“Remembering Seemed Unwise”


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We read and reflect on Morrison’s characters’ senses of time and memory, as we explore in Rhythms of Memory in Beloved, Jazz, & Paradise  and Making Time.  But how will readers experience the time of reading the narratives? This blog will address this question:

How do narrative elements such as flash-backs draw readers into experiencing a more fluid sense of time in Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise?  And what might the readers experience as they read through such a sequence made up of several temporalities?

Readers and Time

 “Unspeakable thoughts, unspoken” are dangerous to remember and yet dangerous to forget.  But in order to intensify these emotional story structures for readers, Morrison deploys the narrative mode of flashback—narrating historical times and places that are prior to the time of the story as it is unfolding.  (And, as we will see in subsequent blogs, Morrison also breaks the flow of the time of the story to insert a-historical, almost mythic or enchanted, timespaces as well)

Another device Morrison frequently uses to “signal” readers concerning the intrusion of past timespace into the “present” timespace of the main storyline is what I will call textual shift markers: an object, image, or phrase launches a new temporal and locational focus in the text.  A character sees, feels, tastes, hears, or smells something, a concrete sensation that triggers an emotional association with something else, maybe not clear at first, but then he or she is remembering.  And the narrative flow may shift without conventional signals (such as “she then remembered when”) right into that remembered timespace. 


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Please indulge me, if you like, in the following close-reading to attempt to illustrate one reader’s response . . . in the making of time.  If you don’t want to read this, just scroll to the end of this piece for the Responses Invitation.

“Tell Me Your Earrings” —Toni Morrison, Beloved

This is one of my all-time favorite sentences from Morrison’s novels because in only four words the readers are altered to an extraordinary story that will unfold in the next few pages.It will not matter to the reader, as it does not matter to Sethe or Denver or Beloved, that the earrings were only inexpensive crystal, not the “diamonds” Beloved called forth from infant memory. The “hunger” for a story and the “pleasure” in telling it compress the earring narrative (three references over five pages of text) into a multi-faceted form as refractive as a diamond.  Layering points of view, underscoring the interconnections between love, loss, and memory, emphasizing orality and revealing the stunning conciseness of Morrison’s vernacular poetics, “tell me your earrings”  becomes a textual shift-marker that launches a special chronotope, or timespace. (The Morrisonian Chronotope will be covered in detail in the Section of Geography blogs).

When Beloved’s question about Sethe’s jewelry initiates the section, she is a daughter asking her mother for a story about the past.  Sethe, however, will not come to a full awareness that this young woman is her “crawling already?” baby for another hundred pages (and three to four months), a baby now eighteen years old, the exact number of years since Sethe slit the baby’s throat to keep her “safe” from slavery.  The earrings frame a forshadowing, therefore, and as well a remembering, and both temporalities are marked with pleasure and pain. 

Fillipe Gomes /Pexels

Sethe begins telling Beloved and Denver, her youngest daughter, that she “had some crystal once,” but never diamonds; crystal which her mistress, Mrs. Garner, gave her the day after Sethe and Halle’s “wedding” ceremony.  She finds she is enjoying telling the girls about her made-up wedding dress, how she would have to put back the pillow cases and mosquito netting as soon as she was able, and how Mrs. Garner took pity on her, seeing “how bad I felt when I found out there wasn’t going to be a ceremony” (58) and made her a gift of the earrings. They may have been Sethe’s only piece of finery, but they were also heavily tinged with the master/slave relationship.  

Slaves did not need wedding ceremonies from Mrs. Garner’s point-of-view, and she was amused by Sethe’s efforts. Perhaps that is why Sethe delayed piercing her ears and putting in the crystal until she had safely escaped from the Garner place several years later with all of her children and reached the haven of her mother-in-law’s home. Submerged in the pleasure of Beloved’s questioning and Sethe’s telling of the glittering jewelry, then, is a sign or trace of what Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, generally called “the nastiness of life” (3-4) perpetrated by white people.  Moreover, the earrings-telling also elicits, through Sethe, some of the hard-to-digest memories of slavery which crop up suddenly yet regularly out of the soil of memory forming the novel’s emotional terrain.  

