112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Murder, Maternity and Muted Histories: Beloved and the American and Female Gothic

Cheri Carter, Alamo Colleges District

This paper explores the ways in which Toni Morrison’s Beloved relies on conventions of the American and Female Gothic to reflect upon the repressed historical, cultural and familial legacies that continue to influence Afro American communities. I contend that because Beloved’s author and protagonist are  Afro American women, the novel both deviates from and adheres to conventions found in other works of the American and of the Female Gothic. 


Toni Morrison’s Beloved is considered a ghost story, a love story, a historical novel, a slave narrative and a work of various other genres. While Beloved contains elements of each of the listed genres, I propose that the novel is best considered a work of both the American and the Female Gothic.  Like its European precursors, the American Gothic engages themes of madness, violence, fear, and the impact of personal, national and cultural history. Unlike its European predecessors, however, the American Gothic is deeply concerned with race relations and the impact and legacy of chattel slavery. Beloved contains themes commonly found in European Gothic traditions as well as themes commonly associated with the American (including the Southern) Gothic.  However, because both the novel’s author and protagonist are Black American women, it differs considerably from other works of the American Gothic in its treatment of the institution of American chattel slavery, community and familial legacies.  In contrast to works of the American Gothic produced by White writers, the Black characters in Beloved are more than “markers” for the excessive, the spiritual, the benevolent, the dreadful or the grotesque. Within Beloved, Black characters and conceptions of blackness do more than serve as the dreaded Other against which notions of freedom and ‘Americanness’ are formulated; Beloved’s Black characters do not function merely as a catalyst for  the psychological transformations of White characters.  Furthermore, the Black characters in Beloved are more than pitiable victims of abuse; Beloved’s Black characters are both victims and villains.


The novel is also a work of the Female Gothic. Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, is at once a persecuted victim and an admirable heroine who is pursued and terrorized by patriarchal figures. Like other works of the Female Gothic, Sethe’s experiences provide sharp criticism of a highly patriarchal system. While Beloved shares such criticism with other works of the Female Gothic, unlike many of the Gothic writings of White and White American women, the patriarchal structure against which Sethe must struggle is the institution of slavery, not the institution of marriage. In fact, Sethe’s relationship with Paul D and the presence of other male characters such as Stamp Paid provide one of the novel’s most significant departures from other works of the Female Gothic. In Beloved, male characters can and do understand much of the trauma that Sethe experiences; male characters are in a position to genuinely empathize.  The novel also diverges from other works of the Female Gothic in its treatment of motherhood and domesticity.  For Sethe, motherhood in itself is not a source of horror nor is domestic life inherently oppressive.


While Beloved deviates from conventions of the American and the Female Gothic in substantial ways, it nevertheless, relies on conventions of both uneasily defined genres. It is productive to consider Beloved as a work of the Female and the American Gothic while noting the ways in which it digresses from other works of the same varieties. Doing so may help us better understand the American and Female Gothic while also bringing critical attention to the ways in which Afro American and Black women writers make use of Gothic conventions in order to negotiate, reflect upon and represent the ghosts of the past.