Beloved (1987) is Morrison's masterpiece. Reaching back to the legalized outrageousness of American slavery, Beloved takes up a real event—the slave woman Margaret Garner's murdering (in 1855) her own child rather than allow that child to return into slavery. The novel explores the resources with which blacks survived a system they could not escape and would not accept. Deprived of their manhood, Paul D, Sixo and Stamp Paid manage nevertheless to remain men, just as Sethe sustains her motherhood despite vicious white attacks upon it. Rather than imagining the missing black father, Morrison conceives in this novel the entire race's long-lost child—named Beloved. This character is simultaneously a crazed black girl wandering the roads, Sethe's daughter come back from the dead (in search of love, but also of revenge), and finally a figure for the untold number of blacks who died during the several centuries of slave traffic between Africa and America. The figure of Beloved is Morrison's most amazing creation. Even though she incarnates a history that must be remembered, her return to the world of the living cannot be borne. If Sethe is to resume her life and turn her own tormented past into purpose, she must escape Beloved's stranglehold. "This is not a story to pass on," Morrison writes repeatedly in the novel's final chapter. Blacks must somehow dare to come to grips with their past, yet without drowning in its recall.

Morrison's last three novels—Jazz, Paradise and Love—continue to explore the dramas of American blacks in the 20th century. Her characters are unmistakably damaged by centuries of racism, just as Faulkner knew they were. But in Morrison's work they often possess active and inward resources that Faulkner could not imagine. "They endured," he writes of Dilsey's stubborn integrity (in The Sound and the Fury)—an integrity that is only a minor element on the larger white canvas of disoriented Compsons. Morrison's blacks do so much more than "endure," but they seldom do less. Thus she joins Faulkner in registering the often unwanted and always unavoidable reciprocity of the two races in American history—their strange intertwining. Yet she registers as well, as he cannot, the ways in which American blacks have absorbed the worst that a white world could do to them, and—thanks to their own cultural ingenuity—made of it a living repository of wary wit and hard-earned wisdom.


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