“This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison, 324), says Tony Morrison in her last chapter. The novel Beloved primarily is consisted of each character’s anecdotes of their past. Sethe and Paul D constantly brings back memories of their exposure to the world of Slavery; Denver and Beloved wants to listen to more stories from their mother. These dialogues of stories join as a literary work, making yet another story. However, despite Morrison’s efforts in putting the story together, she comments that “this is not a story to pass on” (324). The ambiguity of the phrase, to pass on, along with several types of story that Morrison outlines in the scope of the book creates obscurity in Morrison’s argument. Through the unclear maze of interpretation, Morrison guides the readers with confusing traces of bread crumbs, which at the end of the day, leads them to the same conclusion: history of slavery should not be repeated again.
Story, as its literal meaning, indicates the plot of the novel: the characters’ encounter with Beloved. The novel Beloved begins with a baby ghost, the spiritual incarnation of Beloved. Starting from the moment of introduction, Beloved deeply interacts and engages with Sethe and her family. The ghost of Beloved drove the two sons out of the house and from time to time takes tangible forms that physically come to contact with Sethe’s family through “mirror shattered… tiny hand prints… in the cake” (3). As soon as the ghost is banned from 124 by Paul D, Beloved takes the human form to come back to Sethe’s family in a shape of “a fully dressed woman” (60). As the story progresses, the relationship between Sethe and Beloved grows ill. First, Sethe engages more of herself to exclusively Beloved. She ignores Paul D and his criticisms on the parasitic love between Sethe and Beloved. She also insists that she continues her way of providing her children “safety with handsaw” (193). As soon as Paul D leaves 124, Sethe starts to abandon her responsibility as a mother. She prioritizes Beloved more “than her own life” (284). She spends more money for luxury and extravagance on Beloved’s demand than what she can afford that “they ran low on food” (285). As Sethe grows exhausted, “Beloved [slams] things, [wipes] the table clean of plates, [throws] salt on the floor, [breaks] a windowpane” (285) while “getting bigger” (285). This incident of Beloved has led characters astray of normality; Sethe grew thinner (both physically and emotionally) and devastated, Denver grew detached from her family, and Paul D was driven away from Sethe’s family. This unfair and sickening encounter between Beloved and Sethe’s family that only breaks the goodness of characters may be the story that Morrison does not will to be told.
Yet, under the overarching plot and series of actions, Morrison strongly outlines the real story that she wishes to convey to her audience. Story, to Sethe, Beloved, and Denver, is not simple a novel that can be lightly considered and forgotten with. The story connotes a larger meaning behind its facade. To the three women, story symbolizes life and the past they have lived in. Firstly, Morrison describes story to be a segment in memory that one has lived and can live again. This is explicitly demonstrated when Sethe “[steps] into the told story that lay before her eyes on the path” (36) and describes her past memory of Denver’s birth. Morrison strengthens the connection between story and memory by starting the anecdote with one and ending with other. As discussed above, Sethe’s memory of Denver and the first white conformity begins with her physically walking into the story. When the story comes to an end, Sethe refers to the memory as “rememory” (43) that “[goes]” and “[passes] on” while “just [staying]” at the same time. The description of a specialized memory connects to the terminology of story to indicate that apart from plots and dialogues, story also is one’s past, memory, and even inevitable identity. Also, story symbolizes life. Paul D is a character persistently willing for a stable family. He, a man who has lived a life of rather adventure and fluidity, now wants to settle down. Paul D wishes to achieve this goal by creating a family with Sethe. He describes his sentiment toward her by stating that “he [wanted] to put his story next to hers” (322). This shows that story not only means the past but also the present life that one lives in. As demonstrated above, Morrison broadens the scope of interpretation of the word story and uses them in distinctive contexts. Also, she develops the idea of story’s connection to one’s past, and addresses a bigger subject of slavery through Sethe and Beloved.
