The Community in Beloved
Communities are complicated. Each one is more than just a group of people living together in one place: they are supposed to offer their members a sense of belonging and acceptance, yet often ostracize those who are different. Often, they embody and magnify the human flaws of peer pressure and selfishness. The black community in Toni Morrison’s Beloved at times creates a warm and welcoming environment for Sethe, yet more often dispenses judgement and refuses to provide her aid. Community in this novel offers salvation only when the recipient appears vulnerable and in need, and will withhold help from those who are perceived to be too proud.
Before the arrival of the four horsemen, the community endlessly supports Sethe in her escape and recovery. After Stamp Paid takes Sethe across the river, Ella, who is there to meet her, not only brings her food to take care of her body, but also tries to help comfort her mental state as well. She listens “for the holes [in Sethe’s story]—the things [she] did not ask” about her children and reassures her that they had arrived safely. Ella understands what occupies Sethe’s mind, and does what she knows will ease her of her worries. Ella and later the rest of the community take care of Sethe’s body and mind, helping her heal and settle in. During the first month that Sethe is at 124, there is a “woman in [a] bonnet who…[cries] into her cooking” while helping Sethe tend her baby. Despite whatever trauma or pain she might have suffered before arriving there, she is still cooking for others and helping Sethe with the child. This woman represents the entire black community. Each member has a painful past, yet it is because of this past that they are willing to help all other escaping slaves and assimilate them into their social circle.
The community’s failure to warn Sethe of schoolteacher’s arrival is a result of its resentment toward Sethe’s and Baby Sugg’s perceived pride. Baby’s celebration of Sethe’s safe arrival, which started with the buckets of blackberries Stamp had picked for her, quickly turned into an elaborate “feast for ninety people,” with “ten (maybe twelve) pies and “five turkeys” (161). Though the community had come to the feast happy, the next day the community members came to the conclusion that Baby had overstepped the line between generosity and ostentation with her elaborate feast, and resented her “uncalled-for pride” (161). The community saw the amount of food that Baby provided this time as excessive instead of abundant, and considered it an outlandish show of all the excess she could afford and they could not. Furthermore, many in the community were displeased by Baby’s role as a spiritual leader in the society, because she had never suffered the humiliation and hardships they had, such as “[picking] okra with a baby on her back” (162). She did not even have to escape slavery, but was bought out of it by her son. They now perceive Baby’s preaching as another display of her pride and self-righteousness, and question what gave her the right to preach to them about loving themselves when she had not suffered like they had. The next day, no one in the community warns the inhabitants of 124 about the arrival of the four horsemen, even though Stamp later analyzes that they were obviously slave catchers, with a “righteousness” about them that “every Negro learned to recognize” as dangerous from an early age (185). There are many reasons for their failure to warn Sethe even though they knew what the white men had come for, such as resentment of Baby’s excesses, desire to find out just how “blessed in some way” Baby was that they were not, or belief that others had already gone to warn them (185). However, all the reasons stem from their belief that the inhabitants of 124, because of their “uncalled for pride,” no longer needed the community’s help to survive (161). Therefore, they withheld the assistance they would have given without a second thought before the feast, resulting in a tragedy that drove Baby into depression and would forever haunt Sethe.
The community refuses to grant support to Sethe after she kills her baby because she carries herself too proudly and refuses to show any regret. As Sethe walks to the sheriff’s cart after schoolteacher leaves, she holds herself tall and proud, her profile “knife-clean,” to show that she did not regret killing her baby and trying to kill her other children (179). To Sethe, whatever life her children would have had as slaves was worse than death, and so she fulfilled her motherly duty by preventing from suffering the horrors of slavery as she had. To the community, however, her head was held a “bit too high” and her back was “a little too straight” (179). If they had resented Sethe simply because she was not sorry for killing her child, Morrison would have simply written that her head was held high and her back was straight. Instead, Morrison indicates with the use of “too” that most of the community would have forgiven Sethe for not being sorry for her actions. However, they believed that she was actually proud of them, and that she felt superior to everyone else because she had killed her children. She holds herself proudly, and refuses to let the community see any of her shame or weakness. Sethe’s pride, even after killing her children, is what causes the community to withhold the “singing that would have [otherwise] begun at once” (179). They had been so ready to offer her their support in the form of song, because, no matter what she did, they would have helped her if they did not think she was too proud to let them. They would have formed a “cape of sound…to hold and steady her” as soon as she left 124 (179). The cape, a symbol of warmth during hardship, is an example of the salvation that community is able to provide. However, the people of the community are only willing to offer this salvation to those who appear in need of aid, and are unwilling to provide it to Sethe as soon as they see her perceived arrogance.
