Much like a ghost, Beloved’s Sethe is caught in limbo between her past and future. She constantly struggles between the remembrances triggered by Beloved and the opportunities afforded by Paul D. Having never matured into the present, Sethe finds consolation in Beloved, who personifies both the good and the bad of her past. With the re-entrance of Paul D into her life, Sethe becomes aware of the future, but resists moving forward. Accentuating Sethe’s strain between the past and future is the constant battle between Beloved and Paul D for control over Sethe. It is not until Sethe conquers her past that she can move into the future.To Sethe, the encumbrance of her past is comforting. Beloved, as both a sprit and a human, is always with Sethe. As Sethe prays, Denver sees “a white dress knelt down next to her mother and…and its sleeve around her mother’s waist” (29). Prayer is an activity in which one finds peace within one’s self, but it is not from within that comes her comfort, but instead from Beloved’s presence. Even in Sethe’s most private, solitary moments, Beloved placates her, all the while refusing to let go, as the waisted arm reveals. Sethe, although hesitant, is perceptive of her omnipresent past. As she discusses the white dress apparition with Denver, she admits that “Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not…it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you…it’s going to always be there waiting for you” (36). When Beloved arrives at 124, reincarnated in human form, Sethe “can’t place it” (67), but the “feeling” (67) in her recognizes Beloved as the same haunting past and knowing this, she still “had let her in” (66), to her house, her life.As the physical embodiment of Sethe’s past, Beloved inhibits her from conquering the ghosts of the past in which she remains. After mercy killing Beloved, Sethe’s dress dries “stiff, like rigor mortis” (153); it is not the dress that undergoes partial mortality, but instead Sethe. At the death of her daughter, a part of Sethe dies, suspending her in the past. Having accustomed herself with Sethe’s habits, Beloved begins “inching down Bluestone Road further and further each day to meet Sethe and walk her back to 124…as though every afternoon she doubted anew the older woman’s return” (57).Beloved is afraid that Sethe will leave her past, and she collects her in this fashion, striving to hold her in it. She continually pushes Sethe back into the past as she fishes for stories, using remnants of memories as bait. Beloved receives a “profound satisfaction…from storytelling” (58) because every time Sethe senses a hint of her past life, she returns to that piece of her life, which is so readily available having never fully escaped it.Beloved claims possession of Sethe, telling Denver, “She is the one. She is the one I need…she is the one I have to have” (76). Each journey back holds Sethe there as she embraces both the good and the bad, fulfilling Beloved’s desire to hold her in the past.With Paul D’s arrival, comes a wary reassurance, leading Sethe to become inquisitive of the future. The morning after they have sex for the first time, Sethe begins to think, “Would it be all right? Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?” (38). He suggests the prospect of a family, something Sethe never truly experienced, telling her that they should make “space for somebody along with [Denver]” (45). Before space can be made for Paul D in their family, Sethe must overcome her past.As Sethe begins to step forward, Beloved’s efforts grow, holding her back. At the carnival with Paul D and Denver, Sethe first sees the possibility of a future as she notices that “[t]hey were not holding hands, but their shadows were…all three of them were gliding over the dust holding hands” (47). But, much like the landscaping of the carnival, where “the closer the roses got to death, the louder their scent” (47), the closer Sethe gets to putting her past behind her, the louder and stronger Beloved’s actions become. As she recognizes that “Paul D was adding something to her life-something she wanted to count on but was scared to” (95), Sethe begins to lay the memory of Halle to rest in Baby Suggs’ preaching clearing, but as she gains greater peace with remembrance of Halle, the “fingers touching the back of her neck [become] stronger… Harder, harder, the fingers [move] slowly around toward her windpipe making little circles on the way” (96). She associates the pain as that of forgetting the past, resurrecting her fear of letting go. Beloved not only attacks the future through Sethe, but also through Paul D, Sethe’s link to the future. Paul D recognizes that it is the haint that prevents Sethe from moving on, just as Beloved recognizes that it is Paul D that will cause Sethe to leave the past. Between Paul D and Beloved, there is a constant power struggle; they struggle for power over Sethe and power between themselves. Upon their first acquaintance, Paul exhibits his supremacy over Beloved, instructing her to “Leave the place alone! Get the hell out” (18), in hopes of giving Sethe the opportunity to escape from the past that possesses her. With Beloved in the house, “[t]here was no room for anything or body until Paul D arrived and broke up the place, making room, shifting it, moving it over to someplace else” (39), but she later uses her own tactics to rid 124 of Paul D. As Beloved slowly moves Paul D around the house, she eventually corners him in the shed behind it, disregarding Paul D’s pleas of Sethe’s love for her, taking her own turn to instruct Paul D to “touch [her]. On the inside part” (117). Beloved uses sex, man’s weakness, to conquer the future. Although Beloved succeeds in the instant, she does not rid 124 of Paul D, but instead leads him to the realization that Sethe cannot move on as long as her past haunts her.It is not until Sethe is at ease with the prospect of a future that she can confront her past. After his sexual encounter with Beloved, Paul D says to Sethe, “I want you pregnant…Would you do that for me” (128). The baby of Paul D’s desire is his wish to start anew with Sethe, for both of them to lay their past to rest and create their own future, but Sethe responds with, “Don’t you think I’m too old to start that all over again” (128), demonstrating her interest in the future, because she does not reject the idea of a family, but at the same time her hesitance to move forward, because she is insecure leaving her past to regenerate her life. As they sleep together later, Sethe “placed her hand on his chest [as she wondered] if her boys come back one day, and Denver and Beloved stayed on well, would it be the way it was suppose to be, no” (132). With the placement of her hand, she begins to bridge into the future as she contemplates and acknowledges its consequences. Her recognition of “the smile and the upfront love that made her try” (161) to explain the murder of Beloved to Paul D demonstrates her growing comfort with the future. She hesitates as she draws closer to the account, knowing that “the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one” (163), not because she was avoiding the past, but instead because of her personal consciousness that she could not move into the future without confronting her past.As Sethe approaches the future, her movement is reflected in Beloved’s physique. “She had two dreams: exploding and being swallowed. When her tooth came out–an odd fragment, last in the row—she thought it was starting” (133). Her dreams expose her growing awareness of Sethe’s reconciliation with the past, while the loss of her tooth reflects the physical effects of it, as Sethe is literally dismantling her past, Beloved. But, Sethe digresses, fully submitting herself to Beloved. “Beloved sat around, ate, went from bed to bed…The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became…Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it” (250). When Sethe makes the decision not to kill Mr. Bodwin, whom she believed to be school teacher, “her hand is empty” (262), now absent of that of Beloved, who had held onto her for so long. During the exorcism, Sethe is forced to relive the events surrounding Beloved’s death so that she can correct her actions, and finally move on.Beloved exists to force Sethe to confront her past. Sethe tries to repress her memories, which results in its return with greater force. She must choose between the past and the future, Beloved and Paul D, but in order to move into the future, she must bury her memories, and rid herself of the parasitic Beloved. Although Sethe finally surmounts her past, she will never be fully absent of it because, as Morrison said, “She did the right thing, but she didn’t have the right to do it.”
That Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ is stylistically diverse cannot be doubted: Morrison’s novel appears straightforward at first glance, opening with blank verse in a standard prose narration, but over the course of the story the style varies to contain differing levels of imagery and metaphor, as well as changes in tense, changes in register, free indirect discourse, stream-of-consciousness narration, shifting levels of language in terms of description and dialogue, and a combination of personification and repetition to solidify the characterization of an inanimate object.When the novel opens, before Paul D makes his entrance, we are introduced to five characters: Sethe, her living daughter Denver, the ghost of her deceased daughter Beloved, her deceased mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and the house they live in, 124. Morrison uses personification to give the house its own identity: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom,” as if the house itself could feel spite. Morrison’s use of repetition builds upon this personification of the house to strengthen the character of 124 as well as to provide a framework structure for the three parts of the novel as a whole. “124 was loud,” we are told at the beginning of part two, and “124 was quiet” at the beginning of part three – so there is a gradual taming of the house to run parallel to a solidification, in flesh, of the spirit of Beloved herself, from something “spiteful” being ‘toned down’ to something “quiet.” Repetition, furthermore, is used throughout the novel to strengthen and categorize the essence of these characters: Baby Suggs is consistently referred to as “holy” while Paul D is “the last of the Sweet Home men,” and Sweet Home itself is embodied with almost as much character as 124, but, unlike 124, it is not personified; where Sweet Home was a place where things happened, 124 is a place that makes things happen: 124 controls the qualities it possesses – spite, volume – it throws people out of its doors, it affects strangers who enter it, and it warns any unfamiliar person who comes near to turn away.The characterization of the humans in the story is somewhat more straightforward, achieved through dialogue and the level of language used by each character, as well as the level of language used to describe each character, and by way of free indirect discourse and other techniques such as change in register and stream-of-consciousness narration. Baby Suggs, for instance, being deceased before the story even begins, is characterized in flashback almost entirely through a combination of her dialogue and through the way other characters remember her. She speaks in short, clipped sentences that often double-back and repeat: “In this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder do they flay it.” Later, in a flashback sequence in which Baby Suggs seeks employment, she says: “Where is this here slaughterhouse?” and when asked what kinds of shoes she can repair she says, “New, old, anything.” Her short sentences reveal a confident character, self-assured and able to handle herself, who, when in the company of others, becomes almost prophet-like in light of the