On Guilt and Grief: the Ghost Story Revisited in Beloved and The Wavemaker Falters


At face value, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and George Saunders’ The Wavemaker Falters are similar, because of their proximity in subject matter and the way they employ tropes; both deal with personal trauma — but above all, both are ghost stories. The similarity ends there. While they do share much, nearly everything about the way these topics and the ensuing archetypes are handled produces incredibly different results. This speaks not only to the power of a writer to make a story their own, even when it resembles others’, but more than anything, it speaks to the power of tone which can, in some cases, completely subvert what we have come to expect from a given genre.

A close study of these aforementioned differences leaves little doubt as to why, beginning with an examination of the subverted characteristics of a ghost, as applied by both authors, then how it affects the interactions between the ghosts and the characters; this, followed by an analysis of the difference in tone, in order to get to the emotional core of both stories: all of these elements tied together by the themes of guilt and grief.

A brief rundown of the stories: in The Wavemaker Falters, the main character, an amusement park worker, is haunted by the ghost of a boy he accidentally killed with his negligence while operating the machinery. His entire life, additionally is fraying: his wife hates him, his boss is an asshole, and he can’t seem to do anything right besides.

In Beloved, Sethe and her daughter Denver lead arrested existences in the post-Civil War South: they live in a haunted house, are unable to maintain relationships, and deal with shame about their respective personal histories — that is, until a mysterious woman sharing the same name as the baby Sethe lost eighteen years ago appears at their doorstep.

Ghosts, traditionally, are spectral, sinister figures who haunt the pages of a story: and while, no pun intended, the strength of their longing is not opaque (they have matters left unfinished, unfulfilled), their motivations often are: do they want freedom? revenge? renewed life? or simply to make the subjects of their torment leave the premises? Most of the time, the heart of the story will be the main character’s realization of said motivation, and their endeavor to fulfill them. Saunders and Morrison have the same starting point: both spirits are/were children, and both were killed in their infancy or childhood by the main character; but from there, in their own ways, and through the respective tone they employ, the archetype is capsized.

Most of the time, the heart of the story will be the main character’s realization of said motivation, and their endeavor to fulfill them.

Morrison emphasizes the characteristics we are likely to encounter in a ghost, seemingly reinforcing the classic atmosphere of the genre: in the beginning, the baby is an almost poltergeist-like figure, the unseen force who terrorizes, intimidates, browbeats; but the real-life incarnation is no less sinister. Beloved 2.0’s presence engenders the same disquiet. She is described with an insidious strangeness about her (“the eyes were big and black … the whites of them were much too white — blue-white” (66)), and her mere presence causes an infinitesimal rift in the family dynamic that subtly becomes gaping. She seems to have an almost telepathic influence on Paul D, and rivets Denver as if she were a hypnotist. Beloved, in short, is an anomaly.  

But a closer look makes this assumption less categorical: Beloved is more than eerie, she is perplexing. Although it is very selective, she has an immense capacity for tenderness and caring (one might argue that those very characteristics are remarkably destructive); her motivations are not always clear (is she entrapping Paul D, or does she genuinely crave physical affection?), and most of the time, her reactions read as ones of an adult in arrested development, rather than an ominous ghost with ulterior motives.

Perhaps the greatest subversion comes from the following notion: outside of the fact that we don’t know what Beloved is (a person? a reincarnation? in limbo?), it is unclear what she wants. By definition, ghosts are ghosts because they have unfinished business, which they are unable to assuage. But by her mere presence and her return into Sethe’s life, Beloved defeats the purpose: she has the opportunity for second chances, when ghosts typically have none — this, in turn, leads us to question whether she can actually be considered one at all, and if so, where the line between life and death are supposed to lie. Accordingly, unlike ghosts stories which are rather direct in the way they present the element of fear, Morrison permeates hers with ambiguity, with uncertainty, and this bleeds through in the way others react to her: Denver is consumed, devoted; Sethe feels guilt and confusion; attraction and repulsion war in Paul D’s heart — and this, in turn, bemuses and intrigues readers.

Saunders approaches his craft choices a little differently. Whereas a blend of poetic melancholy imbues Morrison’s novel, dark humor abounds in The Wavemaker Falters. The main character is jaded, dispirited, but in such a deadpan way that one cannot help but laugh — reactions seldom provoked by these types of narratives. He is in a constant state of hopelessness,  toying with suicidal ideation, the way one would muse on everyday subjects (“I keep hoping it’ll blow up or a nuclear war will start so I’ll die. But I don’t die. So I go over and pick up my wife.” (42)). More so than its absurd tone, however, it is the eccentricity of Saunders’ story that is so arresting: Clive (Victorian ghosts don’t typically have names, let alone such modern ones) is unsettling, but not in the way that ghoulish, bloody, white sheet-clad children are. He is a sneaker wearing, booger wiping, slightly petty child, who frequents other ghosts and couldn’t properly haunt the protagonist if his life (pun definitely intended) depended on it: “Near dawn he … tucks in the parts of his body that have been gradually leaking out over the course of the night … . Then he fades, producing farts with a wet hand under his armpit” (40). 

