Toni Morrison’s, Beloved, is a complex narrative about the love between mothers and daughters, and the agony of guilt. ” It is the ultimate gesture of a loving mother. It is the outrageous claim of a slave.” These are the words, of Toni Morrison, used to describe the actions of Sethe, the central character in the novel. She, a former slave, chooses to kill her baby girl rather then let her live a life in slavery. In preventing her from the physical and emotional horrors of slavery, Sethe has put herself in to a realm of physical and emotional pain: guilt. And in understanding her guilt we can start to conceive her motivations for killing her third nameless child.
A justified institution as the 19th century emerged; the infamous institution of slavery grew rapidly and produced some surprising controversy and rash justification. Proslavery, Southern whites used social, political, and economical justification in their arguments defining the institution as a source of positive good, a legal definition, and as an economic stabilizer. The proslavery supporters often used moral and biblical rationalization through a religious foundation in Christianity and supported philosophic ideals in Manifest Destiny to vindicated slavery as a profitable investment. Southerners used popular sovereignty to justify their slavery practices, ultimately slavery is supported through popular sovereignty since it is the people’s will to enslave black, or at least the Southerner’s will. Another social aspect of rationalization is the slavery institution is derived from the Southern argument, which contrasted the happy lives of their slaves to the overworked and exhausted Northern black wageworkers. In the South, benefits; whereas in the North black were caged in dank and dark factories and were released after their usefulness had served its purpose. Why work in the North when there are safe, comfortable plantations to work on in the South?
Did Beloved’s death come out of love or selfish pride? In preventing her child from going into slavery, Sethe, too, protected herself; she prevented herself from re-entering captivity. In examining Sethe’s character we can see that her motivations derive from her deep love towards her children, and from the lack of love for herself. Sethe’s children are her only good quality. Her children are a part of her and in killing one she kills a part of herself. What hinders over Sethe is her refusal to accept responsibility for her baby’s death. Does she do this because she is selfish or because it need not be justified? Sethe’s love is clearly displayed by sparing her daughter from a horrific life; yet, Sethe refuses to acknowledge that her show of compassion is also murder.
I believe that Beloved was a vividly irregular family saga that is set in the mid-1880’s in Ohio. By that time, slavery had been diminished by the Civil War, but the horrors of slavery lived within the memories of those that were subjected to it. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, former slaves took on a new role in American society. This role was one of more significance and self worth than in slavery, but this class of freedmen was anything but appreciated. Without the manpower of the slaves, the south’s agricultural society would fail, and without the agriculture there would be little money or food in the south.
The passing of the Louisiana Black Code in 1865, confirmed that whites felt as if blacks could not handle the responsibility or the rights of true citizens. Whites thought they did not deserve these rights because they were inferior to themselves and simply less than human. These restrictions were so harsh; it is, as slavery had never ended. The blacks were free, however many of the Negroes everyday rights were abolished. Section 3, of the Louisiana Black Code states “No Negro shall be permitted to rent or keep a house within said parish.” Section 9 declares that “No Negro shall sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise or traffic within said parish.” And one of the worst of these codes is in Section 4 of the Louisiana Black Code. “Every Negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conductor of said Negro.” (Doc 1) This was basically returning paid-slavery. Many blacks remained on these farms and plantations because they did not know what else they could do after emancipation. However, now they were being forced into staying because few knew anything other than farming. In December of 1865, Congress voted to stamp out these codes. Testimony to the southern white sentiment showed what would have happened if states were allowed to employ their own laws in regards to slavery.
Blacks soon develop a sense of freedom and want to create lives for themselves. They do not want to remain in a place and continue to be employed by those who previously treated them as animals. Mr. Lewis, a former slave, tells a planters wife, Mrs. Henry, I want to move away and feel entirely free and see what I can do by myself.” Even kind masters, like the Henry’s, lost many slave due to the want and need of freedom. (Doc 2) Charles Davenport stated “Freedom meant us could leave where us’d been born and bred, but it meant, too, dat us had to scratch for our ownselves.” (Doc 5) Outsiders made independence nearly impossible though. The sharecropping system, in which most had worked before, was still the only employment available and certainly the only work blacks knew as familiar. Rural merchants tried to give blacks a chance for employment, but often forced them into a position where they would sharecrop. Morrison has the ability to describe the physical horrors and torments that the slaves endured in a kind of delicate way that still made my nerves twitch at the thought of such cruelties. The story does not simply tell us how one slave felt, but rather it reveals the ways in which individuals, families, strangers, slaves, and even the caregivers viewed slavery.
Throughout the work, Sethe seems to have two separate identities, which affect her actions. When reunited with Paul D., Sethe recalls her reactions to School Teacher’s arrival with no mention to her daughter’s death. “Oh, no. I wasn’t going back there Sweet Home. I went to jail instead” (42) Sethe believes she made a moral stand in not letting herself be taken into custody. In her statement she has done two things, she has disassociated herself from the act, and also morally justified what had happened. When
Paul D, upon finding out what had really happened, confronts Sethe. She again ignores the issue. “So when I got here, even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something all I’m saying is that it is a selfish pleasure I never had before. I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was.” (163) Sethe loves her children. But it’s that selfish pleasure’ which makes one question her actions. Sethe is living a life she’s never known a life of freedom, freedom from brutality, from fear, and from pain. In killing her daughter she saved herself, for the second time. Sethe was still free, and she wasn’t going back to Sweet Home, or to School Teacher no matter what the cost. Sethe’s children were a part of her, and they were a part she was not going to submit to slavery. They needed to be protected, because the loss of them meant the loss of Sethe herself. When Sethe saw School Teacher coming she “collected every bit if life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out away, over there where no one could hurt them.”(163) Sethe sees no wrong here because it as though she were killing herself. Saving herself from all the terror she had already known. It was an act of love, and an act of primordial instinct.