wisdom she dispenses with such certainty and conviction that those characters around her – and, by extension, we ourselves – cannot help but agree with her when she continues: “Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them…. You got to love it, you!” Stylistically, Morrison opts not to develop Baby Suggs’ character through blank prose, with a third-person narrator noting that Baby Suggs is wise, or respected, or impassioned, or even “holy.” Instead, she uses dialogue to convey these character traits – demonstrating rather than spelling them out – and, in addition, the level of language used by Baby Suggs also plays a role in this development. We can tell that although she is wise, the style of her dialogue and the words she uses are not those of a well-educated woman.Imagery and metaphor also play strong roles in the novel, most often reflecting the attitudes or feelings of the characters. Consider the scene in which Denver’s tooth comes out. Beloved asks her why she doesn’t cry. Ultimately, Denver does cry – but, we understand, she is not crying for the lost tooth; instead she is crying for the presence of Paul D in her house and the change in character on the part of her mother, and the relationship that has been spawned between the two of them. And as Denver cries, “the couple upstairs, united, didn’t hear a sound, but below them, outside, all around 124 the snow went on and on and on. Piling itself, burying itself. Higher. Deeper.” The imagery of snow represents the onset of winter, of cold and isolation, and it reflects the tears of Denver, as well as the tears that 124 would shed, too, if it were a living entity. Consider also the variation in the length of sentences, with the first sentence comprised of a half-dozen clauses, and the last two sentences comprised of only fragments, in order to reflect the drawn-out weeping and the sharp sudden intakes of breath that occur in the act of crying, so as to represent, stylistically and through use of rhythm and sentence trajectory, the anguish of Denver, in words. Likewise, Sethe’s anguish for her lost grandmother and for the deceased Baby Suggs is represented by use of liquid imagery: “[Sethe’s] mother and Nan were together from the sea…. A mighty wish for Baby Suggs broke over her like surf. In the quiet following its splash, Sethe looked at the two girls sitting by the stove: her sickly, shallow-minded boarder, her irritable, lonely daughter. They seemed little and far away” as if they were on an island and Sethe was drifting away from them, with the water imagery standing in place of the tears she cannot shed and the ocean between her present life and her past. So, when she finally tells the girls that “Paul D [will] be here in a minute,” we know, from the imagery conveyed to us once again by free indirect discourse, that she is not really speaking to them about Paul D, but rather, she is speaking to herself in such a way as to put her mind off the subject of her thoughts and to focus on the here-and-now, to avoid the anguish that the past brings with it.All of these techniques – free indirect discourse, variations in the length of sentences, use of a ‘lower’ level of language, and repetition – combine in the scene where Paul D changes his mind about Sethe, after he has been visited by Stamp Paid. “The prickly, mean-eyed Sweet Home girl he knew as Halle’s girl was obedient (like Halle), shy (like Halle), and work-crazy (like Halle).” Free indirect discourse allows us to see the kind of person Sethe once was. In this way she is characterized by the use of blank prose that Morrison neglected to use in the characterization of Baby Suggs, but this free indirect discourse also characterizes Paul D himself. “This here Sethe was new” – the level of language is again ‘low.’ Yet the subject of it – the ability to distinguish between “this here new Sethe” and the Sethe he remembers – implies wisdom and insight. The language used in this passage is not of the highest order, but the tone of the passage – which reflects on Sethe’s capacity for love and her affection for her children – reveals two characters, Sethe and Paul D alike, who are able to overcome the shortcomings of their language by using the reasonable sensibilities of their minds.One of the most drastic stylistic techniques Morrison uses originates subtly, with a change in tense, then progresses more drastically to a change in register, and culminates in a complete stylistic overhaul in which blank prose is replaced with four stream-of-consciousness passages, with Sethe and Denver narrating one each, while Beloved narrates the remaining two. As with the free indirect discourse passage in which we peer into Paul D’s mind, as above, these stream-of-consciousness passages serve to characterize each of the women speaking them, as well as each woman’s relationship with the other characters in the novel, in such a way as to be unaffected by a third-person narrator who may favor one character over another. The tone of these passages, therefore, is brutally honest: not always flattering, not always straightforward, and sometimes what is really meant is not always what is thought by the characters who are speaking – but, knowing what we do about who they are, where they come from and what they want, the contradictions and self-delusions in their thoughts allow us to see the real truth behind their words.The change in tense comes after Denver sees the white dress kneeling with her mother. Once again, Morrison uses free indirect discourse, this time to establish the following scene by allowing us to glimpse Denver’s concern for Beloved without explicitly showing us: “[Denver] was certain that Beloved was the white dress that had knelt with her mother in the keeping room, the true-to-life presence of the baby that had kept her company most of her life. And to be looked at by her, however briefly, kept her grateful for the rest of the time when she was merely the looker.” Then, with Denver’s concerns established, the tense changes from past to present: “This day they are outside. It’s cold and the snow is hard as packed dirt…. Beloved is holding her arms steady while Denver unclasps frozen underwear and towels from the line.” The events that are written of in present tense contrast with the past-tense events that have taken place up to this point, and they are given a greater sense of immediacy as a result. This is particularly effective given the subject of these present tense scenes: that is, Denver’s worry that Beloved will “cross over” back to the “other side”: “‘Don’t,’ she is saying between tough swallows. ‘Don’t. Don’t go back.'” The switch to present tense takes Denver’s despair to its emotional extremities: “This is worse than when Paul D came to 124 and she cried helplessly into the stove. This is worse. Then it was for herself. Now she is crying because she has no self” – as opposed to a past tense variation on that despair, which would imply that it has already been overcome. In this passage, too, free indirect discourse is once again very much at the heart of its effectiveness. But the negative emotional extremity of the passage is inverted by the end – despair becomes joy and “[Beloved] is smiling again” – and by maintaining the present tense, that smile is more immediate and more resonant than one in the past.Later, this same sense of immediacy comes by way of an abrupt change in register, in which the narrative switches from a somewhat subjective third-person point-of-view that tells us “[Sethe] needn’t have worried [about losing time]” to Sethe’s own mind, “busy with the things she could forget.” Sethe’s thoughts are presented not quite via free indirect discourse (for it is clearly not a third-person narrator relaying them to us as if we were in Sethe’s shoes) yet also not quite via stream-of-consciousness prose (for although they reflect Sethe’s thoughts, they do not reflect her thought processes): “Thank God I don’t have to rememory or say a thing because you know it. All. You know I never would a left you. Never. It was all I could think of to do.” As with the previous passage, this passage also finds its power in the present tense – “Now all I see is their backs walking down the railroad tracks. Away from me” – as well as in the unbridled machinations of Sethe’s mind; she does not keep any secrets at bay, for these are her own thoughts and she cannot keep secrets from herself. The change in register allows for a greater sense of honest communication between the narrator – in this instance, Sethe – and the reader, for we know that when Sethe recalls these events she is not filtering them in any way so as to protect Denver from the truth, but is instead recalling them as best she knows how; therefore we witness not only the events as she recalls them, but also their effect on her in a psychological sense rather than simply a behavioral one.This progression from a simple change in tense to a semi-stream-of-consciousness insight into Sethe’s thoughts reaches a peak in the aforementioned stream-of-consciousness passages narrated by Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. These, in turn, allow for a comparison and contrast between the three women to allow us a greater insight into how Beloved’s return has affected each of them in its own particular way. The stream-of-consciousness narrations open windows into the minds of the various characters so we may see the things they would never say aloud as well as the things they cannot say aloud. Consider Sethe’s narration in which she says: “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing.” The tone of this claim is forceful, yet somewhat hedonistic, and it reveals Sethe’s conscious thoughts with regard to Beloved – that she is her daughter, that she owns her – as well as her subconscious thoughts that Sethe herself does not say aloud – that she still does not know why Beloved came back to her, and that she hungers for an explanation, even though she says otherwise. Denver’s narration, on the other hand, is less self-deluding and more ‘on-the-nose:’ “I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I’m scared of her because of it.” Her thoughts reflect the clear-cut, straightforward thoughts of a youth, and, as with the stream-of-consciousness passages narrated by Sethe and by Beloved, they strengthen Denver’s character as well as her relationship to the other two women without tainting it by having any other character intrude upon her thoughts. The stream-of-consciousness passages, in general, allow for a clear and pure insight into the characters and their relationships.The style of the novel, if it is varied and in some instances inconsistent, is only as varied and inconsistent as the characters themselves and the relationships they share. Theirs is a complicated world and we are plunged head-first into a story whose roots lie buried deep in the past and whose effects provoke a different response from each character; therefore, Morrison’s use of repetition and change in tense are necessary to explore the roots of that story, while her use of shifting levels of language and personification establish her characters, and thereafter her use of imagery and metaphor physically reflect the effects the events of the story have on her characters, and her use of change in register and free indirect discourse and stream-of-consciousness narration reflect the innermost thoughts of those characters in a more direct way, unguarded and untouched by anything artificial that an external narrator would necessarily bring to the table. Morrison’s use of such a wide array of stylistic techniques is comparable in scope to the scope of her narrative and its players, and as such it has the effect of not only constantly developing those characters throughout the novel, but also of intrinsically weaving their thoughts and their essences, their personalities and their strengths and weaknesses, into the very fabric of this narrative.
