The Symbolic Significance of Colours, Trees, Naming/Re-naming and Water in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Toni Morrison through her novel, Beloved (1987), attempts to reacquaint the readers with the history of American slavery by choosing to present it through the African-American community’s experience rather than the white American perspective. The narrative of Sethe who is based on a real life person, Margaret Garner, initiates the process of healing and reconciliation with the psychologically traumatic past. This ritual of healing that Morrison brings to the fore taps not only into Christian traditions but also the cultural fabric of the African customs and beliefs. Much of this culture is the foundation of the Black American community that was newly formed after the extensive period of slavery. This is reflected in the various symbolisms employed by Morrison to breathe life into the communal narrative of the ‘sixty million and more” African-Americans who died during the Middle Passage and are the bearers of the slave legacy. This paper has chosen to look at the significance of colours, the images of trees, the act of naming and re-naming and the images of water that are potent symbols throughout Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved.
Colours have played a significant role in literature and are used to convey myriad meanings. Morrison uses colour to convey the “consequences of slavery” as part of what Cheryl Hall describes as a “sophisticated system of repeated motifs” that is in play in the novel (Bast, “Reading Red”). While colours such as the emerald green of “Denver’s boxwood room” and the two “patches of orange” in the dull quilt Baby Suggs owned, represented nurture and hope, the colour red had deeper and more intense connotations attached to it. As explained by Morrison “there is practically no colour whatsoever in its pages, and when there is, it is so stark and remarked upon, it is virtually raw” (“Unspeakable” 397). Bast notes that red, which is usually seen as a “universal amplifier” of intense notions of danger, blood, fire or romance, serves an exclusive purpose in this novel. It encapsulates the evils of slavery and the psychological trauma that is a consequence of this practice. Sethe draws attention to how Baby Suggs contemplated colours towards the end of her days starting with blue and then proceeding to yellow and then pink but never getting round to red. She believed Baby had witnessed enough of that colour in the violence she had experienced all her life and the baby blood that had oozed from her granddaughter’s sliced throat. Sethe too, haunted by this image and the pink hue of her daughter’s tombstone, is unable to process other colours until the third part of the book where she figures out that her daughter has returned in the form of Beloved. This is when we see Morrison bring in a riot of colours as Sethe dresses up her daughters in bright flashy coloured clothes and ribbons. The other ominous incident associated with the colour red is when Stamp Paid finds a red ribbon floating by in the river Ohio. A gruesome picture is painted of the atrocities meted out to slaves, when the ribbon is described as still being attached to a clump of hair which has bits of the scalp still clinging to it. A less sinister episode linked to the colour is Sethe’s recollection of Amy’s quest for carmine (red) velvet which resonates with Baby Suggs’ desire to look at differently coloured pieces of fabric. The more powerful message being put across here is that the small pleasure derived from looking at colours gives both Amy, an indentured servant, and Baby Suggs, a former slave, a sense of deep relief after a life of hardship. Sethe explains Baby Suggs’ new occupation with colours as that of someone who never really had the chance to view the world and appreciate it. At the same time Amy’s quest has a sense of futility in the hope of a better future. In Paul D’s case, his “red heart” denotes feeling and emotion while the red rooster, Mister, is symbolic of manhood and also questions Paul D’s conception of it. Throughout the novel, alternating images of life and death are depicted by the spectrum of the colour red. The red roses that line the pathway to the carnival seem to hail the new life that Sethe, Denver and Paul D are about to embark on together but at the same time they stink of death. Thus, we see that colours are a trope that constitute the text in itself and it is through the characters’ interaction with these colours that the novel narrates the processing of trauma (Bast).
According to William J. Terrill, “Beloved explores trees within the specific consciousness of American slavery, where they have multivalent meanings: whips, switches, scars, and, paradoxically, the healing and regenerative power of nature and community” (126). Yet, other critics such as Michele Bonnet maintain that the trees are crucial to the African culture and religion and play a protective and healing role in the narrative. But the truth is that no connotation, either wholly negative or positive, can be attached to this imagery. These images work in both the regenerative as well as insidious and deceptive frameworks. The first instance that has been scrutinized endlessly is the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back. The scar marks the ordeals overcome in the slave legacy and is a testimony to the trauma while sublimating the site of brutality by being compared with an image blossoming with life. Amy’s visualization of the scar as a pretty tree not only presents faith in art and imagination but also the need to make sense of the slave narrative. This is the agenda being achieved by the novel through the power of translation being exercised by language to reimagine a source of pain and humiliation as a symbol of growth and hope. Next, Denver’s “emerald closet” of boxwood trees is seen as a repose from her solitude where she ironically seeks comfort in isolation. Similarly, Paul D finds a companion in a tree at Sweet Home, which he refers to as “Brother”. He is also comforted on his long journey to freedom by the flowering trees that guide his way towards the north. Sethe too associates an Edenic conception with Sweet Home plantation by thinking of the beautiful trees that grew there as she reflects on her past (Weathers quoted by Terrill, 127). The Clearing where Baby Suggs performed her rituals of healing are another example of their centrality to African spirituality and overcoming trauma. But they are also sites for horrifying incidents such as the burning of Sixo and the lynching of other slaves whom Paul D. witnesses on his wanderings. The trees thus hide the insidious acts committed by the schoolteacher and his nephews at Sweet Home and so are connected to the darker side of humanity as well. This is augmented by Stamp Paid’s discourse on how the white folks “put the jungle” in the slaves and then fear the consequences of savagery that they are responsible for.
