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Historical Context

The novel's narrative action mostly hovers between 1855 and 1873, though it was written in 1988. Certainly, Morrison intended for the novel to be considered more within the historical context of American slavery and reconstruction, rather than the Reagan Era and the twentieth century. Beloved is written as a response to the Fugitive Slave Law that victimized Sethe and her family in 1855. The law was part of a series of Congressional compromises designed to preserve a precarious political balance between the northern "free" states and the southern "slave" states. When "border states" like Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky became an increasingly politicized issue, Congress intended for the Fugitive Slave Law to stave off the inevitable - Civil War broke out less than ten years after the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted.
The law's provision regarded "fugitive slaves" who had run away from their slave masters and resettled in northern or border states. This was often done with the assistance of Underground Railroad operators (like Ella) and northern white abolitionists (like the Bodwins).
Southern plantation owners complained about their loss of income as a result of the escaped slaves and at the same time, abolitionists in states like Delaware, Ohio and Pennsylvania adamantly defended the argument that the contractual relationship between slave and owner was null and void in free territory. At the same time that this argument was being hashed out, the Dred Scott Supreme Court Case reified the solvency of the master's property rights over a slave and Congress compromised by enacting the Fugitive Slave Law. Runaways like Sethe might escape to a free state like Ohio, but should Schoolteacher find his lost property he could legally return her to Sweet Home.
It is not difficult to imagine the ensuing tumult as thousands of northern blacks - both ex-slaves and "legitimately" freedmen - lived in the constant fear of kidnapping or having their families separated. And Morrison is not the first woman to write literature that speaks to this specific issue. About 130 years before Toni Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. After her melodramatic excoriation of the slave trade and searing indictment of the Fugitive Slave Law - specifically for its anti-family consequences, Stowe become a moral figure for abolitionists and others who sympathized with the plight of Negroes. Indeed, Stowe's book was an exhortation for compassion that stoked the flames of civil war. Morrison's novel, on the other hand, enjoys a chronological distance (and 130 years of political progress) that allows a deeper psychological penetration without political propaganda and maudlin sentimentality.
Nonetheless, Morrison is well aware of the literary tradition within which she writes. The Garner family and the Bodwins' "Sambo" statue of a subservient, self-deprecating Negro labeled "AT YO' SERVICE," is very much a response to Stowe's moral relativism. For Morrison, there is no such thing as a "good slave owner" like the Garners. And even in regards to white abolitionists like the Bodwins, Morrison is unwilling to accept nothing short of full respect of all human dignity. The deliberate tension between Beloved and its antecedent Uncle Tom's Cabin invites us to challenge moral relativism in our efforts to assess and re-assess American history and literature.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points To Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8 and 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17 and 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21 and 22
Chapter 23 and 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27 and 28


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