The main characters in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” are former slaves; their main struggle, after having been stripped of their humanity and identity by the white men who owned them, is to reclaim self-ownership and form identities independent of those forced upon them by their owners under the system of slavery. Morrison uses the themes of naming and renaming to demonstrate the power of defining that slavery allows whites to hold over blacks, to assert that slavery as an institution rather than individual slave owners are responsible for crushing the identities of those who suffered under it, and to illustrate the struggle for blacks to stake out an independent identity after slavery.The institution of slavery grants Mr. and Mrs. Garner, the owners of Sweet Home, the power to name their slaves. Although Morrison portrays the Garners as generally benign in comparison to other slave owners, their demeanor is largely irrelevant; it is not slave owners as individuals, but slavery as a system that oppresses and exploits the main characters, undermining their ability to form identities of their own. Whatever the Garners’ intentions, their position over the slaves means that Paul D and his brothers inevitably lack self-ownership. The names Paul D, Paul A, and Paul F – as well as the common surname Garner – are a constant reminder to each of these characters that they exist as property rather than as men.For years Paul D believed that schoolteacher turned the people Garner had raised into men back into children. And it was that that made them run off. Now, plagued by the contents of his tobacco tin, he wondered how much of a difference there really was before schoolteacher and after. Garner called and announced them men – but only on Sweet Home, and by his leave. Was he naming what he saw or creating what he did not?Questioning here whether or not he was ever truly a man under Garner, Paul D brings out a point that had been masked by the obvious differences between the two owners: slavery under any owner has the same psychological effects on the slave, and always renders the slave unable to become an independent identity. Mr. Garner’s attempt to raise his slaves as “men” by allowing them more responsibility and outward respect than most slave owners is inherently futile because, as Paul D now realizes, the “manhood” or “personhood” of the slaves under these circumstances is not self-determined, but granted to them by their owner: “Oh, he did manly things, but was that Garner’s gift or his own will?” (220). As long as they are slaves, Paul D and the other Sweet Home men will never be able to define themselves independently, and their manhood will always exist at the whim of the white man who owns them. After Mr. Garner’s death, this underlying characteristic of slavery becomes apparent when schoolteacher demonstrates his unconditional power to deprive the slaves of their manhood or humanity. Paul D’s sense of his own independent manhood under Garner was an illusion: whether or not he used it, Garner had the power to deprive Paul D of his manhood.The former slave Joshua, after gaining his freedom, establishes a new identity by renaming himself Stamp Paid. Paul D, in contrast, fails to consider giving himself a new name once he escapes Sweet Home. Psychologically, part of him still seems to be under the control of the system of slavery: even after years of “freedom”, he continues to recognize as legitimate the dehumanizing name given to him by slavery.Like she does with many of the other characters and general themes in the novel, Morrison uses Paul D’s struggle for independence to illustrate a larger historical issue – one that carries over to present-day American society. Paul D’s inability to break free from white oppression after slavery demonstrates to the reader the struggle that blacks faced after slavery. Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, quotes ex-slave Thomas Hall’s testimony to the Federal Writers’ Project:Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He gave us freedom without giving us any chance to live to ourselve and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us out of necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery.Like Thomas Hall, Paul D still remains dependent on the “southern white man”; since he still retains the identity forced upon him by his former owners, he is not completely free from the bonds of slavery. Another connection between the fictional character Paul D and the subject of history Thomas Hall can be found in the role white men play in their incomplete “freedom” – in Hall’s case, physical and economic freedom; in Paul D’s, psychological. Hall criticizes Lincoln for freeing the slaves legally but leaving them dependent on southern whites, forcing them into a sort of unofficial serfdom that for many blacks was effectively much the same as slavery.On one level, Morrison’s use of Mr. Garner can be viewed as a critique of the U.S. government’s treatment of slaves after the Civil War, and of the notion that Lincoln should be given full credit for “freeing” blacks in the South. As Lincoln “freed” the slaves legally while allowing them to remain under the control of whites, Garner granted Paul D his “manhood” – what Paul D, at the time, believed to be his psychological freedom – while actually retaining control over his very humanity and ultimately preventing him from forming a self-determined identity.This dynamic carries over in many ways to today’s American society, where blacks remain economically and socially oppressed by whites. By showing Paul D’s inability to define himself independently as a detriment to his character, and only allowing Paul D to come to terms with himself after engaging in sexual intercourse with Beloved (which, on the figurative level, is to be understood as an act of embracing his past), Morrison reminds contemporary readers of the similar struggle that black Americans face today in a society where whites control the definitions and establish the norms. As Allan Johnson describes it:On most college campuses, for example, black students feel pressured to talk, dress, and act like middle-class whites in order to fit in and be accepted, what some have called being “Afro-Saxon.” In similar ways, most workplaces define appropriate appearance and ways of speaking in terms that are culturally associated with being white… Racial and ethnic minorities experience being marked as outsiders, to the extent that many navigate the social world by consciously changing how they talk from one situation to another. In shopping for an apartment over the telephone, for example, many African Americans know they have to “talk white” in order to be accepted.Clearly, Morrison believes as Johnson does that the power of whites to define – and the willingness of many blacks to conform to whites’ definitions and norms – is a vitally important cornerstone holding together today’s system of black oppression. Paul D’s inner conflict regarding his identity and self-ownership suggests a collective struggle among black Americans to establish an independent identity after slavery, which Morrison sees as a precursor to true and complete freedom from slavery and whites, and one that has yet to be fully realized – “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”Baby Suggs’s methods of claiming self-ownership stand in direct contrast with Paul D’s denial and avoidance of deep emotion. Sethe’s mother-in-law is known by two names: Baby Suggs and Jenny Whitlow. Legally, Jenny Whitlow is her “real” name: it is the name listed on her bill-of-sale, and the one used by her owners. To her, however, this name holds no real meaning. She identifies herself as Baby Suggs, the name given to her by her first husband and used by those closest to her. When she is freed, Baby Suggs is faced with a choice between these two names, each of them legitimate from opposite perspectives: Jenny Whitlow is a label given by an owner to a piece of property, and therefore the slave owner Mr. Garner considers it legitimate; Baby Suggs is a name given by a loving husband to his wife, and accordingly Baby Suggs herself finds greater personal value in it. By keeping this name, Baby Suggs claims self-ownership and takes a vital step toward forging an identity independent of slavery. Her renaming – or, more accurately, her claiming of the name she found more meaningful – is not a denial of her terrible past, but a demonstration of the value she places on personal relationships in the formation of her identity. By denying whites (and the system of slavery) the power to define her, and defining herself with a name whose origins belong entirely to her and her husband, she overcomes the identity issue that keeps Paul D from realizing absolute freedom from slavery. Baby Suggs’s spiritual philosophy, stressing self-love and personal connection rather than a strict moral code or obedience to a higher power, is based on the same principles as her choosing, or claiming, of her name.If Baby Suggs is to be taken as Morrison’s prototype for the best possible black response to slavery, then what is the reader to think of her death? While Baby Suggs eventually dies filled with a profound sense of hopelessness after Sethe kills her child, this should not be taken as a reprimand by Morrison of Suggs’s philosophy. Baby Suggs only loses hope because the community abandons her, neglecting to warn her and Sethe of schoolteacher’s approach because they resent the “uncalled-for pride” (137) in Sethe and Suggs. At the end of the novel, however, the community embraces Suggs’s teachings when it unifies behind Sethe. Morrison’s treatment of Baby Suggs suggests a belief that the black community must embrace its history and culture, emphasizing social unity and connectedness as a way to claim self-respect and a unique cultural identity.
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved contains many secondary characters, of which one of the most significant is the character of Sixo. Though the novel is based in post-Reconstruction America, much of the content is in the form of memories of ex-slaves. It is in these memories that the character of Sixo is revealed. Both Sethe and Paul D were among six slaves that lived at Sweet Home, the remaining four of which are long since gone yet live on in their memory. Morrison seems to have intended Sixo’s name and roots to be ambiguous to portray a sense of “everyman” in him. Along with this representation, there are several Christ-like parallels that can be drawn from Sixo’s character. Though only a minor character, Sixo is representative of a larger slave ideology that is apparent in Morrison’s depiction of him.The name Sixo is extremely important for a number of reasons, the most prominent being found in the dedication in the front of the novel. It reads, “Sixty Million and more.” By naming a character Sixo, Morrison is paying homage to the number of slaves that were in America which is what the dedication refers to. This is especially significant because Sixo encompasses the ideology and has the ambiguity that makes him a good representation of those people as a whole. The number six is also representative of the number of slaves there are at Sweet Home. He is the sixth and of the men he is the only one without a last name. For example, in the beginning of the book they are introduced as “Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner, Halle Suggs and Sixo, the wild man.” (11) Both having a number for a name and not having a last name gives an impression of anonymity. This lends to the argument that Sixo is representative of the slave population as a whole. He doesn’t take the owner’s name as the Pauls do and has no family to take the name of as Halle does. This emphasizes his rootlessness and, in a sense, his individuality. In addition, calling him “the wild man” brings to mind commonly held perceptions of indigenous peoples which is more applicable to Sixo representing any enslaved person.In several instances Sixo is described in a way that gives his character a sense of ambiguity. For example, twice his skin color is described as “indigo.” (22, 26) The color indigo is a deep, reddish blue color which is not normally associated with skin color. This image brings to mind not only the dark color of African Americans but also Native Americans who also fell prey to white injustices. Native American imagery is used another time in relation to Sixo when he comes across “a deserted stone structure that Redman used way back when they thought the land was theirs.” (25) This juxtaposition of a slave in an abandoned Indian ruin suggests a strong connection between the two and is a powerful image. Though not implying that he has a Native American background, there is another aspect of Sixo that makes his roots suspect. Several times there is mention of Sixo speaking another language that is foreign to the other slaves. This of course could be an African language but it is never made clear. It is this ambiguity that makes Sixo’s character one that could fit any of the cultures that have been oppressed and enslaved.Sixo represents the ideology of freedom. Of all the slaves, “he was the only one who crept at night.” (107) This sets him apart from the others because he knows what is beyond Sweet Home. He has a better sense of what freedom is and he wants it. He is never satisfied being a slave. For example, when their master Mr. Garner dies, Sixo is “the only one of them not sorry to see him go.” (231) Though the other slaves feel lucky to have a decent owner like Mr. Garner, Sixo knows that it is not right to be owned at all. His knowledge gives him a certain amount of freedom and also draws attention to the ignorance of the other slaves. When the Paul D wonder why Mrs. Garner sent for the schoolteacher to come to Sweet Home, Sixo plainly says, “She need another white on the place.” (231) This is obvious to Sixo though not to the others. The need to escape is also obvious to him —“It was Sixo who brought it up.” (206) The others haven’t even considered this possibility. He organizes everything and in this way tries to save his people.The idea of Sixo as savior calls to our attention the Christ-like imagery in regard to Sixo’s death. On the night of the escape when everything begins to go wrong, “Only Sixo shows up, his wrists bleeding, his tongue licking his lips like a flame.” The bloody wrists bring to mind the crucifiction of Jesus Christ because of the nails he had through his wrists. It also portrays Sixo as a martyr. This may, like his name, be an homage to all people who died in slavery. Upon being caught, the Christ-like imagery continues as he is strung up to a tree and tortured while still alive. He is not in pain because he is finally free. The idea of freedom upon death transcends the pain and “By the light of the hominy fire Sixo straightens…He laughs. A rippling sound like Sethe’s sons make when they tumble in hay or splash in rainwater.” (238) The image of the children is one of true freedom because of their innocence. Sixo’s laugh is one of the most persistant images in the novel because it is engrained in Paul D’s memory. Therefore it is repeated throughout the novel only to be explained at the end. This makes it an even more powerful image because something associated with joy is brought about by the most horrific circumstances.
