Lesson No. 2: Setting Personified and Toni Morrison’s BELOVED

In the above interview, Toni Morrison speaks about authentic characterization within her novelBeloved. She talks about how she must place herself and her experiences into the narrative in order to better feel the narrative. This week we are going to read (or reread) the opening of Beloved, where the narrator introduces us to “124,” the house that embodies an angry personality. 

As you read the following excerpt from Beloved, consider a place in your current novel project that could use further exploration. Perhaps this is a house or a restaurant or school or a bar…. This week, you are going to flesh out this setting from your own memory of a similar setting you know from experience and you are going to give it personality.


Reading for Setting

Beloved (Chapter 1 Excerpt)
by Toni Morrison
Read the Entire Work (Optional)

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old–as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once–the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them….

Read the Entire Work (Optional)


Setting Exercise

Choose a single setting within your novel, one you want to further explore. Now complete the following:

  • Reframe the setting so that it replicates a place from your memory and history.
  • Give the setting a name, something creative that evokes not only the personality of the setting but also the actual physical location (don’t be afraid to use a nickname you remember from your memory of the setting).
  • Give the setting a motivation: what does this setting want from the main character within this scene?—i.e., in Beloved, the house wants attention from the family who lives there, specifically the mother.
  • Identify how this current motivation relates to a previously held conflict—i.e., the house wants attention because it is possessed/haunted by the owner’s baby who the mother had murdered in order to “save” her baby from a worse end.
  • Decide if the setting personified will be scene and/or exercise specific or if you might extend it in more length throughout the work.
  • Decide if the setting personified will be magic realism (assumed to be a possible actuality within the context of the narrative, depending upon how the reader reads it) or if the setting personified will be a metaphorical exploration of the setting and not meant to be taken literally but rather imaginatively.
  • Now, draft out your setting personified in 1,000 words or less. Write this as a separate “character study” and let it stand on its own. Once you’ve explored the setting, separately, you’ll be able to infuse it within the main narrative.

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