This, more than the fact that he pesters him, is what the protagonist is so afraid of; namely the too-realistic incarnation of the life he robbed ...

And yet, he is oddly affecting, in the way only children could be: kind of odd, kind of random, but so very incisive. This, more than the fact that he pesters him, is what the protagonist is so afraid of; namely the too-realistic incarnation of the life he robbed him of, and what it could have led to: “Even though he’s dead, he’s still basically a kid. … He’s scariest when he does real kid things … . He tries to be polite, but he’s pretty mad about the future I denied him” (39).

In addition to this rather original twist, Saunders adds another one: the main character’s guilt drives him to secretly try rectifying things with the victim’s family (he mends things and performs small services), to the point where the daughter begins to believe that her brother is sending them signs. It’s almost as if he, the protagonist, is the ghost, dealing with a life of loose ends, and struggling to connect with those around him. Although Sethe grapples to come to terms with what she has done, Morrison never makes her deal with it so demeaningly — in fact, it’s safe to say that Sethe does everything she can to refrain from having to deal with her actions. A quick comparison of the characters’ short, but powerful admissions reveals this conrast. Sethe is counting on forgiveness: “I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to … [w]hen I explain it, she’ll understand because she understands everything already” (236), while Saunders’ character is not: “Nothing’s gone right for us since the day I crushed the boy with the wavemaker. I haven’t been able to forget his little white trunks … I can’t help it. I feel so bad” (37). 

As such, the presence of these ghosts creates an after-effect on the characters that determines much of their relationship with the ghost.

It is interesting that Saunders tells us from the outset that his main character is responsible for the death and/or suffering of another being, before we even meet the ghost: we not only get this information much, much later, in Beloved, but the order is in fact inverted. The story begins with the haunting, and as it unfurls, we are gradually given insight into Sethe’s pain and her part in the tragedy. This is not just interesting for the sake of it: the delay changes the way we are likely to think about the ghost and the notion of accountability in both stories. The Wavemaker Falters is saturated with self-loathing and shame, and consequently, by the time the ghost is introduced, those less compassionate readers are likely to believe that this man somehow deserves his fare.

But because of the historical setting of Morrison’s tale, and the particular weight of Sethe’s personal trauma, we are inclined to have an inverse reaction: we could never foresee that a black woman in that time period, who is allowed to own and love nothing, would hurt her own child (the thought had not even crossed my mind until the revelation, and I am usually perceptive about these things): it is assumed that the death was an accident or murder committed by a white man. We don’t wait for the facts: there is instinctive horror and pity felt for Sethe, accentuated by the fact that she, unlike Saunders’ protagonist, is not wallowing in guilt, but in sadness and regret. It is only upon finding out the stunning truth that readers have to confront whether Beloved is, in fact, angry at Sethe, and if so, whether or not Sethe deserves it.

And here, once again, both Saunders and Morrison upset the formula we have come to associate with ghosts. Neither Clive nor Beloved appear to be expecting anything (which does nothing to alleviate the apprehension readers feel toward them). Beloved has, as of yet, not asked for explanations, nor has she exacted revenge on her mother: she is just happy to be. It is Sethe, still locked in the moment of her daughter’s death, who is the one doing the grieving and the self-punishing, all on her own — has been doing it for years.

In The Wavemaker Falters, the ghost is similarly not looking for anything in particular. Clive seems perfectly satisfied with regular, nonchalant doses of torment, the way one would casually pester an ex-lover although the strength of the feelings have long since petered out. He is in a fixed state of unwillingness to forgive (as evidenced by this frankly legendary exchange: ““Forgive me,” I say in tears. “No,” he says, also in tears.” (40)), while the main character is trying to make amends any which way he can, in order to upset the balance against him.

Morrison and Saunders use guilt and grief, additionally, to make statements on the relationships between the characters; and considering that both are character-centric stories, it greatly affects the general tone. Simone, the wife of Saunders’ protagonist, passive-aggressively shows her disdain and hatred for him throughout, culminating in her beginning an affair with his nemesis Leon. Their intimacy is affected by the remorse her husband is struggling with, as the ghost, and everything in between, widens the gaping hole between them. It is not that Simone is pushed away from him, it is that he is under a bell jar, removed from the world around him.

In Beloved, however, while there may be a ravine of silences and misunderstandings between Sethe and Denver, both are also bonded by a shared pain, whether it is mentioned or not; correspondingly, Sethe and Paul D are united by their horrendous past. In the moments before they make love, Sethe muses: “What she knew is that the responsibility of her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands. Would there be … a little time, some way to hold off eventfulness … and just stand there a minute or two” (21). Saunders, on the other hand, has a different attitude regarding the idea of moving on, or of at least separating guilt and grief from the right to be happy: “You kill a nice little kid via neglect and then enjoy having sex. If you can do it you’re demented” (40). 