Prompted by Sethe’s attempt to comb Denver’s hair, Beloved  asks if Sethe’s mother ever did the same for her. With equanimity, Sethe begins telling the girls about how little she saw of her field-working mother. She remembered well the time her mother showed Sethe her brand, so that the young girl could recognize her mother by that sign if something happened to her.  But Sethe could not make the recognition when that time came, several days after her mother’s death by hanging when, finally, “they cut her down” from the tree (61).  The resurfacing of that memory of violation and abomination ended Sethe’s storytelling to Denver and Beloved, but her memory kept going on its own.  

Significantly, what she then remembered for the first time since she was a young girl both soothed her and made her sad.  Just after her mother’s death, nursemaid Nan told Sethe, in another language which Sethe had long since forgotten, that Sethe’s mother kept her alone out of all her offspring, throwing away the others begot on her by whites, and giving Sethe “the name of the dark man” she did put her arms around.

Mohamed Lammah /Unsplash

“Telling you, small girl Sethe” (62), Nan’s message concluded.  The significance of this was lost on her at the time, but as the grown woman remembering, “she was angry” (62) while she kept her hands busy folding and refolding damp sheets and silently wishing for the company of her deceased mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (the spiritual ancestor qua ancestor of perhaps the entire trilogy).  Yet the memory sequence initiated by Beloved’s request for the earrings-story does not end with Sethe’s point of view; it ends with Denver’s.  

Relieved that her mother stopped talking because she hated hearing stories about places and times she had never been to, Denver ponders the meaning of the earrings:

Not being in it, she hated it and wanted Beloved to hate it too, although there was no chance of that at all. Beloved took every opportunity to ask some funny question and get Sethe going.  Denver noticed how greedy she was to hear Sethe talk.  Now she noticed something more.  The questions Beloved asked:  “Where your diamonds?” “Your woman she never fix up your hair?” And most perplexing: Tell me your earrings.

 How did she know? (62-63)

Denver’s internal monologue, as I hear it, ends with a strong beat–how  did  she  know?–like African musical compositions frequently do.  Denver has grasped a clue to the mystery of  Beloved’s identity:  this bereft young woman for whose company Denver yearns could be her sister, returned from the dead.  This clue of the earrings is also Denver’s secret, for she does not discuss this idea with anyone, which serves to intensify the emotional arc of the story structure in Beloved. (See the blog piece, Emotional Story Structures).  Overall, Beloved’s, Sethe’s, and Denver’s attentions to the crystal earrings form a polyrhythmic motif of remembering, the simultaneous occurrences of three character’s thoughts on the subject.

“Tell me your earrings” is also notable for its aural/oral rhythmic qualities.  By “code-switching” to what Yvonne Atkinson calls “Correct Black English,”⁠1  Morrison’s phrase has the distinctiveness of “voice and visual styling” of the African American oral tradition and its figural distinctiveness as well, because the phrase is also a metonymy for the entire narrative sequence. The phrase’s tonal and rhythmic qualities are also significant.  The readers will not see which of the five syllables of the phrase are accented or why it matters, but the emphatic shift to black vernacular phrasing, which requires that we hear it, does.  Tell me your ear ings: the first and fourth syllables are emphasized in enunciation, and it is not a coincidence that they make a significant pairing: tell and ear.

Responses Invitation: reflect, write, post

Why do you think the girl Beloved wanted to hear about the “diamonds” she faintly remembers?  

Or, from a more rhetorical perspective, what might Morrison want her readers to experience in this sequence?

If you’ve completed the Time and Memory blog cluster and want a suggestion for another, I suggest you proceed to Claiming Geographic Space, the introductory blogpiece in the Geography cluster.

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1 The “Common English” version (again using Atkinson’s terms) would be written as: tell me (about) the earrings or tell me (the story of) the earrings.  My description here paraphrases and quotes Atkinson, 14.

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