Unlocking the
modern novel

Unlocking the
postmodern novel

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unlocking the novel
a guide to modernism and postmodernism

Understanding 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"

People crave narration.... That's the way they learn things. That's the way they organize their human knowledge. - Toni Morrison


Overview: On 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.


Step 1: Learn a bit about Morrison's life and work.   


Begin by reading this overview of Morrison's life and work. 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.


Sethe (the 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 Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Underground 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.


Levi Coffin, a Quaker, was one of the major "railroad station masters." Read his account of Margaret Garner.


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 what 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 study questions.


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 Ventriloquism." 


Step 5: Think a bit more about the issue of postmodernism. 


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 Anniina's Toni Morrison's site. You might also look at this excellent student project on Beloved.


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 material.


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.


Return to unlocking the postmodern novel.


"Understanding Toni Morrison's Beloved" was created by Dr. Linda Tate, associate professor of English, Shepherd College. ©2003 Dr. Linda Tate