These questions, like all the study questions we offer, are meant
to point up some patterns that are central to the text. They are
by no means exhaustive, and they are not meant to be prescriptive.
Although we won't be able to touch upon all of them in our discussions,
they may serve to get you started on critical readings of our texts.
Our discussions will be guided by the interests of the group rather
than structured strictly in response to these questions.
Study Guide for Morrison's Beloved
Toni Morrison (b. 1932) is one of the most celebrated American
writers working today. She has been extremely active both in publishing
(as an editor at Random House) and in teaching literature (as a
professor at Princeton); she has published seven novels along with
numerous works of criticism. Her third novel, Song of Solomon,
won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction; Beloved
won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; in 1993 she received the
Nobel Prize for Literature.
1. Read the first episode of Beloved carefully, and note
your reactions to it. What expectations does the opening scene raise
for the work to follow? After you finish the first session's reading
assignment, and then again after you complete the whole novel, return
to this episode and read it again. How does it function in relation
to book as a whole?
2. As you read the novel, think about its complex structure. Why
does Morrison choose this particular way of telling Sethe's story?
What does the way the story is told suggest about Morrison's view
of the human mind and its workings?
3. What judgments does Toni Morrison make on Sethe's killing of
her daughter? How does Sethe's community judge her? How does Paul
D. judge her? How does she judge herself? How do you judge her?
4. Slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass's autobiography,
are the starting point of the African-American literary tradition.
One of the biggest themes in Frederick Douglass's story is the question
of his name, or his identity. How does this issue relate to Beloved?
If you are familiar with slave narratives, can you find ways that
Morrison refers to, uses, or reworks the slave narrative tradition
5. Morrison makes a point of including traditional, folkloric, non-literary
African-American culture in Beloved, some of which is derived
from ancient African roots. What is the effect of this inclusion?
6. Among other things, Beloved is a ghost story. What are
the special problems for writer and reader in having a ghost featured
as a main character?
7. Give some thought to the presence of (and commentary on) white
people in the novel. Why does the author make the choices she does
in her presentations of whites?
8. Reflect on the detailed attention that Morrison gives to experiences
that will certainly claim your attention (and will probably shock
and disturb you): Paul D. on the chain gang, locked in the box;
Paul's experience of the bit; the milking of Sethe; School Teacher's
recording of the slaves' animal characteristics; Sixo's death. What
is the effect of those experiences, on those who live them and on
us as readers?
9. When you finish the book, note your reaction to the last passage.
How do you feel about the ending? Why do you suppose the book concludes
(or doesn't conclude) in this way?