Sethe is a character obsessed with stories; Sethe’s own past captivates and mesmerizes her. Sethe is a former slave of Sweet Home. Her experience of slavery rips her of sanity and devastates her. The eternal scar that forces her to remember the past she wants to forget is best illustrated and symbolized by the “branches of her chokecherry tree” (20) made of her dead skin on her back. The chokecherry tree made of scar forces Sethe to face her destroyed past. She is reminded of the milk taken away from her. She is evoked with memories of her mother, killed as the result of slavery. This constant rememory to a past that she does not wish to remember drains her rationality. As a caring mother haunted by her past memory of slavery, Sethe desires to “[take] and put [her] baby where they’d be safe” (193) from the white treachery. However, this wish takes a shape of a monster in her insane mentality. Consequently, Sethe, traumatized by the white domination, “[kills] her children” when she sees the Schoolteacher walking toward her family. Yet, the safety that she wanted for her children turns into another trauma: Beloved. Tree appears several times in Beloved. Chokecherry tree is what stays on her back, reminding Sethe of her tainted past; mulberry tree is where Beloved walks from. This connection between the character of Beloved and Sethe’s inescapable past emphasizes the role of Beloved as the reminder of Sethe’s past. The manner in which Beloved achieves her virtue is by constantly keeping Sethe occupied, telling stories. This constant storytelling conjures Sethe up of her horrid past. Thus, she is worn down in the relationship between her and Beloved; the memory wears Sethe down. Through Sethe, Morrison lays out the connection between the word story and Sethe’s personal, abhorrent encounter of slavery.
The individual story of slavery narrated by Sethe is generalized by Beloved. Beloved devotes her chapter in describing the incident that happened to her before she first appeared in the story, in front of the mulberry tree. To picture the incident, she uses imageries of “sea-colored” (249) bread and the sensation of “vomit”. Through the imagery, she creates an atmosphere of ocean. Also, Beloved desire for “pretty white… teeth” (249), the crowded and “crouching” (248) people accompanied by “small rats” alludes to a ship, of rather poor condition. The “circle around her neck” (249) indicating a collar chaining her, along with several dead people and strong desires to die supports the connection between the narrative and slavery. All in all, the scene that Beloved describes in her chapter is a typical moment in the Middle Passage. Middle Passage was the Atlantic slave trade route between Europe, Africa and America. The slaves captured in Africa by Europeans were shipped to American plantation farms to be dehumanized and maltreated. The Middle Passage not only illustrates the brutality of slavery, but also is the symbol of white dominance and black subjugation. Beloved dedicates her chapter to describe her incident at the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on a slave trade boat. This shows that to Beloved, story not only is her encounter of Sethe, but also inclusive of her life as the first-generation slave, the crosser of Middle Passage, the commodity of a slave trade ship. Through Beloved, Morrison normalizes the concept of story to all slaves, ranging from the very first slaves of American Plantation to the very last slave of the abolitionists. Story, written in context of Beloved, refers to both the literal story that contains plots and dialogues and the connotation to one’s inevitable past. Morrison uses this nature of story to carefully lay out an explicit scene of slavery.
Like how the word story contains several different meanings, some more overarching than others, Morrison’s choice of the word “to pass on” (324) deepens the understanding of the novel. Primarily, the phrase passed on, as often used with stories, indicates that the story is told to a separate entity. This type of passing on is depicted in Sethe’s act of telling her story of the Sweet Home to others. There are frequent incidents of Sethe delivering her accounts of slavery to Beloved and her daughter Denver. However, when the story which is being passed on is interpreted differently as analyzed above, the term to pass on undergoes a slight modification. Story, to Sethe, Beloved, and Denver, symbolizes the individual’s life. Furthermore, the story is what binds the lives of hundreds of people who share the same historical pain of slavery. If so, to pass on indicates allowing its future generation to live the lives of the former generations: passing on of the story of slavery signifies letting the children be vulnerable to slavery. Sethe, as a firm yet traumatized mother, is haunted by this passing on of her story to her children. Sethe is extremely obsessed with not allowing her children to live her story of slavery. Also, the word pass on includes a passive connotation. To pass on from time to time implies no effort on the two entities taking part in the action. the passer and the passed. The act of passing on is a natural progress in which the story flows from the passer to the receiver. Sethe, while describing the story of Denver’s birth, mentions the phrase “pass on” (43). This act of passing on is not an active action of Sethe to forget her past. Sethe admits that “somethings you forget… other things you never”. Her tone of addressing the chance of remembering and forgetting almost sounds as if they are coincidental. Through this passage, Morrison defines passing on as a natural progress which can fortuitously produce either of the possible results. This interpretation of passing on creates an automatic nature to the action of passing on for it is not controlled by artificial force. By doing so, Morrison connotes that not only Sethe’s effort in preventing the stories from passing on to her children inevitable, but also that the repetition of history of slavery is unavoidable.
