Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Slavery’s Destruction of Identity
Beloved explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery, a devastation that continues to haunt those characters who are former slaves even in freedom. The most dangerous of slavery’s effects is its negative impact on the former slaves’ senses of self, and the novel contains multiple examples of self-alienation. Paul D, for instance, is so alienated from himself that at one point he cannot tell whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else’s. Slaves were told they were subhuman and were traded as commodities whose worth could be expressed in dollars. Consequently, Paul D is very insecure about whether or not he could possibly be a real “man,” and he frequently wonders about his value as a person. Sethe, also, was treated as a subhuman. She once walked in on schoolteacher giving his pupils a lesson on her “animal characteristics.” She, too, seems to be alienated from herself and filled with self-loathing. Thus, she sees the best part of herself as her children. Yet her children also have volatile, unstable identities. Denver conflates her identity with Beloved’s, and Beloved feels herself actually beginning to physically disintegrate. Slavery has also limited Baby Suggs’s self-conception by shattering her family and denying her the opportunity to be a true wife, sister, daughter, or loving mother. As a result of their inability to believe in their own existences, both Baby Suggs and Paul D become depressed and tired. Baby Suggs’s fatigue is spiritual, while Paul D’s is emotional. While a slave, Paul D developed self-defeating coping strategies to protect him from the emotional pain he was forced to endure. Any feelings he had were locked away in the rusted “tobacco tin” of his heart, and he concluded that one should love nothing too intensely. Other slaves—Jackson Till, Aunt Phyllis, and Halle—went insane and thus suffered a complete loss of self. Sethe fears that she, too, will end her days in madness. Indeed, she does prove to be mad when she kills her own daughter. Yet Sethe’s act of infanticide illuminates the perverse forces of the institution of slavery: under slavery, a mother best expresses her love for her children by murdering them and thus protecting them from the more gradual destruction wrought by slavery. Stamp Paid muses that slavery’s negative consequences are not limited to the slaves: he notes that slavery causes whites to become “changed and altered . . . made . . . bloody, silly, worse than they ever wanted to be.” The insidious effects of the institution affect not only the identities of its black victims but those of the whites who perpetrate it and the collective identity of Americans. Where slavery exists, everyone suffers a loss of humanity and compassion. For this reason, Morrison suggests that our nation’s identity, like the novel’s characters, must be healed. America’s future depends on its understanding of the past: just as Sethe must come to terms with her past before she can secure a future with Denver and Paul D, before we can address slavery’s legacy in the contemporary problems of racial discrimination and discord, we must confront the dark and hidden corners of our history. Crucially, in Beloved, we learn about the history and legacy of slavery not from schoolteacher’s or even from the Bodwins’ point of view but rather from Sethe’s, Paul D’s, Stamp Paid’s, and Baby Suggs’s. Morrison writes history with the voices of a people historically denied the power of language, and Beloved recuperates a history that had been lost—either due to willed forgetfulness (as in Sethe’s repression of her memories) or to forced silence (as in the case of Paul D’s iron bit).
The Importance of Community Solidarity
Beloved demonstrates the extent to which individuals need the support of their communities in order to survive. Sethe first begins to develop her sense of self during her twenty-eight days of freedom, when she becomes a part of the Cincinnati community. Similarly, Denver discovers herself and grows up when she leaves 124 and becomes a part of society. Paul D and his fellow prison inmates in Georgia prove able to escape only by working together. They are literally chained to one another, and Paul D recalls that “if one lost, all lost.” Lastly, it is the community that saves Sethe from mistakenly killing Mr. Bodwin and casting the shadow of another sin across her and her family’s life. Cincinnati’s black community plays a pivotal role in the events of 124. The community’s failure to alert Sethe to schoolteacher’s approach implicates it in the death of Sethe’s daughter. Baby Suggs feels the slight as a grave betrayal from which she never fully recovers. At the end of the novel, the black community makes up for its past misbehavior by gathering at 124 to collectively exorcise Beloved. By driving Beloved away, the community secures Sethe’s, and its own, release from the past.
The Powers and Limits of Language
When Sixo turns schoolteacher’s reasoning around to justify having broken the rules, schoolteacher whips him to demonstrate that “definitions belong to the definers,” not to the defined. The slaves eventually come to realize the illegitimacy of many of the white definitions. Mr. Garner, for example, claims to have allowed his slaves to live as “real men,” but Paul D questions just how manly they actually are. So, too, does Paul D finally come to realize with bitter irony the fallacy of the name “Sweet Home.” Although Sixo eventually reacts to the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of slavery by abandoning English altogether, other characters use English to redefine the world on their own terms. Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid, for example, rename themselves. Beloved may be read as Morrison’s effort to transform those who have always been the defined into the definers. While slaves, the characters manipulate language and transcend its standard limits. Their command of language allows them to adjust its meanings and to make themselves indecipherable to the white slave owners who watch them. For example, Paul D and the Georgia prison inmates sing together about their dreams and memories by “garbling . . . [and] tricking the words.” The title of the novel alludes to what is ultimately the product of a linguistic misunderstanding. At her daughter’s funeral, Sethe interpreted the minister’s address to the “Dearly Beloved” as referring to the dead rather than the living. All literature is indebted to this “slippery,” shifting quality of language: the power of metaphor, simile, metonymy, irony, and wordplay all result from the ability of words to attach and detach themselves from various possible meanings.
Beloved explores how the conditions of slavery at once make family more fragile and more firmly bonded. Since slaves were considered private property, slave owners could break up families by buying or selling individual family members. It was especially lucrative to sell children, who were young and had many working years left. Baby Suggs directly experienced having her children sold to other slave owners. She gave birth to nine children, all but one of whom were taken from her. Yet the experience of losing nearly all of her children did not break Baby Suggs. On the contrary, it greatly intensified her relationship with her one remaining son, Halle, who went to extraordinary lengths to buy her freedom. The familial bonds produced by slavery can also prove dangerous, as demonstrated by the intensity of Sethe’s maternal instincts. When schoolteacher arrives at 124, Sethe doesn’t hesitate in her attempt to protect her children from him. But others find it deeply disturbing that Sethe attempted to protect her children by trying to kill them. Paul D, for instance, tells Sethe that her maternal love is “too thick.” But Sethe rejects his claim and insists: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all.”