Rememory and the Gothic in Beloved
Remembrance of historical events shifts over time, as details are purposefully excluded, occurrences go undocumented, and oral tales change with each retelling. Some historical institutions, such as slavery, are so traumatic and affected so many people that individual stories get lost when discussing these institutions as a whole. This loss of personal testimony is detrimental to the understanding of slavery because the human element that evokes sympathy is buried under facts and figures that have come to define this era of American history. Beloved, a twentieth century work of fiction reclaims the human element lost in history books, sharing the story of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D, whose lives get interrupted when Beloved appears, revealing not only their own memories, but the traumatic memories of many through a process called rememory. Rememory, a concept rooted in the gothic element of the supernatural that exists solely between the pages of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, serves as a means to recount and pass on the traumatic events that occurred as a result of slavery.
In Beloved, memory functions in many ways, primarily through personal memory, collective memory, and supernatural rememory. In many ways, rememory is similar to collective memory, except rather than an event being remembered through the passing on of stories from generation to generation, anyone can encounter a rememory. Rememories play out as a vivid recounting of an event one did not personally experience. Richard Perez explains, “Rememory names the traumatic substance of historical activity suffused into the atmosphere in the form of invisible pictures…rememory describes an alternate dimension of reality, a space charged by dense layers of historical perception whose presence one feels, senses, and experiences” (199). This description of Morrison’s rememory encapsulates many elements of the gothic characteristic of the supernatural because these rememories exist independent from the person who experienced them. These intense recollections occur in the place where they happened or can be triggered by the presence of a person or object in a remote location. What is most important to note is that rememory is tied to trauma, and many of the experiences recounted in the novel have traumatized the characters, as they relate to the cruel and inhumane practices of slavery. In the novel, Sethe explains rememory to Denver using the example of a burned-down house: “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world” (Morrison 43). While Sethe does not explain rememory using a personal memory, the experience of one’s house burning down is traumatic, and therefore gets the point across to Denver. Hence, rememory is rooted in the gothic element of supernatural, as images and recollection of events will always exist in the world long after those who experienced the trauma are gone.
Within the novel, the supernatural presence in the text, which is rooted in rememory, comes primarily from Sethe’s explanations, experiences, and interactions with Beloved. Caroline Rody discusses Sethe’s personal connection with rememory, stating, “For Sethe a ‘rememory’ (an individual experience) hangs around as a ‘picture’ that can enter another’s ‘rememory’ (the part of the brain that ‘rememories’) and complicate consciousness and identity,” which is seen in the way Beloved possesses knowledge of Sethe’s past experiences and possessions (101). She questions Sethe about her diamonds, her relationship with her mother, and about the earrings Mrs. Garner gave her as a wedding present (Morrison 75). It is because of rememory—the ability to remember experiences of another—that allow Beloved to be aware of and question these parts of Sethe’s life that she keeps hidden away. Despite the fact that Sethe tries so desperately to suppress her traumatic past, “Memory is…a menacing force in Sethe’s life—it seems to stalk her—and she works hard to avoid it,” which ultimately manifests itself through Beloved’s rememory, which leads to Sethe sharing stories of her past, thus connecting memory with the gothic (Barnett 419).
In Beloved, Morrison uses gothic elements of the supernatural and rememory as a way to personalize a community experience, thus ensuring that memories of the slave past are not forgotten. Since “‘Rememory as a [gothic] trope postulates the interconnectedness of minds, past and present, [it] neatly conjoins the novel’s supernatural vision with its aspiration to communal epic, realizing the ‘collective memory’ of which Morrison speaks” (Rody 101). For example, Denver experiences a rememory surrounding her birth: Denver looked in, [and] she saw her mother on her knees in prayer, which was not unusual. What was unusual…was that a white dress knelt down next to her mother and had its sleeve around her mother’s waist…It was the tender embrace of the dress sleeve that made Denver remember the details of her birth…Easily she stepped into the told story that lay before her eyes on the path. (Morrison 35-36) As aforementioned, this rememory occurs remotely from the place of Denver’s birth, instead triggered by the white dress-sleeve and the presence of her mother. Additionally, the way in which the rememory appears before her is rooted in the gothic because “The elevation of memory to a supernatural power that connects all minds, [makes] it possible to ‘bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else,’” where this rememory belongs to her mother (Rody 102). Furthermore, Denver’s birth and its rememory serves to recount a community experience because pregnancy and birth for a slave woman were greatly impacted by the circumstances surrounding the process, which would differ greatly from the pregnancy of a white woman. Since Sethe was a runaway slave when she was pregnant and gave birth to Denver, the experience would be both stressful and traumatizing, and is indicative of a collective slave experience. By using rememory to share this experience with Denver, now a young adult living in post-slavery America, Morrison is engaging with the supernatural as a way to connect the slave past to the non-slave present. The supernatural element of rememory is also used to remind the community of their previous experiences that should have brought them together, but instead tore them apart.
