The Power of Trauma: Understanding “Beloved”
Trauma is a ghost, and memories can be haunting. Each has the ability to drive a person to madness, or to inspire a certain enlightened strength in him. The capacity of someone to act with resilience, despite the severity of his detriment, determines the ways in which his experiences will affect him, and in turn, whether those effects will have a positive or negative influence on his life moving forward. Toni Morrison’s, Beloved, demonstrates the relentless effects of trauma on its victims, regardless of an incident’s severity, and seamlessly depicts both the positive outcomes and negative consequences that stem from the way in which a person handles his plight. In this, Morrison advocates the power of traumatic experiences, as they can evoke anything from empathy to insanity, and the importance of remaining resilient in trying times. Each character in Beloved suffers some sort of damaging experience that either fills them with a sense of compassion, or pushes them towards their own demise. For a person to apply his pain towards personal growth, and exert unbeknownst strength in order to overcome the traumatic effects of his agony, sets the stage for a more beautiful and enlightened future.
The weight of one person’s trauma cannot be compared to that of another, for a painful experience will trigger absolute agony in a person, regardless of how their pain can be juxtaposed with another’s. Baby Suggs falls prey to these inconsiderate comparisons, as the members of the tightly knit community begin to criticize her and the experiences she has suffered through. As they gather together in the yard of 124, the general consensus of the community becomes:
Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy?… Loaves and fishes were His powers– they did not belong to an ex-slave who had probably never carried one hundred pounds to scale…Who had never been lashed by a ten-year-old white boy as God knows they had. Who had not even escaped slavery. (Morrison 161-162)
Baby Suggs’ peers, to whom she has dedicated her new self, and the ones who have become a family to her, do not believe that her trauma meets the severity of their own, and so they choose to isolate her. Because of the horrors they have seen, from being “lashed” to forcibly making a treacherous escape, the people have allowed their excruciating encounters with mistreatment and torture to stunt their personal growth. They do not realize that, in the end, what Baby Suggs endured, compared to what they themselves endured, does not matter because torment cannot be quantified, and it was torment drove Baby Suggs her to her grave. She may not have “escaped slavery” or “carried one hundred pounds to scale,” but Baby Suggs is pushed past the limits of her “holy” goodness, to a breaking point that causes her to lose her last shrivel of hope for a life of truly lived freedom. In her last moments, she asks for life’s simplest beauty, color, which helps her find her first bits of peace within the crazed life she has led. Ultimately, Baby Suggs’s continuous inability to look her trauma in the face is what inevitably consumes her, and no matter what horrors she has or has not encountered in her lifetime, she comes to a place where she cannot fight anymore.
The way that a person’s trauma affects his life is based solely on the resilience he demonstrates in his situation, and what he is able to take away from his experiences. Where Baby Suggs’s pain, though seemingly moderate compared with that of others, kills her, characters like Sixo are empowered to take their lives into their own hands and attempt the making of a radical change. Sixo, whose horrific life ranges from constant beatings to just tasting freedom before having it ripped away, is inspired and motivated to escape, take his friends and “family” with him, and live a free life. Despite the fact that he is brutally murdered by the schoolteacher and his white nephews, his final minutes of life show that he has truly overcome his traumas, and though he could not physically escape, he has found his spiritual freedom. As he is “surrounded and tied”, then lit on fire, “He laughs… His feet are cooking; the cloth on his trousers smokes. He laughs. Something is funny… Sixo interrupts with his laughter to call out, ‘Seven-O! Seven-O!’” (267). As he is being burned to death, the man who never laughed breaks into hysterics. He laughs because, even though he will not live to experience the world outside of Sweet Home, his wife and the child she bears will. A piece of Sixo, a human being that shares his genetics and the only thing that has ever been truly his own, his identity, will be born into a life of freedom. Within his last moments of life, Sixo realizes that he has finally achieved the basic human rights that all beings are granted, emotion, happiness, family, and a legacy. His laughter is his way of showing that though he falls, he has forever beaten the hauntings of his enslavement and is going to be peacefully free in his afterlife. The overwhelming horrors of one trauma compared to another does not degrade the mistreatment and torture experienced, and ultimately, both Sixo and Baby Suggs accept death and spiritual liberation gladly. Although the weight of Sixo’s torture may have been more severe than the experiences of Baby Suggs, his resilience and ability to forsee a hopeful future beyond his trauma, gives him a more positive and powerful ending than that of Baby’s.
