Slavery, Ghosts, and Beloved: Crash Course Literature 214

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature,
and today we’re going to talk about Beloved. MFTP: Mr. Green, Mr. Green! I actually like
this book. Yeah, I know you do, me from the past, because
I’m you. So you read Song of Solomon in class the year that Tony Morrison won the Nobel
Prize and that summer you read Beloved, the first, like, proper good book you ever read
for fun. Although in the case of Beloved, I suppose
one uses the term ‘fun’ loosely. So Morrison says in a foreword to the novel,
“I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the
first step into a shared experience with the book’s population.” And that worked for you,
me from the past. You were scared and upset and also suddenly turned on to the idea that
good novels were not just hurdles that you had to jump over in order to get a high school
diploma. Good books could also be, like, ways into
better understanding of the lives of others and history and race and consciousness and
what the real difference is between those who walk on two legs and those who walk on
four. MFTP: Yeah, I don’t know, it was pretty good.
Wasn’t that good. Aauugh you’re ruining it, me from the past,
we were having a moment there. MFTP: It’s just kind of confusing, like, I couldn’t
figure out, like, if Beloved was a real ghost or not…? Ugh, you just have this special gift for asking the least interesting possible question about everything we read! If you take a hard line on the question of
Beloved’s quote unquote ‘realness’, or even spend too much time thinking about it, you’re
missing the point. I mean there are clues in the book that speak to each perspective.
Some that suggest that Beloved is the ghost returned in human form, and others hinting
that she is a woman who has recently escaped sexual slavery and exploitation who happens
to just call herself Beloved. We’re not supposed to know definitively whether
Beloved is really real, I mean isn’t that the nature of ghosts? And it is her ghostliness
that makes her such a brilliant embodiment of all those disremembered and
unaccounted for. Ultimately, Beloved is a symbol for the 60 million and more lost in slavery whose stories and names we will never know. [Theme Music] So critics often call good novels, like, ‘beautiful’
and ‘haunting’, but Beloved—both the character and the novel—are actually haunting. For
me at least, when I’m reading this novel, my pulse begins to quicken as I feel the presence
of unsettled wronged souls beneath and around me. I mean, there are so many untold fates
and stories in this novel, right? There’s the 14-year-old boy who lives alone
in the woods and never remembers living anywhere else; there are the other Pauls, the men on
Paul D’s chain gang; Sethe’s mother; Halle. Beloved embodies the disremembering that is
woven into life and art in the United States. I mean Morrison’s story is fiction, it’s full
of improbabilities and ghosts, but it’s also one of the most powerfully convincing depictions
of slavery I’ve ever read. Because in the process of what Sethe and Paul call ‘rememory’,
we’re confronted with the reality of what love looks like in a world of twisted conscience,
and we’re finally left with the unassailable resiliency of human beings to continue in
the face of all attempts to dehumanize them. “Definitions belonged to the definers, not
the defined,” we read in Beloved, but in a world where slaves were defined as inhuman—I
mean, in this story they’re compared to hogs and cattle and horses—they find ways to
humanness anyway. And that is what made slavery untenable, not Abraham Lincoln, not Harriet
Beecher Stowe, but slaves themselves, unnamed and unknown, who resisted and persevered,
and therein lies the hope in this very, very sad novel. So let’s start with mothers. The mother-child
relationship is mythologized as, like, the most important among humans and most other
animals, but in the context of slavery, as Morrison writes, “Unless care free, mother
love is a killer,” and that is not meant figuratively. So, the central character of Beloved is Sethe,
and she was raised basically motherless in a system of slavery that intentionally disrupted
mother-child relationships. Like baby Sethe is fed by another woman’s milk, for instance,
which is one of the reasons that having her own milk stolen by the white men who abuse
her is so horrifying to her. Children were often sold separately from their
mothers, marriages were not recognized, and in the era of the Fugitive Slave Act, even in freedom
Sethe’s children were still claimable property. And when your children literally do not belong
to you, what does it mean to be a mom? Sethe’s main mentor for mothering is her mother-in-law,
Baby Suggs, but her life has also been profoundly disrupted by slavery’s breaking of family.
In all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like
checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged got
rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or
seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers.
What she called ‘the nastiness of life’ was the shock she received upon learning that
nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. So Sethe stands in this disrupted line, but
she tries to resist by holding onto her family. She gets all her children across the Ohio
River to freedom from the slave farm Sweet Home where they were born, and she carries
one in her womb on swollen feet to freedom, but when the slave-owner comes to Ohio 28
days later to claim them, she takes them out back to the woodshed to kill them all before
he can take them. She only manages to kill one, sawing through its neck. “If I hadn’t
killed her,” she says, “she would have died.” When explaining this to the Beloved who has
wondered into her life in the flesh, she goes deeper into what she did and the intergenerational
destruction that slavery put upon the mother line: “My plan was to take us all to the other
side, where my own mam is. They stopped me from getting us there, but they didn’t stop
you from getting here. You came right on back like a good girl, like a daughter, which is