Discuss the elements which keep interpretative possibilities open in Beloved. How far are these resolved or not by the end of the narrative?’…definitions belong to the definers not the defined.'(Beloved, p.190)When Sixo provides an explanation for shooting shoat on Mr Garner’s property, this is schoolteacher’s immediate and uncompromising reaction to the slave’s attempt at self-justification. In the eyes of the white man, the slaves (‘the defined’) are not entitled to the privilege of giving, or even creating, their own perspective on events. The phrasing of his opinion also suggests that there can only ever be one completely true version of everything: each event can ultimately be ‘defined’ in one indisputable and finite account (his). This in itself is only one perspective, however, a fact that Morrison’s complicated narrative technique suggests subtly and yet unequivocally. Rebecca Ferguson observes that ‘while the language of the dominant culture and the written word itself have all too often been potent instruments in the oppression [of black people], not to have mastery of them is to be rendered impotent in ways that matter greatly’. Morrison is very aware of this paradox which she herself faces as a black writer, and the force of language and communication is greatly emphasised in Beloved. The text vividly presents the huge extent of interpretative possibilities relating to issues such motherhood, slavery and black history in particular, by employing a variety of narratives which focus on the same events. While Morrison thus proves gloriously that contrary to schoolteacher’s stance, black people are many-dimensional humans with a full range of emotions and values, her most striking achievement is simultaneously to demonstrate the ways in which endless interpretation can become futile. Sethe’s expression of maternal love in the killing of her child, for instance, is misinterpreted as a savage act by both black and white characters in the book, and also possibly by the reader: only she can explain it. This sense of struggling to reach the correct interpretation is also encountered by the reader on a different level, as he tries to grasp an understanding of the main events of Sethe’s life from an often confused and chaotic narrative.Morrison, who never contributes her own personal opinion or judgement directly to the text, depicts the horrors of slavery in a number of imaginative ways. She allows all her characters to give their own accounts of slavery, and it is the differing levels of eagerness with which they divulge their interpretations that are very telling. The white men of Sweet Home farm are always fervent in their desire to share their opinions of slavery, while the slaves themselves are reluctant to speak of it at all, even after their release or escape. The extent to which Mr Garner prides himself on his treatment of slaves is ludicrous; it becomes clear that he is more concerned with debating the issue than with the slaves’s actual welfare . He believes himself to embody ‘what a real Kentuckian was: one tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men’ (p.11). While this may appear to be a more humanitarian outlook than schoolteacher’s listing of ‘animal characteristics’ in Sethe (p.193), the comparison becomes virtually irrelevant when the actual treatment of the slaves is considered. The following exchange between Baby Suggs and Mr Garner illuminates this discrepancy of standards:”Ever go hungry [at Sweet Home]?””No, sir.””Cold?””No, sir.””Anybody lay a hand on you?””No, sir.””Did I let Halle buy you or not?””Yes, sir, you did,” she said, thinking, But you got my boy and I’m all broke down. You be renting him out to pay for me way after I’m gone to Glory. (p.146)Mr Garner is overwhelmingly proud of his non-violence towards Baby, which he sees as an expression of his extreme kindness, rather than as a confirmation of her basic human rights. This passage strikingly conveys his failure to consider (or recognise) her shattered spirit, and the effect of the loss of her son, indicating that his perception of the slaves is barely distinguishable from schoolteacher’s. ‘Mr Garner acted like the world was a toy he was supposed to have fun with’ (p.139), observes Sethe, and in this light, his supposedly benevolent stance on slavery can be seen as a self-indulgent attempt to make himself seem subversive.Mr Garner’s tiresome eagerness to create his own interpretation of slavery is rendered particularly insignificant by the reluctance experienced by Sethe to face her own past. Because she was so closely and chaotically immersed in the actual experience of slavery and escaping, she was never given the opportunity to reflect and shape her own interpretation of events and their consequences. For this reason she suffers from unwelcome ‘rememories’ which are terrifyingly tangible:Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away.Even if the whole farm every tree and glass blade of it dies. The pictureis still there and what’s more, if you go there you who never was there if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; itwill be there for you, waiting for you…(p.36)This ‘picture’ has been eternally lodged in Sethe’s mind, and is so powerful that she is, seemingly irrationally (given that slavery has been abolished), afraid of Denver being absorbed into the image. Like the reader, Denver cannot fully appreciate the precise details of Sethe’s past and the haunting effect they have on her mother, but she is aware of their weight and significance. ‘Denver hated the stories her mother told that did not concern herself…the rest was a gleaming, powerful world made more so by Denver’s absence from it’ (p.63). Denver is jealous of this other world purely because her mother’s accounts are accompanied with such overwhelming force, of which the young girl cannot understand the source.This notion of sensing the significance of something which cannot be explained or accounted for with mere language is particularly relevant to Beloved’s treatment of black suffering. Jan Furman refers to Morrison’s ‘titanic responsibility [in] continuing an unfinished script of slavery begun over two centuries ago by the first slave narrative’ , and interestingly, the author’s most effective continuation of this ‘script’ is when she powerfully revokes the value of language in communicating the pain of slavery. Paul D’s account of the silent fraternity between the blacks who drifted around uneasily after the Civil War is particularly moving:Odd clusters and strays of Negroes…counted heavily on each other. Silent,except for social courtesies, when they met one another they neither described norasked about the sorrow that drove them from one place to another. The whitesdidn’t bear speaking on. Everybody knew. (p.52-3)There is no room for interpretation, ‘everybody knew’ the gruesome truth and anyattempts at verbal explanation or sympathy would be redundant. Morrison herself ascribes to this mute understanding, and so ‘sorrow’ is the only term she uses to describe their situation; its simplicity hinting at the presence of so much unutterable emotion. A similar sense of community is recognisable at the opening of Baby Suggs’s sermons, when all the listeners are told to ‘let loose’ and ‘laugh, cry and dance’ (p.89) together. Her inspirational words have a place of their own, but this huge physical and communal release is striking in its sense of implied joint understanding. The individual perspective is irrelevant as everybody is succumbing to the same sense of temporary liberation (just as Paul D’s friends have mutually encountered the same ‘sorrow’).The character of Beloved, who can be said to represent in certain ways the ‘Sixty Million and More’ of the dedication, and who certainly has much to communicate, demonstrates most dramatically the shortcomings of language. ‘how can I say things that are pictures’ (p.210), she muses, and the reader experiences a similar frustration through endeavouring to make sense of her muddled narrative. Disturbing revelations such as ‘the man on my face is dead his face is not mine … someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in’ (p.210) express confusion and panic, particularly regarding her sense of identity. The reader’s attempt to reach a clear interpretation of her disjointed phrases will never be fully successful, but a sense of her bewilderment will be obtained through this very disjointedness. If her references to ‘the sea which is the color of bread’ and ‘the crouching others’ (p.211) are seen as representing the Middle Passage suffered by so many slaves, a parallel may be drawn between the reader’s failure to make sense of Beloved’s narrative, and his failure as someone who has never undergone the experience to understand the effects of slavery. In both cases, regardless of the degree of interest or application, a precise interpretation will be impossible. The ambiguity surrounding the truth will only mean that endless impressions of it can be reached, however.The most powerful demonstration of failed interpretation in the novel is Sethe’s killing of her child, the focus of several narratives. In the same way that Paul D cannot quite appreciate the degree of Sethe’s humiliation when her milk is taken (‘”they used cowhide on you?” “And they took my milk.” “They beat you and you was pregnant?” “And they took my milk!”‘ (p.17), only she can explain the logic of her apparently savage act. For once agreeing with the whites (a fact which can only magnify the sense of betrayal felt by Sethe), her family and friends label her an animal. The ordinarily gentle Paul D is shocked into announcing that ‘You got two feet, Sethe, not four’ (p.165); her former friend Ella proclaims that ‘I ain’t got no friends take a handsaw to their own children’ (p.187); and most saddening of all, her daughter Denver lives in the silent fear that ‘there sure is something in her that makes it all right to kill her own'(p.206). Propelled by a fear for her own safety (and later Beloved’s), Denver misinterprets her mother’s action as an indication of a frighteningly vague ‘something in her’ which cannot be controlled. Denver’s long spell of temporary deafness, a subconscious decision to shield herself from Sethe’s account, is evidence of the potency of her terror of the truth (as she sees it). Schoolteacher’s gleeful assumption that it was ‘all testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred’ (p.151) takes on a particularly unpleasant resonance when contrasted with Denver’s account, for she actually does suspect animalistic tendencies in Sethe. His appallingly smug stance (he doesn’t even try to understand) and her childish dread (a desperate failure to understand) demonstrate the diverse nature and consequences of misinterpretation.Sethe’s own account, which appears almost incidentally in the text, explains her actions in a style which is absolutely distinct from the other renditions:…And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She justflew. Collected ever bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that wereprecious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through theveil, out away, over there where no one could hurt them.(p.163)Her aesthetically allegorical description of this extremely instinctive, decisive and fluid behaviour is laden, to the cold observer, with seemingly vague and baffling references to ‘the veil’ and ‘over there’. Just as it is difficult to comprehend Sethe’s illogical fear of Denver reliving her experience of Sweet Home, the psychological reasoning which equates murdering her daughter with motherly love can only be understood by Sethe.Two things do become apparent when reading her account however: firstly, that her motive was indeed love; secondly, that any attempt to truly understand this is futile.The interpretative possibilities open to the reader of Beloved are endless, mainly due to the existence of several different narratives. Linden Peach notes that ‘the fragmentary nature of the text means that even if readers succeed in putting together the events of Sethe’s life since 1855, it will not allow them to achieve a grasp of the whole text’ . His use of ‘succeed’ and ‘allow’ intriguingly insinuates that Morrison has created a complicated puzzle for her readers, who are challenged into reaching one correct solution. After several readings of Beloved it becomes apparent that this does not exist. Morrison never ceases to stress the importance of communication (celebrated in Denver’s course of action at the end of the novel), revelling as an author in the diversity of her characters’s viewpoints. The comparative merits of language and of a vaguer, more meaningful sense of understanding are sensitively explored, especially when dealing with slavery. Morrison’s relationship with her reader is rather coy: while tempting him towards an all-encompassing understanding of the text, she very gradually reveals that no such thing exists. Instead Morrison proves that while striving for comprehension is an inevitable and necessary human trait, searching for the perfect interpretation is challenging, never-ending and almost always futile.