The Modern Library’s most egregious oversight.


  • Rank:  #14
  • Author:  Toni Morrison  (b. 1931)
  • Published:  1987
  • Publisher:  Alfred Knopf
  • Pages:  275
  • First Line:  “124 was spiteful.”
  • Last Line:  “Beloved.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  1998  (***)
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize; NY Times Best American Novel of the Past 25 Years; All-TIME List
  • First Read:  Spring, 1995

The Novel:  Reading the novel again, I was struck on the last page.  I had a sudden memory of my first experience with this novel.  The class was Studies in Fiction and it was my junior year in college.  The class was a literature survey course that began with Crime and Punishment (our professor, who was also my adviser, for years had begun with Tristram Shandy, but had finally tired of the fact that no one ever finished it, which is appropriate, since the book never really begins).  Crime and Punishment, like The Trial (also read in that class) are still to come on this list.  As I Lay Dying was taught, as was To the Lighthouse and Dubliners (probably the greatest short story collection ever written).  Though, to be fair, we also read Invisible Man (my vote for most over-rated novel of all-time) and Middlemarch (as a classmate of mine said, “Once I got to a two page description of jewelry I knew I was never going to finish it.”).  But it was an amazing class with an amazing reading list.

I point all this out not to brag about the class (though classes like this are a great reason to go a small school where teaching is valued more than research or publishing), but because on the last two pages of Beloved, I suddenly remembered the end of the class.  One of my professor’s pet projects was to have the students write final-exam questions.  We were required to write a number of questions based around the class and several of them would actually be chosen for the final.  So, it was an assignment we would be graded on, and we would have to think hard since we might need to answer the question on the final.  I suddenly, on those last pages, remembered my question about Beloved: “Three times in the last two pages, Morrison writes ‘It was not a story to be passed on.’  Yet, in writing the novel, she is passing it on.  Explain both sides of this issue.”  The easy part is why it’s not a story to be passed on – brutality, slavery, death, infanticide, horrors that no one wants to remember.  But we have to remember.  Never forget.  It’s the motto of Holocaust survivors.  But it works just as well for the descendents of slavery.

Look at what is endured:  “Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it.”  That’s Baby Suggs, who was able to escape from slavery thanks to her son.  Or this: “But her brain was not interested in the future.  Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.”  That’s Sethe, the main character in Beloved, Baby Suggs’ daughter-in-law.  She endured the horrors of slavery, including a brutal rape when the rapists actually took the milk from her breasts.  She seeks to meet her husband on her escape, not knowing that his witnessing of the rape has broken his mind, that he will never escape, that the rest of her life will be an escape from those horrors.  And she almost dies, almost doesn’t make it, owes her life to one poor little white girl who helps her across the river.  As that girl, Amy Denver, massages her feet to enable her to walk, to move closer to freedom, we get a heartbreaking line that will be a reminder throughout the book of what Sethe has lived through: ” ‘It’s gonna hurt now,’ said Amy.  ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts.’ ”

But Sethe does come back to life.  The story of the novel, beyond the history that we learn, is how Sethe does come back to life.  How the appearance of Paul D, another man who knew here in bondage, who loved her, brings emotions up to the surface and allows her to touch and to feel once again: “There were two rooms and she took him into one of them, hoping he wouldn’t mind the fact that she was not prepared; that though she could remember desire, she had forgotten how it worked; the clutch and helplessness that resided in the hands; how blindness was altered so that what leapt to the eye were places to lie down, and all else – door knobs, straps, hooks, the sadness that crouched in corners, and the passing of time – was interference.”

But then comes something amazing – the arrival of the dead.  There is a child who is gone, whose life was taken in a tragic, horrifying act that we slowly learn about; that this act was done to keep the child safe in a sense, makes it no less horrifying or tragic.  She is Beloved – just that, the one word written on a tombstone, and even that was something bought with sex, the same sex that brought the child forth now gives it a marker and Sethe regrets she didn’t do it again, to add Dearly.  But now she comes to life, this girl whose blood has been swallowed by her sister along with their mother’s milk.  Driven from the house as a spirit by the arrival of Paul D, now she comes in human form and it is what happens now, between mother and sister and ethereal spirit that brings us the core of this unforgettable novel.  At first, 124 is spiteful.  Then it is loud, loud with the noise of the living and the absence of the dead.  And then, another step: “124 was quiet.  Denver, who thought she knew all about silence, was surprised to learn hunger could do that: quiet you down and wear you out.”

