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Flashback Analysis of Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

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Beloved: Analysis of Narratology


“Narratology is the study of how stories work and how readers understand them” (Bonnycastle 153); the elements of narratology can have a substantial impact on a piece of literature. Flashbacks, or analepses, are an example of one of these elements. In Stephen Bonnycastle’s chapter, “Structuralism (iii): Narratology,” he writes, “The terms of narratology can help us describe these structures, so we can understand better how the text works. (The technical term for a flashback is analepsis; a jump forward in time is called a prolepsis.)” (156). In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this is exemplified when Morrison uses analepses to catch the reader's attention and help the reader engage with the past.

Flashbacks as Attention Grabbers

Structurally, Morrison’s novel is anything but linear; a large part of crucial content is told through flashbacks and memories. This begins almost immediately at the beginning of the story when the narrator tells of Howard and Buglar’s escape from 124: “The sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old” (Morrison 3). This flashback morphs into a few other descriptions and stories, like how Baby Suggs craved color, her death, and a small amount of information about the entity that haunts 124. Starting a novel with an analepsis can have a profound effect on the reader. For Beloved, it draws the reader in. The way the text unfolds in the early pages of the novel gives the reader lots of partial pieces of information and leaves a desire to learn more about the story. This is especially true when Morrison writes about the entity that haunts 124: “Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby’s fury at having its throat cut . . .” (5-6). Morrison tells the reader that a baby who has suffered a violent death is haunting the house, but who would cut a baby’s throat, and why? Why is this baby haunting 124? Morrison evokes these questions early in the novel to spark the reader’s interest and promote further reading.

Flashbacks to Better Describe The Past

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An analepsis may be used at the beginning of the story, but flashbacks are also used constantly throughout the entire novel, forcing the reader to stay engaged in both the story’s past and present. One example out of many can be seen when Beloved and Denver are talking about Sethe and Amy’s encounter and Denver’s birth. “‘Tell me,’ Beloved said. ‘Tell me how Sethe made you in the boat’” (90). Denver begins to recount the story as she remembers it from what Sethe told her, but then, with the help of Beloved, she begins to see and feel what Sethe felt as she tells the story. The paragraph breaks and a flashback begins. All of the important characters in Beloved are attached to their past in some way, and many of the main events are fueled by the past. Therefore, in order to better understand the novel, the reader has to truly experience the past. This scene is one of many that helps the reader with this; the flashback pulls the reader into the past and describes the events in much greater detail than Denver’s storytelling ever could.

Flashbacks to Keep The Reader Engaged with The Past

A further example of an analepsis linking the present to the past is shown later in the novel. As Paul D sits on the church steps, he recalls much about Sweet Home. While this flashback is introduced slightly differently than the previously mentioned example, it has the same effect. Paul D’s thoughts drift to memories of the escape from Sweet Home: “Sixo, hitching up the horses, is speaking English again and tells Halle what his Thirty-Mile Woman told him” (261). When the flashback begins, the tense shifts from past to present tense. This effectively immerses the reader in Paul D’s memory by making the events seem like they are happening in real-time, emphasizing the importance of his memories and keeping the reader engaged with the past.


Morrison’s piece involves many aspects of narratology, but the use of analepses is one of the most prominent ways that Morrison both hooks the reader’s interest at the beginning of Beloved and keeps the reader connected with the past throughout the novel.

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