Revisioning History through Literary Characters:
Louise Erdrich's Pauline and Toni Morrison's Beloved
The history of the westward movement of European culture in the United States is often told as the "glory of winning the West." Overlooked in that myth is the fact that the winning was at the expense of Native Americans. Likewise, the horrors of slavery are commonly dismissed with comments such as, "it's over; it's done; let's put it all behind us." However two authors force us to confront a different version of reality, one that is uncomfortable-one that many might wish to ignore. Toni Morrison's Beloved and Louise Erdrich's Tracks are books that demonstrate how history is not over and done with. By giving voice to previously silenced stories told by women who have little power over their lives' destinies they allow us to re-vision history.
Henry Louis Gates warns that we must not read to understand Africa (and by extension, Native America) through the cultural eyes of Europe and the West. The late Michael Dorris, Native American author and professor at Dartmouth College and husband of Louise Erdrich, takes issue with American history as taught in public schools today. He says:
[S]tudents are given the erroneous impression that the few people who did live here in the Americas before European contact were quickly dispatched to the Happy Hunting Ground by conflict with stalwart pioneers and Calvarymen. Such a view of the past, clearly at odds with well documented facts, not only serves to reinforce the myth of Indian aggressiveness and bellicosity but it further suggests that Indians got what they deserved. In addition, by picturing Indians as warlike and dangerous, Euro-American ancestors reap honor by having vanquished them (p. 126).
Erdrich and Morrison have permitted contemporary readers to see through non-western eyes. To those who would prefer to forget the past and get on with the present, Morrison points out that remembering is painful, but those who suffered must not forget. She believes that they must remember and pass on their stories so "a kind of purging, cathartic recovery can occur it is then that these characters can feel truly free and reclaim their lives" (Carmean, p. 86). Just as importantly, perhaps, the stories passed on by Morrison and Erdrich do more than allow those whose story is told to achieve a "cathartic recovery." These stories serve to provide an alternative history that would otherwise be silenced.
Morrison and Erdrich re-tell history through the lives of ordinary people, with women characters who struggle in a world created for the convenience of others. Through these characters and the lives of those around them, readers learn a history that cannot be found in textbooks. By telling their stories through the lives of ordinary people, these two women writers have succeeded in "revising" or "re-visioning" American history to tell the plight of the displaced American Indian and the African ex-slave.
Erdrich's Native American characters inhabit a world irrevocably changed, a world in which they have been robbed of their land and resources, their culture and consequently their way of life. Morrison's characters struggle to forget the horrors of their bondage so that they can begin a new life of freedom. Pauline (Tracks) and Beloved (Beloved) reflect through their lives the consequences of subjugation and displacement inflicted on them by a culture that is not their own. Pauline and Beloved are destructive fictional characters whom it would be easy to simply revile and move on. But while they live in different times and different cultures, both lives are shaped by the imposition of an alien culture, and the conflict it brings.
In Beloved, Morrison allows the reader to share the legacy of slavery as the characters Sethe, Paul D, and Denver attempt to make a new life in freedom. However, they cannot put the past, lived in slavery, behind them; they must reveal it to themselves, to each other, and to the reader in "digestible pieces." For the Pillager and Kashpaw families in Tracks, the present and future become unbearable as they watch the traditional ways of Indian life disappear taking with it the community that once held the Chippawas together.
As readers work their way through the novels and through the lives of Pauline and Beloved, they become absorbed in the characters whose lives are touched by these women, and gain they a new insight into the plight of Native Americans and African slaves. Who are these fictional characters who are "revisioning" history? How do fictional characters change the traditional view of the history most Americans have grown up with?
Toni Morrison's novel Beloved is title reflects the name given to the grown up baby ghost of the infant who we eventually learn was murdered by her mother, Sethe, a runaway slave. Sethe, who fled to Ohio with her children, has just begun a free life when the slave catchers find her and are about to take her and her children back to Sweet Home, the plantation from which she escaped. Rather than allow her children to experience the horrors of slavery, she plans to kill them and herself. She murders her as yet unnamed baby, slitting her throat, but is stopped by a former slave named Stamp Paid before she can fulfill her plan. Considering Sethe insane, and therefore not fit for work, the slave catchers leave without her or her children. The murdered child is remembered on her gravestone simply as "Beloved." Sethe serves time in prison and is released. The murdered infant, however, cannot be forgotten as the baby's ghost playfully roams the house, knocking over objects, generally making its presence known. Although always present, the spirit of the baby seems content to remain a ghost until Paul D, also a refugee of Sweet Home, threatens to become the focus of Sethe's life. Just as Paul D appears in Sethe's life, Beloved emerges from the water as the young woman she would have become. She makes her way into Sethe's home and her life, driving out Paul D as she demands more and more love and attention from her mother.
