Variations of Prose Style in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’

June 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

That Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ is stylistically diverse cannot be doubted: Morrison’s novel appears straightforward at first glance, opening with blank verse in a standard prose narration, but over the course of the story the style varies to contain differing levels of imagery and metaphor, as well as changes in tense, changes in register, free indirect discourse, stream-of-consciousness narration, shifting levels of language in terms of description and dialogue, and a combination of personification and repetition to solidify the characterization of an inanimate object.When the novel opens, before Paul D makes his entrance, we are introduced to five characters: Sethe, her living daughter Denver, the ghost of her deceased daughter Beloved, her deceased mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and the house they live in, 124. Morrison uses personification to give the house its own identity: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom,” as if the house itself could feel spite. Morrison’s use of repetition builds upon this personification of the house to strengthen the character of 124 as well as to provide a framework structure for the three parts of the novel as a whole. “124 was loud,” we are told at the beginning of part two, and “124 was quiet” at the beginning of part three – so there is a gradual taming of the house to run parallel to a solidification, in flesh, of the spirit of Beloved herself, from something “spiteful” being ‘toned down’ to something “quiet.” Repetition, furthermore, is used throughout the novel to strengthen and categorize the essence of these characters: Baby Suggs is consistently referred to as “holy” while Paul D is “the last of the Sweet Home men,” and Sweet Home itself is embodied with almost as much character as 124, but, unlike 124, it is not personified; where Sweet Home was a place where things happened, 124 is a place that makes things happen: 124 controls the qualities it possesses – spite, volume – it throws people out of its doors, it affects strangers who enter it, and it warns any unfamiliar person who comes near to turn away.The characterization of the humans in the story is somewhat more straightforward, achieved through dialogue and the level of language used by each character, as well as the level of language used to describe each character, and by way of free indirect discourse and other techniques such as change in register and stream-of-consciousness narration. Baby Suggs, for instance, being deceased before the story even begins, is characterized in flashback almost entirely through a combination of her dialogue and through the way other characters remember her. She speaks in short, clipped sentences that often double-back and repeat: “In this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder do they flay it.” Later, in a flashback sequence in which Baby Suggs seeks employment, she says: “Where is this here slaughterhouse?” and when asked what kinds of shoes she can repair she says, “New, old, anything.” Her short sentences reveal a confident character, self-assured and able to handle herself, who, when in the company of others, becomes almost prophet-like in light of the wisdom she dispenses with such certainty and conviction that those characters around her – and, by extension, we ourselves – cannot help but agree with her when she continues: “Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them…. You got to love it, you!” Stylistically, Morrison opts not to develop Baby Suggs’ character through blank prose, with a third-person narrator noting that Baby Suggs is wise, or respected, or impassioned, or even “holy.” Instead, she uses dialogue to convey these character traits – demonstrating rather than spelling them out – and, in addition, the level of language used by Baby Suggs also plays a role in this development. We can tell that although she is wise, the style of her dialogue and the words she uses are not those of a well-educated woman.Imagery and metaphor also play strong roles in the novel, most often reflecting the attitudes or feelings of the characters. Consider the scene in which Denver’s tooth comes out. Beloved asks her why she doesn’t cry. Ultimately, Denver does cry – but, we understand, she is not crying for the lost tooth; instead she is crying for the presence of Paul D in her house and the change in character on the part of her mother, and the relationship that has been spawned between the two of them. And as Denver cries, “the couple upstairs, united, didn’t hear a sound, but below them, outside, all around 124 the snow went on and on and on. Piling itself, burying itself. Higher. Deeper.” The imagery of snow represents the onset of winter, of cold and isolation, and it reflects the tears of Denver, as well as the tears that 124 would shed, too, if it were a living entity. Consider also the variation in the length of sentences, with the first sentence comprised of a half-dozen clauses, and