what I wanted to be and would’ve been if my mam had been able to get out of the rice long
enough before they hanged her and let me be one.” Sethe never got the chance to be a daughter,
but she does get to be a mother, and the intensity of her mother-love is incomprehensible to
everyone else— to her remaining daughter, Denver; to her lover, Paul D; to her entire
community who ostracizes her. “Your love is too thick,” Paul D says to her. He feels that she didn’t have the right to
decide her children’s future, to deny them a future; he thinks her inhuman. “You got
two feet, Sethe, not four.” But what does it mean to have two feet in a system aimed
at breaking families and individuals apart, especially women, who were not meant to be
mothers and daughters, but cattle and calves? This is made very explicit early in the novel
when it’s said that sex with a slave woman was not, for Halle, so different from sex
with a calf. To be a mother, and to allow her daughters to be
daughters, Sethe has to escape the system itself. First, for her, this means escape to the north and then, when that fails, it means escape to the other side. As Sethe responds to Paul D’s accusation of too-thick love, “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” So, what, ultimately, is the truly human
response to this oppression? What is the proper response of the two-footed creature?
Okay, let’s go to the Thought Bubble. So when Beloved begins, Sethe and Denver’s
house is haunted by the ghost of the dead baby, and then Paul D, who lived with Sethe
at Sweet Home, arrives and in short order begins a relationship with Sethe, rids the house of
the ghost, and takes Denver and Sethe to a carnival. And then the adult Beloved wanders into their house
18 years after the already crawling baby was killed. We slowly learn of Paul D’s past, including
his horrifying time being abused in every way imaginable on a chain gang, and of Sethe
and Denver’s isolated life in the house they share, while Beloved consumes more and more
of Sethe’s life. After Paul D finds out that Sethe killed her baby, the Sethe-Beloved-Denver
dynamic goes from somewhat weird to truly terrifying. They consume each other and each
others’ stories, and as Beloved grows larger, Sethe grows ever smaller. Even Denver is eventually
locked out from Beloved and Sethe’s mutual obsession. The novel moves among many perspectives: third-person; close in on Baby Suggs or Denver or Paul D or Sethe; and then in moments, first-person
from various perspectives. And it also changes tense from past to present, as if the past
isn’t really past, especially to the women in the novel. They cannot lock it away and
move on. Sethe’s attempt to kill herself and her family saves them all from a return to
slavery, but she can’t escape it. As Toni Morrison later said in an interview about
Beloved, “You can’t let the past strangle you if you’re going to go forward. But nevertheless, the past is not going anywhere.” Thanks, Thought Bubble. So Beloved ends on a somewhat hopeful note.
I mean, there’s an attempted murder, but in the context of Beloved, that’s actually fairly
hopeful. Denver begins to care for herself and she
sees clearly both the value of holding on to the mother line and the danger of holding
on to trauma. And then there’s Paul D, who once had less freedom than a rooster called
Mister, who’s seen rape and death and dehumanization, who along with his fellow slaves has been
made to feel like quote “Trespassers among the human race, Watchdogs without teeth; steer
bulls without horns; gelded workhorses whose neigh and whinny could not be translated in
a language responsible humans spoke.” Paul D believed that to survive such a world, you
protected yourself and loved small. He picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own. “A
woman, a child, a brother?” he thinks, “A big love like that would split you wide open.” “Anything could stir him,” we read, “and he
tried hard not to love it.” But Sethe helps him to see that quote, “To get to a place
where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now,
that was freedom.” And he, in return, encourages Sethe to imagine a future, saying to her near
the end of the novel, “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some
kind of tomorrow.” So in the end, Denver has learned to stand
on her own two feet and Beloved has moved on, only after the entire community has come
to Sethe to forgive her. And Paul D opens himself up to big love, to thick love, to
the love of Sethe, because quote, “he wants to put his story next to hers.” And in his
love, he describes what all the characters, who all love each other in their own ways, do for
each other. He says, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather
them and give them back to me in all the right order.” The novel itself is a dialogue with the American
idea of itself and with the original American sin of slavery, and it tells us something
about how to walk on two feet, not four. And yes, like any horror novel, it is revolting.
It’s revolting because we are forced to look at ourselves as we have been and as we still
are in many ways. We’ve seen this from Oedipus to Slaughterhouse Five—great books can show
us the ways that man can be a wolf to man. But they also show us something of how to
go on and why. Morrison’s genius here is in taking the tragedy
of slavery and giving it shape for us to deal with it. So often, horrors feel overwhelming to us, and
formless, and that can make them unfathomable. Near the end of the book, Morrison writes,
“Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking
for her. And even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name?” But
now we do have at least one name: Beloved. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is made with the help of all
of these nice people and it exists because of your support on, a voluntary
subscription service that allows you to support Crash Course directly. You can also get great
perks like signed posters or these sweet, sweet Crash Course bookmarks, and you’ll help
keep Crash Course free for everyone forever. Thank you for watching, thanks for your
support, and as we say in my hometown, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

