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Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Beloved is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of a family literally haunted by slavery and its cruelties. Published in 1987, the book earned Toni Morrison the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and was called in a New York Times poll of 200 critics, editors, and writers, "the single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years."

The novel, with its descriptions of humiliation and spiritual rejuvenation, has generated controversy as well as fervent admiration. The fact that it has been banned or challenged in schools and libraries around the United States attests to the strength of its storytelling and its effect on readers.

1. Beloved is based on a true story.

A slave in the 1850s named Margaret Garner escaped with her family from a plantation in Kentucky, but they were later captured by patrollers in Ohio. Margaret swore she would not allow her children to be enslaved again, so she stabbed her daughter, believing death would be preferable to slavery. As she tried to kill her other daughter and then herself, she was arrested and put in prison. Accused of destruction of property, she was returned to enslavement. This story forms the basis of Beloved.

2. The dedication of Beloved is controversial.

Morrison dedicated Beloved to "sixty million and more," a number that refers to the African population who died on slave ships or in captivity. Critics, however, claim that the number bears no relation to actual numbers of those who perished, but Morrison asserted that this was "the best educated guess at the number of black Africans who never even made it into slavery—those who died as captives in Africa or on slave ships."

3. Authors protested when Beloved didn't win the National Book Award.

In a letter to the New York Times on January 24, 1988, 48 black writers and critics wrote to praise Morrison for her work and to criticize the National Book Award committee's choice not to give her the award. They spoke out against the "oversight and harmful whimsy" that resulted in such a decision. The award was instead given to Larry Heinemann for his novel Paco's Story.

4. An illustrated version of Beloved was published in 2015.

The Folio Society, which prints small runs of great literature, printed an edition of Beloved in 2015 with watercolor illustrations by Joe Morse. According to the artist, his inspiration came from 19th-century African American tintype photographs. In an interview, he said that in choosing what to illustrate, he "focused on moments in the book that change the characters."

5. A 1998 film version starred Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah Winfrey starred in the 1998 film version of Toni Morrison's novel, directed by Jonathan Demme. The New York Times called it "wildly imaginative" and the San Francisco Chronicle said it was "Majestic, confounding and rich with secrets," but the San Francisco Examiner claimed "the movie is often overwrought; and its sense of its own importance finally wears you down."

6. Morrison didn't want Winfrey to star in the film version.

After the movie version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, starring Oprah Winfrey, came out, Winfrey touted Beloved in her television book club and then optioned the film rights for the book. Toni Morrison stated that she didn't want the novel made into a film—and she especially didn't want Winfrey to star in it. But the movie was made, and it did star Winfrey.

7. Morrison was the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Morrison won the prize in 1993 which carried a monetary award of $825,000. In a telephone interview, Morrison was honored by the prize, saying:

Regardless of what we all say and truly believe about the irrelevance of prizes and their relationship to the real work, nevertheless this is a signal honor for me.

8. Toni Morrison does much of her writing before dawn.

Morrison claims that she is "clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning." She discovered this while writing Beloved. At the time, she had small children, and she had to do her writing before they got up—around 5 a.m.

9. Morrison was very distressed by the idea of the murder in her novel.

In an interview, the author was asked if she could do what Margaret Garner did—try to kill her own children to save them from enslavement. She replied that she didn't know what she would do, and that it was an impossible question. Morrison's inability to answer the question is the reason she invented the character of Beloved. For her character Sethe, however, Morrison states that "it was the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it."

10. Among her literary prizes, Morrison also received the French Legion of Honor in 2010.

She was awarded the medal by the French Culture Minister Fréderic Mitterrand who called her "the greatest American novelist of her time. He also praised her by saying, "You were the first woman writer to tell the painful history of Afro-Americans ... You're 'beloved.'"

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