The Omnicient Narrator in Beloved by Toni Morrison
Introduction to Beloved
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a contemporary work of fiction set just before and directly after the abolition of slavery. While this period in time seems somewhat perfect for classic theme of alienation, Morrison goes delves deeper than simply a literal representation of the alienation that comes with slavery and even racism.
Central to Beloved is a sense of alienation of the self, which often arises out of traumatic experience. Morrison explores this idea through a delicate balancing act of shifting points of view. While there are many traumatic events that occur in the book, the core issue that needs resolve is the violence that happened with Sethe and her infant daughter, Beloved, when a group arrived to bring them back to slavery. The adult character of Beloved is the manifestation of the trauma, while Sethe is the one with whom the resulting scars of it reside.
Psychology tells us that the retelling of a traumatic event or memory often becomes increasingly disjointed or fragmented as it approaches the crux of the event. Writes Carolyn Forche, “The narrative of trauma is itself traumatized, and bears witness to extremity by its inability to articulate directly or completely."
Within Beloved, this sense of fragmentation is echoed not only in the prose-like structure of the work, but also in the point of view. Largely third-person omniscient, with an anonymous and unobtrusive narrator embodying more the character in the spotlight than a narrative persona, the focus shifts rapidly from one character to the next.
Likewise the temporal placement of the story shifts from past to present and all points in between, hovering and unfixed. As the story fragments into a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and narratives, it all the while alludes to and moves closer towards the central defining trauma.
Because of the inherent difficulty in articulating trauma directly or completely, when the main traumatic event is revealed, it comes from the white perspective, specifically the peripheral characters who have come to return Sethe and her children to slavery. Because they are the only ones not traumatized by the event they are the only ones able to give a coherent rendition.
Significantly this is one of the only instances within the book when the white perspective is taken, the other exception being in the final dramatic scene. Though there are other white characters, even sympathetic ones, the somewhat limited omniscient does not go into the minds of these characters, but provides a more objective view. The white perspective is only needed in this scene because Sethe, and even the other black characters, would be incapable of narration.
Sethe’s narrative always seems to fragment when approaching anything painful. In the remembering of another traumatic memory Sethe thinks, but is unable to articulate, “There is also my husband squatting by the churn smearing the butter as well as its clabber all over his face because the milk they took is on his mind." It is only through repetition of this scene in memory that enough detail is able to come forth for the reader to understand what is happening.
Sethe has become alienated from the core traumatic event as a coping mechanism, and is thus unable to describe it. The closer that Sethe moves to the defining event, the more that words and memory begin to fail her. The adult Beloved represents the initial trauma, and once Sethe embraces her as such, “Beloved, she my daughter, and she is mine," she begins to descend into madness.
The madness occurs because the character of Sethe starts to become lost as she remembers the event. There has been a dichotomy created between the everyday self and the traumatized one. Moving closer to the traumatic side of this dichotomy, Sethe is alienated from the self that exists outside of the event; the two have become mutually exclusive. Interestingly, “the more she [Beloved] took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered," writes Morrison. The things that Beloved is taking are material; they are things that are of the world and its reality. Beloved (the trauma) is removing these things from Sethe, who is then left little recourse but to retreat from the world into her own narrative of suffering, creating madness.
The chapter in which Sethe claims Beloved as her own is the first time that the point of view has shifted from third-person to first, beside in the relation of thought. Sethe’s narrative becomes increasingly fragmented, almost unintelligible, as she appears to lose her grip on reality. For the first time we hear the story direct from Sethe’s mouth, yet at this juncture she has become alienated from the world at large. It is however necessary to hear directly from Sethe, to make this trip into her mind rather than simply have her thought retold, in order to understand how her mind is breaking.
The first-person point of view continues in the next chapter with Sethe’s daughter Denver’s story. “Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother’s milk." It is not just Sethe who is affected by the traumatic event. Denver, in embracing Beloved, is similarly unable to cope due to the fact that she inhabits the same world of pain and alienation as her mother.
Denver here is also losing her grip on reality. She relates how her mother, whom she’d previously had a close and loving relationship with, used to “cut off my head every night” when Denver was a child. Denver continues, “Then she carried it downstairs to braid my hair. I try not to cry but it hurts so much to comb it." A normally maternal act of hair combing has become something grotesque and horrific, not unlike the effect that trauma has had on what could have been otherwise functional lives, albeit pain-filled and scarred.
A Dance With Perspective
Morrison uses point of view to adeptly navigate the affects of trauma on the psyche, interweaving closeness and distance to the event with ever-shifting viewpoints and narrative styles. She dances around it in such a way that it is implied that to come to close to the event for her characters would be a mental breaking point, causing a rupture with reality.
The psyche must alienate itself from the trauma, lest the trauma cause an inevitable alienation of the self or the mind from the world at large, which is exactly what happens for Sethe and Denver once they attempt to tell their story firsthand. Progressing out of this increasing fragmentation of reality and narrative, for the story to regain a sense of coherency, the narration must then move to those less directly affected by the trauma, those who function more as bystanders, and back to the third-person limited, as the first has served its use.
The narrator does not inhabit the minds of Sethe after we have heard her account, and relies less on Denver as well. Sethe and Denver, while never entirely clear, have become less reliable as sources of information. It is neighbor’s friends, Sethe’s former lover, and a whiteman who fill in the majority of the story remaining to be told, who bear the responsibility almost to translate subsequent events in a manner that the reader will be able to grasp.