100 Replies to “Slavery, Ghosts, and Beloved: Crash Course Literature 214

  1. I never liked this book before but listening to this did let me appreciate and understand it more. I think personally I have a hard time with Morrison's style, I've read a few of her books now and I just can't seem to get into them. Thank you for this video it really did help me have a deeper understand than my literature class was able to give to me.

  2. Anyway you guys could do crash course literatures on literary movements and styles. for example crash course postcolonialism, gothic, postmodernism, dystopian, romanticism, naturalism, feminism, slave narrative that kind of stuff

  3. Go easy on you from the past John! Remember a time when you were young and foolish, too! Oh, wait.

  4. My English teacher (great teacher) assigned Sula, a book also by Toni Morrison, and that's what got me interested in Beloved. He reminds me of Green, lol

  5. I would love to read this book but considering how much I'm crying watching a video about it, I'm not sure I can make it very far in

  6. This is my favorite book of all time. I really enjoyed this very accurate interpretation of a complex and misunderstood piece of literary gold.

  7. An adaptation of this would be great in the current climate of horror movies. Horror is at it's best when it hints at issues we have societal anxiety about, and moving that subtext to text is popular in contemporary horror movies; It Follows took sexual imagery that was usually conveyed symbolically (see Alien or The Thing) and made the monster be explicitly about sex, and The Babadook made itself explicitly about mental illness. There's this theory that cultures set it's horrors in the place where they lost their humanity. England lost it's humanity in the city, with it's debtors prisons and the way it treated the poor, so it's horrors are often set in metropolitan areas. Enter Attack the Block; a horror movie that's explicitly about how the poor are treated. America lost it's humanity in rural area and the wilderness because slavery and genocide, so we often set our horrors on farms or camping trips, we are ripe for a horror movie that's explicitly about slavery.

  8. you put everything so eloquently. i feel your words melting in the palm of my hand. You almost give me the inspiration to keep loving life.
    thank you John Greene

  9. When I read this book in college, we discussed the symbol of a tree on Sethe's back. It's a "tree" made up of the scars on her back, from when she was whipped. She talks about its sap (her blood) and this tree flowering, which is an interesting symbol.

  10. I hated this book when I read it. i found it confusing and just hard to get through. Watching this review makes it sound amazing. part of me wants to re-read it!

  11. Well after reading Elie Wiesel's night this was… well… I guess John talking about it lightens the blows?

  12. So just wanted to let you guys at Crash Course know that there actually are books, novels, etc. that focus on other equally interesting topics besides slavery in America, the wrongs visited upon African Americans after Slavery was abolished, racial discrimination, Jim Crow, etc.  Just putting this little factoid out here.  How you use this info I leave up to you.  ;o)

  13. I never got the feeling that Beloved is anything other than Sethe's daughter. You said that she could also be a sex-slave who escaped but I never got that impression. She knew about Sethe's earrings and songs.

  14. this book and movie was so intense and sad. even listening to this description I teared up a little. This story will make you feel the pain.

  15. This review was SO incredibly helpful, taking my AP lit exam and hopefully will be able to write my essay on Beloved. I've read it twice.