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Beloved herself is an enigma that nobody seems capable of explaining. From a “pool of red and undulating light” (p.8) her state transforms from the supernatural to that of flesh and blood. But why has she returned? Out of love? Spite? Revenge? She seduces Paul D, drains the energy from Sethe and yet always seems to invent more desire, whether it be for sweets, stories, or explanations. Her return is marked by her ever-present interdependent relationship with Sethe, and yet she treats her mother with such ferocious attention that Denver’s loyalty switches from Beloved herself to that of her mother’s safety. Throughout the novel, Beloved seems more trouble than anything else, and yet she inadvertently helps the characters in the book overcome their individual obstacles. Beloved haunted 124 in the ghostly state for eighteen years, and yet her tantrums were merely rationalized by “the baby’s fury at having its throat cut” (p.5). However, there is a greater purpose for these “quaking” fits (p.18) that Baby Suggs, Sethe, Denver, and the rest of the community remain oblivious of, a purpose that can only be defined with the physical return of Beloved. She brings about change in the different characters, and yet she is able to bring everyone closer as a community to acknowledge the wrongs of slavery. She starts the painful process of ‘rememory’, bringing memories back to life, and works for the greater purpose of healing for the future.Beloved asks questions of Sethe, things that only Sethe would know. Beloved asks if Sethe’s mother ever fixed her hair, and though seemingly such a simple question, it is this inquiry that starts Sethe down the long path of ‘rememory’. Sethe remembers things about her mother that she had put away in her subconscious years ago, facts that she had willingly forgotten. With the plain, straightforward question “Your woman she never fix up you hair?” (p.63) Sethe’s memory is triggered and she finds herself readily “picking meaning out of a code that she no longer [understands]” (p.62). Sethe has spent so long “beating back the past” (p.73) that she is amazed at how easily she can recall it. She remembers that her mother threw away all her babies except Sethe herself, the daughter of the only man she physically loved willingly. Her mother committed infanticide a number of times out of the inability to love whereas Sethe killed Beloved because her “love was too thick”. Sethe had suffered through life, “every mention of her past life hurt” (p.58) and although the murder of her daughter was savage it was not heartless nor without reason. She wanted to save her children from the life of slavery that the schoolteacher was sure to bring them back to, and in effect she saved Beloved from a life that her mother herself had not saved her from. She recalls that her mother was hung for running away, and yet perhaps what hurts Sethe the most is not the pain of the loss but the knowledge that her mother abandoned her, leaving her behind to live a life that she herself had deemed worth the risk of death. Sethe strives to be the perfect mother to her children, and yet because she did not have a consistent relationship with her own mother, she is deprived of the knowledge of what it is to be a mother. It is upon the assumption of freedom that Sethe is left uncertain of her role as a mother, for before her role was that of a slave whereas now her purpose is supported by inexperience, and is less clearly defined. Beloved says that at Sweet Home Sethe “never waved goodbye or even looked her way before running away from her” (p.242), and yet Sethe cannot be blamed for this for it was her back-breaking work as a slave that made it impossible for Sethe to properly care for her children. Similarly, Sethe’s community of freed slaves blames Sethe for her immoral behavior instead of properly condemning the establishment of enslavement that forces Sethe to take such an action.As a generation of a newly freed people, the ex-slaves are lost as to their present purpose. Sethe’s primary concern is to keep her family intact, and when the only possession she has, the milk saved for her children, is robbed from her, she is forced to save her children the only way she knows how. She has been exposed to the violence of slavery her entire life, and therefore it makes sense that she should try to save what is most important to her through similar methods. Sethe justifies her attempts at murder with the logic that her plans were “always that they would all be together on one side, forever” (p.241). She remains affected by her past experiences, and refuses to move away from 124 in case Halle ever returns. When she recognizes that Beloved is the reincarnation of the daughter that she lost eighteen years previously, her hope is re-ignited for the return of her two boys and the reunification of her family. Her optimism is boldly contrasted by the sad acceptance of broken families around her. Baby Suggs loses all of her children except Halle who disappears mysteriously, Ella is kept locked away for years and refuses to nurse the child she bears, and Stamp Paid gives up his wife to his master’s son. The reader is able to see how the institution of slavery takes its toll on the familial life of blacks, and how Sethe would rather kill her family than further advance the horrible cycle of bondage that she has had first hand experience with.The irony of the fact lies that while she tries to protect her children from slavery, they in effect fall victim to the ways of the outside world because of their mother’s efforts. Beloved is dead, despite the fact that she returns to 124. She is nothing more than a living ghost, bringing to the surface Sethe’s pent-up guilt and taunting her with the love and acceptance that she has craved from her dead child for so long. And it is because of the murder of Beloved that Buglar and Howard run away from Sethe, for they are fearful of the young baby’s wrath and Sethe herself. They teach Denver “die-witch-die” games, so that Denver can protect herself when the time comes, so sure are they that the danger at home is greater than away from it. The reader gets a look into Denver’s thoughts, just a taste of what growing up, locked inside 124 was like: “Buglar and Howard told me [Sethe] would and she did… She cut my head off every night” (p.206). Denver is scared of her mother, fearful of what her mother is capable of doing. When Paul D first comes to 124, Denver makes perfectly clear her desire to experience the world and to have a relationship with someone other than her mother, to know what she is being kept from. Sethe feels that despite Denver’s wishes, she knows all too well the explicit brutality of the outside, and then only she can provide the “milk” that her children need. What Denver does recognize, however, is the brutality that lies within her mother. Denver is alienated in her own house, “…like I was somebody [Sethe] found and felt sorry for” (p.206), her only companionship was the ghost of her murdered sister, Beloved. Denver spent “all of [her] outside time loving Ma’am so she wouldn’t kill [her]”, aurally blocking out her own mother, waiting for a time when she would be rescued by her father and taken into the world outside the gates of 124.Paradoxically, Denver is isolated because of the death of her sister, and yet she develops the tools needed to venture out into the world because of Beloved. Beloved’s questions spark Denver’s ability to form stories on her own, without Sethe’s narrative guiding her. Denver is able to give them a “heartbeat” (p.78), and independently discipline her own desires to keep Beloved satisfied. Both of these devices are especially important and balanced in the respect that the former follows Baby Suggs’, holy, cry for “love! Love it love it…the beat and beating heart” (p.88) and the latter’s practical uses in the world of labor, where one must learn how to adjust to the needs of others. By the third section, Denver is able to objectively see Beloved’s negative effects on Sethe. Beloved creates a strong bond with Sethe that Denver cannot penetrate, reinforcing the skills of independence that Denver has acquired, and she is tested when Beloved starts sucking away Sethe’s energy. Denver succeeds in reaching out to the community that has shunned her and her mother, for she has now developed the maturity that she never would have had without Beloved.Similarly, Beloved invokes a change in Paul D that he had been opposed to, with good reason, for a good part of his life. She seduces him, and he is overcome with a power that he is not able to resist, the “tobacco tin lodged in his chest… that nothing in this world could pry open” (p.113) was hiding his terrible experiences of past. “Bringing things back to life hurts” Amy says and sure enough, when Paul D has sex with Beloved, it hurts him impulsively because of the emotional complexities of the memories that are being ‘rememoried’. Initially, he doesn’t realize the effect Beloved has on him, “he didn’t hear the flakes of rust made as they fell away from the sides of his tobacco tin” (p.117), but by the time he realizes that she’s undoing the hardened person he’s become, it’s too late and with his cries of “Red heart,” he’s already opened up. Although he may be physically touching Beloved on the inside, it is she that is metaphorically reaching him on the inside, for really, she is not of this world, and is fully capable of releasing the cloud of chaos and grief that his past has been.Paul D and Denver both learn the wisdom of Baby Suggs, holy, for even though they themselves were not ever witness to her speaking in the Clearing, her message of loving themselves, their flesh, their “red hearts” is carried on. It is clear now that Beloved’s return gives her family the tools they need to address their history as slaves in the present and live happily in the future. Sethe killed Beloved to protect her family, and yet with Beloved’s help, Sethe was better able to explain to herself the reasoning behind her own actions. Beloved helps her family come to grips with their pasts, and yet it is her own enigmatic past that is so intriguing to the reader. With cryptic descriptions, Beloved says she comes from a place where there are “some who eat nasty themselves” and “men without skin” pushing dead blacks into the sea (p.210). The narration reminds one of a slave ship importing blacks who “crouch” where there is “no room to” (p.211). Although her speech is somewhat scattered, it sounds as if Beloved comes from a place filled with angry dead people. “The little hill of dead people” are being cleared away, perhaps making room for the survivors of the ship ride over. Here, Beloved represents the untold lives of forsaken victims of slavery. She is symbolic of the slave trade itself, for though she came from Sethe’s womb, Beloved is greater than just one person, she is indicative of a people, struggling to live their lives, forever haunted by the institution of slavery… A hot thing…
When Paul D, Denver and Sethe first come upon Beloved resting against a tree after emerging from the water, the three cannot understand the past or present of the girl in front of them. Rather than interpret her odd actions, each of them looks to a physical aspect of Beloved to act as a key to her soul. Even as Beloved comes home to stay within the first chapter of her appearance, the family takes note of her personality through her vague actions and her own fascination in small objects. Her background and her future is incomprehensible to them; therefore, small forays into her being must be gleaned by observation and slight questioning of her sickly movements. Morrison, by giving the reader inklings of Beloved’s true person, makes her all the more intriguing and mysterious through the strange connotations of the girl’s associated objects.When Sethe, Denver and Paul D first saw Beloved, the only things they noticed were the objects surrounding her: “a black dress, two unlaced shoes below it” (51). As Paul D gives her water, Beloved drinks from the tin cup four times and leaves droplets on her chinthe cup and the drops acting as the two most noticeable aspects of her person. Sethe then notices her slender, under-fed body and the “good lace” (51) at her throat. She wears the hat of a “rich woman” and her skin was “flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead” (51), which are just the bare marks on the outside signifying nothing remarkable about her personality. For Sethe, the most noteworthy things about Beloved are her shoes and the lace at her throatit is really Denver who tries to delve deeper into the soul of this odd, homeless woman.When Sethe thinks to herself of Beloved’s background, she associates her with all the other blacks wandering, looking for cousins and reminders of home in a maze of streets and highways and country lanes. After this musing, Morrison has Sethe refer to her as “the woman with the broken hat” (53), another suggestion of her association with inanimate objects rather than prescient emotions. Sickly, Beloved falls asleep for days and days upon Baby Suggs bed while Denver watches over her attentively. She will eat nothing until the supposed bout of cholera breaks and she sits up, gesturing for the sweet bread. From then on, Beloved is associated with the sugar she consumes, rather than the words she speaks or the history she exudes. While she was ailing, “It took three days for Beloved to notice the orange patches in the darkness of the quilt” (54). At that point, Denver folds the quilt so that the orange bits are in Beloved’s line of vision. In this instance, the girl and her caretaker take pleasure in spots of clothunmoving objectsrather than a coherent example of personality or past. After Denver hands her the sweet bread, Morrison writes, “It was as though sweet things were what she was born for” (55) and then adds a litany of sugary items that mark Beloved’s unnatural pleasure for sweets. This fascination with the taste of sugar once again does not open doors into Beloved’s past or present. Rather, the observation of this love of certain objects simply adds to her mystery and idiosyncrasy. Even towards the end of the chapter, Paul D associates Beloved with the strange effect of picking up a rocking chairan objectthough Denver denies it with her lying eyes. Her shoes, her hat, her taste for sugar and Paul D’s strange observation do not shed much light upon the strange character that is Beloved. Morrison’s foray into her character’s psyche leads the reader and the surrounding characters into the darkher association with unmoving objects only solidifies her already strange existence.
Written almost two hundred years apart, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams and Toni Morrison’s Beloved convey stories in which the characters attempt to find freedom by fleeing from unfair oppression and the haunting remnants of oppression. Caleb Williams, the titular protagonist of Godwin’s novel, attempts to escape from the persecution of his cruel master, Falkland, while Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved, successfully escapes from the imprisonment of slavery. It is important to note, however, that Caleb’s persecution by Falkland, while unjust, was based on Caleb’s individual actions and could have been avoided. In the end, he is capable of using legal action to free himself and escape the fate he once saw as inescapable and ends up haunted by nothing but a guilty conscience. Sethe, on the other hand, was born into her oppression, and even after escaping slavery she is still haunted, figuratively by her the negative perceptions of her race that pervade the nation, even in the free north, and quite literally by the ghostly reincarnation of the daughter she killed to save from a life of slavery. Even though Sethe is able to escape the literal haunting when the ghost is banished, she and her family will not be able to escape the lingering effects of racism within their lifetimes. Comparison of the two texts emphasizes the added difficulty in the lives of African Americans, particularly in Sethe’s time period. Though Caleb and Sethe faced similar scenarios, Caleb was oppressed as an individual and by an individual, and had no system working against him, while Sethe is trapped in a system that harms her even without the abuse of slavery. She does not have the luxury of escape.
