Psychological Components in The Novel Beloved

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Beloved, Toni Morrison introduces her readers to Sethe, an ex-slave whose “iron eyes” shroud a feral will to protect her children from the clutches of slavery. Morrison builds on this aspect of Sethe throughout the novel to project a character whose past pain continues to resonate in her present. Furthering this idea, in “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” Jean Wyatt writes: “There are no gaps in Sethe’s world, no absences to be filled with signifiers; everything is there, an oppressive plentitude” (477). This lack of signifiers refers to a psychoanalytic view of Sethe based on Lacanian theory, which treats the unconscious as language in conjunction with psyche and gender. In order to understand and complicate the magnitude of influence Sethe’s unconscious exercises over her, Morrison casts the last of the Sweet Home men, Paul D, as the envoy between Sethe and the reader, the link between her past and his future. In doing this, Sethe’s character is filtered through an inverted lens that suspends judgment and captures the burning maternal ferocity that fuels Sethe’s sacrificial existence.

Throughout the novel, Morrison animates Sethe’s character primarily through onlooker descriptions of her eyes. This intimate focus wreaths the reader in the roll and ebb of Sethe’s emotions, while also offering a glimpse beneath the soldierly exterior she paradoxically cultivates through her eyes. “But the worst ones were those of the nigger woman who looked like she didn’t have any [eyes]. Since the whites of them had disappeared and since they were as black as her skin, she looked blind” (150). In this context, the word “blind” suggests that Sethe operates on a more instinctive level, particularly if “blind” were to be used in conjunction with “iron.” While blind implies unseeing by the white man’s standards, iron implies a fixed force of strength that allows Sethe to isolate the part of herself that is obliged to exist and go through the movements each day requires. This calculated behavior hints at an undercurrent of animalistic rage within Sethe, who, caged within the confines of her represented world, seeks to preserve her life by preserving those of her children.

This mutation of self-preservation is evidence of the sacrifice Sethe undergoes daily in regard to her relationships with people, or lack thereof. This idea is enhanced by Sethe’s former friend Ella, who sharply reproves Sethe’s actions in the woodshed as “prideful, misdirected” (256) despite the women’s sharing an ex-slave background. While Wyatt appears to concur with Ella’s analysis, “Sethe extends her rights over her own body–the right to use any means…to protect herself from a return to slavery–to the ‘parts of her’ that are her children” (476) it appears that in actuality, Sethe’s evolved concept of self-preservation is at play here, guiding the reader to the startling realization that Sethe’s identity is inseparable from those of her children.

Wyatt’s use of “maternal symbolic” furthers this idea, drawing upon Lacanian theory to illustrate a relationship based on “presence and connection” (475) whereby Sethe’s “lack [of] a subjective center” is revealed (476). What Wyatt neglects to do, however, is fill in the void left by the absent subjective center. Rather than a subjective center, there is a relentlessly transparent drive that blazes to protect her children from slavery, now torturously so in the wake of her eldest daughter’s death. “…very risky [thought Paul D]. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love” (45). Sethe’s grim determination to live for her children may be rooted in the fact that she was actually allowed to keep all of them, making them truly “hers.” This sets up a curious paradox as to how we are able to analyze her–we know she tried to kill her children in response to Schoolteacher’s arrival, but the radical nature of her decision begs further scrutiny. “One on her shoulder, one under her arm, one by hand, the other shouted forward into the woodshed…” (157.) Sethe’s corporeal reaction is potentially reflective of a hysterical conversion (Wyatt) whereby she refuses to “sacrifice [her] imaginary sense of wholeness and continuity” (Wyatt, 477) with her children, thus leading to the projection of her desire to die rather than return to slavery onto them.

Within the context of hysterical conversion, this projected desire causes Sethe to cleave to her maternal instincts with an intellectual ferocity that blurs moral implications. “Holding the living child, Sethe walked past them in their silence and hers” (152). The word “their” echoes twice: once for the possibility of “their” indicating the spectators, and once for the possibility of it indicating her children’s’ silence. Further, Morrison’s division of silences indicates the differing perceptions under which Sethe walks to the cart. The “blood soaked” body of Sethe’s daughter ironizes her “knife-clean” profile against a “cheery blue sky,” while simultaneously suggesting a remorseless surety in her actions. “A profile that shocked them with its clarity. Was her head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight? Probably” (152). Sethe’s coldly composed assurance is evidenced by the word “clarity,” which serves the paradoxical purpose of challenging the readers’ own perception of the silent spectators. Finally, the hint of defiance in “probably” suggests that Sethe has hardened herself to outside judgment in the course of preserving the safety of her children. This is further evidenced by her detached acceptance of Paul D’s departure, which is also tinged with relief.

