The past does not simply go away in Beloved, but continues to exert influence in the present in a number of ways. The most obvious example of this is the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter. Though literally buried, the baby continues to be present in 124 as a kind of ghost or poltergeist. But beyond this instance of the supernatural, Sethe teaches Denver that “Some things just stay,” and that nothing ever really dies. Sweet Home, for example, although firmly in Sethe’s past, continues to haunt her through painful memories and the reappearance of Schoolteacher and even Paul D. As the novel continually moves between present narration and past memory, its very form also denies any simple separation between past and present. Sethe’s term for this kind of powerful memory is “rememory”, a word that she uses to describe memories that affect not only the person who remembers the past, but others as well.
One of the ways in which memories live on is through storytelling. The novel explores the value but also the danger of storytelling. Storytelling keeps memories alive and Sethe’s telling Denver about her family and her miraculous birth gives Denver some sense of personal history and heritage. As stories spread between Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Denver, personal memories give rise to a kind of collective oral tradition about the past, and offer former slaves the ability to tell their own story and define themselves, as opposed to constantly being defined by slave-owners, such as Schoolteacher (who takes notes for his own writings about his slaves). But storytelling also awakens painful memories, especially for Sethe and Paul D. Bringing up past pain can prevent characters from moving on. The end of the novel suggests that, after Beloved’s disappearance, people had to forget about her in order to go on living, as it repeats, “It was not a story to pass on.” But nonetheless, Toni Morrison’s novel does pass on the story of Beloved, suggesting that there still is some value in our learning about this painful story of the past, that as a nation we should not (and cannot) forget about the history of slavery.
One of the ways that communities find expression in Beloved is through song. Baby Suggs’ sermons are centered around song and dance, while the group of women that forces Beloved from the house does so by singing. Paul D and his fellow chain gang prisoners get through their labor by singing. A chorus of singing people provides the perfect example of the strength of operating as a community. The combined effect of a singing group is greater than that of all its individuals singing alone. Similarly, in order to endure slavery and its lasting effects, characters in Beloved rely on each other for strength.
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Quotes in Beloved
“How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can’t stop talking about it? Look like if it was so sweet you would have stayed.”
Paul D laughed. “True, true. [Denver’s] right, Sethe. It wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home.” He shook his head.
“But it’s where we were,” said Sethe. “All together. Comes back whether we want it to or not.”
Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory.... Places, places are still there.
As for Denver, the job Sethe had of keeping her from the past that was still waiting for her was all that mattered.
Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe... because every mention of her past life hurt.... But, as she began telling about the earrings, she found herself wanting to, liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved’s distance from the events itself, or her thirst for hearing it—in any case it was an unexpected pleasure.
She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man... Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe.
[Sethe] shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you?
It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open.
They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget... In the end, they forgot her too.
This is not a story to pass on.