Toni Morrison’s Beloved

What does Beloved represent to her mother, Sethe? Why is Beloved finally “exorcised”?

In Toni Morrison‘s Beloved, Sethe is haunted by Beloved because she is her past and she cannot let her go.  One on hand, Sethe wants Beloved’s forgiveness but on the other she does not want it so much that she does not justify what she had done. “It was as though Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out” (297). As a result, Sethe and Beloved are so involved that they become one. As someone had said, the relationship is codependent. For example, Beloved grows with Sethe’s guilt and eventually overpowers her (her pregnancy makes Beloved larger, so large that she diminishes Sethe’s own body). In other words, their codependency comes from the desire to protect themselves from the outside but the relationship, like all codependent relationships, is toxic because the problem is internal. Their codependency makes them oblivious to the real problem, the real problem that exists in between them.

Why does the novel Beloved have a much more powerful legacy than if, say, Toni Morrison had simply written (no matter how well) a polemical essay against slavery, racism, and injustice?

Real people in a realistic setting, even if it is fantastical, are often more powerful than essays. Everyone agrees (I think/hope) that the broad notions of slavery and racism and injustice are wrong but the key to maintaining this position within a culture lies in particular sets circumstances. For instance, many people today continue to do and say racist things mainly because they don’t think that they are being racist (or homophobic or misogynistic, etc.). Unlike fiction, essays don’t allow authors to put readers into someone else’s shoes. As a result, people have a hard time seeing how abstract notions found in philosophical essays relate or apply to their everyday lives. Here is where fiction comes in. Fiction is about experimenting with “what if”. Thus people who enjoy reading fiction get to transport themselves into another world, another place, another human being and experience firsthand otherwise they could lead. These are circumstances that are impossible to replicate/experience in one’s lifetime (and many are circumstances that no one would probably want to experience firsthand). Nevertheless, they allow the reader to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and empathize with this stranger as they empathize with themselves.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Discuss a passage in Toni Morrison’s Beloved indicative of “magical realism” or “nonrealistic fiction.” How do ambiguity and suggestions of the otherworld in this passage contribute to the power of the narrative?

One of the passages that indicates magical realism is Sethe getting choked by an invisible, ghostlike figure. This passage and others like it give Beloved, a realistic novel, elements of the supernatural which categorizes it as “magical realism” fiction.  According to Wikipedia, magical realism is a story that presents magical elements as real occurrences in a straightforward manner and places the real and the fantastic in the same stream of thought. Here is another interesting definition: “Winona State University Asst. Professor of Japanese Studies, and author, Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as “…what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” Apparently, this critical perspective comes from “the Western reader’s disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures.” It seems to me that it is this aspect of “the Western reader’s disassociation with mythology” that make novels like Beloved and Invisible Man appear to be so different from traditional American literature.

Characterize Morrison’s literary style. What do you find most striking or effective about it? Why?

Morrison’s literary style can be classified as magical realism. It presents magical elements as real occurrences in a rather straightforward manner and combines real and fantastic elements in the same stream of thought. The story presents readers with multiple perspectives and her narrative as a whole is based on and guided by memories. As a result, her style is quite effective in placing the reader into her character’s experiences. Bowever, her style is also quite effective in conveying the confusion that many of the characters experience and feel throughout the novel.

Bellow’s More Die of Hearbreak and Relationships

What is the general view of human relationships that emerges from this novel? Do you consider this view optimistic, pessimistic, or neither? Why?

The feel of the Bellow’s More Die of Hearbreak is humorous but the view that it presents is pessimistic. This view seems to stem from the fact that the characters do not really understand themselves and/or their wants. As a result, they expect things that they have no business expecting or assuming and they end up disappointed. Uncle Benn constantly gets involved in relationships that are wrong for him because he doesn’t understand himself or his women. On one hand, he wants the permanence of marriage and on the other he wants freedom. For some reason, these two concepts are in opposition to each other in his view. But if he would evaluate who he is and who the woman is and whether they are actually right for each other for right reasons (friendship primarily) then being with that person would represent the ultimate freedom. The woman would accept him for who he is and he would accept her for who she is.

Come to think of it, perhaps the novel isn’t so much pessimistic about relationships as a whole but instead pessimistic about relationships that are poorly constructed. It’s like looking at a house with a bad foundation and awful construction and saying that all houses are therefore uninhabitable.
Topic 4

How would you characterize Bellow’s sense of humanity? What standards does he implicitly appeal to?

The standards of humanity that Bellow seems to appeal to are freedom and individualism. The relationships are dysfunctional but realistic and the dynamics that exist in these relationships are representative of the dynamics that exist among people in the world in general. It is difficult to tell whether it was any different in any other time because the stigma of divorce gave society the illusion that marriages were happy just because people were still married.

This novel shows that with freedom comes a lot of responsibility, responsibility that few people are willing and capable of undertaking. We live in an impulsive society where we are encouraged to “put it all on the line” for a chance at the so-called American dream. That’s why people gamble it at all on businesses they have no business starting, relationships that are all wrong for them from the start, investments they don’t know a first thing about, etc. This impulsiveness is to a large degree encouraged by the myth of “the self-made man” but the truth (and anyone who lives in LA long enough learns this) is that it takes 10 to 15 years to become an overnight success. Impulsiveness is unpredictable because it is based on luck. While dedication and diligence pay off eventually in dividends because they are based on loving one’s life, career, wife, etc.

It appears to me that what this novel implicitly shows that impulsiveness leads to worse decision making, more anxiety, and more discontent with one’s life. And that real freedom comes from dedication, diligence, and a quiet but persistent work ethic (Uncle Benn’s career as a botanist/researcher is a case in point).

Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak and Women

What are Saul Bellow‘s More Die of Heartbreak’s attitudes toward women? Why? How do Kenneth’s and Benn’s relationships with women shape their lives?

Kenneth is a highly educated but socially confused young man who was trying to understand love. He desires Treckie, the woman who prefers bad guys. Kenneth cannot understand why Treckie wants to be with a man who treats her badly yet does not understand that he also wants someone who is not right for him. Furthermore, Kenneth also does not understand why Uncle Benn likewise desires a woman who is wrong for him.

The novel views women with a sense of awe and bewilderment, as if they are some sort of mysterious yet highly valuable creatures. It seems to me that the lack of understanding between Kenneth and Benn and their women comes primarily from the fact that both of them are too cerebral and are not in touch with themselves. What I mean is that Kenneth does not know who he is and he does not really understand himself and his desires. As a result, he’s unable to understand Treckie or Benn or anyone else.

How would you describe Bellow’s literary style? Pick a favorite passage and discuss it.

Bellow’s writing reminds me a lot of Woody Allen. The protagonist is analytical and self-obsessed (in a good way) and genuinely trying and failing to understand the world around him. He goes off on tangents that mimic rambling thoughts and reveal more about Kenneth and his worldview than just about anything else. The narrative is presented in pieces which are both confusing and illustrative. I really enjoyed the literary/ philosophical observations and discussions. These discussions show Kenneth to be someone who has an intimate connection with the world that exists in books yet he is not always able to apply what he learns from books to what is going on in the real world. This is unfortunate because the books he reads offer him a lot of wisdom and one would think that he would not get in as much trouble if he actually analyzed them properly. Perhaps, the real problem is that though he analyzes himself all the time he doesn’t really learn anything from it.

Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima

I think that the most important change that Antonio undergoes in Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima is maturation. He leaves his childhood behind and becomes a man. I don’t think that it is important that he actually becomes a man in the eyes of society or the world at large but rather that he becomes a man in his own eyes. He notices the change by stating that, “It was the first time I had ever spoken to my mother as a man.” Here, he realizes that he’s no longer a child. One of the things that facilitates this process is his ability to listen to himself. Antonio is no longer torn between what others wish for him but begins to consider his own wishes and what he wants for himself. This is what every adult needs to do and this power comes with a lot of responsibility. Therefore, it is indicative of manhood (or adulthood in general).

Novels should only be criticized on their effectiveness as works of fiction. It is not fair to impart the character’s views on to the author because once the work is created the character is separate from the author. This is a problem that Flaubert and many other writers have encountered and assuming that a work of fiction is a criticism of a race, a religion, etc is a great disservice to literature. A derogatory Jewish character is not proof that the author is anti-Semitic. The author might just want to create a Jewish character and explore his bad qualities. The same is true of portrayals of Christians/Christianity. An individual who happens to be a good Catholic should not be offended by depictions of bad people who happen to be Catholic and depictions of bad people who happen to be Catholic does not mean that the novel at large is anti-catholic. (I would argue that no novel is anti-anything, only the characters are).

Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49

I love the way that the character of Oedipa emerges throughout Thomas Pynchon‘s The Crying of Lot 49 in reference to the other characters, the plot, and the setting. We are not given much information about Oedipa in the beginning, except from what is introduced in the first line. That she is a housewife who attends Tupperware parties. It seems to me that her whole character exists entirely in relation to something else: her opinion to Mucho’s career issues, her worries over interacting with the law firm, her descriptions of Southern California architecture and residential lifestyle, etc. As a result, what emerges is that she’s somewhat of a powerless but curious personality, maybe naïve and unsure. In a way, she personifies the discontent that was the impetus for the antiestablishment culture of the 60s. She personifies the conflict between past and present but stops short of embracing the new way of being. Becoming antiestablishment would actually require her to change her personality and become the opposite of what she is: decisive, powerful, and not conflicted.

I love the way that Stefan described Pynchon’s writing style: as the embodiment of “linguistic indulgence to the point of near inanity.” It’s true and I think this is what makes his writing brilliant. His style makes the plot and the action irrelevant and focuses entirely on the more important elements of character and setting. For example, “though he dieted he could still not as Oedipa did use honey to sweeten his coffee for like all things viscous and distressed him, recalling too poignantly what is often mixed with motor oil to lose dishonest into gaps between piston and cylinder wall.” I love the way that this description of Mucho gives the reader such a clear picture of both his discontent with his career and what and how it actually affects him. I almost wish the story had no conspiracy and instead had a simple plot (like Oedipa and Mucho go to a dinner party and her lover is there) so we can have more of the inanity about who different characters are and what drives them.

Harper Lee’s Mockingbirds and Education

The mockingbird symbolizes innocence. Birds in general tend to symbolize freedom but the mockingbird in particular is particularly innocent and free. Perhaps, unlike bluejays who interfere with people’s lives and eat their gardens or nest in the wrong places, mockingbirds cause no trouble. Mockingbirds bring only joy to the world and take nothing away. As a symbol of innocence, the mockingbird is representative of Tom. Therefore, killing something innocent is the most barbaric of all things.

To kill a Mockingbird” is a novel of education because it teaches readers about virtue and truth and injustice in an effort to expose the hideous parts of society and maybe make it a little better. A novel is a great vehicle for this kind of education because, unlike a story or a fable or a religious text, it isn’t overtly moralistic. It doesn’t just state the conclusions, it makes the reader work for them. In other words, the conclusions of the meaning of injustice and racism and love and truth and innocence are clear but implicit. But they are not dogmatic. As a result, the reader and the main character, Scout, learn the things that are important in life together.