While Caleb and Sethe find themselves in similar situations, Caleb makes it clear that he found himself in the situation as a result of his own actions. While his persecution is unjust and seemingly inescapable, he could have avoided it by acting differently. When Caleb begins to speculate over whether his master could be a murderer, he writes “To do what is forbidden has always had its charms… That there was danger in the employment served to give [it] an alluring pungency… The further I advanced, the more the sensation was irresistible” (Godwin 112-3). While obviously not working with the goal of being slandered and pursued across the country in mind, he recognizes and explicitly states that the task he set for himself, its only goal being to assuage his curiosity, puts him at risk. He persists even after Falkland warns him, telling him “Begone, and fear lest you be made to pay for the temerity you have already committed!” (123). Though Caleb does not necessarily deserve to face Falkland’s extreme reaction, he finds himself in this situation by inappropriately prying into the details of someone else’s private life when he understands there can be consequences. For Caleb, the onslaught of the apparently inescapable force of Falkland’s wrath was perfectly avoidable.
Sethe, on the other hand, is powerless before her inescapable fate. As a black woman born to slaves in the American south, there is nothing she could have done to avoid becoming a slave. It was a role assigned to her at her birth, due to the damaging negative perceptions white society at the time has about blacks. As Stamp Paid thinks of it, “Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dank skin was a jungle… But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread” (234). Here he states that while there is nothing inherently savage in blacks, white people at the time seem them that way because they have forced blacks, through slavery, into a situation where they are not allowed to appear in any way conventionally considered civilized.
Even though she is able to escape the slave plantation itself, Sethe is not ever able to escape these negative perceptions. They follow her and her family into the free north and even come from characters that otherwise appear friendly. Even Amy, the white girl who graciously assists Sethe when she is running, pregnant, from the plantation, is not free of racist sentiment and some of her comments, perhaps inadvertently, deny Sethe’s individuality. While talking to her, Amy says “We got an old nigger girl come by our place. She doesn’t know nothing… can’t barely stick two words together. She don’t know nothing, just like you. You don’t know a thing. End up dead, that’s what” (94). Amy unthinkingly lumps her together with another black woman she knows and, even though she hardly knows anything about Sethe, equates them and automatically assigns both of them a lesser degree of intelligence, seemingly due just to race, judging by how nonchalantly the girl threw out the racial slur. As Sethe’s daughter Denver later considers in the book, “anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore… you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up” (295). She recognizes the negative psychological effects racism can cause, while also recognizing its other more severe effects, such as mutilation and death and the hands of extreme racists. Stamp Paid considers the “whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground… black women raped… property taken, necks broken,” horrible examples of what racism could lead to. Because of their skin color, Sethe and other black characters are unable to escape the racist forces of social constructions that exist across the country, in both free and slave holding regions.
Caleb Williams, even while pursued, is capable of momentarily confounding the apparently inescapable wrath that pursues him by disguising himself. Before attempting to leave the country for the first time, he realizes that his description is being circulated in order for Falkland to locate him, so he “adopted along with [his] beggar’s attire a peculiar slouching and clownish gait to be used whenever there should appear the least chance of [his] being observed, together with an Irish brogue which [he] had an opportunity of studying in prison” (247). In London, he writes “the exterior which I was now induced to assume was that of a Jew” (263). In both cases, his disguise only fails due to an awkward coincidence or the extreme diligence of the agents of Falkland. It succeeds, though, for a while, in keeping him from the notice of most who see him and would otherwise recognize him based on the descriptions, because while successfully disguised he does not match the description of the individual who is being searched for.
Sethe, on the other hand, does not have this option. Even if she is capable of disguising herself enough to appear as someone different, she will still appear as a black woman, and while this may help her escape schoolteacher, an authority figure from her old plantation Sweet Home, and the slavecatchers, she will not otherwise be any freer. Because of the system of racism that she is forced to face and that Caleb is not subjected to, she is seen as an inferior and as less of an individual, so will still be mistreated despite her individual identity. Furthermore, she, unlike Caleb, is not alone. She has four children to take care of, greatly diminishing her chances of effectively disguising herself. This combination of things may be why she, rather than devising some complex plan to evade her inescapable fate like Caleb does, decides to take much more drastic measures, or as Stamp Paid refers to her actions, “the Misery (which is what he called Sethe’s rough response to the Fugitive Bill)” (201). In an act controversial among the black community of her area, she decides to attempt to kill her four children when the slavecatchers come, to prevent them from having to experience what she experienced.
Caleb Williams, in the end, is able to take legal matters to free himself, and end up haunted by a guilty conscience. However, aside from that, he ends the story completely free. Sethe, as an African American and former slave, is denied political agency so is unable to use the same measures as Caleb to free herself, particularly because what she is haunted initially by a ghost of her dead baby, then, after it is banished, by is what seems to be a literal reincarnation of the daughter she killed, going by the name Beloved. “I am Beloved and she is mine” (248), she says. “In the night I hear chewing and swallowing and laughter… It belongs to me… I see her face which is mine” (251). Here, Beloved refers to Sethe. Her claims that Sethe is hers manifest more clearly in later chapters when she seems to possess and weaken her, eventually driving her to nearly attack a passing white man.
In an otherwise realistic novel, Beloved as a supernatural entity seems to be a manifestation of the difficulties in African American’s lives, particularly those of former slaves, the added complications of their race aside from their own individual problems, and how they can weigh on them. Caleb was only haunted by memories of his own individual past, as he was not subject to any oppressive system other than what one individual, Falkland, applied against him as an individual. Beloved, on the other hand, was killed as a child without a name because of the threat posed by the system of slavery and oppression her mother feared, which threatened them not less as individuals and more as members of a mistreated race. Her return to life is a physical and ever present reminder of the horrible things that Sethe felt the need to do because of the system oppressing her, and the reminder consumed her individual identity and sanity, as implied by Beloved’s lines “she is mine” and “her face which is mine.”
Even though Beloved is banished from their home for a second time, allowing Sethe’s family to escape her more literal haunting, their skin color will prevent them from escaping the haunting of racism. Beloved seems to represent the extreme psychological effects of a system like slavery, but even when the entire community successfully comes together to help Sethe rid herself of this haunting, they are still all haunted by the same system. While Caleb’s and Sethe’s experiences parallel each other in ways, certain things are absent from Caleb’s narrative that make their presence in Sethe’s more pronounced. Caleb’s situation was clearly avoidable to begin with, while Sethe could not have possibly done anything to prevent being born into slavery. The fact that Sethe’s individual persecution is inextricable from the oppression of her entire races emphasizes the fact that while Caleb is persecuted, he is persecuted as an individual and by an individual and, unlike Sethe, is able to completely escape persecution once the individual persecuting him dies, whereas Sethe will be oppressed due to her race even if she is able to escape her individual situation. Caleb’s brief mention of feelings of guilt, contrasted with Beloved’s presence and malevolence for a large portion of Morrison’s novel, makes it clear how much more extremely and intensely blacks could be haunted because of the systems of racism that oppressed and continue to oppress them. Far from saying that white people are unable to have complex problems, contrast of the novels clarifies the ideas that problems faced by whites lack the further complication of race and racism, because of the two protagonists, only Sethe, due to her race, was truly unable to escape all of her problems.
For centuries, nature in literature has been used as a means to reflect both our society and humanity. Both Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Christina Rossetti’s selected poems use nature as both a tool of oppression and a support, challenging the inequalities and ideals of their times. However, within their contexts – Morrison writing in the 1980s reflecting on the slave trade of the 1860s, and Rossetti writing within the patriarchy of Victorian society – nature is presented in different lights. While Beloved portrays nature as something spiritual, a bond with the African-American community, nature in Goblin Market may be seen to have erotic overtones, depicting the close bond of sisterhood. Regardless, both texts regularly present nature as a symbol of new life and/or death. These texts can also be linked to the use of nature in Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, with its reference to death and the fallen woman.
Nature in both texts is often presented as a tool to present oppression. In Beloved’s stream-of-consciousness monologue, the girl on the slave-ship says, “I am falling like the rain is”. This declarative simile uses pathetic fallacy of ‘the rain’ as an allusion to the girl crying as a result of the slaves’ cruel treatment in the slave trade. Morrison may have been influenced here by the ex-slave Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, in which he wrote of his experience “I have frequently found myself in tears”. The word ‘falling’ furthermore displays her oppression and the force that is inflicted upon her, the word also connoting to a lack of control that she will have had as a slave (nature used as a tool to reflect this). An alternative view could present the word as being a suggestion to the ‘fallen woman’, as in this monologue the girl is described to have been sexually abused, and would have had her ‘innocence’ taken as a result – “he touches me there”. This can be referenced in the fall of Eve in Genesis. After Eve ‘loses her innocence’ by instead eating the forbidden fruit, God states, “cursed are you above all livestock and wild animals!” Water imagery is also symbolized in Morrison’s use of the stream-of-consciousness format, in which the flowing nature of the text with the absence of punctuation alludes to the fluidity of water. Her, Morrison can be seen to draw on the ‘l’écriture feminine’ style – challenging the master narrative of the white man. It could be argued that she is portraying her pride both as an African-American and as a woman; parties both discriminated against heavily in 1980’s America.
Later in the novel when Sethe, Denver and Beloved go ice-skating, Morrison writes: “over the treacherous ice, nobody saw them falling”. Here, water and seasonal imagery of the word ‘ice’ is used as a metaphor to symbolize the freezing of the plot within the structure of the novel. Water being symbolic of amniotic fluid and thus the mother/child bond in Beloved (such as the imagery of Sethe giving birth: “there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb”) also could symbolize the breakdown of relationships between the three characters, the water now being frozen. Nature as water is therefore a tool of oppression that highlights the destruction of this bond and thus Sethe’s happiness. The word ‘treacherous’ connotes to nature as untrustworthy, whilst the word ‘falling’ connotes a pain inflicted on the characters by nature. The declarative ‘nobody saw them falling’ suggests the isolation of the family, ‘nobody’ connoting loneliness. Morrison may have been alluding to the isolation of slaves in the salve trade. A possible influence could have been Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which she wrote, “I felt so desolate and alone”. The word ‘falling’ likewise could symbolize the breakdown of family relationships through the oppressive tool of nature. This argument is supported by author Liz Sands, who says, “’nobody saw them falling’ refers to the downfall that the family is about to experience”. It is true to say that this point in the novel is only the beginning of the family’s downfall, and the way in which nature is made a tool to inflict pain could be seen to foreshadow true disintegration.
In Rossetti’s She Sat and Sang Always – a sonnet depicting the female speaker’s relationship with nature – nature is also presented as a tool of oppression through imagery of water. In the phrase “my tears were swallowed by the sea”, the oppressive personification of the sea ‘swallowing’ presents the speaker’s pain concealed by nature. This violent imagery of the sea and the suggested pathetic fallacy of a storm reflect this oppression, as well as the sinister sibilance of ‘swallowed by the sea’. Alternatively, from a feminist viewpoint, Rossetti could be seen to be criticizing the treatment of inequalities of women in nineteenth-century society, nature therefore symbolizing the violence and ill treatment by male supremacists. Presenting the speaker at face value as weak, along with use of trochaic rhyme often found in traditional sonnet form could be seen to mock the master narrative and the male critics within the Victorian patriarchy. Such female writers as Rossetti were often criticized by such writers as Edward Fitzgerald, who said, “[female writers] only devote themselves to what men do much better”. Rossetti’s rebellion against such ideologies and criticism was radical for a woman of her time, and subsequently is often considered to have been a ‘proto-feminist’.