Throughout the novel, Morrison handicaps the male characters by forcing them to scrabble at the idea of masculinity, of what it means to “be a man” within the confines of their lives. This idea is most painfully illustrated to the reader by Paul D’s reaction to Sethe’s honesty when confronted with the newspaper article. “‘Sweet,’ she thought. ‘He must think I can’t bear to hear him say it. That after all I have told him and after telling me how many feet I have, ‘goodbye’ would break me to pieces. Ain’t that sweet” (165). Here we are re-introduced to the woman with the iron eyes, the “new” Sethe whom Paul D is seeing for the first time. The coolly distant nature of this thought speaks to Sethe’s ability to dissociate herself from a situation and exist in a calculated, removed state. This state of existence renounces facade and pretense, thus moving her through the world in a way that stirs up fear tinged with morbid fascination. Not only does Paul D refuse to recognize the woman in the photograph as Sethe, but when Sethe identifies herself he immediately seeks to separate himself from her. “You got two feet, Sethe, not four…and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet” (165). Animalizing Sethe’s actions allows Paul D to retain a sense of himself without having to painstakingly reexamine his idea of what it means to be an ex-slave, more specifically, what it means to be an ex-slave mother. Here, Wyatt’s use of “maternal symbolic” is furthered as an unconscious undercurrent of the novel that names Sethe as the figurehead of isolated strength and resolve in the face of horrific events.

Wyatt furthers this notion in her article, stating: “Morrison everywhere demands that readers confront the horrors of slavery ‘in the flesh’ rather than at the comfortable distance of metaphor” (480). In particular congruence with this statement is Denver, whom we learn loves her mother out of a fierce fear that she will attempt to kill her again. It is this–perhaps more than anything else–that reflects the complexity of Sethe’s relationship with her daughter. The Lacanian theory as expressed in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism explains this in greater depth, saying: “Our desire, in other words, results from our uncertainty about what is wanted of us, and from the frustration of our attempts to interpret, to ascribe definitive meaning to, the Other’s desire” (3). In this case, Sethe is functioning as the “Other” with whom Denver is struggling to command a relationship with, due to her inability to comprehend her mother’s actions in the shed ten years previously. Conversely, Denver functions as Sethe’s “Other” in that Sethe knows no other form of motherhood beyond protection from the past, a past that Denver, born and raised free, cannot identify with.

This impasse that frustrates Sethe’s relationship with her daughter is heightened upon the arrival of Beloved, the spiritual reincarnation of crawling already? baby whom Morrison also utilizes as a mouthpiece for the “Sixty Million and more” in the novel’s dedication. While Beloved’s knowledge of minute details regarding Sethe and crawling already? baby (her penchant for sugar, Sethe’s earrings, etc) evidences the claim that she is the spirit of Sethe’s dead baby, her oedipal relationship with Sethe (Wyatt) functions to invade the represented world with an overlap of the malevolent supernatural. “The devil-child was clever…it had taken the shape of a pregnant woman, naked and smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun” (261). Here, Morrison illustrates the vengefulness of those silenced voices, once again providing a segue way into Lacan’s psychoanalytic perspective in which: “The unconscious, ‘structured like a language’ allows desire to speak through us, in spite of our efforts to communicate our own meanings” (3). The expansive nature of the represented world’s rules allows Morrison to challenge Sethe’s decision in the woodshed while alleviating the passive aggression of the community, creating a paradoxical ambiguity to the underlying question: was Sethe “right” to choose death for her children in the face of returning to slavery?

By leaving the reader in such ambiguity, Morrison encourages exploration of the fragmented psychological components comprising the physical representation of Beloved. While Wyatt’s understanding of the novel’s resolution names Beloved as the “preoedipal daughter who wanders lost in the epilogue” (484), a contesting idea stands to challenge her use of “wander” and “lost” in conjunction with one another: can Beloved truly be considered a directionless wanderer when her conflicting purposes of infantile closure and generating rememory within the represented world are so aggressively evident? As Lacan asserts: “the subject’s truth is fictional, in the precise sense that it refers to the unconscious mythology through which the subject explains its separation from its organic origin and mortal destiny” (2). Within this context, Sethe exists as a buffer between Beloved’s organic origin (crawling already? baby) and mortal destiny (representation of Sixty Million and more). By casting her as the buffer, Morrison sacrifices the ragged, residual maternal and slave components of Sethe that exist within the overlapped worlds, culminating in a rebirth that is signified by her oedipal response to Paul D: “Me? Me?” (273).

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