unlocking the novel
a guide to modernism and postmodernism
Toni Morrison's Beloved
In our young minds
houses belonged to women, were their special domain, not as
property, but as places where all that truly mattered in life took
place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies,
the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of
being; there we learned to have faith. The folks who made this life
possible, who were our primary guides and teachers, were black
women. . . . [It] has been primarily the responsibility of black
women to construct domestic households as spaces of care and
nurturance in the face of the brutal harsh reality of racist
oppression, of sexist domination. Historically, African-American
people believed.that the construction of a homeplace, however
fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack) had a radical
political dimension. . . . [O]ne’s homeplace was the one site where
one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could
resist. . . . This task of making homeplace . . . was about the
construction of a safe place where black people could affirm one
another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist
domination. We could not learn to love or respect ourselves in the
culture of white supremacy, on the outside; it was there on the
inside, in that 'homeplace,' most often created and kept by black
women, that we had the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture
our spirits. - bell hooks, "Homeplace: A Site of Resistance"
narration.... That's the way they learn things. That's the way they
organize their human knowledge. - Toni Morrison
this WebQuest, you will learn a bit about the life and work of
Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, with a particular focus on her
novel, Beloved. You'll also learn the historical context of
the real-life story behind the novel.
Learn a bit about Morrison's life and work.
Begin by reading this overview of
Morrison's life and
You might also find it interesting to read her
Nobel Prize speech.
Step 2: Now learn about the primary historical event that
provided the inspiration for Beloved.
main character in Beloved) is based on the real-life Margaret
Garner. To understand what happened to Margaret Garner, you should
begin by understanding the
Slave Law of 1850 and the
Railroad. If you want to read more, you can find tons of
targeted links at my
WebQuest on "Slavery and the American Conscience."
Now you're ready to get an overview of
what happened to Margaret Garner.
You can look at
the buildings believed to be those in which Garner worked as a slave
as well as the
archaeological project at this site.
a Quaker, was one of the major "railroad station masters." Read
his account of
Now that you have this historical
context, you'll have a richer background for understanding
Beloved. As you're reading the novel, you might consider
Morrison is up to with this historical reconstruction.
For other resources, consider
historical events affecting characters in Beloved.
Step 3. Read Beloved.
As you're reading Beloved, you might find it
helpful to look at these
Step 4. Now go one step further:
"re-read" the structure and narrative technique of Beloved.
Read the excerpts from Kimberly Chabot Davis's
essay, "'Postmodern Blackness': Toni Morrison's Beloved and
the End of History," as well as the excerpts from Martha J. Cutter's
essay, "The Story Must Go On and On: The Fantastic, Narration, and
Intertextuality in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jazz"
and Arthur Redding's essay, "'Haints': American Ghosts, Ethnic
Memory, and Contemporary Fiction."
Please also read Mark Reinhardt's "Who
Speaks for Margaret Garner? Slavery, Silence, and the Politics of
Step 5: Think a bit more about the issue of
Read bell hooks's essay, "Postmodern
Blackness." Read Michael Berube's excellent essay, "Teaching
Postmodern Fiction Without Being Sure that the Genre Exists"
(originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Read
the introduction to Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. If
you like, you can also return to some of the material in the first
"introduction to postmodernism" WebQuest.
Step 6: Explore Morrion's work more fully.
If you get really interested in Morrison and want
to take your study further, a good comprehensive site is
Morrison's site. You might also look at this
excellent student project
Reflection Question #1
See the bell hooks quote above. In what ways can Sethe's
creation of a "homeplace" be seen as a method of countering the
master narrative and/or resisting the dominant culture?
Reflection Question #2
Toni Morrison wrote her master's thesis on William Faulkner and
Virginia Woolf and has said on numerous occasions that she was
strongly influenced by Faulkner. In what ways can Beloved be
related to or compared to The Sound and the Fury?
Reflection Question #3
Read the assigned criticism (step 4). Choose one of the authors
(Davis, Cutter, Redding, or Reinhardt). Agree or disagree with this
critic's assessment of Morrison's work. The best posts will demonstrate
that you are thinking carefully about structure and narrative technique.
You can right about Cutter or Redding if you like--but don't choose one of
these because it's short, but because you have a lot to say in response.
You'll probably get some reading check questions about the pieces you
don't discuss in your post--so make sure you read all of the assigned
Reflection Question #4
Read the assigned essays on postmodernism (step 5). Choose one of the
pieces (hooks or Berube). Agree or disagree with this author's take on
postmodernism. Based on your reading in step 4 and your reading in step 5,
do you think Beloved is or is not postmodern? Again, you might get
a reading check question or two about these pieces, so make sure you
read both pieces.
to unlocking the postmodern novel.