  16. I really don't get it. I hated the book, from the very first page. Difficult to follow, and very difficult to relate to for several reasons. Just keeping straight who's point of view is currently being presented was a challange, and I found the topic to be booring and predictable.

    That doesn't mean I can't sympathize, but it was just too weird to feel anything resembling reality. And don't even get me started on the entire sub chapter written without a single stop…

  17. First, Beloved is genius. Secondly, this episode of Crash Course really captures the most important themes/ideas etc. so well! Really helpful and well conveyed, thanks!

  18. I watched this movie when I was younger and it terrified me,the concept of this movie is scarier than any jumpscare or found footage movie.

  19. Why is John's 'Me-from-the-past' wearing a shirt advertising an event in 2013? Given he betrayed the fact that South Park would air two years in 'Me-from-the-past's' future, said past self is from the '90's….

  20. Maybe my perception of the timeline is off but I kinda got the feeling that Beloved was the ghost form of her daughter that she murdered at advanced ages.

  21. I know this video's three years old at the point I'm watching it but I think it's a serendipity that CC Literature 214 is about a book that highlights House 124 so enthusiastically.

  22. This dude not even black and know more than most niggas out there. AND IF he was black he would get called a hotep….I'm def taking more notes.

  23. "By the time he got to 124, nothing IN THIS WORLD could pry it open" (133). Perhaps Beloved is not of this world…

  24. I'm from India and when we were taught this masterful book in college we were taught through parrallels between a colonial history spanning 200 years, and a system as heinous as the caste system still existing in India and the system of slavery. Opened my eyes a little bit to the shared pain of human suffering that spans communities and cultures of the oppressed throughout history

  25. A lot of white people in these comments say they hated the book but now they might reread after watching this video. Why ? To me this sounds like when women explain sexism or misogyny to men and they don’t get it until other men explain. Here, it’s like white people don’t understand the plight of black people unless it’s a white person rationalizing and explaining. That’s odd to me. A guy in these comments said that this story didn’t seem realistic. 😐 this is based on a true story. I hear this a lot as well, white people questioning is slavery was that bad. Can anyone explain this to me from another perspective ? I don’t just want to jump the gun.

  26. So, granted, I haven't finished it yet so this could change, but: The prose was too purple for me, which sort of ruined it for me.

  27. I think I watched a movie based on it… I was very small but I do remember it followed the same story line… Dramatic, tragic, painful and beautiful

  28. "The novel shows the many ways man can be a wolf to man."
    With that sentiment in mind, I'd love to see you do an episode on "The Man Who Laughs" by Victor Hugo. It does the same thing in its story, the tale of a boy who, after being scarred with a Glasgow smile as a punishment to his rebellious nobleman father, is abandoned with no knowledge of his heritage and grows up to be a clown. Gwynplaine, the clown, grows up performing in the carnivals of the English countryside, traveling with his adopted family, his sweetheart, a blind girl named Dea, and their surrogate father figure, a gruff philosopher called Ursus. But our trio's harsh-yet-happy life is shattered when Queen Anne's court discovers Gwynplaine's true origins and whisks him away to reinstate him to his father's titles for their own selfish purposes, since the aristocrats expect Gwynplaine to be exactly what he appears to be: A clown, a simple peasant, and therefore an easily-manageable puppet. It's a fantastic novel, my favorite of Hugo's works (yes, even more so than "Les Miserables" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame").

  29. This book is amazing but also ruined beloved as a term of endearment for me because people will say "they are my beloved" and I'll think "yes, your significant other is an evil ghost baby. Yup."

  30. RIP Toni Morrison, your words and the narratives you wove touched millions. May you find peace on the other side.

  31. I really loved reading Beloved and The Handmaid's Tale in high school. They were truly the best books I read in school lol

  32. You should do Light in August by Faulkner. I think Morrison and Faulkner piece together the hell the south was back then and the trauma of this country moving on from the sin and crime of slavery.

  33. My school district almost banned this book because a parent complained. When that failed, a state law went up for a vote to make it easier for parents to excuse their kids from reading “troubling” books, but luckily the governor vetoed it. Controversial books are often the most valuable reads in terms of developing understanding and reflection, so screw censorship.

  34. 1:38 My jaw dropped. How did I not see that the entire time? Warn me next time you're gonna absolutely shotgun blast my mind, yeah?

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