Those who are unfamiliar with the raw concept of what the institution of slavery was will consider its role in ‘Beloved’ as truly disturbing and psychologically horrifying. In a modern world where slavery has become a distant concept that is virtually non-existent, it no longer has a true identity. In this novel, we are shown how slavery cannot be simply defined as the trade-in people, but as the manipulation of their emotions and freedom by others who held power over them.
‘Beloved’ reveals slavery in its purest form, what it really was at its most powerful and how it left former slaves mentally shattered even after it was abolished. The novel is very complex and the theme of slavery works on a number of levels. Within the text, it is rich in historical detail regarding slavery by cataloguing atrocities of slavery, with the purpose of highlighting its harsh reality.
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Slavery as a theme is explored in ‘Beloved’ through the traumatic experiences of former slaves and despite being physically free, their past continues to haunt them. Through the paraphernalia of slavery in the novel, Morrison is aiming to educate the reader about slavery in its totality. Morrison does this by teaching the reader about slavery, almost as a history lesson and by giving it characteristics that tell the reader what it was like. This is the opinion of Carol Rumens from a review in the Times Literary Supplement of October 1987: –
‘Morrison increases our sense of outrage of slavery
by describing the system, initially, not at its most brutal but at its most enlightened.’
This quote further implies that slavery has always been regarded as a mistake of the past but the emphasis on its nature is given definition in ‘Beloved’. Morrison’s aim in doing this is her concern that slavery is in danger of becoming just a word, which has no clear meaning. What Morrison achieves through language and the lives of the characters in the novel, is to allow the reader an insight into the world of slavery.
Morrison portrays slavery as an underlying theme in the central story of the novel. This is done through the use of the first-person narrative throughout the novel’s many characters. Its use allows the reader to view the lives of these people through their own eyes; how they live and feel their emotions, and thus we too experience slavery. As a result, we view the life of each person and his or her view.
This is present in the narrative of the Schoolteacher whose interpretations show how many slave owners felt morally superior to their slaves and justified slavery by believing as if it were natural that blacks were meant to be slaves. Schoolteacher renders them as ‘..creatures God had given you the responsibility of’, but the first person narrative gives the reader the opportunity to contemplate why he believed this. This quote is taken from Schoolteacher’s narrative just as Sethe has murdered Beloved: –
‘all testimony to the results of
a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care
and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred.’
By telling the story through a series of first person narratives, Morrison allows the reader to view what happens by how the particular character
interprets them because she wants us to perceive them in a certain way. This is a characteristic of the convention of the omniscient author. Morrison use of the convention of the omniscient author encourages the reader to experience slavery as a direct experience, Margaret Atwood of the New York Times describes this as: –
American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects
of its exchange…
at its worst, which was as bad
as can be
This shows the emotional bearing on the character overwhelms any physical effects in the text.
None of the characters can completely forget their individual experiences of slavery but learn to cope in their own ways, Sethe does not and carries out the ultimate atrocity in ‘Beloved’. Like many former slaves in the novel, Sethe regards her past as a slave as a separate life from the present in order to make it feel more distant: –
‘..every mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was either painful or lost.’
It was this past she was haunted by what led her to attempt to murder all her children and to being successful in murdering one, especially the experience of being literally ‘milked’ by the Schoolteachers nephews. She doesn’t want her own children (of whom she is very possessive) to experience slavery. Paul D describes her love as: –
‘for a used to-be-slave woman
to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her
children she had settled on to love.’
This quote sounds unnatural but realistic when applied to slavery. To love your own children is natural; it is a mother’s maternal instinct, but as Baby Suggs tells Denver, slaves were only supposed to please their owners: –
‘Slaves not supposed to have pleasurable
feelings on their own…
Sethe’s horror of overhearing one of the nephews of the Schoolteacher had written about her ‘animal characteristics’ with ink she had made for them, dictates what she becomes after escaping Sweet Home. A. S. Byatt expresses this as a ‘profound and patterning metaphor’. This representation is of Sethe being degraded to an animal-like status exemplified when she is ‘milked’. ‘Milking’ Sethe was one of Schoolteachers ways of trying to argue slavery was justified by labelling slaves more animal than human: –
‘..two boys..one sucking
on my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher
watching and writing it up.’
Sethe describes her horrific treatment as being ‘handled (me) like I was the cow,..’ This simile comparing her treatment with that of an animal emphasizes how Schoolteacher felt Sethe was more animal than human. We usually associate ‘milking’ as an animal practice not for humans. Margaret Atwood of the New York Times conveys the impact slavery also had on the perpetrators of it: –
‘..they start believing in their own superiority and justifying their
actions by it..they make a cult of the inferiority of those
This is certainly true of Schoolteacher who seems to command respect as he feels superior, however, by doing this he is just proving how inhumane people like him are and in spite of his education the slaves are superior to him.
