In honor of Toni Morrison’s passing, I am reposting an essay I wrote about her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved. I’ll never be the same after reading it. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the book yet, go do that before reading on!
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is devastating in its tender depiction of people who are physically and emotionally damaged by slavery. As an avid reader of slave narratives and a student of black history, Morrison cuts right through the mental construct of slavery to drop us into the middle of a group of characters who will change our lives by making us feel slavery. Beloved initiates the loss of innocence for its readers by having us live through Sethe, Paul D, Baby Suggs, and the rest, every one of whom carries deep scars in the aftermath of enslavement. With all the suffering that these characters endure at the hands of white slave owners, no act cuts as deep and sorrowfully as the murder by Sethe of her own baby girl.
When the mysterious young woman, Beloved, shows up at 124 Bluestone Road, it seems that she is the living embodiment of the ghost that has haunted Sethe since the baby was killed eighteen years earlier. The unresolved grief living inside of Sethe and her daughter, Denver, and the house itself, has manifested as this woman-child who only wants for Sethe’s smiling face. Sethe comes to believe she will finally get the chance to make it up to her baby, love her enough to heal all the pain. But Beloved is more than just the baby; she represents others too. Some of her narrative includes recalling the journey from Africa on a slave ship. In the article “Giving body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Professor Jean Wyatt writes that in addition to being the spirit of the deceased baby, Beloved “also has a collective identity; she represents a whole lineage of people obliterated by slavery, beginning with the Africans who died on the Middle Passage…” Sethe can’t kiss away the scars of “60 million and more.” Only a community can hold the pain of its members and create space for the stories to be told and then let go. By having her heart-shattering tale represented in the flesh, before the community, Sethe comes through the novel with a new possibility at the end: a life of her own.
The institution of slavery was intentionally dehumanizing; it prevented black family members from bonding together. As we will see, the rupture of mother-infant intimacy between Sethe and her own mother, a woman from Africa who gets hung when Sethe is small, sets the stage for Sethe’s “too thick” love, her radical attempt to preserve the innocence of her baby girl at any cost. In this essay, I will elucidate that the primary cause of Sethe’s crime of passion is her own loss of innocence: the unhealed trauma from infancy perpetrated on her through enslavement.
A Mother’s Love
From Freud to modern Neuroscientists, there is abundant scientific literature about the impact that the bond, or lack thereof, between mother and infant has upon an individual’s life. In “Memory and Mother Love in Morrison’s Beloved,” Dr. Barbara Offutt Mathieson draws on psychoanalytic theory to explain the fusion between mother and baby, and its power to shape the sense of self of the burgeoning human being. Offutt Mathieson writes, “Because that mother provides food, stimulation, and protection, she serves as the helpless infant’s ‘ego support’…Largely because of the mother’s support, the baby does not experience only discontinuous instinctual drives and reactions but instead builds a continuous stable sense of personal power and identity” (3). The absence of normal, maternal support in Sethe’s infancy, not to mention her status as property, robs her of the capacity to develop personal power and identity. The loss of nurturance also makes her thirsty to taste the tender ecstasy, the sense of union between mother and child. Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, the early developers of Attachment Theory, wrote in “An Ethological Approach to Personality Development” about their years of research on the impact of parental loss on infants and young children. They found that consistent, attuned contact with a mother (or other attachment figure) provides the base for healthy development of the child into a well-adjusted person. Conversely, lack of close, loving contact creates insecure attachment in children. The authors point to Charles Darwin, who lost his mother at eight years old. They refer to evidence that Darwin was not able to fully mourn the loss of his mother, writing, “…this left him as an adult sensitized to real or threatened losses of family members, and accounted for his psychological symptoms in terms of attachment theory” (12). Sethe’s lack of care as an infant, and the resultant emotional insecurity, set the stage for her obsession with mothering and desperation to spare her babies from emotional pain. The unhealed grief of her own deprived-inner-baby drives Sethe to kill her daughter rather than perceive that the infant may suffer like she did. Her own loss of innocence resulting from slavery makes her want to prevent her child’s loss of innocence from the same, at any cost.
The narrative of Beloved winds in a circular way, between past and present, eventually leading us to experience the central event of the story: in a desperate attempt to spare her infant daughter from a life of slavery as the master beats at the door of the woodshed, Sethe cuts the baby’s throat. The little girl, identified sweetly as “Crawling Already,” bleeds to death while Sethe holds her body to her chest, a nakedly crushing image. Clearly, this act represents the antithesis of a normal mother’s instinct to protect and nurture her child. Sethe is fiercely protective of her children, but because of the deformation of her instincts, skewed by her experiences as the daughter of a slave, a slave herself, and an enslaved mother, her act is a wild aberration, a deviant solution that haunts her every day from then on. After getting out of jail, Sethe has sex with a man in the graveyard in exchange for him engraving her baby’s tombstone with a single word: Beloved. Thus begins eighteen years of Sethe “rememorying,” but not grieving, her daughter.
