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Narrative Conventions Of Formal Realism English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3435 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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So they forgot her like an unpleasant dream during a troubled sleep. Occasionally the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake and the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes the photographs of a close friend or relative- looked at too long, shifts and sometimes more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but they don’t, because they know things will never be the same if they do.

“He had a strange sense of being haunted, a feeling that the shades of his imagination were stepping out into the real world, that destiny was acquiring the slow, fatal logic of a dream. “Now I know what a ghost is” he thought, “Unfinished business, that’s what”.

Since the last decades of the Twentieth century many African American writers have set out to revise the slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and to reaffirm both their historical and historiographical significance. For many writers, reclaiming an identity or narrative voice is vital and functions as a means of countering centuries of dispossession and misrepresentation. For Toni Morrison, “interpretation represents an integral part of black cultural and social identity” [1] and her novel Beloved, as Henry Louis Gates argues, “invents and articulates a language that gives voice to the unspeakable horror and terror of the black past” [2] . The novel is an allegorical representation of this unspeakability; “Everybody knew what she was called but nobody knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be found because no one is looking for her” [3] .

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Morrison in Beloved weaves her narrative around the complex history of slavery, its unrelenting brutality and the devastating cruelty it inflicted on African Americans. Critic Caroline Rudy suggests Beloved is a unique historical writing; “historiographic intervention, a strategic re-centring of American history in the lives of the historically disposed” [4] . Morrison sets out to re-write traditional historical narrative from the standpoint of those dispossessed and challenges the notion of what it is to be American.

To reclaim a voice denied by imperialism and racism and to forge a literary discourse that transforms notions of blackness, Morrison rewrites and revises the conventions of genres. In Beloved Morrison revises three genres, those of the slave narrative, historical novel and the gothic novel. Critics such as Peter J Capuano in Truth and Timbre and Rafael Perez Torres in Knitting and Knotting the Narrative Thread have, as Heinert argues, the capacity to “explain how Beloved responds to and rewrites the slave narrative tradition in American literature, for which Beloved is often categorized a neo slave narrative” [5] . Ashraf Rushdy in Daughters Signifying History and Kathleen Brogan in Cultural Haunting, have argued effectively that Morrison by revising the case of Margret Garner or conducting, as Morrison herself suggests, “literary archaeology” [6] , creates a narrative for the real- life fugitive Seth. In doing so Morrison faces the challenge of transforming Seth’s “Rememories” of a brutal past into a discourse shaped by her own narrativity. Morrison’s revivication of the dead and her summoning of Seth’s dead daughter are all, as Timothy Spaulding suggests in Reforming the Past, “conventions of the Gothic novel” [7] . Morrison’s revisions of these genres are multifaceted and have a fundamental purpose: a rejection of conventional realism.

Morrison shifts from one genre to another to account for the absences left by previous literary forms, or as Ritashona Simpson argues, “to create a suitable receptacle of language which transforms and releases the slave’s word” [8] . Rewriting truth and narrating the gaps in history left by conventional realism is Morrison’s way of narrating, “Unspeakable things unspoken” [9] . The crossing of genres, styles, and narrative perspectives within the text suggests it filters the absent or marginalised oral discourse of a, “pre-capitalist black community through the self-conscious discourse of the contemporary novel” [10] .

In revising earlier literary traditions, dominated by the logic and values of the dominant culture, Morrison as Heinert argues, “Disrupts formal realism” [11] . Morrison’s revisions of earlier slave narratives and history clearly expose the absence of the black voice within the context of formal realism. In Beloved, gothic elements reveal the collusion between a Western scientific world view and slavery; and according to Truffin, “uncovers distortions in the lens through which the rational discourse views the world, indicating the features of life and the lives of others for which Western empiricism fails to account” [12] .

