Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, is a proud and noble woman. She insists on sewing a proper wedding dress for the first night she spends with Halle, and she finds schoolteacher’s lesson on her “animal characteristics” more debilitating than his nephews’ sexual and physical abuse. Although the community’s shunning of Sethe and Baby Suggs for thinking too highly of themselves is unfair, the fact that Sethe prefers to steal food from the restaurant where she works rather than wait on line with the rest of the black community shows that she does consider herself different from the rest of the blacks in her neighborhood. Yet, Sethe is not too proud to accept support from others in every instance. Despite her independence (and her distrust of men), she welcomes Paul D and the companionship he offers.
Sethe’s most striking characteristic, however, is her devotion to her children. Unwilling to relinquish her children to the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma she has endured as a slave, she tries to murder them in an act that is, in her mind, one of motherly love and protection. Her memories of this cruel act and of the brutality she herself suffered as a slave infuse her everyday life and lead her to contend that past trauma can never really be eradicated—it continues, somehow, to exist in the present. She thus spends her life attempting to avoid encounters with her past. Perhaps Sethe’s fear of the past is what leads her to ignore the overwhelming evidence that Beloved is the reincarnation of her murdered daughter. Indeed, even after she acknowledges Beloved’s identity, Sethe shows herself to be still enslaved by the past, because she quickly succumbs to Beloved’s demands and allows herself to be consumed by Beloved. Only when Sethe learns to confront the past head-on, to assert herself in its presence, can she extricate herself from its oppressive power and begin to live freely, peacefully, and responsibly in the present.
Sethe’s daughter Denver is the most dynamic character in the novel. She is shy, intelligent, introspective, sensitive, and inclined to spend hours alone in her “emerald closet,” a sylvan space formed by boxwood bushes. Her mother considers Denver a “charmed” child who has miraculously survived, and throughout the book Denver is in close contact with the supernatural.
Despite Denver’s abilities to cope, she has been stunted emotionally by years of relative isolation. Though eighteen years old, she acts much younger, maintaining an intense fear of the world outside 124 and a perilously fragile sense of self. Indeed, her self-conception remains so tentative that she feels slighted by the idea of a world that does not include her—even the world of slavery at Sweet Home. Denver defines her identity in relation to Sethe. She also defines herself in relation to her sister—first in the form of the baby ghost, then in the form of Beloved. When she feels that she is being excluded from her family’s attentions—for example, when her mother devotes her energies to Paul D—Denver feels threatened and angry. Correspondingly, she treats Paul D coldly much of the time.
In the face of Beloved’s escalating malevolence and her mother’s submissiveness, Denver is forced to step outside the world of 124. Filled with a sense of duty, purpose, and courage, she enlists the help of the community and cares for her increasingly self-involved mother and sister. She enters a series of lessons with Miss Bodwin and considers attending Oberlin College someday. Her last conversation with Paul D underscores her newfound maturity: she presents herself with more civility and sincerity than in the past and asserts that she now has her own opinions.
Beloved’s elusive, complex identity is central to our understanding of the novel. She may, as Sethe originally believes, be an ordinary woman who was locked up by a white man and never let out of doors. Her limited linguistic ability, neediness, baby-soft skin, and emotional instability could all be explained by a lifetime spent in captivity. But these traits could also support the theory that is held by most of the characters in the novel, as well as most readers: Beloved is the embodied spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter. Beloved is the age the baby would have been had it lived, and she bears the name printed on the baby’s tombstone. She first appears to Sethe soaking wet, as though newly born, and Sethe has the sensation of her water breaking when she sees her. Additionally, Beloved knows about a pair of earrings Sethe possessed long ago, she hums a song Sethe made up for her children, she has a long scar under her chin where her death-wound would have been dealt, and her breath smells like milk.
A third interpretation views Beloved as a representation of Sethe’s dead mother. In Chapter 22, Beloved recounts memories that correspond to those that Sethe’s mother might have had of her passage to America from Africa. Beloved has a strange manner of speaking and seems to wear a perpetual smile—traits we are told were shared by Sethe’s mother. By Chapter 26, Beloved and Sethe have switched places, with Beloved acting as the mother and Sethe as the child. Their role reversal may simply mark more explicitly what has been Beloved’s role all along. On a more general level, Beloved may also stand for all of the slaves who made the passage across the Atlantic. She may give voice to and embody the collective unconscious of all those oppressed by slavery’s history and legacy.
Beloved is presented as an allegorical figure. Whether she is Sethe’s daughter, Sethe’s mother, or a representative of all of slavery’s victims, Beloved represents the past returned to haunt the present. The characters’ confrontations with Beloved and, consequently, their pasts, are complex. The interaction between Beloved and Sethe is given particular attention in the book. Once Sethe reciprocates Beloved’s violent passion for her, the two become locked in a destructive, exclusive, parasitic relationship. When she is with Beloved, Sethe is paralyzed in the past. She devotes all her attention to making Beloved understand why she reacted to schoolteacher’s arrival the way she did. Paradoxically, Beloved’s presence is enabling at the same time that it is destructive. Beloved allows and inspires Sethe to tell the stories she never tells—stories about her own feelings of abandonment by her mother, about the harshest indignities she suffered at Sweet Home, and about her motivations for murdering her daughter. By engaging with her past, Sethe begins to learn about herself and the extent of her ability to live in the present.
Beloved also inspires the growth of other characters in the novel. Though Paul D’s hatred for Beloved never ceases, their strange, dreamlike sexual encounters open the lid of his “tobacco tin” heart, allowing him to remember, feel, and love again. Denver benefits the most from Beloved’s presence, though indirectly. At first she feels an intense dependence on Beloved, convinced that in Beloved’s absence she has no “self” of her own. Later, however, Beloved’s increasingly malevolent, temperamental, self-centered actions alert Denver to the dangers of the past Beloved represents. Ultimately, Beloved’s tyranny over Sethe forces Denver to leave 124 and seek help in the community. Denver’s exile from 124 marks the beginning of her social integration and of her search for independence and self-possession.
Although Beloved vanishes at the end of the book, she is never really gone—her dress and her story, forgotten by the town but preserved by the novel, remain. Beloved represents a destructive and painful past, but she also signals the possibility of a brighter future. She gives the people of 124, and eventually the entire community, a chance to engage with the memories they have suppressed. Through confrontation, the community can reclaim and learn from its forgotten and ignored memories.
The scene treated in this analysis is from Toni Morrison's Beloved. It is situated where Paul D, a former slave is captured and deported together with forty-fife other prisoners and where they successfully manage to escape. All quotations will be from the following scene :
Snakes came down from short-leaf pine and hemlock.
Cypress, yellow poplar, ash and palmetto drooped under five days of rain without wind. By the eighth day the doves were nowhere in sight, by the ninth even the salamanders wer
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