In Beloved, Sethe persistently conflates her identity with that of her child. Sethe inadvertently named Beloved after herself. When the minister at her daughter’s funeral addressed the living (including Sethe) as “Dearly Beloved,” she believed he was referring to her dead daughter. Rather than engraving her child’s real name on her tombstone, she engraved “Beloved,” a name that now refers both to herself and to the baby. Sethe feels debased and dehumanized by her experiences as a slave and thus cannot love herself. Instead, she puts all the energy that should be spent on loving herself into loving her children. Her own identity is defined entirely in terms of motherhood. Sethe herself cannot conceive of the word “beloved” as referring to herself but only to her child; she regards her children as the “best part” of herself. Because Beloved’s name refers to Sethe as well, and because Sethe defines her children as part of herself, Beloved functions as a sort of alter ego for Sethe.
Beloved also functions on a more general level as Sethe’s repressed memories, as her personal past. As such, she is another sort of alter ego. Beloved is the self that Sethe has tried to forget, to discard. When Sethe finally learns to confront her memories, she rejoins and comes to terms with her past self.
2. One could say that the community judges Sethe harshly out of a desire to displace its own guilt. What evidence would support such a conclusion?
The specific comments made by Sethe’s critics help us to identify the underlying motivations of their harsh condemnations. Ella, for example, accuses Sethe of excessive pride and labels Sethe’s act of infanticide unjustified. However, Ella herself committed infanticide, though in a more indirect manner: when she gave birth to a child who was the result of repeated rape by a white man and his son, Ella refused to care for it because she considered such forced motherhood to be demeaning, and the baby died. It seems that Ella’s condemnation of Sethe allows her to avoid confronting her own feelings of guilt. Similarly, Paul D tells Sethe that she acted like an “animal” when she killed her children. Yet we know that Paul D’s most profound insecurity lies in his fear that he is less than a man: he is haunted by the dehumanizing experiences of slavery, during which he realized that Sweet Home’s rooster was allowed more manhood than he, and during which he was forced to wear a horse’s iron bit.
From these examples we can infer that the general community’s criticism of Sethe may stem from the same sort of guilt. The townspeople certainly have reason to feel guilty: their jealousy of Baby Suggs’s celebratory feast led them to fail to warn Sethe or Baby Suggs that schoolteacher had arrived to hunt down Sethe and her children. Judging Sethe for killing her child allows them to avoid acknowledging the role they played in the creation of the circumstances that drove Sethe to murder.
3. How can Sethe and Paul D be seen as perpetual fugitives?
Paul D spends years wandering from one place to another. After his horrifying experiences with schoolteacher and prison, he refuses to love anything strongly. In order to avoid establishing long-term relationships, he wanders from place to place. In symbolic terms, Paul D rejects his “red heart” and replaces it with a tightly sealed “tin tobacco box.” In protecting himself from further heartache, Paul D remains a fugitive from his own humanity.
At the beginning of the novel, Sethe says that she will not leave 124 because she will never run from another thing in her life. Nevertheless, she is always fleeing her own memories. Instead of confronting her past, Sethe vigilantly tries to keep always ahead of it, always above it. By turning and engaging with her past, which Beloved’s appearance enables her to do, Sethe is able finally to preempt and lessen its blows.
Take a Study Break!