Beloved Mothers: the Uncelebrated Heroines
From telling scary stories to teaching multiplication tables, a mother takes on a myriad of roles. Yet, as a mother fully devotes herself to her child, she loses connection with other facets of herself. The consumption of maternity subjects the mother to a tenuous identity. In her works Beloved, “Recitatif,” and “Sweetness,” Toni Morrison forces her reader to recognize the uncomfortable realities of a mother’s transformation. Her works delve into the intersecting relationships between a mother, her community, and her child. These relationships play into one another. Through this, Morrison paints a specific picture of the mother: that of a fractured identity. Her characters detach themselves from invariable attributes of their persona in an effort to repress the past. Morrison interrupts their lives with their memories, forcing them to face their unthinkable guilt. By doing so, the mothers overcompensate, surrendering their own identities. This allows power dynamics to shift towards the child. Morrison’s protagonists most profoundly shape themselves not by their work, relationships, or community, but by their motherhood. Maternity’s all-consuming nature illuminates the tenuous identity of the mother figure.
In Beloved and “Recitatif,” the mothers’ sacrifices simultaneously demonstrate their devotion and consume their identity. Sethe and Roberta prove the boundless nature of a mother’s love by severing external relationships to protect their children. Morrison suggests a mother’s sacrifice comes as naturally as self-preservation. Within this exists Sethe and Roberta’s surrender of self, repressing all facets of identity unrelated to their child. Because of this, the mother grows isolated from her community and ultimately, herself.
Roberta testifies her unabashed dedication to her children: “It’s not about us, Twyla. Me and you. It’s about our kids. What’s more us than that?” (Morrison, “Recitatif” 12). Both Roberta and Sethe sacrifice their lifelong friendship for a conflict centralized around their child’s presupposed ‘best interest.’ External relationships are rendered negligible compared to to the bond between mother and child. Even more intensely, Beloved’s Sethe extends the limits of maternal love as she murders her baby girl. In this act of heroic sacrifice, Sethe personifies quintessential motherhood. She chooses to spare her children the suffering of Sweet Home, unwilling to stand idly by as Schoolteacher takes them. “And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono…” (Morrison, Beloved 163). The passage records Sethe’s thoughts, her language reduced to the repetitive ‘Nonono’ as she imagines an alternative future for her children. “…Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful” (Morrison, Beloved 163). Like Roberta, Sethe finds herself incapable of determining an identity independent of her children. To allow Schoolteacher to enslave her children would be removing the most ‘beautiful’ parts of herself. In both Beloved and “Recitatif,” sacrifice becomes as instinctive as self-survival. Madsen Hardy comments on Roberta and Twyla’s protest, rooted within their children: “Roberta opposes busing on the grounds of ‘mother’s rights.’ Twyla supports busing on the grounds of ‘children’s rights.’” (Madsen Hardy 72). The interchangeability of the terms signify the mother’s identification with her child. In the moment of sacrifice, the mother is not a member of the community, a friend, or a citizen on the verge of jail time. Morrison’s protagonists dismiss external facets of identity and allow motherhood to consume them. In this light, Sethe and Roberta not only sacrifice for their children, but they surrender elements of their personas. While their sacrifice enables them to preserve their identities as mothers, they neglect external attributes. Because of this, the mother becomes withdrawn from herself. By protecting their children from the world’s evils, Sethe and Roberta isolate themselves from the community.
The mother’s tenuous sense of self manifests in her isolation in Beloved and “Sweetness.” When the community rejects Sethe and the Narrator, they lose their emotional outlet. No longer able to cope with their pain, the mothers detach from the inalienable elements of their identity. This detachment constitutes their fractured sense of self.
The black community envelopes Sethe within love and security, allowing her to experience spiritual and social unity. Yet, upon witnessing her sacrifice, the community rejects Sethe. “The twenty-eight days of having woman friends, a mother-in-law, and all her children together; of being part of a neighborhood; of, in fact, having neighbors at all to call her own— all that was long gone and never come back” (Morrison, Beloved 173). Sethe discovers herself on the outside looking in, banned from her own people. Due to the absence of community, Sethe lacks a means of expressing her deep-seeded suffering. Suppressing her painful memories as a final coping mechanism, Sethe finds herself unable to reconcile with her community or herself. By neglecting her past, Sethe subjects herself to a fractured identity. Light-skinned, the narrator of “Sweetness” parallels Sethe’s isolation from community. Not entirely black or white, Morrison traps the Narrator on the outskirts of belonging. Mothering a black child reveals the Narrator’s repressed resentment held against her people. She prides herself on her caucasian features: “I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color” (Morrison 1). The Narrator detaches herself from an invariable element of her identity: her race. She conveys her feelings of alienation in a racially polarized world by excluding Lula Ann from her family. Now a light-skinned woman with a dark-skinned child, the Narrator has no chance of joining a community on either end of the racial spectrum. Lacking an outlet, the narrator uses Lula Ann as a scapegoat. Beloved and “Sweetness” demonstrate the extent to which individuals necessitate their communities to develop their identity. In “Sweetness” the Narrator’s rejection by her community prevents her from reconciling her fractured sense of self. In contrast, the community of Beloved rescues Sethe from the absolute destruction of her identity as they band together to exorcise the past. The quest of the black mother for an affirmative self-definition intimately connects to the absence or presence of community.
