Slave Narratives of the Nineteenth Century

Though written in the late twentieth century, Beloved draws heavily on slave narratives written in the nineteenth century. In particular, Morrison drew on numerous autobiographical accounts either written directly by former slaves or composed with assistance. Such narratives told of the various challenges and traumatic experiences faced by slaves. In the years before the Civil War, abolitionists championed slave narratives, which they believed supported the case for outlawing slavery. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass penned two significant autobiographical narratives in the decade and a half leading up to the Civil War, and Harriet Jacobs’s influential book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl appeared in 1861, just as the war began. Like these and other slave narratives, Beloved gives voice to the interior thoughts and feelings of former slaves. Though the account Morrison gives in Beloved is fictional, it is based on the real-life story of an incident from 1856 involving a woman named Margaret Garner. Like Sethe, Garner escaped from slavery, and when she was tracked down she tried to kill her children to prevent their return to slavery. Morrison takes this historical narrative and breathes life into it, creating a work of fiction that harkens back to nineteenth-century slave narratives.