Pondering Stew: Isolation and Loneliness in “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Pondering Stew is a new kind of post for my blog. Basically books will leave me thinking sometimes, pondering and stewing about something, a phrase, a theme, a character, a situation. Usually I will connect it to my life, a current event, a random other thing, or simply an idea. Hopefully some ideas resonate with you even if you haven’t read the book that I triggered this thinking for me. I hope you enjoy it!

Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out. Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, and salvation was as easy as a wish.

Beloved by Tony Morrison (italics in original text)

This month I read Beloved with one of my book clubs. I had previously read it in high school for a class and even wrote an essay about the use of the word “veil” in the book. Now I could talk about so many things regarding Beloved; however, some of the things that I’ve been pondering and stewing over while reading this book and many days after I finished it are the themes of loneliness and isolation as well as the consequences of feeling those things for too long.

Beloved really had me thinking…

Beloved was inspired by a real event that involved Margaret Garner, a woman who killed her daughter rather than see her be enslaved again. Here are the characters from Beloved that you can keep in mind as we go through some of the thoughts I had:

  • Sethe: A woman who is able to escape slavery with her children, three were sent ahead of her and then she gave birth to the last one as she was escaping. She is only able to spend 28 days with all her children in some semblance of happiness.
  • Denver: The child Sethe gave birth to as she escaped. Denver is 17 years old when the narration of the book starts.
  • Paul D: A man who lived in Sweet Home, the place Sethe ran away from. Paul D also escaped and has been traveling, trying to find the place where he belongs. He arrives the day that the book starts.

This book has each character carry their loneliness around them, like a blanket that they use for protection. Being lonely means that they don’t have to admit their feelings to other people, isolated they can almost sit next to each other and just be in that moment while shoving all other memories away. None of them make much of an effort to connect to other people either, and most people also leave them alone since they get that feeling that they don’t want to be bothered. In part it is that taboo about how Sethe killed her child and went to prison for it, so there is a reason why people stay away. Denver is also deeply affected by this and doesn’t even get to play with other kids her age, instead she imagines that she plays with her baby sister who was murdered and who now “haunts” her house. Her brothers are barely mentioned but what it does say in the book suggests that they were just waiting for the right moment to leave.

All the characters in Beloved had one or multiple traumatic events happen in their lives that they never really got to process or grieve. Paul D and Beloved both suffered incredible physical torture in the form of beatings, being chained in a box in the ground, and many other unmentionable things. All the characters have suffered mental traumas since they were born into slavery, being treated as objects sold and used however their masters wished, and overall suffered the lack of love and acknowledgement from others throughout their lives.

After more than a year of physical isolation that started in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this book mirrored my own loneliness and isolation in some ways. Pre-pandemic I had a couple groups of people who I interacted with, coworkers, people I went to dance classes and events with, high school friends I saw from time to time. But now I don’t really see many of them at all or as often and I think, wow, I’ve lived in some form of isolation for a year (I’m not fully isolated since I do live with my parents and sister now, but my physical interactions with people face to face have decreased significantly) and this is nothing like what these characters are going through. Each of them were trapped in their own internal isolation and loneliness throughout their lives, it’s so heavy, so heartbreaking.

I imagine Denver, sitting in that space that the trees made and feeling that loneliness, that heaviness and not really knowing what to do with it. Mental health is not something that is prioritized for any of these characters, and of course, why would it be? They have other things to worry about! But nowadays, we can go to therapy, learn how to understand our emotions, learn the difference between being isolated vs being alone, increase our own self-awareness. Not that it’s easy! For me, it has taken me years to get to a point where I can recognize that “oh, I feel…. lonely” or “oh, I did that because I am afraid of what others think of me” and so on. I am still not great at it, but I am working on it. (Thanks to my therapist Ruth!). Thankfully, these characters were able to see through that blanket of loneliness and isolation and saw each other and themselves. Paul D saw a home in Sethe, Sethe saw a glimmer of hope as he extended a hand to her, and Denver saw herself and her own ability to learn and grow and be someone for herself.

Most of us go through these moments (short or long) feeling like we are alone and we’ll never feel anything else, but if anything, Beloved shows us that we can have hope if we turn to the person next to us, or the person within us, that self/soul/essence, that lights our fire and our passions. I encourage you to take a look in the mirror today for 60 seconds, a staring contest with yourself if you will, and see that fire within yourself. It is there, acknowledge it, love it, empower it, because it is what makes you unique and yourself and that is wonderful.

Those were some of the thoughts I’ve pondered and stewed over the past week or so. Beloved left me with many thoughts but these were the ones I went back to again and again. What if Sethe had had a therapist? What if Paul D had talked to someone about his traumas? They didn’t have the means or the access, and many other people still don’t have means or access to mental health help nowadays. But, what if we all did? All of us who need that help could all become self-aware and might be able to see where our true passions lie and that we are truly capable of doing it and achieving our dreams. What if…?

What do you think? Have you felt any of these things before? Also, did you do the mirror challenge? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

Book vs Movie — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Hello everyone!

As you are probably aware, there are many books that have been turned into movies, and, there are probably many more movies that were inspired by books. In this post I’ll be putting a book and its film adaptation head to head to see which one I liked best!