The seeds of Sethe’s behavior as a mother were planted when she was a baby. Sethe’s mother endured the horror of a slave ship from Africa, where she was raped by crewmembers. Later she was hung. As an adult, Sethe wonders why her mother was hung. Was she caught trying to escape? She says, “…she was my ma’am and nobody’s ma’am would run off and leave her daughter, would she?” (235). When Beloved asks Sethe, “Your woman never fix up your hair?” Sethe casually explains that she had virtually no contact with her mother, “I didn’t see her but a few times out in the fields…By the time I woke up in the morning, she was in line. If the moon was bright, they worked by its light…She must have nursed me two or three weeks – that’s the way the others did. Then she went back in rice and I sucked from another woman whose job it was” (74). In this interaction with Beloved and Denver, Sethe speaks lightly about the lack of mothering she received. But later after she realizes that Beloved is her own daughter come back to life, she is triumphant; emboldened to express more about the deprivation that drives her as a mother. She speaks directly to the reader, “I won’t never let her go…I’ll tend to her like no mother ever tended a child, a daughter…Nan had to nurse whitebabies and me too because Ma’am was in the rice. The little whitebabies got it first and I got what was left. Or none. There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left. I’ll tell Beloved about that. She’ll understand. She my daughter. The one I managed to managed to have milk for and to get it to her even after they stole it…” (231).
Indeed, Sethe is fixated on nursing throughout the book. When she sends her children ahead with a woman from the Underground Railroad, it tears Sethe up to be separated from the baby girl, who is still nursing. The fierce determination to get her milk to the baby drives Sethe to run away on her own. But before she can leave, the sadistic white nephews of “schoolteacher” steal her milk. One holds her down and the other sucks the milk. Sethe is savagely whipped for telling the sympathetic mistress, Mrs. Garner, about the boys stealing her milk. And though that whipping leaves her back gruesomely scarred, she hardly spends a moment reliving it. She does relive, time and time again for the next eighteen years, how those boys stole her milk. “Nobody will ever get my milk again, except my own children. I never had to give it to nobody else – and the one time I did it was took from me – they held me down and took it. Milk that belonged to my baby” (231). Sethe’s proudest achievement is getting her children out of Sweet Home, all by herself, and getting milk to her baby, and she spends precious energy trying to make Beloved understand why she did what she did in the woodshed. In a long section, Sethe speaks directly to Beloved explaining what she went through to take care of her. Sethe describes seeing the body of her friend, Paul A, hanging in a tree, but pressing on, “Passed right by those boys hanging in the trees. One had Paul A’s shirt on but not his feet or his head. I walked right on by because only me had your milk, and God do what He would, I was going to get it to you. You remember that, don’t you; that I did? That when I got here, I had milk enough for all?” (228). But the ghost, when invisible and later when embodied as Beloved, is frozen in frustrated infancy and so cannot understand anything but the desire for the bliss of merging with mother and the fury that her needs were not met.
From page one of Beloved, we step into a way of life where the supernatural is commonplace; it’s a way the characters interpret everyday happenings. The first sentence of the novel describes a house that is haunted by an angry baby, “124 was spiteful” (9). Eighteen years after the “misery” that changed all the family members’ lives, Sethe and her youngest daughter, Denver are resigned to living day in and day out with the angry “baby ghost.” When seen through the lens of psychoanalytic theory, the ghost we meet in chapter one is acting like a typical baby in relation to its mother, with an “archaic, egoistic way of loving,” angry and enraged that its desires are not being met (Offutt Mathieson 4). The baby ghost is stuck in the yearning for mother love.
If the ideal of parenting is to provide the emotional and physical support necessary to nurture a healthy sense of self in the offspring, then Sethe’s plantation infant experience is a version of worst-case scenario. No support and no hope of support. But Crawling Already, as a ghost, behaves as if she is in the “Protest phase,” of infantile frustration. In an article titled “Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood” by John Bowlby, the author discusses the reactions of infants who are removed from their mother figures. He writes that such a child “…will often cry loudly, shake his cot, throw himself about, and look eagerly towards any sight or sound which might prove to be his missing mother” (14). The baby ghost’s everyday haunting – smacks on the behind, heaved over bowls of food, broken dishes – these are all demonstrations of a raging toddler who is frustrated and wants her mother.