Considering that both characters have an active responsibility in the death of the ghost at hand, that last quote could have been pulled straight from Morrison’s novel (in spirit, at least). But it is not, and underlines that while Saunders is leaning into the negativity, perhaps there is a little hope after all, in Beloved (even considering the many things, relationships included, that fall apart).

All of this results in stories that are, tonally, incredibly contrasting: there is a surreality permeating both Beloved and The Wavemaker Falters, in the form of odd characters and inconceivable occurrences; but while Morrison makes them fall into the realm of the slightly implausible, Saunders manages to toe the line of the almost probable. These things may be outlandish, but with an indulgent, supple bend of the mind, we could ground Saunders’ story in reality: a very (very) unlucky man who hallucinates his grief, a woman saved from choking at a wedding by being stabbed in the throat with a pencil, a Zamboni-selling man who gives questionable marital and conflict resolution advice, suicidal nuns, gangsters trying to sabotage machinery with hydrochloric acid, and so on. 

Saunders’s short story is like a Coen or Wes Anderson film, in all its self-deprecating glory.

The Wavemker Falters is oddly intimate, seemingly existing on a frequency that those who are not suffering in one way or another cannot hear; it reads like someone’s insomnia-fueled recounting of events they themselves have not begun to analyze; and in that way, it succeeds as a ghost story, because while the apparition is not conventionally frightening, the protagonist remains haunted: by the present, by his failures, by everything around him he no longer comprehends. Saunders’s short story is like a Coen or Wes Anderson film, in all its self-deprecating glory.

But while The Wavemaker Falters levels quick-fire humor with unfathomable sorrow, Beloved is most definitely closer to sweeping, cinematic, heartbreaking Southern gothics that consistently but elegantly unveil the anguish within. Save for Denver — it is, indeed, possible to be that perceptive —, the characters in Morrison’s tale are simply harder to picture existing. Because of the tone she employs, everything is enveloped in such mysticism and otherworldliness that, even without the ghostly element, we would still think of them as unearthly: Baby Suggs is messiah-like; Sethe, in addition to her scarred back which seems to carry a magical subtext, appears to absolutely spellbind everyone who meets her; and as for Paul D, “[t]here was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep” (20). At the center of it all is Beloved, the bewitching core of Morrison’s story, and everything about her, from her affect, to the clothes she wears, to what she says (or does not say) is from another world. 

This contrast is not a coincidence: while Saunders writes about what is happening to his character as if it were a curse, a calamity, Morrison treats her characters like they are blessed, for all their pain and harrowing backstories. They are heavenly, gifted, even in their affliction, and are entangled in events that are inexplicable: a house that is, for all intents and purposes, alive, a bucket of blackberries that produces hundreds of pies, a girl who gives miraculous birth on a swaying boat…

My stories have always revolved around loss in some shape or form: the loss of sanity, the loss of family members, the loss of physical, tangible things (home, objects) and of things less discernible, like feelings of self-assurance and innocence. It was only natural that death and grief would follow suit in my fixations — and for a long time, bolstered by my lifelong love of horror, my stories were more gruesome than they were subtle. Had I read Beloved as a child, for example, I’d have loved it all the same, but would have secretly yearned for someone losing their heads or being gorily gutted at some point. 

Without my realizing it, but no doubt prompted by my growing infatuation with poetry and black comedy as teenager, my tales began to gravitate towards subtler, more insidious forms of loss. I learned, in real life and in stories, that grief is more powerful than outright horror, that guilt is more haunting than ghosts, and that there are worse things than death. It might seem counter-intuitive to tell a story of human suffering through supernatural means, but it is precisely because of this choice, I believe, that the emotional truth of Morrison and Saunders hits so hard. Readers are distracted enough by the ghosts that they can grasp the might of the sorrow in both stories, all the while keeping it at a certain distance. But just when they have become comfortable, the authors capsize them: the ghosts are removed from the stories, leaving us reeling with the message between the lines, between the metaphors. Without Beloved, and without Clive, we are left with very realistic stories of damaged protagonists, trying to make sense of their world: and who cannot relate to that?

I learned, in real life and in stories, that grief is more powerful than outright horror, that guilt is more haunting than ghosts, and that there are worse things than death.

It isn’t surprising, that both writers chose to funnel their respective tales through the same  avenues: the angles at which they come at it, nonetheless, are different, and understandably. Morrison’s searing portrayal of the effects of slavery on individuals who were considered subhuman by an entire society is elevated by her personification of the ghosts of one’s past. They are relentless and they have long, long fingers that reach into the present and future, latching onto their tremulous serenity.

Saunders, for his part, seemed more interested in making a statement about the isolating disillusionment of modern-day society, where expectations too seldom match the joyless realities, and where, as a result, mistakes are considered as life-altering as they are seemingly unforgivable. As such, the overall tone Morrison opts for is a pervasive sadness laced with moments of brightness; Saunders’ is one of comedy, subsumed with a weighty, weighty misery: those two are not the same.