In the novel Beloved, the reader listens to the fragmented honor stories told by Sethe and Paul D as they recall pieces of their lives on the plantation ironically called "Sweet Home." The "rememories" (as Sethe calls them) are so painful that they can barely be told. Paul D keeps his emotions and memories locked in what he calls his "tin box" that is rusted shut. So as readers encounter the destructive and seeming irrational behavior of the grown up ghost of Beloved and the confused and dangerous Pauline, they are immersed in two worlds that are seldom discussed, and which are not comforting to learn about.
Beloved, whose spirit had been content to roam the house as a ghost, returns to her mother as the grown young woman she would have become. She emerges from the water with smooth skin and hands, new shoes, and a black dress. She is weary from her journey, and sleeps for days before gathering strength to assume her mission, that of extracting love, attention, and revenge from her mother.
As her sister Denver attempts to learn of Beloved's past life, she asks where she lived before coming to Bluestone Road. She asks, "What was it like over there, where you were before?" (75) Beloved replies, "Dark Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move it." (75) Denver prods on asking, "Did you see anybody?" Beloved responds, "Heaps. Lots of people down there. Some is dead." (77)
The living ghost represents not only the spirit of Sethe's murdered infant, but of the African mother Sethe never knew as well as the spirits of those who came to these shores, enduring the infamous middle passage. Beloved speaks of the ordeal of the crossing. She speaks for the restless souls who were crammed into the holds of ships:
I am always crouching the man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked some who eat nasty themselves I do not eat the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink we have none at night I cannot see the dead man on my face daylight comes through the cracks and I can see his locked eyes I am not big small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in we are all trying to leave our bodies behind the man on my face has done it it is hard to make yourself die forever (p. 210)
Beloved speaks in fragments as the novel is told in fragments. The pieces of the story must be carefully put together by the reader, as the story is too painful to be remembered or to be told in its entirety.
Beloved has returned to claim the love of her mother that she was denied, and to inflict additional guilt on the woman who deprived her of life and love so many years ago. As the returned spirit, she will not share her mother with anyone, and Paul D stands in her way.
Through the introduction of the character of Paul D, the reader learns of his attempted escapes, the iron around his ankles and wrists, the iron bit in his mouth, the lock boxes in which he slept, indignities too perverse to ponder. Beloved, however, sees Paul D as being in the way of her obsessive need to love and be loved by Sethe. Through conjuring and supernatural means, she forces him out, finally seducing him, causing him to leave Sethe's house disgusted with himself. Now Beloved has Sethe for herself. Even as she dominates Sethe's every action and thought, she is never satisfied. Her obsession grows until Sethe barely has strength to move. As the mother gives all that she has to the increasingly demanding ghost/child, her physical and mental health are close to the breaking point. At the same time, Beloved, fed by Sethe's guilt and love, is gaining strength and growing physically.
Sethe's guilt at having murdered her own dear child is magnified as the demands made by Beloved increase. She reiterates that she had planned to kill herself after murdering her children, but was stopped after the death of her infant daughter. But now that her own has returned, she will not give her up. Deborah Horvitz argues that Beloved progresses to possess Sethe. Beloved left the other side because she was lonely, "devoid of love and memory." Beloved, according to Horvitz, returns to pass judgment on Sethe as well, that although Sethe assumes Beloved would forgive her, she does not.
The novel ends when the tiny Black community is finally aware of the situation. They accept that Beloved is the ghost of the murdered child and realize that they alone can turn her away. The women of the community gather outside the house at 124 and begin singing. As the voices grow louder Sethe and Beloved come out on the porch, Beloved naked and great with child. Amidst a shuffle, Beloved disappears, leaving an exhausted Sethe. When Paul D returns, she tells him in a small, weary voice, "She left me She was my best thing."
