The Symbolism Of The Red Color In Beloved
Toni Morrison uses the color red in multiple ways in her novel Beloved. On one hand red is a symbol of vibrancy and life, often revealing life in unexpected places. It also symbolizes pain and death, though death does not signify absence in a book where the dead have a very lively presence in human lives. Beautiful but terrible, red is desired and feared by the characters and often signifies important turning points in the book.
Several of Beloved’s characters express desire for red, showing it as a positive symbol of birth, life, and emotion. Denver, who has not left 124 for twelve years, longs for color and vibrancy. To Denver, Beloved’s arrival signifies the return of the vibrancy that she has missed most: that of a companion. Beloved’s worth to Denver is made clear through Denver’s love of colors, and red in particular, for Denver is willing to give up “the most violent of sunsets…and all the blood of autumn and settle for the palest yellow if it comes from her Beloved” (143). Beloved, also, is captivated by the color red. Though she has experienced more than enough vibrancy in her own life, her eyes follow the “blood spot” of a cardinal in the leaves of a nearby tree, “hungry for another glimpse” (119). To Beloved, red represents the emotion that she has kept inside for eighteen years. Beloved’s need for feeling leads to her affair with Paul D and spurs her desire for vividly colored clothes, such as the dress Denver eventually wears to visit Lady Jones, “a dress so loud it embarrassed the needlepoint chair seat” (291) Amy Denver, the whitegirl from whom Denver receives her name, has a fascination with “carmine” velvet. Though she has most likely never before left her home town, Amy is willing to travel “a hundred miles, maybe more” to find some red velvet of her own (41). Amy’s description of the velvet as “like the world was just born” strengthens the connection of the color red to birth and life (40).
Though admired for its beauty, red appears both as an overt and implied symbol of blood and death, reminding the reader about Sethe’s past. Beloved sometimes opens her neck wounds, terrifying Sethe and using the “rubies of blood” to get what she wants (294). Sethe is horrified by this image because it reminds her of the murder she committed eighteen years ago and disproves her frequent insistence that “I don’t have to explain a thing” (236). The reopening of Beloved’s wounds reflects the fact that nothing has truly healed and that Sethe can never fully forgive herself for the act. Besides the clear references to red blood, Morrison relates the color red to violence and death in several other places. Stamp Paid often plays with a red ribbon, found attached to part of a black child’s scalp in the “Licking River” (212). Stamp carries the ribbon at all times as a reminder of the cruelty of whites and the struggle of black people. When Paul D enters 124 for the first time, he encounters “a pool of red, undulating light that locked him where he stood” (10). The light is the presence of the baby ghost, showing that dead things are by no means gone from the world of the living. Upon Paul D’s arrival, the women of 124 have lived with the light and other reminders of Beloved for eighteen years, allowing the ghost to become part of daily life; when Paul D forces Beloved out, she returns in person, stronger than ever. The color of the blood, ribbon and light connects them to the events of the past.
Paul D and Baby Suggs’ reluctance to acknowledge the color red demonstrates their fear of the past and their own emotions. Paul D’s frustration over the freedom of the red rooster, Mister, stems from his own powerlessness. He is jealous of the rooster because Mister is able to display his colors, but Paul D’s captors have taken away his identity. The loss of his freedom also leads to an inability to feel, which Paul D equates to the sealing of a “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” (86). After all the trials he has been through, Paul D is afraid to be emotional or allow himself to love. For years, he has thought it best to “protect yourself and love small” (191), but he is eventually unable to keep his emotions in check around Sethe and Beloved. His affair with Beloved causes the tobacco tin to open and his “red heart” to reemerge (138). Paul D’s refusal to open the tobacco tin reflects his fear that the things he loves will again be taken from him and a deeper fear that he is no longer able to love. Baby Sugg’s bedridden contemplation of colors shows that she may be as afraid of red and the emotion it carries as Paul D is. Though she spends most of her last eight years of life pondering colors, Baby Suggs never manages to think about red. Baby’s desire to “fix on something harmless in this world,” and unwillingness to think about red contrast with her earlier view that all life and emotion must be embraced, showing her acceptance of white dominance (211).
The color red represents the two extremes of life and death in Beloved and is therefore both feared and coveted by the characters. The young and naïve Denver, Beloved and Amy embrace red, seeing only its vibrant and positive aspects. The older characters, who have lived through the hardships of slavery, are more wary of the color. Sethe admits that “me and Beloved outdid ourselves with [red]” and cannot erase the color of her daughter’s blood from her mind (237). Morrison’s use of the color red as a symbol makes the connection between the living and the dead powerful in Beloved and makes the reader question traditional beliefs about life after death.
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