Finally, when Paul D arrives, he out-protests the ghost, drives it from the house. Everyone believes that she is gone, but days later, the strange young woman, Beloved, appears on the stump at 124. From the start, she exhibits a kind of “bottomless longing” in relation to Sethe (71). In a strange interaction in the woods, Beloved demonstrates a close facsimile of nursing when she massages Sethe’s injured neck: “Beloved watched the work her thumbs were doing and must have loved what she saw because she leaned over and kissed the tenderness under Sethe’s chin. They stayed that way for a while because neither Denver nor Sethe knew how not to: how to stop and not love the look or feel of the lips that kept on kissing” (115). After Beloved has been living with her for a few months, when Sethe realizes that Beloved is really her daughter, returned to life, she is exultant, and vows to “tend to her like no mother ever tended a child” (231). At first, there is a delicious period of playing together, “…they ice skated under a star-loaded sky and drank sweet milk by the stove…she played with Beloved’s hair, braiding puffing, tying, oiling it…they walked arm in arm and smiled all the time.” But after a month or so of this blissful union, “…the mood changed and arguments began. Slowly at first. A complaint from Beloved, an apology from Sethe.” The discontent that begins mildly, escalates as Beloved begins to command Sethe and always takes “the best chair, the biggest piece, the prettiest plate” (277). Beloved slams and breaks things, and cries about having been left behind, without Sethe’s face. Nothing Sethe says can fill up the hole in Beloved. As Sethe becomes smaller, losing weight, drained of energy from trying to please, Beloved grows large and corpulent. Offutt Mathieson quotes Freud’s “Female Sexuality” to explain the dark side of Beloved’s hunger: “Childish love knows no bounds, it demands exclusive possession, is satisfied with nothing less than all. But it has a second characteristic; it has, besides, no real aim; it is incapable of complete satisfaction and this is the principal reason why it is doomed to end in disappointment and to give place to hostile attitude” (4).
Most interestingly, Beloved is not the only unsatisfied one in the dyad. Because Sethe’s unresolved pain from infancy is at the heart of her mothering, she is also driven by an unquenchable thirst. Denver notices that even when Beloved is quiet and “dreamy,” Sethe provokes her anew, trying to explain and justify herself as a mother. “It was as though Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out” (290). It is not surprising that neither of these two characters, both wounded as infants, can heal themselves through indulging in their ravenous desire for the mother-infant bliss. In order to heal and function as an adult, Sethe will have to let go of her baby and make contact with the larger community.
Every life-enhancing development in this story is the result of individuals working together; Paul D and his fellow slaves, chained together, dive through the mud as one unit and escape from Alfred Georgia in the rain, Sethe and her children escape Sweet Home with help from strangers in the Underground Railroad, and Denver begins to blossom in the community of Cincinnati when she finds her way to Lady Jones’ schoolroom. However, the reverse is also true; the lack of outside support leads to the most sorrowful outcomes. Even the murder in the shed can be traced back to a withdrawal of community support. In the end, the community saves Sethe from losing her life to the irresistible pull of mother/infant fusion.
Before the tragedy, Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother in law, was the heart of the ex-slave community in Cincinnati. She was referred to as “holy” because she conducted spiritual celebrations in the woods where she preached the virtues of self-love and healing, and promoted singing, dancing, and life-affirming practices. “When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing – a wide open place cut deep in the woods…” The Clearing was a place to laugh and rejoice. In “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Linda Krumholz writes that Baby Suggs’ healing rituals are a combination of “Christian symbolism and African ritual expressions” and that “the metaphor of the ‘clearing’ suggests a process of cleansing and rebirth” (4).
In light of its proximity to the Underground Railroad, Baby Suggs’ home, 124, was a hub of help, communication, rest and food. “Messages were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon. Talk was low and to the point – for Baby Suggs, holy, didn’t approve of extra. ‘Everything depends on knowing how much,’ she said, and ‘Good is knowing when to stop’” (103). Baby Suggs is generosity personified, and she seems to know something about self-care and self-discipline. This thriving community, that Baby Suggs nurtured, was the one Sethe gratefully walked into when she made it through the Underground Railroad to the free state of Ohio.
After being in Cincinnati with Baby Suggs for a month, Sethe feels what it is to be liberated. She describes this to Paul D later, “It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon – there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?” (188). Recalling this happy month, her first taste of a free life, Sethe still measures herself through the lens of motherhood.