The community is willing to aid Denver when she leaves 124 and exposes her family’s vulnerability, and unwilling to offer aid to Paul D because he did not act similarly. The attitude of the community toward offering or withholding aid is epitomized in Ella’s assertion that “all [Paul D] has to do is ask somebody” to find a place to stay (219). Just as the community perceived Sethe to be too proud to ask for help, Ella and the rest of the community believe that Paul D is a “a touch proud” as well, and so does not voluntarily offer him a place to stay (219). No matter how difficult the task, as long as Paul D is humble enough to express his need and ask for help from the community, the residents would gladly “give him anything” (219). However, actively seeking help is the prerequisite of the community’s support, which is the reason for the the cold treatment of Paul D but willingness to help Denver. Sethe had completely closed herself and her wounds off from the community after she left jail, even instilling in Denver the belief that “asking for help from strangers was worse than hunger” (293). Sethe’s unwillingness to share her vulnerability with the community creates a shell around her family that the community views as arrogance. Denver, by revealing her family’s condition and asking Lady Jones for food in exchange for work, effectively breaks this shell down.
In the end, the women of the community band together and once again offer salvation to Sethe because they believed her pride to be gone. Along with providing food, the community slowly opens up to let Denver in through the “small conversation[s]” that take place when Denver returns their plates and baskets (292). The community has many reasons for accepting Denver, but all of their reasons stem from their finding that Sethe was “worn down…and generally bedevilled” by Beloved (300). It is much easier to feel pity toward someone who humbles himself or herself, because it is easier to extend a hand in aid when the recipient places himself or herself in a suppliant position, as Denver does. It is also easier for the people of the community to pity one whose condition is worse than their own, like Sethe. It was impossible for most of the community to offer aid to Sethe when she seemed prideful, closed off, and to be living better than everyone else, but now that her daughter was asking for help and exposing their family’s suffering, they found that the “personal pride, the arrogant claim” that 124 had exuded for the past eighteen years was no longer there. (294) Sethe needed their help. For the women of the community, knowing the pitiful state that Sethe was in thawed the resentment they had previously felt toward her. Despite the community’s previous disdain for and rejection of Sethe, ultimately they are her source of salvation.
The community provides aid and salvation only to those who are willing to humble themselves and expose their vulnerably. It is human nature to pity those whose suffering and vulnerability is visible, and resent those who do not make their need known and appear prideful. Though the community is the source of so much pain and hardship for the inhabitants of 124, the community members are not malicious and uncaring people. They only exemplify the human tendency to want to help only those whom they can pity, those who are willing to humbly ask, and those whose weaknesses they can see. Their imperfections serve to portray Stamp Paid as an extraordinary man, who does only what he deems fair and tries to help everyone, whether or not they ask him for it. His uniqueness is best demonstrated when Ella states that she would have given Paul D a place to stay if he had asked, and he rebukes her:” “why he have to ask? Can’t nobody offer?” (219) To Stamp, if one is in need of assistance, such a person is in need regardless of whether or not that person humbles himself or herself to ask. As he has lost everything dear to him, he feels that he owes nobody, and so acts based on justice and not personal sentiments. Though community tends to be a homogenizing agent, taking on the sentiments and prejudices of the majority, Stamp Paid is an example of an individual with impartial justice who refuses to conform to the partisan majority. His refusal to comply with the community and its human faults is what makes him an extraordinary man.
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