The act of naming is linked to one’s sense of identity and selfhood. This right, to choose for themselves as to who they are, is also taken away by the white slave owners who have the urge to organize and “define” all that surrounds them (Crevecoeur) –whether plants, animals or slaves. Baby Suggs’ unawareness of the official name she had been given by the slave traders and her search for her family emphasises the absence of “self-knowledge” and “self-recognition” under slavery. The reader finds out that her life before Sweet Home was bleak where her old master never even referred to her by any name. This absence of a name signifies the very denial of her humanity. On being freed, she refuses to go by the name on her bill of sale and keeps the name her husband had given her and that the rest of her community recognized her by, thus, proving the importance of relationships to her identity. This is a movement towards her breaking free from the bonds of slavery and claiming ownership of herself. Similarly, Stamp Paid also rejects his name on the bill of sale, Joshua, which had biblical underpinnings. His new name marks the ordeals he has lived through particularly the one where he has no claim to his own wife who is exploited repeatedly by his master’s son. While Baby Suggs’ name is tied to social relations and love, Stamp Paid’s “renaming” is reminiscent of his outrage. It also refers to his role as an envoy for the Underground Railroad that ensured that the “package” (the people being sent through) would definitely reach its destination. Like Sethe’s scar, his name is empowering and marks the honour in his having survived the hardships of slavery and defying schoolteacher’s command that “definitions belonged to the definers and not the defined”. It is in this respect that Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid claim their selves and assume the position of definers. Morrison also introduces a different outlook to the significance of names through the characters of Sethe and Beloved. Both these names have roots in the biblical context; Sethe being derived from the biblical figure Seth and Beloved from the pastoral sermon that begins with the words “Dearly Beloved”. Sethe is understood to be antithetical to Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve who is favoured by God and is also the blessed and prosperous “father of mankind”. Yet, they share a similarity in the sense that both play the role of the saviour for their race. Sethe’s nursing baby, on the other hand, never had the chance to own an identity. She died nameless and the name Sethe chooses to have engraved on her tombstone is an inverted interpretation of whom the phrase “Dearly Beloved” was originally meant to address. In sermons, the pastor addresses his flock i.e. the living members of the church who have gathered to mourn the dead as “Dearly Beloved”. Sethe’s usage of the word “Beloved” is powerful as it fuses both the world of the living as well as the dead. Beloved, who is a representative of the repressed slave past, is also in the literal sense something to “be loved” as Krumholz explains that the process of healing is propelled forward by each character accepting their pasts no matter how traumatic and elusive (407).
Among the abundance of significant images and metaphors that Toni Morrison employs in the novel, the recurring image of water is a symbol with the deepest connection to the narrative. The images of water as the rain, the river and water itself have intricate psychological and religious foundations. Parallels can be drawn between the direction of the narrative and the movement of water which is fluid thus hinting at the freedom in one’s stream of consciousness as well as the lack of control one has over it (Chen and Wang, 95). Memory and water are interwoven devices where much like flowing water, Sethe’s memory wanders back and forth in time. It also plays a crucial role in signifying the relation shared by Sethe and Beloved, when the ghost returns to the world of the living. Beloved’s first appearance as she emerges from the river is awkward and much like a baby emerging from the waters of the womb. Next, when Sethe encounters her outside the house she feels a sudden urge to lose water much like water breaking from her womb. This is enough for the reader to infer that the stranger is none other than Sethe’s dead baby girl who has returned. Sethe’s memory is also triggered when she sees water dribble from Beloved’s mouth just the way her baby’s saliva had dribbled onto her face. She recollects these instances later when she figures out that Beloved is her daughter. Beloved’s thirst for water when she first comes to 124 is symbolic of her unquenched thirst for her mother’s love and attention which was denied to her. Thus, the symbol of water contributes to the larger theme of motherhood that is prevalent in the text. Other instances are the baptismal effect of the rain on Paul D when in Alfred, Georgia and the link between history and the image of the river. Beloved, being a novel based on several Christian paradigms, uses the image of rain in the biblical sense to show the purging of the unbearable evils of slavery through the experience of Paul D and the 46 other prisoners in Alfred. It, thus, represents an emancipation of the slaves from their masters which resembles a violent flood that washes away all that lies in its path. The river Ohio symbolises life, hope, freedom as well as the passage of time in history. When Sethe crosses this river to reach Cincinnati, she is literally escaping and moving away from the evils of her past towards the beginning of a new life.
Thus, we see that Morrison’s carefully crafted metaphors and symbols and their literalization in the narrative cater to a deeper understanding of the novel and help materialize the interlinked narratives of the Black community. These symbols are reflections of the practices of western African culture such as the “naming tradition, ancestral worship, acceptance of the supernatural, harmony with nature, and the linking of individual wholeness to rootedness in a community” and are associated with positive values in the text, as noted by Ayer Sither.
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Toni Morrison through her novel, Beloved (1987), attempts to reacquaint the readers with the history of American slavery by choosing to present it through the African-American community’s experience rather than […]