Atavism: Teaching notes on Beloved

I like to give me students something to beat up on, so I started class today with this sentence from Cliffs Notes:

In Cincinnati, far from the misshapen Mrs. Garner, the atavistic savagery of the “mossy teeth,” and schoolteacher’s sadism, Sethe sinks into the masochism of a fruitless emotional duel with her dead child’s ghost.

The question: what’s wrong with the word “atavistic”? How is this evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how TIME works in Beloved?

25 minutes later, one saucy student demanded: “where are you going with this ‘atavistic’ stuff?”

“Hold on. Just hold on.”

I’m at that stage in my career where I’m pretty sure I could have kept it going for another 30 minutes.

But if you’re looking for a lesson plan on Beloved from someone who read it for the first time last month — in other words, if you’re kind of a fool or a bit of an ambulance chaser — then by all means read on and click you on.

I discovered, first, that although this is an advanced literature course (“History and Lit”) very few — like maybe one — of my 16 students knew what “atavistic” even meant. So I gave them some evolutionary biology, first, and explained this is “atavistic” in its technical sense, while also reminding them that it’s just plain wrong to think that “atavistic” traits are more primitive. Evolution, I insisted, does not improve things in some abstract sense; it doesn’t make things better (“for what?”): it adapts, and adaptations can sometimes be simplifications (like blind cave fish, classically).

Then I showed them some 19th-century criminology:


I gave them some modern atavism in a racist context. And I finally asked why “atavistic” was a particularly lousy word to use to denigrate someone — even white people — in a novel written by an African American about the African American experience?

The students rightly observed that the story of Schoolteacher’s nephews assaulting Sethe did NOT take place in some primitive past but in the present of 1855, where cruel white behavior against black slaves was condoned and encouraged: there’s a whole modern system set in place to make these kinds of actions possible. Given that her assailants are literally stealing her milk from her breasts, we witness here, helplessly (like Halle in the hayloft), a violent assertion of the fact that, to the slaveowners, Sethe and other slave mothers were nothing but breeding stock.

I added, what else about “atavistic”? What about the charge that certain people are more primitive than others, more likely to be evolutionary throwbacks? What about the phrase “you black apes” (here, here, here, and here).

We got it. No surprise. I didn’t belabor the point. Atavistic is a pretty lousy, stupid word to use as an insult for describing characters in at least this book.

And what about the way time functions in Beloved anyhow?

Remember, I read it for the first time last month, and am, naturally, teaching it for the first time now. I’m sure this has been covered in the criticism.

Sethe’s relationship to the past is not one of a present day person trying to grow out of something primitive. For her, the past is at once too present and too lost: too present in that she’s pummeled with it whenever she remembers (quite literally when the ghost shows up), and too lost when we see what happens between her and her mother, her connection to Africa, to the antelope dance, and to the freedom stolen from them.

I have my past easily at hand, I told the students: on my mother’s side, I can trace my ancestry  back to the seventeenth century in this country (and farther back still if I extend it to Europe). Over here, in Virginia, we owned slaves; a great great (or so) uncle — James O. B. Racer — died from wounds received at Gettysburg, fighting, I pointed out, for the wrong side. My students — many of them immigrants or second-generation Americans, many of them descended from people fleeing pogroms or the Holocaust, many of them descended from slaves — don’t have this. “Atavism” isn’t their problem: it’s that their past is either too awful and too lost.

This is one of the problems Morrison explores in Beloved, where 1855 and 1873 shift into each other, without a sign or a break, where the past might slide into the present or vice versa, where Sethe and Paul D and so on scramble and dodge to try to re/member a usable past and to try to get past the past that haunts them. The past is not backwards, here, but rather a ghost, a danger, and an absence, and the impossible desired thing.

I stopped only because we had to talk about Lucy Delaney, who, you know, teaches like a dream.