Memories in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved “are embodied, substantial, have a shape and a form to them” (Slattery, Wounded 213) and, like the ghost of a murdered daughter, cannot be left behind. Pass it on or not, a story with a character like Beloved who climbs over rocks or obstacles to emerge will not die.
The central figure in the novel by the same name, Beloved quietly slips in—as a memory remembering itself. The ghost, the murdered, in a tale in which slavery is perhaps a metaphor for that which wounds and consumes us (207), enters without an introduction: “She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat” (Morrison xviii). Like paint transforming a blank canvas, these words bring her image into view. As she rises out of water, or the collective unconscious, she comes forward giving her memory life.
Jung speaks of a dreamer who, upon leaving a social gathering, “puts on a stranger’s hat instead of his own” and with that, assumes the personality the hat imparts, as a doctor’s hat imparts dignity (Jung, Dreams 121-2). Later, the dreamer throws off the hat realizing he has come to identify with it as his self. A hat is one of the many defining symbols in Beloved with Beloved easily merging into the landscape as the girl with a nice hat (Morrison xix), bestowing upon her the personalities and promises of the dreamers. She arrives an almost “storyless creature” who “offers to those in her midst what they desire but feel they need to repress” (Slattery 221), like exchanging hats.
Wearing a hat, Beloved is bestowed with her mother’s unresolved guilt and shame on the one hand and, on the other, the millions of lives lost to slavery demanding and deserving memory and justice. While she steps out of water, symbolically bringing memories into consciousness, the story of which she is a part ends with a blatant decree: “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). Though the characters might try to suppress their story, it is integral to their lives and passing it on is their only option.
As Beloved brings memories into focus “with the capacity to begin healing the wounds of injustice” (Slattery 210), so the wisdom and beauty of Morrison’s novel by the same name provides humanity with enhanced perspectives for viewing ourselves in the world. Hats off to Toni Morrison!