Symbolism of Trees in Beloved

February 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

Toni Morrison uses tree imagery throughout her novel “Beloved”. For most of the characters in the novel, trees bring both good and bad recollections of their lives. Trees symbolize the energy from which the characters gain comfort and freedom, yet they also convey the past traumatic memories of the characters. Morrison frequently uses trees as a link it to her ultimate message: the characters’ intractable struggle to cope with their past although they are now free from slavery. Morrison describes the beauty of trees, which ironically reminds the characters of their loss and traumas. In the early beginning of the novel, Sethe recalls the sights of lynching at the trees: “Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world” (7). By juxtaposing the beauty and her bitter memory, Morrison shows how Sethe, as a former slave, feels denied of the opportunity to fully enjoy the natural scene. To strengthen this idea, Morrison shows the irony again in “Sweet Home had more pretty trees than any farm around” (25). Despite the pleasant and peaceful landscape of the plantation, Sethe, Paul D and other characters endure a very difficult life at Sweet Home. Using the “chokecherry tree” symbol for the scars on Sethe’s back, Morrison helps the reader understand and empathize with Sethe’s psychological scars. Amy metaphorically named the scars on Sethe’s back as the chokecherry tree: “It’s a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom” (93). Reading how Amy compares the scars as the trunk, branches and leaves of the chokecherry, we can vividly imagine how the scars look like. From that imagination, we cannot help but grimace knowing how agonized Sethe must have felt when the schoolteacher beat her as though she is an animal. Also, having the chokecherry tree on Sethe’s back signifies that her past miseries follow Sethe everywhere she goes. Additionally, the knowledge that the chokecherry has bitter fruits conveys how she cannot psychologically escape from traumas of her past. Furthermore, for Amy who is full of hope and energy striving for velvet, she can see something exquisite in such a horrible shocking sight of scars. However, Sethe fails to see the scars as the way Amy does: “That’s what she called it. I’ve never seen it and never will” (18). In the same way, Paul D disagrees with Amy’s opinion: “in fact a revolting clump of scars. Not a tree as she said. Maybe shaped like one, but nothing like any tree he knew because trees were inviting” (25). Unlike Amy, Sethe and Paul D, who have repressed hope in their present lives, cannot see the scars as something aesthetic. Another significant use of trees appears when Morrison employs the metaphor “jungle” to represent the slavery system (234). A jungle, comprised of trees, is a home for the wilderness and has connotations of ferment and danger. With this word “jungle,” Morrison depicts how the slavery system impacts its victims and its captors as well. Both the slaves and its owners agree that “a jungle” resides within the slaves. However, the way they perceive the jungle differs. White people, the slave owners, believe that the jungle represents the havoc, deceit and evil in black people: “Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood” (234). From the black people’s point of view, the white people seeded that jungle in them: “It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread” (234). For the slaves, the jungle signifies the emotional pain they undergo which is bred from the slavery system. The more time passes, the more their pain intensifies and starts to consume them. The jungle expands larger and larger that it even entangles its creators: “It invaded the whites who had made it. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be” (234). This description emphasizes how the slavery system negatively affects the whole human society. Not only the system traumatizes its victims, but also it causes its controllers to become more cruel and inhuman. The whole society suffers the degradation of compassion and humanity. Morrison also paradoxically portrays trees as the source of comfort and safety for Denver. However, this positive connotation still reminds Denver of her need to seek for comfort: her feeling of desolation. Denver chooses the round empty place surrounded by five boxwood bushes and names it “emerald closet” where she goes and contemplates whenever she feels sad, lonely and isolated (45): “First a playroom, then a refuge, soon the place became the point. In that bower, closed off from the hurt of the hurt world, Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food” (35). Denver holds on to three things in most parts of the novel: the baby ghost, Beloved and the emerald closet. When Paul D comes to 124 and chases the baby ghost out of the house, Denver has only one thing left to hold on to: “But it was gone now. Whooshed away in the blast of a hazelnut man’s shout, leaving Denver’s world flat, mostly, with the exception of an emerald closet” (45). After the baby ghost is forced out of Denver’s life, the emerald closet becomes even more important to her as the only companion and reliance she has now. When the baby ghost returns as Beloved, Denver reclaims what she possessed before and becomes very obsessed with Beloved. Nonetheless, when Beloved does not appreciate Denver’s love, Denver returns to her emerald closet to console herself: “She had not been in the tree room once since Beloved sat on their stump after the carnival, and had not remembered that she hadn’t gone there until this very desperate moment” (90). Furthermore, Morrison conveys the trees as the pathway to freedom for Sethe and Paul D. From Denver’s account to Beloved, we learn how Sethe escapes from Sweet Home: “there is this nineteen-year-old slavegirl – a year older than herself – walking through the dark woods to get to her children who are far away” (91). Morrison purposefully places the woods for how Sethe arrives to 124 and reunites with her family in order to symbolize the trees as the pathway to escape from slavery. Likewise, Paul D obtains help from the trees to escape from Alfred, Georgia: “Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone” (133). By describing how the tree flowers guide Paul D to escape, Morrison reinforces the idea that trees serve as the way to freedom. Nevertheless, the positive connotation of freedom again reminds Sethe and Paul D of their need to run which triggers their painful memories. To conclude, Morrison strategically expresses trees as having both positive and negative connotations for her characters. By describing this contrast in the motif of the trees, Morrison helps the reader better understand the bigger paradox in the novel: the free slaves being tied in the past and unable to free themselves psychologically. Through this complex paradoxical portrayal, the reader can better empathize with the characters: what it is like to be a former slave.

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