Trauma is relentless, for even when the torture ceases, the suffering does not. It is easier to be consumed by one’s own pain, and the memories that are associated with such agony, than to fight what feels like a hopeless battle. Such is the case with Paul D, who has wasted his eighteen years of freedom quite literally “walking” away from his problems, refusing to learn from his experiences, and locking away his perceived to be dangerous emotions in his “tobacco tin” heart. His ultimate breaking point comes when he discovers his true value as a slave, nine hundred dollars. This completely strips him of his humanity and forces him to see himself as someone else’s property. When Sethe and Paul D begin to recall the horrible memories from Sweet Home, Paul D remembers, “‘No way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead.’… Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” (86). Paul D’s trauma has left him guarded and scarred, and so he demonstrates a strong desire to protect himself and others from ever feeling that pain again. He does not allow himself to continue reflecting on his hardships, despite the fact that he and Sethe remain in a constant period of attempting to heal and move forward, in order to prevent either of them from falling back into a cycle of being stuck in the past. Paul D condemns all of his emotions, memories, and the components that make him human into his “rusty tobacco tin” so that he does not grow attached to the feelings that come with a pure “red heart.” Though his intentions are to guard from the pain of living in the past, Paul D has closed himself off from the empathy, compassion, and pure love that can be wholeheartedly learned from overcoming trauma.
Every person is susceptible to trauma and to being severely affected by the horrors they experience. Ironically, the character who embodies the horrific trauma that tortures every person in the community also acts based on the effects of her own damage. Beloved is a newborn, barely crawling, when her loving mother takes a saw to her throat. When she is reborn and returns to 124, the trauma that sparked from being murdered and abandoned as a child is what causes Beloved to epitomize the haunting return of the past. Sethe attempts to apologize, to explain the reasons for her actions, but Beloved refuses to understand. The text reads: [Beloved] took the best of everything– first… the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered… Beloved accused her of leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her… Sethe cried… Beloved wasn’t interested. She said when she cried no one was there. (284) Beloved’s own traumatizing experience of having her mother kill her and not “wave goodbye or even look before running away from her”, is what causes her to act in the way that she does. Her own revenge for her pain is to “take the best of everything” and grow bigger as Sethe deteriorates. Being a representation of how easily the past can haunt the present, Beloved has complete control over Sethe and causes her to feel the utter regret and agony that she did not when she first committed the act. Beloved’s manipulation of everyone around her, to fulfill a vengeance that she can never receive, is an outcome of her inability to sympathize with her mother’s own “suffering”, forgive, and learn the lesson clearly being taught: the importance of sacrifice, family, and the power of unconditional love. Beloved personifies the idea that memories, no matter how horrendous, cannot be avoided, but rather, must be confronted.
Agony that is continually felt has the capacity to drive a person to madness, isolation, and self-destruction. As Sethe is beginning to become accustomed to a life without slavery, her previous owner tracks her down with the intention to enslave her and, in turn, her children. On the brink of insanity with her utter refusal to condemn her babies to such a cruel life, she plans to kill them. Sethe, the woman whose entire individual identity thrives on her motherhood, is pushed to murder her own children as a result of the trauma she has endured. Upon Beloved’s return, she is forced to face the guilt she has dismissed for years, and, “Once Sethe saw the scar… the little curved shadow of a smile in the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin– once Sethe saw it, fingered it and closed her eyes for a long time… It was as though her mother had lost her mind” (281-282). Even in her freedom, Sethe is still being owned and controlled by the memories of slavery and all that she has done to desperately escape it. Seeing the scar on Beloved’s neck forces her to stare the ghost within herself in the face and face a memory she has attempted to forget. Sethe chooses to isolate herself from the community, rejecting any and all company that could be offered to her, as a way to avoid her guilt. She does not demonstrate regret until Beloved’s return, and the trauma that is born of her memories can only further torture her. Clearly, not being able to allow herself to feel and heal from her trauma is what sends Sethe into an unhealthy world of loneliness, guilt, and haunting memories. While the inability to approach trauma with efficacy and resilience can lead to isolation, madness, and being entirely consumed by the past, properly confronting hardships and learning from them can bring a person to an enlightened state of empathy, compassion, love for those close to them, and ultimately, healing. The person who most depicts this capacity to recover is Stamp Paid, who built his entire identity as a free man off of his healing. Having been forced to release his wife, one of the only components of his life that made him human, Stamp Paid comes to the ultimate conclusion that he has paid his debt to the world. He decides to live deliberately and entirely for himself, as he does not believe he could ever owe anything again. The trauma that Stamp Paid endured, rather than deteriorating his sense of hope or will to persevere, inspires him to become a massive advocate for togetherness and unity among the African American community. When he finds himself in Ohio, among the population of ex-slaves, “he extended his debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery” (218). Stamp Paid, much like Baby Suggs, discovers his new life’s purpose in charity and bringing others to the same state of spiritual and emotional restoration that he has found. He thrives off of both believing for himself, and teaching others, “You paid life; now life owes you.” Stamp’s role in the community is protection, both physically and emotionally, and uniting the African American people of Cincinnati into a type of family and humanity that they have never known. As a person who has stared hopelessness in the face and not lost his faith in a happy life, Stamp Paid plays the most significant role in the community’s dynamic, as he demonstrates pure compassion to those less fortunate than himself and the positivity that truly learning from your past experiences can bring.