the last two sentences comprised of only fragments, in order to reflect the drawn-out weeping and the sharp sudden intakes of breath that occur in the act of crying, so as to represent, stylistically and through use of rhythm and sentence trajectory, the anguish of Denver, in words. Likewise, Sethe’s anguish for her lost grandmother and for the deceased Baby Suggs is represented by use of liquid imagery: “[Sethe’s] mother and Nan were together from the sea…. A mighty wish for Baby Suggs broke over her like surf. In the quiet following its splash, Sethe looked at the two girls sitting by the stove: her sickly, shallow-minded boarder, her irritable, lonely daughter. They seemed little and far away” as if they were on an island and Sethe was drifting away from them, with the water imagery standing in place of the tears she cannot shed and the ocean between her present life and her past. So, when she finally tells the girls that “Paul D [will] be here in a minute,” we know, from the imagery conveyed to us once again by free indirect discourse, that she is not really speaking to them about Paul D, but rather, she is speaking to herself in such a way as to put her mind off the subject of her thoughts and to focus on the here-and-now, to avoid the anguish that the past brings with it.All of these techniques – free indirect discourse, variations in the length of sentences, use of a ‘lower’ level of language, and repetition – combine in the scene where Paul D changes his mind about Sethe, after he has been visited by Stamp Paid. “The prickly, mean-eyed Sweet Home girl he knew as Halle’s girl was obedient (like Halle), shy (like Halle), and work-crazy (like Halle).” Free indirect discourse allows us to see the kind of person Sethe once was. In this way she is characterized by the use of blank prose that Morrison neglected to use in the characterization of Baby Suggs, but this free indirect discourse also characterizes Paul D himself. “This here Sethe was new” – the level of language is again ‘low.’ Yet the subject of it – the ability to distinguish between “this here new Sethe” and the Sethe he remembers – implies wisdom and insight. The language used in this passage is not of the highest order, but the tone of the passage – which reflects on Sethe’s capacity for love and her affection for her children – reveals two characters, Sethe and Paul D alike, who are able to overcome the shortcomings of their language by using the reasonable sensibilities of their minds.One of the most drastic stylistic techniques Morrison uses originates subtly, with a change in tense, then progresses more drastically to a change in register, and culminates in a complete stylistic overhaul in which blank prose is replaced with four stream-of-consciousness passages, with Sethe and Denver narrating one each, while Beloved narrates the remaining two. As with the free indirect discourse passage in which we peer into Paul D’s mind, as above, these stream-of-consciousness passages serve to characterize each of the women speaking them, as well as each woman’s relationship with the other characters in the novel, in such a way as to be unaffected by a third-person narrator who may favor one character over another. The tone of these passages, therefore, is brutally honest: not always flattering, not always straightforward, and sometimes what is really meant is not always what is thought by the characters who are speaking – but, knowing what we do about who they are, where they come from and what they want, the contradictions and self-delusions in their thoughts allow us to see the real truth behind their words.The change in tense comes after Denver sees the white dress kneeling with her mother. Once again, Morrison uses free indirect discourse, this time to establish the following scene by allowing us to glimpse Denver’s concern for Beloved without explicitly showing us: “[Denver] was certain that Beloved was the white dress that had knelt with her mother in the keeping room, the true-to-life presence of the baby that had kept her company most of her life. And to be looked at by her, however briefly, kept her grateful for the rest of the time when she was merely the looker.” Then, with Denver’s concerns established, the tense changes from past to present: “This day they are outside. It’s cold and the snow is hard as packed dirt…. Beloved is holding her arms steady while Denver unclasps frozen underwear and towels from the line.” The events that are written of in present tense contrast with the past-tense events that have taken place up to this point, and they are given a greater sense of immediacy as a result. This is particularly effective given the subject of these present tense scenes: that is, Denver’s worry that Beloved will “cross over” back to the “other side”: “‘Don’t,’ she is saying between tough swallows. ‘Don’t. Don’t go back.'” The switch to present tense takes Denver’s despair to its emotional extremities: “This is worse than when Paul D came to 124 and she cried helplessly into the stove. This is worse. Then it was for herself. Now she is crying because she has no self” – as opposed to