Morrison’s contrasting narrative styles in Beloved and “Recitatif” act as the first cue to the protagonists’ fractured sense of self. By incorporating the past, she provides a foundation for the mothers’ identities and allows the reader to empathize with her characters. The narratives span extended periods of time, showcasing the past’s repetitive nature. Through narrative style, Morrison draws Sethe and Twyla to the past, despite their struggle to escape it.
In Beloved, Morrison seamlessly interweaves the past and present, steadily revealing the horrors lurking in Sethe’s memories. In this way, Sethe’s past and present become interchangeable. Morrison’s lack of a definitive timeline reinforces Sethe’s fractured sense of self. Sethe reflects on her distorted sense of time: “I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not” (Morrison, Beloved 35). Sethe’s past festers in the present, fostering an unhealthy environment for her psyche. Sethe’s confusion of self results in her descent to insanity. In “Recitatif” specific spotlights highlight transformative moments that compromise Twyla’s sense of self. Repeating patterns establish Twyla’s entrapment within the past. Morrison uses the revelation of her protagonists’ identity to establish their maternal struggle. Sethe’s all-consuming devotion to her children is rooted in her own mother’s neglect. Her own ‘ma’am’ leaves her in enslavement, so Sethe vows not to commit the same mistake. Providing Sethe’s upbringing before disclosing her infanticide allows the reader to sympathize rather than reject. In the same light, Twyla’s abandonment in the orphanage explains her unfaltering willingness to protect her child. Her memories of powerlessness, manifested in her mother, force Twyla to reject external relationships for the sake of her son. In narrative style, Morrison uses time to explore the evolving identity of mothers. Both Beloved and “Recitatif” span extended periods, serving to employ the vicious cycles of her characters’ memories. Sethe repeatedly uses the active phrase ‘rememory’ to indicate the past’s uncontrollable force independent of the rememberer. These ‘rememories’ make it possible for Sethe to realize her connection to the past. In a similar way, Twyla’s encounters with Roberta reinforce the repetitive cycle of her memories. Initially, Twyla plays the innocent child subjected to her mother’s racial prejudice. By adulthood, Twyla possesses the same biased beliefs. In “Recitatif” and Beloved, the past interrupts the present, forcing the mothers to recognize its effect on their identity. “Morrison, it would seem, suggests a different kind of intervention, an intervention involving history and rememory. What is passing if not the repression of one’s personal history?” (Peterson 207). She forces her characters to deal with the unthinkable objects of their repression as they inevitably return from the past. Her characters undergo the painful process of remembering while simultaneously healing their fractured identities. By balancing the past with the present, Morrison disillusions the mothers’ evolving sense of self.
In all three texts, the mother’s nurturing sheds light upon her selfhood. Motifs of milk in “Sweetness” and Beloved examine contrasting mother-child relationships. “Recitatif” presents food as a symbol of physical and emotional nurturing. Different levels of nurturing expand upon the mother’s identity.
