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  • “Ten minutes for Seven Letters”:Song as Key to Narrative Revision in Toni Morrison's Beloved
  • Joanna Wolfe (bio)

And there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I'll do it for free.

Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten "Dearly" too?

—Toni Morrison, Beloved

Just five pages into Toni Morrison's Beloved, we discover how Sethe barters her body for the one word she will ever write. Sethe's prostitution before the stonemason is just one of many written texts in the novel that are literally as well as figuratively inscribed on the material bodies of African women. These written texts include the brand Sethe's mother bears under her breast; the columns "human" and "animal" Schoolteacher uses to record Sethe's characteristics; the whipping that nearly causes Sethe to bite off her tongue and leaves a scar shaped like a chokecherry tree (reminiscent of the cherry ink Sethe made for Schoolteacher) on her back; and the newspaper article that prompts Paul D to tell Sethe she has two feet, not four. Like these other texts, Sethe's single word is carved into the body of an African woman. And, also like these other texts, Sethe's written word names, labels, and identifies an Other: in this case, the Other of her dead baby girl.

Sethe's one written word is not just carved on a tombstone: it also composes the title and the last word of the book. Thus, to some extent, the novel foregrounds what some critics have termed the "violence of literacy" (Stuckey): the self-dispossession, [End Page 263] displacement, and denial that occurs when a marginalized subject attempts to master a dominant discourse that has depended on her othering.1 Sethe's attempt to join the dominant discourse (her written word is intended to answer "one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust" [5]) is an act of violence to herself and a betrayal of the other she is naming. The violence embedded in this word may ultimately be more damaging to the African subjects in the novel than the infanticide, for "those ten minutes . . . were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil" (5).

I will return to the scene of Sethe's one written word momentarily. However, for now, I would like to turn to a scene in the penultimate chapter in which Denver and Paul D discuss the possibility of Denver receiving a college education:

When he asked if they treated her all right over there, she said more than all right. Miss Bodwin taught her stuff. He asked her what stuff and she laughed and said book stuff. "She says I might go to Oberlin. She's experimenting on me." And he didn't say, "Watch out. Watch out. Nothing in the world more dangerous than a white schoolteacher." Instead he nodded and asked the question he wanted to.

"Your mother all right?"


Although this passage hints at the dangers associated with Western literacy, the tone is hopeful. Denver, who has been imprisoned at 124 most of her life, is moving out into the world. Paul D, who has not been able to make a domestic life with a woman, is returning to Sethe. Where Western literacy as practiced at Sweet Home—or by Sethe with the stonemason—enslaves and dehumanizes African subjects, the white schoolteacher in this passage seems to assist (or at the very least, not obstruct) the characters' self-realization.

How does a novel that begins with the brutality of a written word that mimics the discourse of slavery by its inscription on the body of an African woman end with the promise that seems to surround Denver's education? The answer seems to lie in the new model of writing and narrative technique that many critics—including Morrison herself—have described Beloved as attempting to employ. In particular, these critics...