The day before the “misery,” when schoolteacher came to 124 to claim his “property” in the form of Sethe and her children, life was as good as it had ever been for Sethe’s family. With so much to be grateful for, Baby Suggs threw a party. What started out spontaneously and humbly became a lavish feast with an abundance of food – turkey, pies, breads and punch for everyone in the community. But this kind of celebration must have been too much good too soon after the demoralization of slavery. The next day, there was a backlash in the community. Resentment was in the air; the neighbors whispered to each other about “uncalled-for pride.” Morrison writes of the guests, “124, rocking with laughter, goodwill and food for ninety, made them angry. Too much, they thought…why is she and hers always the center of things…Ice and sugar, batter bread, bread pudding, raised bread, shortbread – it made them mad. Loaves and fishes were His powers – they did not belong to an ex-slave who had probably never carried one hundred pounds to the scale…who had never been lashed by a ten-year-old whiteboy as God knows they had” (159). The omniscient narrator suggests that it was this resentment that kept the neighbors from sending a runner to warn Baby Suggs that four whitemen were in town looking for Sethe. If the usual bonds of community and friendship had not been sullied by indigestion and jealousy that day, Sethe may have gotten warning and been able to go into hiding, rather than killing her daughter.
Eighteen years later, Baby Suggs is dead and gone. After the murder of Crawling Already, Baby Suggs’ spirit was broken. The doors to 124 were shut. The baby ghost came to stay, and the community left. Baby Suggs slowly died of despair. Just before she died, she told Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her life, “that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. ‘They don’t know when to stop…” (123).
After Baby Suggs’ death, Sethe and Denver live in isolation, with the regular company of the ghost. Things begin to shift with the arrival of Paul D. Not only does Paul D act as a bridge to the world outside with his friendliness and good nature, Sethe sees the possibility of him making a family with her and Denver. No sooner than she allows herself to want a relationship with Paul D, does Beloved appear on the stump outside 124. It is as if Sethe’s reaching for the bonds of family has caused the ghost to show up with more reality. In the article “Fleshly Ghost and Ghostly Flesh: The Word and the Body in Beloved,” David Lawrence writes that “The desire that Paul D stirs up… taps a reservoir of repressed feeling that seems to trigger Beloved’s emergence from Sethe’s rememory” (195). Before Sethe can have a good life, she needs to deal with her mother/daughter pain and losses.
From the start, Beloved wants Sethe to herself, and this makes Paul D a threat to her. Eventually, Beloved seduces Paul D and psychically pushes him out. Then Stamp Paid tells Paul D what Sethe did to the baby eighteen years before. Sethe tries, for the first time, to explain to another person why she did it, but Paul D can’t get his mind around it. He is repelled. He leaves without saying goodbye. His absence makes space for Beloved to pursue Sethe and her face without limits, which she does, “Sethe was licked, tasted and eaten by Beloved’s eyes” (70).
When Sethe finally realizes that Beloved is her daughter, she decides to shut off the rest of the world for good. Disregarding her job in favor of full time bonding with Beloved in the house at 124, “She opened the door, walked in and locked it tight behind her” (229). There, she, Beloved and Denver are alone, with no connection to the community outside, and they get to the brink of starvation by exclusively indulging the hunger for love that each of them feel (Sethe and Beloved toward each other and Denver toward her sister). But Denver is more lucid than the other two. She is outside of the mother/infant dyad of Sethe and Beloved. She has been wounded in different ways, but not in the same way that her mother and sister were deprived of milk and nurturance as infants. Denver can see the insatiable dynamic between Sethe and Beloved and when she observes her mother eating crumbs and wasting away, her eyes “bright but dead,” she realizes her mother will die if something doesn’t change. Despite her fear of the world outside, Denver finally reaches out to the community (281).
Denver’s first steps outside of 124 Bluestone Road represent the possibility of healing. She walks to the home of her former teacher, Lady Jones, to ask for help, food. Slowly, gently, items of sustenance are left at 124 by women in the community. And the more that Denver interacts with them, the healthier she gets, eventually applying for a job. As word gets out that a strange young woman has come to 124, who is taunting and draining Sethe, the neighbors believe that it is she, the baby ghost, come back in the flesh to punish Sethe. Despite their rejection of Sethe years before, the women of the community join together to save Sethe from the ghost. On the first day of Denver’s new job, she looks down the road to see a mob of women heading toward 124. They gather outside the house, afraid of the ghost, but determined to dominate it. They start to pray and holler. Sethe and Beloved come to the door, hand in hand, smiling out at the women. “For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words…It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash” (301). Sethe’s obsession with maternal fusion, with its roots in her childhood deprivation, and watered by the tragic bloodletting of her own hand, is like an addiction. Both Sethe and Beloved “don’t know when to stop,” as Baby Suggs had defined what “good” was. Only a higher power, a community, has the power to replace the addiction, just as a twelve step program can save an alcoholic. In this passage, the power of community culminates in a spiritual cleansing that leaves Sethe baptized and Beloved mysteriously gone without a trace.