The person who finds the greatest sense of positivity and empowerment amongst her struggles is Ella, the story’s ultimate hero. Having lived a childhood as a continual victim of rape by the hands of her father and brother, Ella believes that she has seen “the lowest yet” and has come to a conclusion that “nobody got that coming” (301). Given that Ella has experienced a type of trauma that could have completely broken her, Ella has chosen to learn from her experience that no one deserves that type of cruel suffering, and she acts with empathy to defend those that must endure it. Ultimately, “it was Ella more than anyone who convinced the others that rescue was in order. She was a practical woman who believed there was either a root to chew or avoid for every ailment… There was also something personal in her fury” (301-302). For Ella to be described as “practical” speaks volumes to the resiliency of her character, as practicality becomes difficult to achieve when a life of unbelievable agony, “a killing, a kidnap, a rape– whatever,” is all a person grows up knowing the world to be. Ella sees the detrimental situation of Sethe and her “sensible” daughter, and finds “something personal” in her pure rage. Seeing the horrors that she has, Ella has become a compassionate, empathetic, empowered woman who will protect anyone in trouble, whether she agrees with their past decisions or not. Ella is the epitome of understanding and humane consideration for the experiences that drive people to certain actions, for she has been able to grow from her trauma.
There is a lesson to be learned about resilience and recovering from even the most awful of situations: it is never too late for a person to take his life into his own hands and begin to heal. Denver, the ever miserable daughter of Sethe, is the character who most demonstrates this radical shift between being overcome by memory and making the decision to initiate a necessary change. Once Denver can accept her traumas as her own, such as drinking Beloved’s blood and being subjected to a life of damaging isolation, as opposed to only recognizing Sethe’s experiences as something else that she is not a part of, she is able to grow and move forward. From the very beginning of her journey towards maturation, Denver has shown her capacity to be empathetic and empowered. When she first meets Beloved and can recognize the longing that she has for Sethe’s undivided attention, Denver becomes, “a model of compassion” (65). However, it is when she sees dwindling of her mother’s body and spirit, that she exerts unbeknownst strength and uncovers her own ability to leave 124 and begin her life. The text narrates, “Then Sethe spit up something she had not eaten and it rocked Denver like a gunshot… Denver knew it was on her. She would have to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help” (286). Denver uncovers a certain courageous bravery in herself that she had neither seen, nor felt, before. She wills herself to “step off the edge” of the only “world” she has ever known, 124 and Sethe. The greatest source of strength is being able to admit to needing help, and Denver is able to overcome her own suffering to learn that lesson. Denver, like Stamp Paid, Ella, and Baby Suggs, truly takes her life, and the lives of those she loves, into her own hands by acknowledging and accepting her pain, and is able to make an empowered, positive change.
Thus, Beloved advocates the overall message that trauma, though relentless and haunting, is able to be overcome and learned from. Though it is easy to become consumed by memories of a horrific past, it is never too late for a person to take his life by the reigns and make it all that he wishes it to be. The negative effects of pain may be brutal, and suffering can make hopelessness seem far more attractive than change, but the characters of Morrison’s novel prove that the positivity born of resilience; the empathy, compassion, and enlightenment that come from healing, lead to a far more beautiful present and an ever-promising future.
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