Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Narration

3 Comments

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that it’s written in third person omniscient. When Toni Morrison first heard the story of Margaret Garner and decided to write a novel on it, the most obvious choice she could have made was to write the book from Sethe’s perspective. What better way is there to tell the story of this woman who would rather kill her own children than let them go through what she went through? Obviously, getting completely inside the head of the main character would make it easiest to know her innermost thoughts and desires. The simplest way to get your audience to sympathize with your main character is to tell the story from their perspective. But, Morrison chose not to do that.

She could have told the story from Denver’s perspective. Granted, Sethe’s backstory could only be told to the reader secondhand, but, in exchange, the reader could learn the thoughts of the daughter of a murderer. This daughter lives in the same house as the woman who killed her sister and would have killed her as well, the same house that her dead sister now haunts. But, of course, if the story were told from Denver’s perspective, it would no longer be about Sethe’s impossible choice. It would be about Denver’s struggle between desiring Sethe’s love as her mother and trying to accept that her mother would have killed her if given the chance. That’s not the story Morrison set out to tell.

The story could have been told from any characters’ perspective. It could have been told in second person, drawing the reader in even further than it already does. It could have been told in third person limited, maybe diving a bit into one of the character’s heads, but staying away from anyone else’s backstory or inner thoughts. When writing this book, this was one of the first decisions Morrison had to make. She chose third person omniscient. Why?

The story starts with a series of facts about the house, undisputable because of the confidence with which the narrator gives them. When the narrator is jumping into the heads of different people, the style of the telling changes. This creates the idea that this story is being shared between a number of people. It’s a communal story. That’s really what this book is all about and that’s why Morrison chose this style.

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3 thoughts on “Narration

  1. I really admire this analysis of third person omniscient as a device to inform the communal story – which, ultimately, is what Beloved is trying to convey. Morrison’s novel is many things, and Sethe’s backstory and thoughts are only one portion of it: as you mention, there is Denver to consider (everything presented in the novel that informs her character but also, as we discussed in class, what her family history may say about her future); there is Paul D’s own story – which informs, embellishes, and corroborates Sethe’s; there is even Beloved’s, who (seemingly) knows more about Sethe’s history than any of the other characters. In addition to the cast we see in the novel, and how their stories all act and form toward one, we know from the dedication page (“Sixty million and more”) that this story belongs to everyone who has felt that pain, not just the characters in the book; third person limited, I think, would have downplayed that perspective, and put too much focus on one particular history, rather than highlighting how the individuals’ stories mingle together.

  2. I, too, thought the focalization of this literature to carry incredible weight.
    I think you are absolutely correct concerning the idea that this is a communal narrative: a communal trauma and communal healing.

    Yet I don’t think it ends there, either. Third person omniscient strikes me in so many ways- particularly in its irony. For one, the American population is anything but all-knowing concerning the atrocities of slavery. While the book might be a communal experience for those who have suffered and hold awareness to these events, it also remains distant and forlorn for many readers. However, Morison’s third-person perspective is not futile.
    She presents her text in such a raw way that readers cannot help but be drawn into the depths of the characters and their experiences. By remaining in third person, Morison removes any sort of bias that one might assume, providing those who are outside the community to be drawn further in, taking on the events as they unfold, and truly creating a family out of the devastation of such trauma.

  3. I agree. The perspective from which the story is told makes the difference in setting the tone of the story and evoking empathy or sympathy from the audience. I think Morrison probably considered a lot of different perspectives. Some authors would have chosen to tell the story from the perspective of the neighbors or townspeople (kind of like The Virgin Suicides). Sometimes, neighbors understand their neighbors well. Other times, they don’t understand them at all. Then, some neighbors just like to invent stories and gossip…

    I think it would have been really interesting to hear the story from the perspective of the house (yeah, I know that may be weird to imagine). The house has seen a lot of atrocities:deaths, arguments between people, brutal fights. The house has also been abused. As the time period of the novel is a turbulent time, I imagine the house has had to feel the plunge of bullets, experience being set on fire and try to stand its ground through riots, wars, bad weather,…

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