In Rossetti’s Goblin Market – a poem depicting the close bond between two sisters – nature is also presented as a tool of oppression through imagery of trees. In the line “her tree of life droop’d from the root”, Laura is presented as being at one with nature through her body and health being symbolized as a tree. Connotations of ‘droop’d’ create imagery of ill health and death, at the hands of the goblins that fed her the poisonous fruit. This is highlighted also by the assonance of ‘droop’d from the root, the ‘oo’ sound being connotative of pain and struggle. The ‘tree of life’ could also be seen as a symbol of the mystic and of spirituality. It could be argued that Rossetti’s background as a devout Catholic could have been a personal influence for this, trees being an important symbol of faith in religion. In Genesis, for example, the Garden of Eden’s tree of life is known as “the tree of knowledge and good and evil”. Such spirituality is fitting with Rossetti’s use of the ‘fairytale form’ in Goblin Market. From a feminist viewpoint, this poem could again be a criticism of the ill treatment of women in Victorian society. Contrary to this same perspective in She Sat and Sang Always however, nature in the form of the ‘tree of life’ would instead be seen as a female symbol, and thus a tool to present oppression by being victimized at the hand of man (in this context portrayed as monstrous ‘goblins’. The fairy tale form in this scenario would be employed to disguise Rossetti’s criticism of the patriarchy; the controversial opinion of a woman in her time would have been viewed as radical. Within the ‘tree of life’ imagery in the Garden of Eden, the fruit in Goblin Market could be interpreted as the forbidden fruit. The Goblins (portrayed then as Satan), use the tree of knowledge as a tool to oppress Laura, hence her ‘drooping’, just as Eve is punished for eating the forbidden fruit through expulsion from Eden – Genesis: “when you eat from [the tree] you will surely die”. K. McGowran supports this argument by saying, “the imagery of fruit [in Goblin Market] is biblical, recalling the temptations of the Garden of Eden”. A recalling of temptations is true; through Laura giving into the temptation of the fruit, Rossetti could be criticizing how women give into the pressure of ideals of the patriarchy.
The use of nature as a tool to present oppression by both Morrison and Rossetti can be linked to that by Tennyson in the Lady of Shalott – a poem depicting the fall of a woman at the hands of love, especially through imagery of decay and of water and trees. “Willows whiten” alludes to ill health, color imagery of white symbolizing death; much like Rossetti does with tree imagery in Goblin Market with the ‘tree of life drooping’ – as Willows also are noted for their drooped branches. Connotations of the Willow Tree’s alternate names also present links with Beloved. Willows often referred to as ‘weeping’ alludes to the tree crying, as a result of the oppression nature physically displays. This draws a parallel with that of the water imagery in Beloved and “I am falling like the rain is”. Similarly, Morrison also employs color imagery of white and subsequently seasonal imagery of winter when Sethe, Denver and Beloved go ‘ice-skating’. Whereas Tennyson uses nature as a tool to present oppression by being victimised, Morrison symbolizes nature itself as the oppressor.
In contrast, nature is also presented in both texts as supportive and nurturing. In Beloved, Amy describes the scar on Sethe’s back: “[it’s] a Chokecherry Tree…full of sap”. This metaphor presents nature as protective of Sethe as a result of her abuse as a slave, and perhaps could be referenced to the healing powers of ‘mother nature’. Through nature, the juxtaposition of the word ‘chokecherry’ displays both violence and peace – ‘choke’ connoting to pain and ‘cherry’ having connotations with innocence. The repetition of the harsh ‘ch’ sound could also hint to a painful past. Here, Morrison could be employing nature to present the beauty that can come as a result of suffering, and links to the theme of hope in the novel. Much like in Goblin Market, trees are often seen as spiritual in African cultures and can be viewed as a bond between God and man. As M. Bonnet says: “trees…play a crucial role in African religion”. This could imply that Sethe is close to and protected by God, as well as Morrison expressing how God embraces African-Americans. This could be a belief influenced by her religious upbringing. In an interview with the Guardian, E. Brockes writes, “at 12…[Morrison] joined the Catholic church”. Alternatively, ‘full of sap’ within the scar’s lexical representation as a tree could be read as a metaphor for Sethe’s blood and vivacity, the superlative ‘full’ paralleling the character’s overflowing of love and emotion that the beauty of nature evokes. Alternatively, this overflow could represent Sethe’s emotions and love being intense to a negative effect, alluding back to the murder of her baby and when Paul D. subsequently describes her love as “too thick”. This critical argument is supported in an interview with Toni Morrison, in which was said “Sethe has an excess of maternal feeling…such excesses are not good”. Nature could then be seen instead to present Sethe as dangerous.
Later in the novel when Paul D is guided to safety by a Cherokee woman, Morrison writes, “follow the tree flowers”. This imperative gives nature in the form of trees a sense of power in helping Paul D, whilst also creating an image of authority for the Cherokee, often viewed as a symbol of spirituality and as a bond between man and the natural world, suggesting that she has a control over nature. In a video interview with Jerry Wolfe, an elder in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it was said, “we have always looked down on the soil because it furnishes everything”. Alternatively, the imperative and the word ‘follow’ could allude to the story of the Three Wise Men guided by nature, in the form of a star, to salvation: “we saw [Jesus’s] star as it rose and have come to worship him”. This in turn would link the Cherokee directly to the role of God. Salvation within the context of Beloved would be Paul D’s freedom from slavery, nature providing such freedom and support. This positive relationship between man and nature can be supported again by M. Bonnet, who says, “[trees] are even worshipped by some tribes as God himself in his immanent aspect”. Morrison arguably could be reflecting her African heritage’s beliefs of nature and religion existing as one by portraying a similar culture of Cherokee Indians in her novel, as well as the relevance of both parties having been discriminated against in twentieth-century North America. In support of nature being guidance for Paul D is the use of ‘trees’ as a symbol of knowledge, linking back again to Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Use of seasonal imagery and the word ‘flowers’ also has connotations with new life and purity, following the life cycle of plants, again highlighting the theme of hope for the future in the novel.
In Rossetti’s Goblin Market, nature is also presented as supportive and nurturing through imagery of fruit. When Lizzie attempts to save her sister Laura, she says, “suck my juices/Squeezed from goblin fruits for you”. The imperative ‘suck my juices’ highlights a strong bond between the sisters, ‘fruits’ suggesting that it is nature that has allowed Lizzie to save Laura and has thus brought them together. At face value, the imagery of ‘fruit’ presents nature as a nurturing and healing power, the word often having connotations of nutrition and luxury. Alternatively, ‘suck my juices’ can be seen to have underlying erotic themes, perhaps alluding to lesbianism. This is heightened by the phrase preceding this: “hug me, kiss me, suck my juices”, and could be argued to take the form of sexual metaphor with the emphasized words ‘hug’, ‘kiss’ and ‘suck’ in a trochaic form. Use of asyndetic tripling here could be seen to bring similar passion into the text. According to ideology of the nineteenth century, homosexuality between two females would be connotative of the Victorian concept of the ‘fallen woman’. For this, Rossetti may have been influenced by the artwork of her pre-Raphaelite brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and more specifically his paintings of fallen women. In his piece Sibylla Palmifera is painted Fanny Cornforth, a former prostitute before her modeling for Rossetti. This combined with her red hair and clothing connoting of danger present her as the ‘fallen woman’, as well as the nontraditional nature of her directing her gaze forward, abandoning the Victorian norm of the ‘male gaze’. This radical depiction of woman may have inspired Christina Rossetti to present the radicalization of women in Goblin Market as protest against the patriarchy, nature as an advocate for this. Nature as the ‘fruit’, along with use of the ‘fairy-tale’ form would disguise these criticisms, as well as the radical themes of the text itself; this would have been considered unacceptable for a woman of Rossetti’s times. This argument is supported by L. Scholl, who says, “Rossetti steers away from equating female sexuality with sinfulness, which in itself is a radical move”. It is true that her disguise using the ‘master narrative’ is radical.
At the end of Goblin Market, Rossetti writes, “and new buds with new day/Open’d of cup-like lilies on the stream”. Seasonal imagery of ‘new buds…open’d’ uses nature in the form of flowers to represent new life and rebirth, ‘buds’ symbolic of a beginning. Colour imagery of white implied by the simile ‘open’d of cup-like lilies’ also connotes beauty and purity. Alternatively, the imagery of ‘lilies’ could allude to the danger and damnation of the sisters after they have sinned, lilies often being symbolic of death. This can be referenced in Leviticus, where it is said, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman”. The repetition of ‘new’ also highlights the theme of rebirth and healing that is arguably associated with a sexual awakening, as well as the enjambment between the two lines, perhaps a visual representation of progression. It is displayed and advocated through nature that the two sisters’ relationship is pure and of beauty, controversial regarding Rossetti’s allusion to homosexuality. This ideology of the era is supported by a report by the Victoria and Albert Museum, in which it was said, “people born in the Victorian age were…frigid about sexual matters”. Alternatively, the ‘bud’ could symbolize nature protecting the two sisters from the Victorian patriarchy, who might criticize their relationship. However, as the text continues, nature displays through the buds ‘opening’ that the sisters are not ashamed of their radicalism; nor, similarly in this context, is Rossetti uncomfortable about writing on the subject, challenging the reserved master narrative. Water imagery of the sisters’ rebirth ‘on the stream’ presents nature as supporting the characters’ new identity; water being symbolic of journeys suggests nature is driving their new beginning. The presence of water as an advocate could alternatively represent rebirth in the form of baptism and cleansing. Rossetti here would be implying that homosexuality should be accepted by religion – another controversial image. In reference to seasonal imagery, B. Sullivan argues, “nature’s repetitive cycles are stressed by references to the turning of the seasons”. It could be true that such inclusion of the seasons in Goblin Market could account to Rossetti suggesting that the cycle of the natural world is unchanged by sexuality and gender.