Sethe’s needed to protect her babies because her mother didn’t protect her. Sethe never bonded or connected with her mother, and as a result she devoted her life solely to her children. Sethe’s mother “went back in rice and Sethe sucked from an other woman whose job it was” (60). Sethe and her mother never had the intimate bond between mother and daughter, therefore Sethe was hollow inside. It wasn’t until she had her own children that life and love filled within her. Sethe’s children were her lifelines, and she needed them to survive. But Sethe was not going to live her life in shackles, so she could not let her children do so. The only way to be prevented from going back into slavery would be to end her life, and she did through her daughter, Beloved. Beloved was
Sethe. This nameless child, who was buried under the headstone “Beloved,” was christened on her burial. Sethe had heard the preacher say the words dearly beloved, ‘in his prayer, and thus derived her name. (5) However, the preacher in saying these words is talking to the spectators. Sethe was the dearly beloved, and thus Beloved was named after
Sethe. Not only was Sethe and Beloved connected by blood, they were connected in name. And Beloved became the embodiment of Sethe. So it could be felt that Sethe had killed herself when escaping from School Teacher. Sethe said clearly that she would not go back to him, or to slavery, and in fright and hysteria, Sethe killed herself. Sethe does not in effect die in a physical sense but she dies in an emotional sense. She since detaches herself, and lives once again as though she were hollow. Like in childhood, she has once again lost her bond. Sethe, therefore, feels she does not have to justify her actions. Sethe escaped.
With Beloved’s return, Sethe can release all the guilt her conscious has laid upon her. And effect repents for her sin. “I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to. Why I did it. How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that something I could not bear to happen to her. When I explain it she’ll understand, because she understands everything already. I’ll tend to her as no mother ever tended a child, a daughter. Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own childrenNow I can look at things again because she’s here to see them too.” (201) Beloved provides Sethe with an outlet for her guilt. By absorbing all her love, which should have been rightly directed at herself, Beloved is Sethe’s denial of freedom. Sethe’s guilt will not allow her to love herself, or let herself be loved. Sethe’s conscience is the ghost that plagues her house. When Paul D first enters the house, Sethe almost lets the “responsibility of her breasts, at last be in somebody else’s hands” (18). As soon as this thought occurs, the ghost attacks and wreaks havoc, the only remedy for which was its expulsion by Paul D. Sethe’s conscious, manifested in the ghost, wouldn’t allow her to be freed by Paul in his way. Through Sethe’s attempts to lessen her guilt and difficult past, she ironically worsens it. By letting Paul D sleep in the house, Sethe begins to overcome her guilt and let go of her punishment subsequently Beloved begins to fall apart. It is not until Sethe, has to decide between Paul D and Beloved that we understand her grief. Paul D was to be her only savior and she rejected him, to endure her penance. Sethe does not want forgiveness; she wishes only to punish herself in order to mollify the pain of her past. Sethe’s guilt is her hollowness and her selfishness. Selfish because although she has saved them from an institution she fears, she has avoided the actual physical death that she inflicted upon her children. Once killing Beloved, her best thing, Sethe realizes that she will never again be whole, and in effect she will never loose her feelings of guilt.
Sethe knows that killing her daughter was wrong. And she also knows that killing her was right. She killed Beloved because she wanted freedom and she wanted her daughter to have freedom. Beloved is the embodiment of Sethe, torturing her for love, like Sethe tortures herself because she does not. Her love from her children is presented when she would choose to kill them rather then allow them to be broken by an evil institution. Love is Sethe’s primary motivation for killing her children. However, her selfish fault lies in the fact that she shifted the focus of responsibility from herself to the institution that has spawned her. Ultimately, it is Sethe who is responsible for her murder not slavery. Sethe kills her daughter to demonstrate her love. She exhibits her selfish pride by rejecting her own guilt. All of the characters try to repress their memories, which need to be faced and exorcised as you would a ghost. The end of this novel emphasizes the importance of the community and the individual’s search for self, which characterizes the survival struggle of Black Americans. Sethe is destroyed by her memories and her isolation with the ghost of Beloved, (representing the memories of slavery) until the community intervenes and saves her.
The black community and their cohesiveness and harmony is an essential factor to further the healing of 244 years of slavery and another 133 years of political abuse. When presented the notion that Sethe, not her children, is her own “best thing”, her reply takes form of a question, “Me? Me?”(273) Sethe has realized that she has loved her children too much, and herself not enough.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Maine: Thorndike, 1987.
Louisiana Black Code of 1865
Hart, Albert Bushnell. Slavery and Abolition. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1906.
Clinton, Catherine. Half Sisters of History. Duke University Press, 1994.