Toni Morrison's Beloved: 'this dark and coming thing'
Updated: Sep 3
I read Beloved when I was in sixth form at the recommendation of my English teacher, Mrs Kerr-Dineen. It was then one of the most powerful reading experiences I'd had, revealing something new (to me) about what literature could do, and the effects it could create in one's mind. It's a beautiful novel. After Toni Morrison's death last month, I decided to re-read it. In fact, I've been reading it aloud to my partner on an almost nightly basis (with her consent and enjoyment, I should add!).
This week I encountered a phrase that struck me, and which inspired me to want to write a short blog post. It is introduced in a chapter that explores the perspective of Baby Suggs, nearing the midpoint of the novel. Baby Suggs has spent a life in slavery, giving birth to numerous children who are one by one taken away from her -- all except the last and youngest, Halle, who eventually buys his mother's freedom. And so, into her sixties, Baby Suggs experiences life as a free woman for the first time. In the passage in which this phrase is found, Baby Suggs has put on a huge banquet for all her neighbours, to rejoice in the arrival of her daughter-in-law, Sethe, and Sethe's four young children -- all escaped slaves. After the feasting, Baby Suggs senses the unspoken disapproval of her guests -- her neighbours -- at the excess of her banquet. And something else besides. Through some form of intuition or sixth sense, Baby Suggs feels what is described as 'this dark and coming thing'. It's repeated, in three different variants:
'Suddenly, behind the disapproving odor, way way back behind it, she smelled another thing. Dark and coming.'
'What could it be? This dark and coming thing.'
'Now she stood in the garden smelling disapproval, feeling a dark and coming thing, and seeing high-topped shoes that she didn't like the look of at all.'
The first variation ('she smelled another thing. Dark and coming.') is only beginning to be described, to be articulated as an idea; the thought is emerging, not yet whole. And the third iteration and variation serves primarily, I think, as an echo of the second -- bringing us back into the present moment after a detour through Baby Suggs' memories.
'This dark and coming thing.' I love this phrase, specifically its phrasing. And I began asking myself why I loved it, why it struck me -- out of all the other wonderful prose from which Toni Morrison's great novel is constructed. And so, this post is a piece of literary analysis in miniature. I hope that's not too dull. There's undoubtedly something poetical in the arrangement of these five words. And it's the arrangement that's unusual. Ordinarily, one would probably say 'a dark thing coming', or 'something dark coming'. Neither of these alternatives conveys anything like the effect of the phrase Morrison uses. So what does this specific word order achieve, and how?
The phrase is describing Baby Suggs' inexplicable but strong impression that something bad is pending; something awful is on its way, is about to happen. What that 'thing' is, she cannot say.
The word 'thing' comes last -- the fifth word of five. There is a suspense in this -- we will get to it; it is coming; it is inevitable. And when it does there will be a finality about it -- because it carries with it an end, a full stop. It's a countdown -- we count down until our confrontation with 'thing'.
To go back a few steps -- we begin with 'this'. In grammar -- I confess I have just learnt -- a 'demonstrative article'. When we use 'this' we often refer to something near or present, something that has a proximity to us. It is close. Given the fearful nature of this 'thing', this ('This') makes a contribution to the horror-suspense story in miniature of the phrase. 'A dark and coming thing' might be a notion, a hypothetical. 'This' -- like 'The' -- is not. It is actual; it is attached to something real or concrete, perhaps even animate.
The heart of the phrase is descriptive: 'dark and coming'. But the descriptive value of these words is interesting. Adjectives, descriptive words, help to conjure images, to refine what we hold in our mind's eye. But what does 'dark' conjure? Darkness. A condition in which we cannot see the 'thing'. Its use in this phrase effects a contradiction. It sheds no light on the qualities of that which it is intended to describe -- the opposite, in fact.
Dark 'and coming'. Having plunged our mind's eye into darkness, and having attributed no tangible descriptive traits to the thing we are being made to anticipate, that thing is now said to be 'coming'. The word puts it in motion towards us; it animates it; gives it power of movement. Our position to it becomes closer and closer (with each word spent). Yet still we cannot envision it.
Each word plays an active role in this miniature horror-suspense story. They are not mere units of code deployed to 'say' what the author intends; they come alive, in a sense, in the process of reading, in their interaction with the reader.
It's strange that I should have had this impulse to travel back in time to my years as an English undergraduate, to deconstruct my response to a short line of text. I like that an extract of just five words can be used to show a little of the marvels of literature and the English language. If I'd taken even just a single chapter of the novel as my subject here, this post could have run for dozens of pages, Morrison's prose is that rich.
I'm going to try and make time to read Morrison's other novels, starting with Song of Solomon. Do seek out Beloved. And remember to read great literature.