124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.
White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way . . . they were right. . . . But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place. . . . It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread . . . until it invaded the whites who had made it. . . . Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.
In Chapter 19, at the beginning of Part Two, Stamp Paid considers the ways in which slavery corrupts and dehumanizes everyone who comes in contact with it, including the white slave owners. It makes them fearful, sadistic, and raving. For example, one could say that schoolteacher’s perverse lessons and violent racism exist because they are his means of justifying the institution of slavery. In his thoughts, Stamp Paid depicts the jungle from a white person’s point of view—as awesome, exotic, and thrilling. He perceives anxiety on the part of the whites about the unknown, unintelligible, “unnavigable” psyche of the slaves they steal. The sense of anxiety is emphasized by the images of wild consumption in the passage—jungles growing and spreading, red gums ready for blood. The conclusion of this passage asserts that what the whites recognize and run from is in fact their own savagery. They project this savagery onto those whom they perceive to be their opposites—“the Other.” The passage derives its power from the way Morrison moves the images of the jungle around, so that, by the end, the whites are the ones who hide a jungle under their skin; they are consuming themselves.
Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.
In Chapter 7, Paul D begins sharing his painful memories with Sethe, but he fears that revealing too much will wrench the two former slaves back into a past from which they might never escape. Both Sethe and Paul D avoid the pain of their past as best they can, and both have developed elaborate and ultimately destructive coping mechanisms to keep the past at bay. Sethe has effectively erased much of her memory, and Paul D functions by locking his memories and emotions away in his imagined “tobacco tin.” The rustiness of the tin contributes to the reader’s sense of the inaccessibility and corrosiveness of Paul D’s memories. His separation from his emotions means he is alienated from himself, but Paul D is willing to pay the price to keep himself from his painful and turbulent past. When Paul D is forced to confront the past during his erotic encounter with Beloved, the rusted lid of his heart begins to break open. At the end of the novel, Paul D reveals that he is willing finally to risk emotional safety and open himself to another person, to love Sethe.
. . . [I]f you go there—you who was never there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there, waiting for you . . . [E]ven though it’s all over—over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you.
This passage is from Chapter 3. In her “emerald closet,” Denver remembers what Sethe once told about the indestructible nature of the past. According to Sethe’s theory of time, past traumas continue to reenact themselves indefinitely, so it is possible to stumble into someone else’s unhappy memory. Accordingly, although Sethe describes for Denver what “was,” she turns to the future tense and tells her that the past will “always be there waiting for you.” Sethe pictures the past as a physical presence, something that is “there,” that fills a space. Beloved’s arrival confirms this notion of history’s corporeality.
The force of the past is evident even in the difficulty Sethe has talking about it. She stutters, backtracks, and repeats herself as though mere words cannot do justice to her subject matter. Even in this passage, as she warns Denver against the inescapability of the past, Sethe enacts and illustrates the very phenomenon she describes. She repeats her warning several times in a manner that demonstrates the recurrence of ideas and her inability to leave past thoughts behind. Sethe’s warnings are the main cause of Denver’s fears of leaving 124 and of the community. Only in Chapter 26 does Denver finally venture out alone. She realizes that even if she succeeds in preventing chance encounters with the past, the past may nevertheless actively begin to come after her.
And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.
After Paul D learns about Sethe’s crime from Stamp Paid in Chapter 18, he goes to 124 in search of an explanation. This passage, although written in the third person, records Sethe’s thoughts. Sethe saw the decision she made as “simple.” She wanted to secure her children’s safety, to send them “over there” into the afterlife rather than let them be pulled back to Sweet Home with schoolteacher. Sethe’s passion for her children, which infuses so much of the novel, shines through in this passage with particular clarity. The moment Sethe’s reason reduced itself to instinct, her language broke down as well: she recalls her words as “No. No. Nono. Nonono.” For her, the border between life and death is tenuous, nothing more than a screen or “veil” that she hopes to place in front of her children.
Another significant aspect of the passage is Sethe’s identification of her children as “the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful”; for Sethe, to allow schoolteacher to take her children would be to allow him to destroy everything that is good in herself, to destroy all the “life” she had made. According to this understanding, Sethe’s murder of her daughter seems a less legally and morally reprehensible crime because it becomes an act of self-defense. Yet the question of Sethe’s guilt is never fully settled in the book. The characters debate the morality of her act in pointed language, but Morrison herself withholds judgment on the deed. Throughout the book, she focuses her criticisms instead on the forces of slavery that led Sethe to kill her own daughter. In this passage and elsewhere, Morrison condemns slavery as an institution so perverse that it could mutate a mother’s love into murder.