Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Tragedy of Revenge and Reparation

  • Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem


This chapter engages the full spectrum of tragedy theory in arguing for a view of Morrison’s Beloved as a formal tragedy, a generic translation of fiction and tragedy thus a “novel-tragedy” in Kliger’s phrasing. Much scholarship on this novel uses analytic frames from gender and women’s studies, the feminist trope of the body, race in its connections with historical slavery, motherhood and maternal matters, as well as history and the status of the novel as against that question. Few take up the specific matter of reparations, still fewer the politics of genre, craft, and form. From the massive response to this significant text, important here are scholarly treatments addressing the form of the novel and the specter of reparations in it, as well as those concerned with legal matters and intertextual valences in Beloved. In this reading, the character Beloved is the core around which the novel orbits. She is positioned as a postmodern, new-American version of the Greek mythological Erinyes; the title character’s true function regards vengeance and the reparation of past injuries. This chapter argues, ultimately, that the novel’s first concern is justice and its chief aim is to serve as clarion call for material—and not merely symbolic—reparations for slavery.


  1. Aeschylus. 1966. The Oresteia. Translated and Introduction by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  2. Althubaiti, Turki S. 2012. “Resisting Slavery and Racial Segregation in Light in August and Beloved.” European Scientific Journal 8 (21) (September 28): 21+ . Academic OneFile.Google Scholar
  3. Andrews, William, and Nellie McKay, eds. 1999. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Anker, Elizabeth. 2014. “The ‘Scent of Ink’: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Semiotics of Rights.” Critical Quarterly 56 (4) (December): 29–45.Google Scholar
  5. Aristotle. 1987. Poetics with the Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II, and the Fragments of the on Poets. Translated and Edited by Richard Janko. Indianapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
  6. Atwood, Margaret. 2008. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.Google Scholar
  7. Balfour, Lawrie. 2003. “Unreconstructed Democracy: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Case for Reparations.” The American Political Science Review 97 (1) (February): 33–44.Google Scholar
  8. Belsey, Catherine, and Jane Moore, eds. 1997. The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. 2nd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  9. Benjamin, Walter. 1968. Illuminations. Edited and Introduced by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.Google Scholar
  10. Best, Stephen. 2012. “On Failing to Make the Past Present.” Modern Language Quarterly 73 (3) (September): 453–74.Google Scholar
  11. Bloom, Harold. 2009. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Toni Morrison’s Beloved. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism.Google Scholar
  12. Bradley, Andrew. 1965. Oxford Lectures on Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  13. Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. ———. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  15. ———. 2002. Antigone’s Claim. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Coffin, Levi. 1880. “Reminiscenses of Levi Coffin….” Documenting the American South. Accessed 5 December 2017.
  17. Cutter, Martha. 2000. “The Story Must Go on and on: The Fantastic, Narration, and Intertextuality in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz.” African American Review 3 (4) (Spring): 61–75.Google Scholar
  18. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1996. Souls of Black Folk. New York: The Modern Library.Google Scholar
  19. Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. 2015. “George Washington, Slave Catcher.” New York Times, February 16.
  20. El Hafi, Fethia. 2010. “Punished Bodies in Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides and Morrison’s Beloved.” Journal of Black Studies 41 (1) (September): 89–107.Google Scholar
  21. Eliot, George. 1963. George Eliot: Essays. Edited by Thomas Pinney. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Elliott, Mary Jane Suero. 2000. “Postcolonial Experience in a Domestic Context: Commodified Subjectivity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” MELUS 25 (3–4) (Fall and Winter): 181–202.Google Scholar
  23. Forster, E. M. 1955. Aspects of the Novel. San Diego and New York: Harcourt.Google Scholar
  24. Franco, Dean. 2006. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Beloved.” Modern Fiction Studies 52 (2) (Summer): 415–39.Google Scholar
  25. Freeburg, Christopher. 2015. “Chasing Slavery’s Ghosts.” American Literary History 27 (1) (Spring): 102–13.Google Scholar
  26. Gourdine, Angeletta K. M. 1998. “Hearing Reading and Being Read By Beloved.” NWSA Journal 10 (2) (Summer): 13–31.Google Scholar
