted by the forcing of her breast milk to other babies than physical violence, and that may or may not be how we and other characters see it.
The last bit about the opening paragraph is that it tells us Ohio has only been a state for seventy years. This is the narrator working like the Prologue for an Elizabethan play, we are in the author’s present in the late 80s, poised to voyage out.