While earlier slave narratives sought to speak directly to a white readership and elucidate the brutality of slavery, Beloved, as Bloom has argued, “exposes the unsaid, the psychic subtexts that lie both within and beneath the historical facts” [13] . In interviews Morrison has remarked that, “the documentary realism of the slave narratives imposed complete silence about those excessive proceedings of slavery too terrible to relate” [14] . These silences are re-membered and rewritten by the main protagonists and the readers, like Ella, “listened for the holes, things the fugitives did not say, the questions they did not ask” [15] . To quote Carl Plasa, “if Beloved is a story about a ghost it is a story which itself has a ghostly status or existence, haunting…the gaps and silences of the tradition on which it draws, seeking release.”

To articulate black Identity and construct a literary discourse which lifts the veil of silence, writers such as Morrison imbue their texts with fantastic or non-mimetic ruses to create a contradictory narrative form. However, Morrison discredits the labels, fearing they “suggest a breach with truth, and her single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie” [16] . However, in essence, postmodern slave narratives implement elements of the fantastic not as a way of undermining their narrative authority but as a means of establishing it. The text revises gothic elements into a device for exposing the junctures between slavery and science, and for delegitimizing western logic as it controls slavery. According to Goldner,

As hauntings carry the perspectives and powers of slaves, gothic representations of slavery in the texts disrupt the Galilean project in the service of the enslaved. As hauntings position the dead amid the living and the past amid the present, they defy the concept of linear time, the bedrock of cause and effect that enables prediction. They thus defy the Western dream of control [17] .

Gothic haunts elucidate what is invisible to the dominant culture and within the text haunts and gothic devices also confront the “Euclidean conception” [18] of the world as a uniform space, challenging western notions of linear time, juxtaposing past and present. Haunts and Gothic elements permeate the absences, central to history with the suffering of slaves, arraigning the atmosphere with emotive, ethical, and political forces which the endeavour of science claims to dis-credit, and the project of slavery seek to ignore. Harpham also argues; “The haunts of Gothicism break through the boundaries of the dominant culture’s paradigms and identities signalling potential political crisis” [19] . Morrison, like Chestnutt in The Conjure Woman, subverts the claims of science, infusing them with gothic hauntings, “whose vocal cadences carry African American oral culture and express the pain of slaves” [20] .

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Gothic hauntings act as the vehicle through which the suppressed returns and Linda Krumholz in The Ghosts of Slavery shows how Morrison has integrated the conventions of the gothic novel by using African cosmology to manifest the dead child, Beloved. The haunts convey all that a scientific and imperialist discourse seeks to dominate, including feelings, and more specifically, the feelings of the oppressed. While the gothic signifies a disruption not to conventional realism Morrison extends this disruption to the cultural logic and ideology of the dominant culture. Whereas a scientific discourse would consider the haunting of Seth’s house as illogical, Beloved categorizes the gothic as reality. The ghost seems logical to Seth and the other characters that “understood the source of the outrage as well as knew the source of light” [21] . When Paul D is confronted by the poltergeist, Seth simply explains that the spirit haunting the house is, “her daughter” [22] . The ghost is also visible to Denver who, “kneels in a white dress beside her mother” [23] . The heartrenching tale of Baby Suggs lost children explains why haunting seemed normal. “Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody’s house into evil” [24] . Such is the acceptance of the supernatural as reality that Baby Suggs believes “there is not a house in the country aint packed to its rafters with some dead Negroes grief” [25] . Goldner argues that, “until its final pages, every African American character accepts the haunt as true.” [26] Rather than seeing Beloved as any kind of ghostly contrivance, the novel also delineates the gothic as a reality when it gives its ghost a body with inimitable physical powers: Beloved simultaneously embraces and chokes Seth; she seduces and manipulates Paul D, and in the end takes the shape of, “a pregnant women naked and smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun” [27] . Once Beloved appears on Seth’s doorstep, the gothic becomes an embodied reality, and also grows in scope, invading the confines of 124 Bluestone Rd and the narrative itself. As Morrison revives the gothic conventions of ghosts she stretches the convention of the gothic novel to breaking point. No longer ethereal, Beloved is made real, “as real as the existence of slavery and its experiences once were” [28] .