Before she disappeared, Beloved startled the onlookers with her beauty. She is described, “naked and smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun. Thunderblack and glistening, she stood on straight legs, her belly big and tight. Vines of hair twisted all over hear head. Jesus. Her smile was dazzling” (261). Here it is as if she has come to fruition and is offered to the community as a feast for the eyes, a sacrifice to heal the past, a glorious figure that represents the power of pre-slavery African majesty. She is Sethe’s daughter, and her mother, and all of the other sixty million. Linda Krumholz posits that Beloved “embodies the suffering and guilt of the past, but she also embodies the power and beauty of the past and the need to realize the past fully in order to bring forth the future, pregnant with possibilities” (7). In spite of the trouble that Beloved brought, her presence has caused both Sethe and Paul D to open up their memories, and tell their most unspeakable stories to each other.
Weeks after the cleansing community ritual, Sethe looks to be following in Baby Suggs’ footsteps; she’s dreamily wasting away in Baby Suggs’ bedroom, having lost her girl. Paul D comes to see her. Sethe is forlorn, and tells him, “She left me.” He says, “Aw girl. Don’t cry” (314). Sethe has come full circle. Again, a “she” has left her.
As a little girl, Sethe’s mother left her. It wasn’t her mother’s choice to leave Sethe; it was because she did not own herself, and she did not own her daughter. Sethe’s mother had no choice about abandoning her daughter. But back in the woodshed, Sethe decided she would have a choice. She planned to kill all of her children and herself rather than have a white man take away her babies and thereby her ability to care for them. The inhumanity of slavery was to blame for it; for the rupture of familial bonds and the absence of personal identity that Sethe and all the others had to reckon with deprived them of franchise and future. With her body in panic and the trauma of her past activated, in that moment Sethe did not see a better choice.
In the bed, Sethe tells Paul D, “She was my best thing.” Sethe has always thought that her children were her best things. As a child, she missed the formative moment, the time in infancy when needs are met and personal power is recognized (Offutt Mathieson, 3). Beyond infancy, as a slave, she wasn’t taught that she had value just for being herself. When she got to Baby Suggs’ house and came to the Clearing, she had just begun to feel the wonder of being an individual, “big and wide” as she said. Unfortunately a month of Sundays in the Clearing was not enough time to heal. When she saw the schoolteacher’s hat, she was triggered, “…she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono” (190). Sethe flew into action in the only way that made sense to her, and back to captivity she went – this time enslaved by her own buried grief and unwillingness to name the pain, the loss, the crime.
Now, after eighteen years, Beloved is completely gone. Paul D and Sethe are talking for the first time since he found out about the shed. Through time passing, talking with Stamp Paid, and learning about the community intervention, Paul D has reconciled Sethe’s horrific act in the woodshed. They have seen each other’s scars, all of them. Beloved brought them out. Paul D tells her “Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” He touches her hand, her face, and says “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Sethe replies “Me? Me?” (314).
We are left to ponder Sethe’s question. Perhaps in “Me? Me?” we are witnessing her surprise at the idea of herself as an individual, an “I” that exists not as a mother, not as a daughter, and not as a slave, but as a person, worthy and imperfect, free and loved. In The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, author Marianne Hirsch describes Sethe’s asking of this question as seeing herself as “a mother and a subject both.” Hirsch writes “Allowing a maternal voice and subjectivity to emerge, she questions, at least for a moment, the hierarchy of motherhood over self-hood on which her life had rested until that moment” (7).
While there is some ambiguity about Sethe’s final questions, Morrison leaves us with hope for her. Despite her harsh life and her heinous crime, Sethe has survived. Her pain is known. Her family has been splayed apart, but with help from friends she may recover. Community, in the form of Paul D, Denver, Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid and the fiercely praying women, have all lent hands to care for Sethe. They have seen themselves in her and forgiven her sins. They have fought for her, and soothed her wounds. These people have claimed her and they have fed nourishing food to Sethe’s hungry heart, so she can stop yearning for mother’s milk. Real human beings have taken the place of ghosts.
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