Pauline of Tracks is a very real person, but she too is a victim of a culture and way of life over which she has no control. Through the cultural conflict, which creates her demonic and demented character, the reader learns about the "winning of the west" from a non-western perspective.
In Tracks, the reader is introduced to a Chippewa family in North Dakota, struggling to survive when their means of livelihood and tribal identity have been replaced with the government school, territorial and reservation boundaries, taxes on land which had been theirs for centuries, and armies of loggers pushing farther and farther into tribal lands. The game that had always been their sustenance is becoming extinct, and they survive on rations supplied by the government. We meet the Pillager clan when most have died of disease introduced by the white man, and those Chippewa who have not died are weak, cold, and hungry.
Pauline, the half-breed daughter of Chippewa and French Canadian ancestry, despises her Indian-ness, disowns her family and desperately wants to be white. Yet she continues to involve herself in the lives of the extended Indian families of the Kashpaw and Pillager clans. Her primary focus is on Fleur Pillager, her daughter Lulu, and Nanapush, the patriarch and Fleur's "uncle," as well as with Fleur husband and mother-in-law. Pauline intrudes into their lives uninvited, but the traditional Indian way is to tolerate her even though they know her intentions are evil. Jealous of Fleur's beauty, cleverness, and her skill with tribal herbs and magic, Pauline sets out to thwart Fleur who lives the traditional Chippewa life.
Early in the novel, Pauline Puyat reveals her disdain for her Indian ancestry and her desire to establish herself as Canadian rather than Chippewa. As she prepares to leave home to learn the trade of lace making from the nuns, her father tells her, "You'll fade out there. You won't be an Indian once you return." That suits Pauline who tells him she wants to be "like my grandfather, pure Canadian" (p.14).
It is in the town of Argus where Pauline, working in the butcher shop of her aunt and uncle, meets Fleur whom she remembers from the reservation. She describes Fleur with a mixture of envy and bitterness, comparing Fleur's beauty and self-assurance to her own lack of beauty. Pauline describes herself as "so poor looking I was invisible to most customers and to the men in the shop" (p. 15). She sees herself as "blend[ing] into the stained brown walls, a skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes" (p. 16).
While Pauline projects her self-hatred onto Fleur, who seems to be everything she is not, she manages to damage or destroy others as well. Her ability to deflect her destructive acts from herself continues throughout the story. She watches as Fleur is raped; then she punishes the men by locking them in the frozen meat locker where they perish. Her affair with Napoleon Morrissey, which results in the birth of an unwanted child, leads her to later murder Napoleon as she mistakes him for the monster in Lake Matchimanito. Later in the story when Fleur give birth to a premature infant. Pauline is unable or unwilling to find the medicinal herbs that Fleur had stored in the lean-to, and the infant dies.
After the death of the infant, Pauline and Fleur skate on bark shoes along an "iced pathway along with other Indians" (p. 159) to the heaven of the Chippewa. It is here that the reader meets the dead souls who "starved, drank and froze, those who died of the cough" (p. 159-60). In the heaven of the Chippewa there is gambling and jars of potent whiskey. "They play for drunkenness, or sorrow, or loss of mind. They play for ease, they play for penitence, and sometimes for living souls" (p. 160). In this sorrowful place, Pauline meets the souls of those she has betrayed or destroyed. She hides to avoid the gaze of her parents and looks away from the men she abandoned in the meat locker in Argus. However, she must finally admit what the reader has known all along. "I was visible. They [the men] saw me, and it was clear from their eyes they knew my arms had fixed the beam in the cradle back in Argus. I had sent them to this place"(p. 162). Pauline's admission of guilt is short lived, for as she and Fleur return to the living, she resumes her quest for "whiteness."
Once Pauline returns to the living, she remains unwilling to accept the reality and the consequences of her actions. After the murder of Napoleon Morrissey, her last link to the past, she can finally repudiate her Chippewa heritage and be "white." She exits the novel believing she is "sanctified and recovered" as she becomes the bride of Christ. She leaves Pauline behind and becomes Sister Leopolda. Tracks ends with Fleur pushing a "small cart, a wagon that one person could pull, constructed of the green wood of Matchimanito oaks" (p. 224). The cart contained only "weed wrapped stones from the lake-bottom, bundles of roots, a coil of rags, and the umbrella that had shaded her baby" (p. 224). She was last seen throwing her weight against the yoke, heading into the unknown. As Pauline has turned away from her heritage, Fleur holds fast to hers in the only way she knows.