When the community approaches 124 to exorcise Beloved, these characters collectively experience rememory of flocking to the home when it belonged to Baby Suggs: When they…arrived at 124, the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves. Younger, stronger, even as little girls lying in the grass asleep…Baby Suggs laughed and skipped among them…The fence they had leaned on and climbed over was gone. The stump of the butternut had split like a fan. But there they were…playing in Baby Suggs’ yard, not feeling the envy that surfaced the next day. (Morrison 304). This rememory is crucial because it reminds the group of a point in time when the African-American community should have come together to support a woman torn between slavery or freedom for both herself and her children. Elements of the supernatural fill this scene and the pages that follow, as the community performs and exorcism and the present parallels the past, allowing Sethe and the community to ultimately rewrite the past and come to terms with its traumas. Therefore, the use of the gothic through rememory and a repeating of history is necessary for the novel’s conclusion since it ultimately leads to redemption for Sethe and the community.
In many ways, Beloved itself serves as a rememory of the slave past as the readers are able to remember the experiences of others through the story. Rather than just a collective memory, the novel goes beyond a vague retelling of the past by recounting vivid and detailed events, making the novel’s characteristics more like those of a rememory. Caroline Rody compares the novel to a memorial, stating, “Beloved is not a “place” of the dead but a place where survivors can go to ‘summon’ and ‘recollect,’ to look upon the sculpted shape of their own sorrow,” particularly through the recounting and understanding of past events (98). Although it is difficult to wrestle with and make sense of the slave past, “the telling of stories becomes memory’s struggle with catastrophe and loss…cultural transmission requires the retrieval of traumatic memories,” particularly those that can no longer be personally conveyed. Thus, the fictionalized version of slave experiences in Beloved become a rememory through which the reader lives and experiences slavery’s past (Rody 99). The importance of passing on Sethe’s story, bound up in the pages of Beloved, is emphasized in the final pages of the novel, where the phrase “this is not a story to pass on” is repeated three times (Morrison 323-324). In treating Beloved as a rememory, supernatural is not the only gothic element employed as this representation of slavery and its repercussions evoke strong feelings in the reader. The connection between rememory and the evocation of strong feelings occurs because “rememory is not simply the result of the ability to remember but a collective ‘thought picture’ of a different time that ‘belongs to someone else’ and is seared into space by a lived intensity” (Perez 198). Perez’s explanation of rememory and the surfacing of intense feelings together link these two elements of the gothic together within the text. Through the sharing and passing on of Beloved as a written document, Morrison has constructed a novel in which the gothic elements of supernatural and intense feelings are bound up in the physical novel itself.
Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison evokes the gothic through the use of supernatural, primarily seen in the concept of rememory, which impacts both the characters in the novel and the reader. As a novel concerned with the institution of slavery, and the way slave narratives are preserved and passed on, the idea of rememory serves as an intense and haunting form of collective memory, allowing individual accounts to pass on while demonstrating how the impact of slavery has carried on long after its abolition. The oppressive memories that trap Sethe, Paul D., and Denver have not been lifted, but rather have been passed on through symbolic societal systems, and in remembering the past through narratives like Beloved, these tyrannical structures can be confronted and broken down, but never forgotten.
Barnett, Pamela E. “Figurations of Rape and the Supernatural in Beloved.” PMLA, vol. 112, no. 3, May 1997, pp. 92-119. JSTOR. Accessed 16 December 2016. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books, 1987. Perez, Richard. “The Debt of Memory: Reparations, Imagination, and History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2014, pp. 192-200. EBSCOhost. Accessed 16 December 2016. Rody, Caroline. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, “Rememory,” and a “Clamor for a Kiss.” American Literary History, vol. 7, no. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 92-119. JSTOR. Accessed 16 December 2016.
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