Sethe is left psychologically scarred by the trauma of what was inflicted upon her and will not allow her children to suffer like she had as a slave: –
‘That anybody white could take your
whole self for anything that came to mind…
Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself
anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t
think it up.. the best thing
was, her children. Whites might dirt her all right, but not her
The repetition of ‘Dirty you..’ calls attention to Sethes feelings of her no longer being herself anymore. So when the threat of Schoolteacher taking her ‘best thing’ away from her into a world she did not want her children to experience, she makes the ultimate decision. Sethe was determined not to allow Schoolteacher take her children: –
‘I have felt what it felt like and nobody..
is going to make you feel it too. Not you, not none of mine, and when I tell you you mine, I mean I’m yours.’
The syntax in the last sentence of the quotation shows that Sethes message is blunt and she sounds determined. This is an act of rebellion for any slave.
Since her ‘animal characteristics’ were listed, that is what she literally becomes when the whites came for her, she expresses this as those whom
‘send the birds twittering back into her hair’. Consequently, this was how she feels when she collects her children in order to kill them: –
‘ Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks..through..
into her hair and beat their wings..
She just flew.’
Stamp Paid who witnessed the event depicts her behaviour in a similar bird-like manner: –
‘..snatching up her
children like a hawk on the wing; how her face beaked, how her
hands worked like claws,..’
These accounts give the impression that Sethe suddenly became bird-like in her behaviour. The repetition of ‘how her’ and the similes show the similarity between Sethes character and that of a bird, Sethe adopted the characteristics of a bird as soon as she felt her children were in danger from the whites. Sethe believes she made the right decision, which she justifies as: –
‘How if I
hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could
not bear to happen to her.’
This statement sounds ironic, as it seems Sethe is saying that by murdering Beloved it was better for her to die than to live. She would have died mentally, which is probably an indication of how Sethe perceives herself. The novel is full of many paradoxes, Paul D describes his life as ‘Life was dead.’ This has an effect on the lives of these slaves (at that time in the text) being something that they weren’t meant to be and wanting what wouldn’t be regarded as acceptable or ‘normal’ to their owners.
In the second part of the novel, Morrison makes the reader aware that this story is not real, but mythical. Sethe murdering Beloved is meant to draw attention to a message within the story. It seems this almost mythical novel is encouraging the readers to think about what the story of ‘Beloved’ is trying to teach. Sethe is not only physically haunted by her murdered daughter but mentally by her past which she cannot forget: –
‘but her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the
past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine let alone
plan for, the next day.’
The idea of the past continuing to haunt the present is reinforced in the text through many of the monologues and the first person narratives of Sethe, who can’t forget her past. The characters reminisce frequently using the present tense in past events, which shows how the past is still evident within the present. However, some former slaves like Ella, who manage to cope with their past and look to the future are free of their past: –
‘the future was sunset; the past
something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you
might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life-every day was a
test and a trial.’
Finally, the ‘ghost’ of Beloved in her supernatural and ‘physical’ form represents Sethe’s past that she can’t let go of. You get the impression that Sethe wants the ‘ghost’ there, which is why she returns in a human form.
In ‘Beloved’ the reluctance of Sethe and Beloved to let go of each other leads to dreadful consequences for Sethe who becomes devoured by Beloved. In the same way, Sethe is haunted by Beloved by continually looking to the past instead of the future, Morrison is trying to teach black Americans the lesson that Sethe has to learn. How Sethe can’t look to the future and instead looks to the past, the past eventually devours her personified by Beloved. Black Americans who are haunted by the past of their forefathers, who may have been slaves and don’t look to the future will also have a bleak future if they do not learn the same lesson as Sethe. Andrï¿½s T. Tapia also reaches this conclusion in the article taken from cheski.net: –
‘Those who can’t let go of the past self
destruct while those who choose to respect and mourn the past but not be
beholden to it find unexpected freedom.’
In the final chapter of the novel, Morrison ends the story with Beloved letting Sethe go. The chapter essentially emphasizes the meaning of the novel and is almost like a fairy tale ending. The past no longer haunts the former slaves in the novel for those like Sethe. They have forgotten the past ‘like a bad dream’. Forgetting is repeated again in the chapter to emphasize its importance and making the past into
‘an unpleasant dream’. It is through Beloved that Sethe finds an inner peace. Morrison is reinforcing the message to many black Americans that like Sethe they must achieve their own inner peace. They must learn to forget the past as stated ‘Remembering seemed unwise.’, so to remember the past will achieve nothing but looking to the future they will also achieve their own freedom.
Morrison emphasizes the need for the black community not to teach the future generations the mistakes of the past through repetition of the single line
‘It was not a story to pass on. ‘at two separate points of the chapter. The characters in the novel that had any contact with Beloved did this as they realized that to remember too much would be a mistake. In a paragraph after the second time this line is repeated, Morrison warns the black American reader: –
‘This is not a story to pass on.
This single statement is of a much more blunt and threatening tone and acts as a final warning.
Essentially, what Morrison is saying is that eventually the past can be forgotten and then a future can be achieved. Slavery was their past and not the future. It was harsh and brutal for their forefathers who were the victims of an inhumane institution but that doesn’t mean the future has to be their past too.
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