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Lisa Weihman Essay

I read literature because I’m nosy and I’m greedy. I want to know all the things, to be in all the places, to meet all the people. I also have a greedy thirst for beautiful things, and literary language is beautiful. Beyond these selfish pleasures, though, is my belief that literature will save the world. Literature teaches empathy. Literature gives us the emotional insight into one another’s suffering that helps us to end the causes of that suffering.

How many times a week do you wonder, “what the hell is that person thinking?!” (dozens of times). Literature is a way to answer that question. What motivates someone to do terrible things? To make difficult choices? Literature teaches me empathy in situations that are otherwise very foreign to my own experiences. In my ENGL 235 The Novel class this week, my students and I considered what would drive a woman to murder her own child. Who would do such a thing? Under what circumstances might such an act be considered an act of love, of deliverance? Toni Morrison’s Beloved gives an answer that speaks not only to the character who commits the dreadful act, but also to the continuing impact of slavery on our nation. In the novel, Sethe chooses death rather than allow herself and her children to be returned to the dehumanizing life they lived as slaves. “I stopped him,” she said….“I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.” Like the other characters in the novel, my students and I wrestled with Sethe’s choice, and with the repercussions that literally haunt Sethe throughout Beloved. Toni Morrison’s novel gave us the tools to consider how our national amnesia about slavery resonates in our culture. As Charles Blow writes this week in the New York Times, slave labor “helped establish the prosperity of this country,” and he argues that black people have been “systematically excluded from the full benefits of that prosperity for generations” (New York Times, 9/28/15). Immersed in our analysis of Beloved, my students and I could better understand this complex history because we now knew people – Morrison’s complex, interesting, flawed characters, people like ourselves – who had lived this reality, and these insights are the priceless gifts of literature. Literature speaks truth beyond mere fact. 

 Toni Morrison, Beloved. New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1987.

 Blow, Charles. (2015, September 28). “Jeb Bush, ‘Free Stuff’ and Black Folks” The New York Times. Retrieved from