- Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Space, Architecture, Trauma
Space is a prominent feature in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987/1988), and whether it is literal or figurative, it compels an allegorical appreciation as to how and what it signifies. For example, 124 Bluestone is unmistakably an architecture that reifies pastness and entrapment. Here, Sethe and Denver are locked in a persistent memory that refuses to set them free. The Clearing, the backyard over which 124 Bluestone overlooks, is, as its name suggests, a place of renewal. This is where Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, encourages the black people to reacquaint themselves with their bodies that have been violated by slavery (88). There is the ironically named Sweet Home, a place which only evokes painful memories for those who once sojourned there. But the novel also references figurative space to speak of memories, emotions and sometimes ideology. Paul D’s heart, for example, is spatially configured as “a tobacco tin lodged in his chest” into which his traumatic memories are placed so that “nothing in this world could pry it open” (113). In this way, he protects himself from being overwhelmed by the perpetual loss (of identity, of family and friends) he experiences. Sethe sees memory as space filled with sorrow or gaps (which she calls “empty space” ). And finally, the whitefolk’s fear of, and desire for, power over their slaves are metaphorized as a jungle of their own creation (198–99).
As much as space functions metaphorically in the narrative, it is also undeniable that space, especially place, is also a literal, material, and geographical reality which carries social and psychological significances. Criticisms of Beloved tend to ignore that 124 Bluestone, for example, is also a place where Sethe and her daughter live, and whose very presence as architecture refracts the two women’s uncanny, and their hopes. To cite two recent examples: in “Haunted Houses, Sinking Ships” by Samira Kawash, apart from postulating that “the danger signaled by ‘haunting’ derives from the very structure of the house, not from some external element,” the essay has actually very little to say about the house’s materiality, and the way this materiality influences its dwellers. Instead, the house is read as a prison metaphor, which Kawash associates with the system of slavery (74). Similarly, despite J. Hillis Miller’s innovative focus on boundaries and space [End Page 231] in Morrison’s novel in his essay “Boundaries in Beloved,” his reading merely uses the novel as a launching pad to meditate on several contemporary US policies on national security and international relations. Undeniably, such scholarship attests to the dexterity of the novel to invite multiple interpretations and meditations on various levels, but as essays discussing space, they fall short of actually delving into space as, quite frankly, space.
My interest is in Beloved’s representation of space as dimensions to register trauma. It is important to consider 124 Bluestone not merely as a metaphor of a stubborn, destructive past, but as a literal place whose haunting has to do with how its inhabitants negotiate with lived space. Following Elizabeth Grosz (who draws on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology),1 I argue that a house does “come alive” in the way it invariably embodies its dwellers’ desires, and that this “aliveness” is important as a critical juncture where the trauma of memory and identity converge. Trauma, in this sense, is not something ensconced within, and which perpetually disturbs, the psyche, but can become transcribed onto the very walls of a lived environment: it becomes at once symptomatic and visible, unseen yet obvious. Linked to trauma is an important theme, which is also spatially captured and conceptualized in Morrison’s novel: “rememory.” This essay concludes by framing the narrative’s treatment of space against Donald Kuntze’s elegant tripartite reading of architecture as virtuality, secrecy, and monstrosity, and relating it to Deleuze’s concept of the fold (pli). Kuntze shows that architecture, like reading, requires interpretation, but the silence and “untranslatability” (28) of certain architectural experience sometimes renders this endeavor difficult, even unforthcoming.2 This, however, does not mean that interpretation should then be abandoned, but “read...