April 24, 2007

Robin E. Fields on Tracing Rape: The Trauma on Slavery in Toni Morrison's Beloved


This is just a note to inform you that the first of our web-based papers has appeared on the website. The paper is from Dr. Robin E. Field of King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and it is titled “Tracing Rape: The Trauma of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”. Access it at this link and watch this space for further web-based papers.

In this paper, I map the complex narratological strategies used by Toni Morrison in Beloved to paint both the individual and the communal trauma and recovery from the atrocities of slavery and Middle Passage. More specifically, I argue that Morrison figures rape as the ultimate signifier of trauma for the black community. In this text, rape is more often mentioned obliquely than portrayed directly, therefore initially appearing to be less prominent an issue; while in fact, Morrison elides the representation of sexual assault as a deliberate narratological strategy. Morrison utilizes the trace, rather than multiple graphic details, to effectively evoke not only the trauma of the specific individual, but the collective suffering of the larger community as well. She seeks not to present a comprehensive portrait of the act of rape and its bodily and psychic repercussions, but instead to offer glimpses into the traumatic event as it gradually becomes comprehensible to its survivors.

Instead of documenting every type of atrocity perpetrated upon black people during slavery, Morrison meditates upon how this community, and one couple in particular – Sethe and Paul D – will be able to heal their deep psychic wounds. Sethe’s rape, whether actual or metaphorical, sets in motion the horrific events from which she still has not recovered as the novel opens; similarly, Paul D’s rapes, along with the other terrible violence he has endured, have kept him from forming a life in the present, as he is constantly battling his traumatic past. In figuring rape as the traumatic event from which this couple must recover, Morrison models how this black community as a whole may heal from the violence and brutality of slavery and Middle Passage.

Simultaneously, Morrison’s project is to underscore the baffling and menacing nature of trauma, as well as the awesome power it exerts over its victims. To do so, she writes trauma as a character in itself, a corporeal presence, rather than a metaphorical or tropological one, with which the others must battle for their bodily and psychic safety. This character, of course, is Beloved herself. The largely internal, private experience of recovery thus shifts from a process experienced within an individual body to a struggle undertaken by the larger community. Just as Morrison blurs the boundaries between metaphorical and actual rape, she conflates the metaphorical battle of one woman fighting her demons into a literal confrontation. Ultimately, Morrison’s representation of rape, which epitomizes the many kinds of violence enacted upon women and men during slavery and Middle Passage, exemplifies how traumatic experience may be represented while also remaining essentially unknowable.

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