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Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Color Red

Colors from the red part of the spectrum (including orange and pink) recur throughout Beloved, although the meaning of these red objects varies. Amy Denver’s red velvet, for example, is an image of hope and a brighter future, while Paul D’s “red heart” represents feeling and emotion. Overall, red seems to connote vitality and the visceral nature of human existence. Yet, in Beloved, vitality often goes hand in hand with mortality, and red images simultaneously refer to life and death, to presence and absence. For example, the red roses that line the road to the carnival serve to herald the carnival’s arrival in town and announce the beginning of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D’s new life together; yet they also stink of death. The red rooster signifies manhood to Paul D, but it is a manhood that Paul D himself has been denied. The story of Amy’s search for carmine velvet seems especially poignant because we sense the futility of her dream. Sethe’s memory is awash with the red of her daughter’s blood and the pink mineral of her gravestone, both of which have been bought at a dear price.

Trees

In the world of Beloved, trees serve primarily as sources of healing, comfort, and life. Denver’s “emerald closet” of boxwood bushes functions as a place of solitude and repose for her. The beautiful trees of Sweet Home mask the true horror of the plantation in Sethe’s memory. Paul D finds his freedom by following flowering trees to the North, and Sethe finds hers by escaping through a forest. By imagining the scars on Sethe’s back as a “chokecherry tree,” Amy Denver sublimates a site of trauma and brutality into one of beauty and growth. But as the sites of lynchings and of Sixo’s death by burning, however, trees reveal a connection with a darker side of humanity as well.

The Tin Tobacco Box

Paul D describes his heart as a “tin tobacco box.” After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Alfred, Georgia, he locks away his feelings and memories in this “box,” which has, by the time Paul D arrives at 124, “rusted” over completely. By alienating himself from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage. In order to secure this protection, however, Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by foregoing feeling and gives up much of his selfhood by repressing his memories. Although Paul D is convinced that nothing can pry the lid of his box open, his strange, dreamlike sexual encounter with Beloved—perhaps a symbol of an encounter with his past—causes the box to burst and his heart once again to glow red.

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The novel’s central theme is the devastation wrought by ___.
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Beloved (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)

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