As excited as I was to teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time, I was also terrified. With the conservative culture of my school, its reception was, as I expected it to be—hesitant, at best. Concerns ranged from violence to sex, and the pushback allowed me to reflect on all the benefits of teaching Beloved. Now, years later, the novel remains as a mainstay in my AP literature curriculum.
Morrison dedicates her book to “Sixty Million and more,” the estimated number of people who died in slavery. The character of Beloved represents Sethe’s unnamed child, but also the unnamed masses who died and were forgotten. With this book, Morrison states they are beloved as well. It is a story about slavery and the effects of slavery, a nightmare that we as a nation cannot forget. This novel is based on true events in the life of Margaret Garner, a house slave, and on the events in the lives of many just like her. It is important to forewarn students of the intensity of the text; they may find themselves hating parts of it or being disgusted by it, and these reactions are appropriate. We can’t turn our heads and pretend like these things didn’t happen. They did. They are woven into the fabric of our history, and sometimes we border on forgetting about this dark part of our country’s narrative. Today, we find it hard to comprehend how such atrocities happened, and we may not understand the evil nature of slavery. Morrison writes this story, which she calls “not a story to pass on” and compares it to “a bad dream,” to make us remember.
Point of View and Narration
Mostly told from an omniscient narrator, Beloved departs from the typical novel structure. There are chapters narrated by individual characters, and a chapter narrated by multiple characters’ voices woven together in a poem. The story is not chronological, but jig sawed together through flashbacks. The complexity of the narrative makes it a perfect choice for an AP-level text. It also calls for teacher guidance. I have found that, with more guidance, students appreciate it more.
Students tend to call any text that is slightly lacking in punctuation stream of consciousness. At the first mislabeling, which is usually early in the year and before we get into Beloved, I like to show an excerpt out the chapter told from Beloved’s point of view, and say, “See this? THIS is stream of consciousness.” I secretly get a kick of seeing their eyes go big, wondering, “I’m going to read that later in the year? It doesn’t even make sense!”
A symbol-wielding master, Morrison’s writing is a diamond mine for an AP Literature teacher. In fact, the first word of the book, “124,” is a symbol. The address of the house, 124, is missing the number three, just as Sethe is missing her third child. Toward the end of the book, I have my students read Psalm 124 from the Bible and discover all of the connections. It blows their minds.
Symbols range from Paul D’s tobacco tin heart and the rain of the storm that allows his freedom (great for pulling in ideas from How to Read Literature Like a Professor), to schoolteacher’s hat and the entire character of Beloved (especially the stream of consciousness chapter) who symbolizes all of those lost in slavery; every chapter facilitates an enriching discussion of symbolic interpretation.
Lyrically poignant, Beloved offers itself to rhetorical analysis. One of my favorite sections is in the third chapter describing Sethe’s birth of Denver. Sethe is laying in the grass, exhausted from running from the plantation as she is in labor with Denver. As she compares herself to a snake, Morrison uses alliteration of the letter s to give the scene an extra serpent-like sense. The day after students read this chapter for homework, we take a close look at this scene. I have them identify the use of alliteration then discuss why Morrison incorporated it and how it is effective.
Another activity I like to do with Beloved is chapter analysis in pairs. This activity would work well for any chapter, but I like to focus on chapters nineteen and twenty together, as they are rich with themes, motifs, symbols—you name it. Students should read the chapters you want to focus on prior to speed-date day. Before class, I make a long column of desks facing each other down the center of my room. Each pair of desks equals one speed-date. Spending seven minutes on each slide, students work with their date to complete the task. Students use their books for textual support and record their findings on each date. Having a countdown timer visible helps to keep them on pace. In one class, I had an odd number of students so I partnered up two students as conjoined twins. After each seven-minute date, one side of the column shifts one desk to the right so that each task is completed with a new partner.
Preparing for the AP exam
Beloved appears on the list of possible texts time and time again for Question 3 on the AP Literature exam. In fact, it is one of only three titles that have been on the list for the past three years in a row. (The other two are The Crucible and Othello.) Students get to develop and practice their close reading, critical thinking, and analytical skills while reading the novel, and as an added bonus, it’s one of those books the AP gods respect. Every year, at least a handful of students write their open-ended essay on Beloved. They feel comfortable with it due to the time we give it in class and the openness and depth it offers them in analysis options.