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Beloved by Toni Morrison

In research papers on Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the main character Sethe is enslaved by past wrongs that are embodied through Beloved.  Research papers on Beloved by Toni Morrison show how Morrison embodies Sethe’s, the main character tormented soul and she must first face Beloved’s origins. Toni Morrison’s Beloved exhibits a variety of myths included the following:

  • Myths related to slavery in Beloved
  • Myths of motherhood in Beloved
  • Myths in the novel having to do with social acceptance in the novel Beloved

On the concept of slavery, Morrison submits the supernatural revelation of the child Beloved as analogous to the destructive legacy of slavery, not only to those that have contributed to its proliferation but also to those who have been put into slavery.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Morrison and Slavery

Morrison uses the manifestation of the phantasmal Beloved as a persistent symbol and theme of this legacy, however the ghost does not haunt the slave master who has committed her kin to lives of bondage, but rather her mother Sethe, who ventured to protect her from it. Morrison offers no other explanation for Sethe’s haunting except to establish that the horrors of slavery were so severe that they would influence a mother to kill her child in the attempt to protect her from its atrocities.

Beloved is a myth in so much as it uses the supernatural to emphasize the unquestionable truth of slavery’s destructive heritage.  The supernatural theme of the novel is revealed in the reincarnation of Sethe’s deceased daughter Beloved. In essence, the apparition of Beloved becomes the manifest symbol of slavery and a haunting that will not allow Sethe to forget her memories of it. In order to understand the significance of Beloved’s character as a supernatural symbol of the atrocities of slavery, it is necessary to recognize how and why “she” is introduced in the novel.

Sethe has managed to escape to Ohio with her children when one day “school teacher, one nephew, one slave catcher and a sheriff” arrive at the house on Bluestone Road.  Sethe knows they have come to take her and the children back to Kentucky and she tries to kill her children in an act that can only be described as an attempt to save them from the cruelty that she knew awaited them there. Unfortunately, at least in terms of Sethe’s initial objective, she is only successful in killing her oldest daughter who is not yet two years old. The manner in which the dead child is named is, in itself, an indication of the desperation and resignation that follows slavery.  When Sethe cannot afford the humiliation or the cost to have a full epithet engraved on the child’s headstone, she must settle for only one word - Beloved.

Although the ghost that haunts the house at 124 is not acknowledged by the name Beloved until she manifests herself in the form of a young woman, she is early on and although unseen immediately recognized as Sethe’s dead baby daughter because of the misery she creates.  “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom”.  Once her boys had left her and Baby Suggs had passed on, Sethe and her daughter were left alone to wage “a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of the house, against turned-over slop jars and gusts of sour air.  For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light”.  “Who could have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?”.

The use of Beloved as the symbol of bondage incarnate has implications for several of the novel’s characters however for none as much as for Sethe.  In her monologues and her interactions with Beloved, Sethe struggles to justify the death of her daughter as an act to free the child from slavery’s inheritance as much as it was to free herself from its legacy.

“I won’t never let her go. I’ll explain to her even though I don’t have to. Why I did it. How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her”.

Beloved’s Destructive Purpose

As much as Sethe and Beloved do experience moments of unspoken mother-daughter joy, Beloved’s destructive purpose is evidenced several times throughout the novel.  In one example, Sethe enjoys a moment of respite, imagining the soothing hands of her deceased mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, massaging her neck, a moment that turns to alarm when she is choked - by the hands of Beloved.  “For eighteen years she had lived in a house full of touches from the other side.  And the thumbs that pressed her nape were the same”.

The definitive example of the novel’s mythological interpretation of Beloved as a supernatural symbol of slavery’s destructive heritage is revealed in the final chapter.  The conclusion is prefaced by the consensus of the community to forgive Sethe’s crime, to “turn infanticide and the cry of savagery around and build a further case for abolishing slavery”.

As Sethe prepares to finally part with the ghost of slavery that has haunted her for so many years, Beloved is revealed as wearing “vines of hair twisted all over her head”.  The imagery is symbolic of the mythical Medusa who could turn anyone that looked upon her to stone.  She represents to Sethe the final chance to leave the bonds of slavery and meet the wholeness of community, a deliverance that she had denied by her chosen isolation for so many years but which had been within her grasp from the very beginning.

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