If you read Smiley's essay, you may learn more about the plot than you care to if you haven't yet read the novel.
Beloved is not as easy to read as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is easy to get used to, and once the reader begins to distinguish among the elements, they fall into place quite clearly. As it opens, Sethe, in her late thirties, is living with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver, in a house that the neighbours avoid because it is haunted. The time is the early 1870s, right after the first wrenching dislocations of the civil war and its aftermath. Sethe and Denver live in an uneasy truce with the ghost until the arrival of Paul D, one of Sethe's fellow slaves on her former plantation in Kentucky. Paul exorcises the ghost, but then a mysterious female stranger shows up. She is 20 years old and strangely unmarked--she has no lines in her palms, for example, and her feet and clothing show no signs of hard travelling. She calls herself "Beloved ", and Sethe and Denver are happy to take her in.
Sethe, Denver, Paul D and every other character in the novel live simultaneously in their present and in their history--the chapters of the novel alternate between the two stories: that of the growing contest between Sethe and Beloved; and that of Sethe's life on the plantation, her escape, and the traumatic events that followed her crossing of the Ohio River and her appearance at the home of her mother-inlaw, Baby Suggs. A crucial, revealing and in some ways impossible to assimilate event takes place about halfway through the novel....
There is something especially positive about a fine writer praising a peer:
One of the reasons Beloved is a great novel is that it is equally full of sensations and of meaning. Morrison knows exactly what she wants to do and how to do it, and she exploits every aspect of her subject. The characters are complex. Both stories are dramatic but in contrasting ways, and the past and the present constantly modify each other. Neither half of the novel suffers by contrast to the other. Especially worth noting is Morrison's style, which is graphic, evocative and unwhite without veering toward dialect. Even though Morrison rejects realism, using a heightened diction and a lyrical narrative method returning again and again to particular images and events and adding to them so they are more and more fully described, the reader never doubts the reality of what Morrison reports. Just as Sethe recognises Beloved toward the end of the novel, and knows at once that she has known all along who she is, the reader is shocked at the sufferings of the black characters and the brutality of the whites, but knows at once that every torture and cruelty is not only plausible but also representative of many other horrors that go unmentioned in the novel and have gone unmentioned in American history. Harriet Beecher Stowe was accused in her time of exaggerating the cruelties in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and she replied that in fact she whitewashed events to render them publishable. Morrison is her heir, in the sense that she dares to discuss and publish more (though certainly not all) of the truth.Click here to read the entire Smiley essay.
Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. Click here to read the presentation speech by Professor Sture Allén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy and here to read her banquet speech.
The paperback edition of Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel will be available in September. Click here to read the excerpt, "What is a Novel?"