  27. Harris, Trudier. 1999. “Beloved: Woman, Thy Name Is Demon.” In Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Casebook, edited by Andrews and McKay, 127–57. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Hutcheon, Linda. 1989. The Politics of Postmodernism. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Jaspers, Karl. 1952. Tragedy Is Not Enough. Boston: The Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  30. Kliger, Ilya. 2011. “Dostoevsky and the Novel-Tragedy: Genre and Modernity in Ivanov, Pumpyansky and Bakhtin.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 126 (1) (January): 73–87.Google Scholar
  31. Koolish, Lynda. 1995. “Fictive Strategies and Cinematic Representations in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Postcolonial Theory/Postcolonial Text.” African American Review 29 (3) (Autumn): 421–38.Google Scholar
  32. Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  33. ———. 1986. The Kristeva Reader. Edited by Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Krumholz, Linda. 1992. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review 26 (3, Fiction Issue) (Autumn): 395–408.Google Scholar
  35. Krutch, Joseph. 1928. “The Tragic Fallacy.” The Atlantic Monthly, November.
  36. Lemaster, Tracy. 2009. “Feminist Thing Theory in Sister Carrie.” Studies in American Naturalism 4 (1) (Summer): 41–55.Google Scholar
  37. Malmgren, Carl D. 1995. “Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36 (2): 96+. Academic OneFile.Google Scholar
  38. Mensch, Fred. 2007. “Myth, Tragedy and the Postmodern in Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” International Journal of the Humanities 4 (8): 109–16.Google Scholar
  39. Miller, Arthur. 1949. “Tragedy and the Common Man.” New York Times, February 27.
  40. Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved: A Novel. New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  41. ———. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  42. ———. 1994. Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature…. New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  43. ———. 1998. “The Site of Memory.” In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, 185–200. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Google Scholar
  44. ———. 2004. “Foreword.” In Beloved: A Novel, xv–xix. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  45. ———. 2008. A Mercy. New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  46. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1999. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Perez, Richard. 2014. “The Debt of Memory: Reparations, Imagination, and History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 42 (1–2) (Spring and Summer): 190–98.Google Scholar
  48. Phelan, James. 1993. “Toward a Rhetorical Reader-Response Criticism: The Difficult, the Stubborn, and the Ending of Beloved.” Modern Fiction Studies 39 (3–4) (Fall and Winter): 709–28.Google Scholar
  49. Robinson, Randall. 2000. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Dutton.Google Scholar
  50. Rody, Caroline. 1995. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, ‘Rememory,’ and a ‘Clamor for a Kiss.’” American Literary History 7 (1) (Spring): 92–119.Google Scholar
  51. Roynon, Tessa. 2007. “A New ‘Romen’ Empire: Toni Morrison’s Love and the Classics.” Journal of American Studies 41 (1) (April): 31–47.Google Scholar
  52. Shakespeare, William. 1987. The Oxford Shakespeare Hamlet. Edited by G. R. Hibbard. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Shead, Jackie. 2005. “The Return of the Native and Greek Tragedy: Jackie Shead Examines the Novel’s Affinities with Greek Tragedy.” The English Review 16 (2): 27+. General One File.Google Scholar
  54. Spivak, Gayatri. 1997. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” In The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, edited by Belsey and Moore, 148–63. London: Macmillan. Google Scholar
  55. Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. 1994. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Google Scholar
  56. Travis, Molly Abel. 2010. “Beyond Empathy: Narrative Distancing and Ethics in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Journal of Narrative Theory 40 (2) (Summer): 231–50.Google Scholar
  57. Van Rijswijk, Honni. 2008. “The Poetics and Politics of Past Injuries: Claiming in Reparations Law and in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Whither Human Rights, Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, December 10–12, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.Google Scholar
  58. Wagner-Martin, Linda. 2015. Toni Morrison: A Literary Life. New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  59. Weinstock, Jeffrey. 2009. “Ten Minutes for Seven Letters: Reading Beloved’s Epitaph.” In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, edited by Harold Bloom, 73–92. New York: Infobase Publishing.Google Scholar
  60. Williams, Raymond. 2006. Modern Tragedy. Peterborough: Broadview.Google Scholar
  61. Williams, Robert A. Jr., 2012. Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  62. Wyatt, Jean. 1993. “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” PMLA 108 (3) (May): 474–88.Google Scholar
  63. Yeates, Robert. 2015. “‘The Unshriven Dead, Zombies on the Loose’: African and Caribbean Religious Heritage in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Modern Fiction Studies 61 (3) (Fall): 515–37.Google Scholar
  64. Zinsser, William, ed. 1998. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishThe City University of New York, Kingsborough Community CollegeNew York CityUSA

Personalised recommendations