a past tense variation on that despair, which would imply that it has already been overcome. In this passage, too, free indirect discourse is once again very much at the heart of its effectiveness. But the negative emotional extremity of the passage is inverted by the end – despair becomes joy and “[Beloved] is smiling again” – and by maintaining the present tense, that smile is more immediate and more resonant than one in the past.Later, this same sense of immediacy comes by way of an abrupt change in register, in which the narrative switches from a somewhat subjective third-person point-of-view that tells us “[Sethe] needn’t have worried [about losing time]” to Sethe’s own mind, “busy with the things she could forget.” Sethe’s thoughts are presented not quite via free indirect discourse (for it is clearly not a third-person narrator relaying them to us as if we were in Sethe’s shoes) yet also not quite via stream-of-consciousness prose (for although they reflect Sethe’s thoughts, they do not reflect her thought processes): “Thank God I don’t have to rememory or say a thing because you know it. All. You know I never would a left you. Never. It was all I could think of to do.” As with the previous passage, this passage also finds its power in the present tense – “Now all I see is their backs walking down the railroad tracks. Away from me” – as well as in the unbridled machinations of Sethe’s mind; she does not keep any secrets at bay, for these are her own thoughts and she cannot keep secrets from herself. The change in register allows for a greater sense of honest communication between the narrator – in this instance, Sethe – and the reader, for we know that when Sethe recalls these events she is not filtering them in any way so as to protect Denver from the truth, but is instead recalling them as best she knows how; therefore we witness not only the events as she recalls them, but also their effect on her in a psychological sense rather than simply a behavioral one.This progression from a simple change in tense to a semi-stream-of-consciousness insight into Sethe’s thoughts reaches a peak in the aforementioned stream-of-consciousness passages narrated by Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. These, in turn, allow for a comparison and contrast between the three women to allow us a greater insight into how Beloved’s return has affected each of them in its own particular way. The stream-of-consciousness narrations open windows into the minds of the various characters so we may see the things they would never say aloud as well as the things they cannot say aloud. Consider Sethe’s narration in which she says: “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing.” The tone of this claim is forceful, yet somewhat hedonistic, and it reveals Sethe’s conscious thoughts with regard to Beloved – that she is her daughter, that she owns her – as well as her subconscious thoughts that Sethe herself does not say aloud – that she still does not know why Beloved came back to her, and that she hungers for an explanation, even though she says otherwise. Denver’s narration, on the other hand, is less self-deluding and more ‘on-the-nose:’ “I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I’m scared of her because of it.” Her thoughts reflect the clear-cut, straightforward thoughts of a youth, and, as with the stream-of-consciousness passages narrated by Sethe and by Beloved, they strengthen Denver’s character as well as her relationship to the other two women without tainting it by having any other character intrude upon her thoughts. The stream-of-consciousness passages, in general, allow for a clear and pure insight into the characters and their relationships.The style of the novel, if it is varied and in some instances inconsistent, is only as varied and inconsistent as the characters themselves and the relationships they share. Theirs is a complicated world and we are plunged head-first into a story whose roots lie buried deep in the past and whose effects provoke a different response from each character; therefore, Morrison’s use of repetition and change in tense are necessary to explore the roots of that story, while her use of shifting levels of language and personification establish her characters, and thereafter her use of imagery and metaphor physically reflect the effects the events of the story have on her characters, and her use of change in register and free indirect discourse and stream-of-consciousness narration reflect the innermost thoughts of those characters in a more direct way, unguarded and untouched by anything artificial that an external narrator would necessarily bring to the table. Morrison’s use of such a wide array of stylistic techniques is comparable in scope to the scope of her narrative and its players, and as such it has the effect of not only constantly developing those characters throughout the novel, but also of intrinsically weaving their thoughts and their essences, their personalities and their strengths and weaknesses, into the very fabric of this narrative.

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