The presentation of nature as supportive and nuturing by both Morrison and Rossetti can be linked to that by Tennyson in the Lady of Shalott. When the Lady of Shalott gives into the temptation to pursue the handsome knight, Tennyson writes, “she saw the water-lily bloom”. The lily ‘blooming’ metaphorically foreshadows both the temporary pleasure and death, lilies being symbolic of the latter. This is similar to an alternative viewpoint in Goblin Market – where the ‘opening’ of the lily foreshadows damnation of the two sisters. The two writers also make use of water imagery. Whereas Goblin Market presents journeys of water as a transition towards new life, both Tennyson and Morrison present water as providing a journey towards danger – the Lady of Shalott floating along the river towards death, and the girl on the slave ship floating towards a life of slavery. This is also employed similarly by Rossetti in She Sat and Sang Alway, where the sea is presented as an image of violence and oppression. ‘She saw’ could also imply that the Lady of Shalott made a conscious decision to give into the temptation that ultimately led to her downfall. Such a temptation of knowledge in the poem could be linked to the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. The use of biblical imagery could link this directly to Beloved, where Paul D following the tree flowers could be implied imagery of the star of Bethlehem in the bible. This would support the notion that nature within religion is frequently given the power to advise man.
Toni Morrison through her novel, Beloved (1987), attempts to reacquaint the readers with the history of American slavery by choosing to present it through the African-American community’s experience rather than the white American perspective. The narrative of Sethe who is based on a real life person, Margaret Garner, initiates the process of healing and reconciliation with the psychologically traumatic past. This ritual of healing that Morrison brings to the fore taps not only into Christian traditions but also the cultural fabric of the African customs and beliefs. Much of this culture is the foundation of the Black American community that was newly formed after the extensive period of slavery. This is reflected in the various symbolisms employed by Morrison to breathe life into the communal narrative of the ‘sixty million and more” African-Americans who died during the Middle Passage and are the bearers of the slave legacy. This paper has chosen to look at the significance of colours, the images of trees, the act of naming and re-naming and the images of water that are potent symbols throughout Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved.
Colours have played a significant role in literature and are used to convey myriad meanings. Morrison uses colour to convey the “consequences of slavery” as part of what Cheryl Hall describes as a “sophisticated system of repeated motifs” that is in play in the novel (Bast, “Reading Red”). While colours such as the emerald green of “Denver’s boxwood room” and the two “patches of orange” in the dull quilt Baby Suggs owned, represented nurture and hope, the colour red had deeper and more intense connotations attached to it. As explained by Morrison “there is practically no colour whatsoever in its pages, and when there is, it is so stark and remarked upon, it is virtually raw” (“Unspeakable” 397). Bast notes that red, which is usually seen as a “universal amplifier” of intense notions of danger, blood, fire or romance, serves an exclusive purpose in this novel. It encapsulates the evils of slavery and the psychological trauma that is a consequence of this practice. Sethe draws attention to how Baby Suggs contemplated colours towards the end of her days starting with blue and then proceeding to yellow and then pink but never getting round to red. She believed Baby had witnessed enough of that colour in the violence she had experienced all her life and the baby blood that had oozed from her granddaughter’s sliced throat. Sethe too, haunted by this image and the pink hue of her daughter’s tombstone, is unable to process other colours until the third part of the book where she figures out that her daughter has returned in the form of Beloved. This is when we see Morrison bring in a riot of colours as Sethe dresses up her daughters in bright flashy coloured clothes and ribbons. The other ominous incident associated with the colour red is when Stamp Paid finds a red ribbon floating by in the river Ohio. A gruesome picture is painted of the atrocities meted out to slaves, when the ribbon is described as still being attached to a clump of hair which has bits of the scalp still clinging to it. A less sinister episode linked to the colour is Sethe’s recollection of Amy’s quest for carmine (red) velvet which resonates with Baby Suggs’ desire to look at differently coloured pieces of fabric. The more powerful message being put across here is that the small pleasure derived from looking at colours gives both Amy, an indentured servant, and Baby Suggs, a former slave, a sense of deep relief after a life of hardship. Sethe explains Baby Suggs’ new occupation with colours as that of someone who never really had the chance to view the world and appreciate it. At the same time Amy’s quest has a sense of futility in the hope of a better future. In Paul D’s case, his “red heart” denotes feeling and emotion while the red rooster, Mister, is symbolic of manhood and also questions Paul D’s conception of it. Throughout the novel, alternating images of life and death are depicted by the spectrum of the colour red. The red roses that line the pathway to the carnival seem to hail the new life that Sethe, Denver and Paul D are about to embark on together but at the same time they stink of death. Thus, we see that colours are a trope that constitute the text in itself and it is through the characters’ interaction with these colours that the novel narrates the processing of trauma (Bast).
According to William J. Terrill, “Beloved explores trees within the specific consciousness of American slavery, where they have multivalent meanings: whips, switches, scars, and, paradoxically, the healing and regenerative power of nature and community” (126). Yet, other critics such as Michele Bonnet maintain that the trees are crucial to the African culture and religion and play a protective and healing role in the narrative. But the truth is that no connotation, either wholly negative or positive, can be attached to this imagery. These images work in both the regenerative as well as insidious and deceptive frameworks. The first instance that has been scrutinized endlessly is the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back. The scar marks the ordeals overcome in the slave legacy and is a testimony to the trauma while sublimating the site of brutality by being compared with an image blossoming with life. Amy’s visualization of the scar as a pretty tree not only presents faith in art and imagination but also the need to make sense of the slave narrative. This is the agenda being achieved by the novel through the power of translation being exercised by language to reimagine a source of pain and humiliation as a symbol of growth and hope. Next, Denver’s “emerald closet” of boxwood trees is seen as a repose from her solitude where she ironically seeks comfort in isolation. Similarly, Paul D finds a companion in a tree at Sweet Home, which he refers to as “Brother”. He is also comforted on his long journey to freedom by the flowering trees that guide his way towards the north. Sethe too associates an Edenic conception with Sweet Home plantation by thinking of the beautiful trees that grew there as she reflects on her past (Weathers quoted by Terrill, 127). The Clearing where Baby Suggs performed her rituals of healing are another example of their centrality to African spirituality and overcoming trauma. But they are also sites for horrifying incidents such as the burning of Sixo and the lynching of other slaves whom Paul D. witnesses on his wanderings. The trees thus hide the insidious acts committed by the schoolteacher and his nephews at Sweet Home and so are connected to the darker side of humanity as well. This is augmented by Stamp Paid’s discourse on how the white folks “put the jungle” in the slaves and then fear the consequences of savagery that they are responsible for.
The act of naming is linked to one’s sense of identity and selfhood. This right, to choose for themselves as to who they are, is also taken away by the white slave owners who have the urge to organize and “define” all that surrounds them (Crevecoeur) –whether plants, animals or slaves. Baby Suggs’ unawareness of the official name she had been given by the slave traders and her search for her family emphasises the absence of “self-knowledge” and “self-recognition” under slavery. The reader finds out that her life before Sweet Home was bleak where her old master never even referred to her by any name. This absence of a name signifies the very denial of her humanity. On being freed, she refuses to go by the name on her bill of sale and keeps the name her husband had given her and that the rest of her community recognized her by, thus, proving the importance of relationships to her identity. This is a movement towards her breaking free from the bonds of slavery and claiming ownership of herself. Similarly, Stamp Paid also rejects his name on the bill of sale, Joshua, which had biblical underpinnings. His new name marks the ordeals he has lived through particularly the one where he has no claim to his own wife who is exploited repeatedly by his master’s son. While Baby Suggs’ name is tied to social relations and love, Stamp Paid’s “renaming” is reminiscent of his outrage. It also refers to his role as an envoy for the Underground Railroad that ensured that the “package” (the people being sent through) would definitely reach its destination. Like Sethe’s scar, his name is empowering and marks the honour in his having survived the hardships of slavery and defying schoolteacher’s command that “definitions belonged to the definers and not the defined”. It is in this respect that Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid claim their selves and assume the position of definers. Morrison also introduces a different outlook to the significance of names through the characters of Sethe and Beloved. Both these names have roots in the biblical context; Sethe being derived from the biblical figure Seth and Beloved from the pastoral sermon that begins with the words “Dearly Beloved”. Sethe is understood to be antithetical to Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve who is favoured by God and is also the blessed and prosperous “father of mankind”. Yet, they share a similarity in the sense that both play the role of the saviour for their race. Sethe’s nursing baby, on the other hand, never had the chance to own an identity. She died nameless and the name Sethe chooses to have engraved on her tombstone is an inverted interpretation of whom the phrase “Dearly Beloved” was originally meant to address. In sermons, the pastor addresses his flock i.e. the living members of the church who have gathered to mourn the dead as “Dearly Beloved”. Sethe’s usage of the word “Beloved” is powerful as it fuses both the world of the living as well as the dead. Beloved, who is a representative of the repressed slave past, is also in the literal sense something to “be loved” as Krumholz explains that the process of healing is propelled forward by each character accepting their pasts no matter how traumatic and elusive (407).
Among the abundance of significant images and metaphors that Toni Morrison employs in the novel, the recurring image of water is a symbol with the deepest connection to the narrative. The images of water as the rain, the river and water itself have intricate psychological and religious foundations. Parallels can be drawn between the direction of the narrative and the movement of water which is fluid thus hinting at the freedom in one’s stream of consciousness as well as the lack of control one has over it (Chen and Wang, 95). Memory and water are interwoven devices where much like flowing water, Sethe’s memory wanders back and forth in time. It also plays a crucial role in signifying the relation shared by Sethe and Beloved, when the ghost returns to the world of the living. Beloved’s first appearance as she emerges from the river is awkward and much like a baby emerging from the waters of the womb. Next, when Sethe encounters her outside the house she feels a sudden urge to lose water much like water breaking from her womb. This is enough for the reader to infer that the stranger is none other than Sethe’s dead baby girl who has returned. Sethe’s memory is also triggered when she sees water dribble from Beloved’s mouth just the way her baby’s saliva had dribbled onto her face. She recollects these instances later when she figures out that Beloved is her daughter. Beloved’s thirst for water when she first comes to 124 is symbolic of her unquenched thirst for her mother’s love and attention which was denied to her. Thus, the symbol of water contributes to the larger theme of motherhood that is prevalent in the text. Other instances are the baptismal effect of the rain on Paul D when in Alfred, Georgia and the link between history and the image of the river. Beloved, being a novel based on several Christian paradigms, uses the image of rain in the biblical sense to show the purging of the unbearable evils of slavery through the experience of Paul D and the 46 other prisoners in Alfred. It, thus, represents an emancipation of the slaves from their masters which resembles a violent flood that washes away all that lies in its path. The river Ohio symbolises life, hope, freedom as well as the passage of time in history. When Sethe crosses this river to reach Cincinnati, she is literally escaping and moving away from the evils of her past towards the beginning of a new life.
Thus, we see that Morrison’s carefully crafted metaphors and symbols and their literalization in the narrative cater to a deeper understanding of the novel and help materialize the interlinked narratives of the Black community. These symbols are reflections of the practices of western African culture such as the “naming tradition, ancestral worship, acceptance of the supernatural, harmony with nature, and the linking of individual wholeness to rootedness in a community” and are associated with positive values in the text, as noted by Ayer Sither.