The narrator of “Sweetness” corrupts arguably the purest act between mother and child. She refuses to breastfeed her daughter, remarking, “All I know is that, for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding as soon as I got home” (Morrison 1). Sethe directly contrasts the Narrator’s disgust, devastated at her loss of breast milk. Abused and burned, Sethe focuses on her inability to provide for her child rather than the pain of being assaulted. The symbol of milk sheds light on Sethe and the Narrator’s identities as mothers. Dehumanized by a racially polarized world, the Narrator’s self-hatred manifests in her failure to provide for Lula Ann. She degrades her daughter, referring to her as a ‘pickaninny’ despite the Narrator’s own blackness. Her initial rejection proves the Narrator’s broken sense of self. In contrast, Sethe desires only to feed her daughter to compensate for her overbearing guilt. The Narrator’s internal conflict prevents her from breastfeeding Lula Ann. Through this lens, Morrison bases a mother’s identity on her ability to nurture her child. This translates in “Recitatif” through the representation of food. The narrative’s primary settings, from diners to grocery stores, show that nurturing ultimately determines the mother’s identity. Roberta’s mother packs a home-cooked meal while Twyla’s mother brings nothing. Twyla remembers her mother’s inability: “The wrong food is always with the wrong people. Maybe that’s why I got into waitress work later— to match up the right people with the right food” (Morrison 3). Into her adult life, Twyla seeks to fulfill the nurturing her mother couldn’t provide. The girls’ contrast in meals as children parallels their encounter at Howard Johnson’s. Roberta again has food given to her while Twyla must fend for herself. When the girls meet as mothers in a grocery store, they must nurture their children. Through the motif of food, Morrison traces Roberta and Twyla’s identities as mothers. Beloved’s Sethe compares, the chef in her family. By providing for their children, the mothers discover an unlikely source of empowerment. Yet, feeding Beloved only feeds Sethe’s guilt. Over-nurturing results in Sethe’s starvation. In “Recitatif,” a lack of nurturing leaves Twyla confused about her past. Various levels of nurturing reveal the mother’s tenuous identity.
Power dynamics shift as guilt corrupts the mother’s identity. Originally, the mother’s power allows her to protect her child. Yet, the protagonists of “Sweetness” and Beloved misapply this power, resulting in the child’s separation. Sethe and the Narrator’s consuming guilt allows their daughters to gain power in their relationship. Parent and child reverse roles as the mother begs for her daughter’s forgiveness, preventing the mother and child from maintaining a healthy relationship.
The Narrator intends to spare her child the discrimination faced by a dark-skinned woman in an unforgiving society, but her misplaced power results in Lula Ann’s emotional abuse. As her guilt festers, power dynamics shift. She taunts her mother, sending a letter announcing her pregnancy. Yet, “There is no return address on the envelope. So I guess I’m still the bad parent being punished forever for the well-intended and, in fact, necessary way I brought her up. I know she hates me” (Morrison, “Sweetness” 12). Beloved parallels Lula Ann’s rise to power, steadily growing stronger as Sethe weakens. “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it.” Morrison utilizes imagery to signify Beloved’s consumption of Sethe’s identity. Beloved preys on Sethe’s past, soaking in her identity. “…And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur” (Morrison 250). Once Sethe recognizes the woman as her baby girl, Sethe spoils her in compensation. As Sethe’s remorse grows, so does Beloved. Sethe becomes so fixated with feeding her guilt that she refuses to eat. Sethe over-nurtures her daughter, therefore neglecting herself. Beloved personifies Sethe’s guilt, forcing Sethe to surrender herself in appeasement. With Beloved, Sethe has the opportunity to live out two fantasies. First of all, she can be mother to the daughter she has never known. Giving all her time and attention to Beloved makes it easy for the demon the execute her desire. On the other hand, by giving all to Beloved, Sethe becomes childlike, pleading for acceptance by a harsh ‘parent’ who is more intent upon cruel punishment than understanding forgiveness. (Harris 134)Sethe’s identity transforms from a maternal position of power to that of a subservient victim. Similarly, the Narrator goes from the rejector to the rejected. Neither Sethe or the Narrator act maliciously in their initial power, rather depriving their children of a relationship for the sake of safety. Now enabled to freely pursue a connection, the child refuses their mother. In both Beloved and “Sweetness,” the mother’s misuse of power causes her controlling guilt. There exists the mother’s vulnerability, letting the child procure power. Within this, power manifests in which role can withhold affection. Therefore, the corruption of power prevents the mothers in “Sweetness” and Beloved from achieving a healthy relationship.
Motherhood’s consumption of self illustrates the unstable identity of the mother figure. Morrison’s protagonists surrender themselves for the sake of their child, sacrificing external influences and withdrawing from the community. Through this isolation, the mother detaches from invariable attributes of her persona. There exists motherhood’s all-consuming nature, dominating other elements of identity and allowing a dynamic power shift that reverses the role of mother and child. Morrison’s narrative style reinforces these fractured identities and bases a mother’s identity on her ability to nurture. Yet, as the mother overcompensates for her guilt, power dynamics shift towards the child. In Beloved, “Recitatif,” and “Sweetness,” the protagonists personify the power of a mother’s love. In more ways than one, Morrison characterizes mothers as the unsung heroes of our society.
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