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University of Basel

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison: The Ghosts of the Past.

Text: Andrea Bieler

My book: The theologian Andrea Bieler recommends "Beloved" by Toni Morrison.

Prof. Dr. Andrea Bieler. (Image: Andreas Zimmermann)
Prof. Dr. Andrea Bieler. (Image: Andreas Zimmermann)

I spent twelve years of my life working as a theologian in the USA. A pressing issue at the time was the impact of slavery on the present day and how this violent history of human rights abuse continues to shape educational institutions, social relations, economic conditions and religions. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987; published in German as Menschenkind) is a key literary text dealing with the question of how the ghosts of the past still haunt the present.

The novel opens at 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati, shortly after the Civil War. Sethe, a former slave, is living there with her daughter Denver. Her house, once the beating heart of the neighborhood’s black community, is now haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, who drives out every living thing and turns Sethe’s own existence into a living death. When an old acquaintance, Paul D., turns up to see Sethe, a flood of memories is unleashed. Twenty years earlier, while heavily pregnant, Sethe had run away from the plantation on which she was being forced to work as a slave.

While on the run, she had lost her husband and other companions, giving birth to her daughter, Denver, with the help of a young white girl. When tracked down by her old master, who wanted to “get his property back”, she had decided to kill her children to save them from a life of slavery.

At first Paul D. manages to drive out the ghost, and for a while peace is restored. Later, however, the two of them meet a girl who introduces herself as Beloved, the name that Sethe had inscribed on her daughter’s gravestone. Beloved does not know her own history. Together, the four of them embark on a life dominated by power struggles, betrayal, and the search for closeness, in which their obsessive efforts to achieve understanding ultimately fall short: “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” This impressive novel reveals the price to be paid for confronting wounds that will never heal and remembering nightmares that refuse to be dispelled – when broken-off splinters of a traumatic history come back to life and are reassembled.

Andrea Bieler has been Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Basel since 2017. In her research and teaching, she focuses on religious interpretations of vulnerability, collective traumatization and the practice of memory, empathy and conflict resolution, migration and xenophobia, and constructions of sickness, health and ageing.

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