Through several types of stories that Morrison create, she creates a paradox in which she lays out her main argument: the story should be passed on. As mentioned above, to Morrison, story means several things. The story of the characters’ encounter with Beloved is what Morrison has narrated to the readers. However, within mere plot and dialogues, Morrison carefully lays out the pain and suffering that the black population of America had suffered. Surprisingly, the two stories mentioned above seem to contradict each other; when one is passed on, the other is not, and when one is not passed on, the other is. Consider a case in which the story of Beloved is passed on to future generations. If Morrison’s Beloved is brought more attention, and well read by the public, the explicit criticisms of slavery will be delivered to a large population. A mass population with a critical view of slavery will be able to abolish slavery with ease. However, consider a case in which the story of Beloved is not passed on to the future generation. The mass population, unaware of the horrendous results of slavery will not be able to recognize the falsehoods of slavery. If so, in later generations, when all awareness has passed, the atrocious act of enslavement will begin again. Since both stories cannot be passed on simultaneously, Morrison, by saying “this is not a story to pass on” (324), creates a paradox in which the statement of the sentence is not universal when interpreted with different significance of the story.
To resolve the paradox, Morrison prioritizes the stories to specify which story to pass and which not to. Firstly, even before the foreword and the epigram, she dedicates the novel to “Sixty Million and more” (Morrison, XI). This dedication, considering Morrison’s use of slavery and its impact on the black individuals as the main subject of the novel, alludes to the people who died in the Middle Passageway which approximates to about sixty million people. Also, Morrison states that she dedicates the book to more people than the estimated number of people killed in the Middle Passage. The extra people that Morrison included can be seen as the inestimable number of people killed by slavery in total. The dedication of the novel clearly shows that Morrison is prioritizing her audience of victims of slavery above all other readers, thus the story of slavery. If the story of slavery is prioritized before the encounter of Beloved, the quote “this is not a story to pass on” (324) can be reiterated into two separate sentences; the experience of slavery should never occur again; to do so, the story of Beloved has to be widely read.
Also, the word pass on can be emphasized in order to analyze what Morrison tries to convey. As discussed above, Morrison refers to the story as the past lives of slaves sacrificed in white brutality. Also, the specific phrase that Morrison uses, pass on, has a passive connotation. Hence when a story is passed on, it is a natural progression. Morrison, by saying that “this is not a story to pass on” (324), argues that the story of slavery and the lives of the slavery victims should not be repeated naturally and without resistance. Indeed, she advocates for her belief of strong opposition against slavery. Through the last sentence, Morrison firmly reveals her true sentiments toward slavery, that it should not be naturally inherited by her post generations.
To recapitulate, Morrison uses story in two major different occasions: to express the literal story told, and to refer to the lives that one lived and lives. This ambiguity in her style of writing leads to different possible interpretations of her line “this is not a story to pass on” (324). She adds to the vagueness by using the phrase pass on, connoting passivity in the action of moving on. This dubiety of Morrison’s intent shines light on several paths to analyze her last sentence. Eventually, through the unclear mass of literature, Morrison concludes that the story of slavery is what should not be carried out to the future generation. In doing so, she affirms that the story of Beloved is a story to pass on.