Some critics have maintained that the novel merges white and black literary ethnicities, including components of European American female Gothic tradition in its reading of the slave narratives. In one sense, it is possible to make a connection. Kate Ferguson Ellis’ account of the characteristic Gothic novel with “houses in which people are locked in and locked out,” [29] and preoccupation with “violence done to familial bonds that is frequently directed against women” [30] , does seem applicable to Beloved. Pamela Barnett in Figurations of Rape and the Supernatural in Beloved takes an opposing view, arguing that Beloved is more than a supernatural embodiment, she is a “menacing hybrid of European American and African American cultural traditions” [31] , a succubus, a vampire, and a female demon, nourishing itself through (literally and metaphorically) draining Seth’s strength.

The spectre, or the ghost, represents this American Jeremiad of the minority. Spectre, as Derrida defines it in Spectres of Marx, “is something that remains difficult to name” [32] . Toni Morrison in her novel, Beloved, attempts to name the unnameable by confronting a brutal past. This space can be valuable, a means by which to re-inscribe spaces of oppression as sites of subversion and resistance. Beloved is finally set apart from the distinctive form of a ghost story in that Morrison, as Edwards’s points out, “provides no corner from which to smile skeptically at the thrills we’re enjoying” [33] . The “thrills” of myth and magic are embedded in real horror and terror. The illusory elements cannot, in the end, be said to be merely narrative ploys, creating tension or suspense or guiding the reader further into a magical, mythical world. Rather than merely pervading a world of fantasy and myth, the reader is forced to confront the horrifically real, the unspeakable reality of slavery. Morrison, in her own words, “blends the acceptance of the supernatural and a profound rootedness in the real world at the same time” [34] .

This configuration of the supernatural can be demonstrated by Barbara Christian’s argument that Morrison, in configuring Beloved as “an embodied spirit, a spirit that presents itself as a body” [35] , purposely distances her novel from the perspective of Gothic tradition, and instead places it in relation to, “the African traditional religious belief that Westerners call ancestor worship” [36] . Barbara Christian’s argument underlines the cynicism of the very idea of something called ‘supernaturalism’. Magic can be supernatural and natural and the supernatural can extend beyond notions of magic. This concept of superstition and magic is for Morrison, “just another way of knowing things”, an alternate epistemology discredited only because those who contribute have themselves been similarly disavowed historically. As Toni Morrison argues the “discredited knowledge that Black people had” was “discredited only because Black people were discredited” [37] 

Considering the dichotomy between fact and fiction Morrison’s work might, she admits, fall into, “the realm of fiction called fantastic or mythic or magical or unbelievable” [38] in the minds of some. Her use of the supernatural or gothic origins can also be seen as emphasising the reality of her subject. The boundary between what is “true” and what is not is decisively distorted – as Morrison says, “the crucial distinction” [39] for her is not that between fact and fiction, but between fact and truth – because, “facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot” [40] .

While narrative truth is a construct, and, “the burden of constructing it belongs to its readers” [41] , Beloved constructs a literary discourse that alters as Perez Torres states, “Western notions of blackness” [42] . Morrison transforms absence into a powerful presence and in doing so helps readers reconsider the past as a way of re-evaluating its history, class and conventions whilst seeking the truth. While the formality of conventional realism alters the way in which slavery and its facets are (dis)remembered in the canon of American Literary discourse, Beloved emerges as an alternative, a counter-narrative to the racist representation of slavery. “Beloved disrupts generic conventions to expose how conventional realism cannot account for race, and calls for readers to respond” [43] . Without special privilege going to any single form of storytelling, and through an authenticity based on inclusiveness, the many voices within the text contribute to, and give voice to, those formerly excluded from history.

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