In Morrison's novel, the ghost of Beloved, as a returned spirit, speaks for all those lost souls who suffered and died during the middle passage. She speaks as one and as the voice of many as she describes the slave ships and their journey:
We are not crouching now we are standing but my legs are like my dead man's eyes I cannot fall because there is no room to the men with no skin are making loud noises I am not dead the bread is sea-colored I am too hungry to eat it the sun closes my eyes those able to die are in piles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine (p. 211).
It is through Beloved's child-like and fragmented remembrance that the reader must face the terrible horrors in the holds of the slave ships. In her essay "Rootedness," Toni Morrison says that she sees the life of a solitary person as representative of a culture, of his or her "tribe." She writes, "My sense of the novel is that it has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it" (p. 340). She believes the novel should be "beautiful and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens" (p. 341). However, she adds, "the best art is political, unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time" (p. 345).
Karen Carmean believes that "the primary intent of Beloved had to do with Morrison's deep sense of responsibility with regard to telling the story of her people's slavery as fully and honestly as possible" (p. 85). Thus, Beloved is also meant to be taken as a character reflecting the real experience of native Africans who lived through the middle passage. By possessing not only her mother, but the reader as well, the ghost child Beloved forces the reader to confront the realities of slavery as seen through the lives of ordinary slaves. Historian John Hope Franklin advises white Americans to accept the impact of slavery on our society today. "White Americans can't say, 'Well, it was my great granddaddy [who owned slaves.]' They are the direct beneficiaries, even in 1998, of the opportunities and greed that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. They need to see the connection between slavery and their privilege today" (p. 26).
Franklin's argument can be applied to the treatment of Native Americans as well, causing the thoughtful reader to wonder if Erdrich is saying that Fleur's flight into the unknown implies that Pauline has won the culture wars. Catherine Catt notes, "Erdrich's words imply a profound belief in the possibility of survival for native people, a survival of body and spirit" (p. 72). Certainly the Indian tradition lives on in Fleur, but has been extinguished in Pauline.
Paula Gunn Allen points out that "American Indian novelists use cultural conflict as a major theme, but their work shows an increasing tendency to bind that theme to its analogues in whatever tribal oral tradition they write from"(p. 79). In an interview discussing Tracks, Erdrich was asked if the novel represented a particular point of view or a political statement. She responded, "I think each of the books is political in its own way There's no way to speak about Indian history without it being a political statement you really can't write a book about Native Americans without being political" (Schumacher, p. 29).
Through these two novels and the characters they depict, Morrison and Erdrich offer the reader a fresh look at American history and the issues of cultural conflict, the outcome of cultural domination, and the horrors and terrible repercussions of slavery without apology, without comment, and without resolution. Perhaps there is no resolution. The reader must decide, but now the reader has seen history through new and fresh eyes. Now we know.
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Tradition. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1986.
Allen, Paula Gunn. Spider Woman's Granddaughters Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1989.
Carmean, Karen. Toni Morrlson's World of Fiction. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1993.
Catt, Catherine M. "Ancient Myth in Modern America: The Trickster in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich." The Platte Valley Review 19 (Winter 1991), 71-81.
Note: The url provided above returned invalid results.
Relevant information may be found at the following link:
Dorris, Michael. Paper Trail. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1994.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York, NY: Harper & Rowe, 1988.
Evans, Mari. (Ed.) Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984.
Horvitz, Deborah. "Beloved by Toni Morrison" Black Literary Criticism. In James Draper (Ed.) Detroit, MI:Gale Research, 1992.
Morrison, Toni. "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." Black Women Writers, 339-345.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, NY: Plume/Penguin, 1988.
Zaslow, Jeffrey. "Straight Talk: John Hope Franklin." USA Weekend. 20-22 March 1998, 26.
Reference Citation: Nigro, Marie. (2000) "Revisioning History through Literary Characters: Louise Erdrich's Pauline and Toni Morrision's Beloved." WILLA, Volume 9, p. 17-21 .