All of this, at its core, is the story not to pass on.  The horrific endurance of those who made it out.  It is said, that every Holocaust film is really an anti-Holocaust film, because invariably the films are made about those lucky few who survived.  In essence, it is the same for slavery.  For it is the survivors who write the stories, the ones we shouldn’t pass on, yet, the stories that we must pass on, from generation to generation, until the evil finally fades.

In the caption above, I mention that this is the Modern Library’s most egregious oversight.  Their list of the Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century was released in late 1998.  Beloved was not on the list.  That made Morrison one of only two American novelists with the Nobel Prize not to make the list (the other, Pearl S. Buck, has for the most part fallen out of favor).  Many immediate reactions to the list mentioned the novel’s absence.  That it had won the Pulitzer, would eventually make the All-TIME list and would be designated by the New York Times as the best novel of the last 25 years only makes its omission even more embarrassing.  And I’ll go further.  It’s the best American novel of my lifetime, the best American novel published since 1961.  It is a masterpiece, through and through, and the best evidence that the Nobel committee actually did something right when it gave Morrison the prize (giving her the prize is the best decision they have made since they gave it to Garcia Marquez in 1982).

The surprisingly solid and faithful 1998 film of Toni Morrison’s classic.

The Film  (dir. Jonathan Demme):  This film is really kind of remarkable.  It’s not remarkable that it’s a very good film, which it is.  After all, a film with this kind of talent involved was likely to be good.  It’s also not remarkable that it’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel.  Such things have been done before, even from very difficult to adapt books.  What is surprising is that it is both faithful and very good.  And that’s perhaps what kept people away.  It wasn’t brilliant, but it also wasn’t terrible.  It was long, and complicated, and slow-moving and painful.  And none of that makes for much box office success.

Much of the credit for the artistic success of this film must go to Oprah Winfrey.  Winfrey has, for right and wrong, been widely denigrated over the years for her book club.  But she has been the foremost champion of Toni Morrison’s body of work, and as Morrison is one of the best writers this country has ever produced, she has the right idea there.  She knew long ago that she wanted to star in Beloved and she knew that she wanted Danny Glover to play Paul D.  And, most importantly, she wanted it done right.  These days, of course, Oprah is mostly thought of in terms of her show, but she had been an Oscar-nominated actress when her show was still mostly known on the local level.  And this seems like the perfect next step – the starring role, opposite an actor from her previous film, and moving on from a really good book (The Color Purple) to an absolute masterwork.

I’ll not pretend that this is an easy film to watch.  Nor was the book an easy book to read.  But the reasons are very different.  What made the novel so difficult was the way in which Morrison wrote, moving back and forth in time, expanding on her previous styles and making herself the true heir of Woolf and Faulkner.  But what is painful in the book can be pushed back a little – we can only imagine it.  But in the film, it is made explicit.  It’s not the horrific aspects of slavery.  There have been so many films before that have shown the evil depths of slavery.  But here, well, here we can see what people are willing to do in order to remain free.  It’s one thing when you see the motto of New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die.”  It’s something different when you make that decision for those who can’t make it.  Sethe will not, under any circumstances, allow her children to go back to that life.  So death is preferable.  And this time we can’t shy away.  We watch that blood, spreading across her body, the blood of her own child, and we have to recoil.

But none of that makes the film any less good.  It is solidly directed.  It has strong acting, especially from Winfrey and Glover.  And, most amazingly, it manages to tell this story in a way that isn’t insanely difficult to understand.  It’s a very good film and it deserves to be remembered as such.  And more; it deserves to be remembered as one of those few films willing to take on a difficult story and not screw it up.