The second book that I read this year was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and it was a really interesting book that gave me a completely unique perspective to life in a mental hospital in the 1960s.

I was curious about Ken Kesey, how could he write such vivid descriptions of what it means to be constantly drugged in the ward and at the same time tell us about the narrator’s background?

“I know how they work it, the fog machine.” –Chief Bromden

In this sentence we think that our narrator is crazy, he thinks that they fill the ward with actual fog from machines, how delusional! Right? Not quite, he’s seen actual fog machines at work during the war, where they filled the fields with fog so that the enemy couldn’t find them.

“You were safe from the enemy, but you were awfully alone” — Chief Bromden

In this passage I was impressed with Kesey’s ability to give the reader that doubt of what exactly Chief Bromden was talking about. There are many more passages where things are not as clear, some filled with memories and others mixed with hallucinations and images brought on by the medications that the Chief is given throughout the day.

Ken Kesey was an author who volunteered to take drugs such as LSD, cocaine, among others, for a CIA project called MKUltra, which sought to find drugs that could be used for interrogation purposes as well as torture. Kesey would then write about the experience for that project, so it is no wonder that the descriptions in this book are what they are, full of vivid descriptions, not just visual but also tactile and auditory.

Before watching the movie I wanted to jot down how I imagined the characters, specifically Randle Patrick McMurphy who is described as:

“…redheaded with long red sideburns and a tangle of curls our from under his cap…tall…broad across the jaw and shoulders and chest, a broad white devilish grin…”
–Chief Bromden

So, this is exactly who I imagine:

PP34178

Mad Sweeney = RP McMurphy!

McMurphy is this tough guy who comes into the ward to save all the crazy men from this institution. He’s careless and simply wants the men to be just like him, no matter who they are. He’s the only one who talks to Chief Bromden and expects to hear his side of the  story, which no one has done before apparently. McMurphy treats the men as any other man out in the world and therefore gives them courage and power that they’ve lacked while under the “care” of Nurse Ratched.

Nurse Ratched, the woman in charge of the ward and who has a strict set of rules that all patients must abide by is described as:

“Smooth, calculated, precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils — everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom” — Chief Bromden

I honestly imagined her like this, except in white:

Miss_Dolores_Umbridge

Nurse Ratched = Dolores Umbridge!

Nurse Ratched is supposed to be a tyrant, someone who doesn’t care about her patients and only cares about controlling them and bending them to her will. And, from Chief Bromden’s point of view she seems even scarier, with arms that are much longer than normal, eyes that see everything, and buttons that control all the patients. ::shudders::

The novel in general has a very heavy mood, at times it was like wading through molasses, so I had to push myself to keep reading until I got to another part where our narrator wasn’t so heavily drugged.

As for the movie, Miloš Forman won an Academy Award for Best Director for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Additionally, this film won all 5 major categories in the 48th Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Leading Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman). So needless to say, I knew that this movie would be pretty good.

The first main difference comes from the point of view. In the novel we see everything from Chief Bromden’s perspective, but in the film we don’t have this filter, we get to see things as they are and that takes away one of the layers of the novel. This change in perspective works for the film because it makes it much more accessible, even if it does remove that uncertainty of what is real and what isn’t. This uncertainty was what gave the novel the heavy tone and the sense that it was moving so slow. In contrast, the movie is bright and it moves on a bit more quickly.

Then there’s Jack Nicholson as RP McMurphy, and he’s not exactly how I imagined him (see above picture), but he definitely delivers with his portrayal of the gambler who starts a war with Nurse Ratched and is trying to make the men in the ward stand up for themselves. On the other hand Louise Fletcher portrays a softer Nurse Ratched at first, makes her seem more like a victim or bystander of what’s happening. She is still manipulative, but not as much as in the book. That might also be because they removed the layer of Chief Bromden’s narration, so that makes sense too.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher

In the end, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest makes you think about different aspects of life. Do you want to live in fear and go along with the rules imposed on you by society? Or, do you want to break the rules, live life to the fullest, but perhaps deal with the consequences of going against the system? This novel puts all this into perspective and puts you in a place where things might seem hopeless, but in the end I think that it shows us that we live in a world that isn’t set to strict rules, we can make a change in our society by living courageously and standing up for what we believe in. We have the tools to make a difference, whether they be our education, our culture, or our government, we must stand up for what we believe is right and fight for our values.

Ratings:

  • Novel:
    4/5 stars, will give you the perspective from the point of view of a highly medicated patient in a mental ward. The perspective from a patient with mental health issues is incredibly valuable, since it helps us understand why mental health issues are so misunderstood to this day.
  • Film:
    4/5 stars, will focus more on the aspect of courage against a system and the strength in numbers, and give you a very clear and scary image on what mental health meant in the 1960s. (I do believe that many of the ideas that existed then about mental health still exist and it is something that still needs to be worked on as a society).

Final verdict: Book wins!!! I personally liked the book better because of Chief Bromden, his perspective was much more interesting than just seeing McMurphy come in and try to save everyone from the Big Nurse, and it adds that extra layer that makes each character much more complex.

Have you read this novel or watched the film? Which one did you enjoy best? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Also, if you like this post, let me know which other books that have been made into movies I should try!