From the beginning, Beloved focuses on the import of memory and history. Sethe struggles daily with the haunting legacy of slavery, in the form of her threatening memories and also in the form of her daughter’s aggressive ghost. For Sethe, the present is mostly a struggle to beat back the past, because the memories of her daughter’s death and the experiences at Sweet Home are too painful for her to recall consciously. But Sethe’s repression is problematic, because the absence of history and memory inhibits the construction of a stable identity. Even Sethe’s hard-won freedom is threatened by her inability to confront her prior life.
Paul D’s arrival gives Sethe the opportunity and the impetus to finally come to terms with her painful life history. Already in the first chapter, the reader begins to gain a sense of the horrors that have taken place. Like the ghost, the address of the house is a stubborn reminder of its history. The characters refer to the house by its number, 124. These digits highlight the absence of Sethe’s murdered third child.
As an institution, slavery shattered its victims’ traditional family structures, or else precluded such structures from ever forming. Slaves were thus deprived of the foundations of any identity apart from their role as servants. Baby Suggs is a woman who never had the chance to be a real mother, daughter, or sister. Later, we learn that neither Sethe nor Paul D knew their parents, and the relatively long, six-year marriage of Halle and Sethe is an anomaly in an institution that would regularly redistribute men and women to different farms as their owners deemed necessary.
Most of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is told through the experience of David Henry, ... , since it is David’s lie about his daughter, Phoebe, which drives the story and eventually destroys his ... sees the signs of Down Syndrome in his own daughter at birth, he immediately decides that the best thing ... to do for his wife is to say the daughter has been born dead. This decision, quickly made ...
The scars on Sethe’s back serve as another testament to her disfiguring and dehumanizing years as a slave. Like the ghost, the scars also work as a metaphor for the way that past tragedies affect us psychologically, “haunting” or “scarring” us for life. More specifically, the tree shape formed by the scars might symbolize Sethe’s incomplete family tree. It could also symbolize the burden of existence itself, through an allusion to the “tree of knowledge” from which Adam and Eve ate, initiating their mortality and suffering. Sethe’s “tree” may also offer insight into the empowering abilities of interpretation. In the same way that the white men are able to justify and increase their power over the slaves by “studying” and interpreting them according to their own whims, Amy’s interpretation of Sethe’s mass of ugly scars as a “chokecherry tree” transforms a story of pain and oppression into one of survival.
In the hands of the right storyteller, Sethe’s marks become a poignant and beautiful symbol. When Paul D kisses them, he reinforces this more positive interpretation. The chapter provides other similar examples of the way that Paul D’s presence works to help Sethe reclaim authority over her own past. Sethe has always prioritized others’ needs over her own.
For example, although she suggests in her story that schoolteacher’s nephews raped her, Sethe is preoccupied with their theft of her breast milk. She privileges her children’s needs over her own. When Paul D cradles her breasts, Sethe is “relieved of their weight.” The narrator comments that the “responsibility for her breasts,” the symbols of her devotion to her children, was Paul’s for a moment. Usually defined by her motherhood, Sethe has a chance to be herself for a moment, whoever that may be. Paul D reacquaints Sethe with her body as a locus of her own desires and not merely a site for the desires of others-whether those of the rapists or those of her babies. Paul D’s arrival is not comforting to Denver because Paul D threatens Denver’s exclusive hold on Sethe’s affections.
... entered her life she accepted him without question. "She [Sethe] knew Paul D added something to her life-something she wanted to ... not believe nobody offered Paul D a place to stay. When Paul D walked into Sethe's life both Sethe and Paul D did not ... his back and was running down the road past brown fields turning white" (130). Sethe also ha an emotional void that needed ...
He also reminds Denver about the existence of a part of Sethe that she has never been able to access. Although she is eighteen years old, Denver’s fragile sense of self cannot bear talk of a world that does not include her. She has lived in relative isolation for her entire life, and she is angered and disturbed by Paul D’s sudden intrusion. The events of the novel unfold on two different temporal planes: the present of Cincinnati in 1873, and Sethe’s time at Sweet Home during the 1850 s, which is narrated largely in flashback. In this first chapter, Morrison plants the seeds of the major events that will unfurl over the course of the novel: Sethe’s encounter with schoolteacher and his nephews; the slaves’ escape from Sweet Home; the story of Amy Denver; and the mystery of Sethe’s baby’s murder. These past events are told in a nonlinear manner, fading and resurfacing cyclically as the characters’ memories reveal more and more to the reader and to the characters themselves.
Analysis: Chapters 2-3 Chapter 2 begins with Paul D gazing at Sethe’s back and it ends with her gazing at his. These images symbolize what is taking place thematically in the chapter: the characters’ charting of their respective memories, of what lies behind them, at their backs. Sethe’s back also contains the visible scars of her whipping. The narration alternates between two time periods-the present in Cincinnati and the Sweet Home past. The Sweet Home past is presented from both Paul D’s and Sethe’s perspectives, as the narrator’s focus shifts between the two characters.
The novel maps out the points of proximity and distance between them. Both characters, for example, are disappointed after having sex, and they simultaneously begin thinking about Sethe and Halle’s encounter in the cornfield twenty-five years ago. On the other hand, Paul D’s sudden, secret revulsion toward Sethe’s scars suggests an emotional distance that takes even him by surprise. Sethe recalls that Halle loved her in a brotherly way, not like a man “laying claim.” However, beneath the surface of this seemingly positive memory is the fact of the impotence inherent to the slave condition. Even if he had wanted to do so, Halle could not have laid claim to his enslaved wife any more than she could lay claim to herself. Slaves were not permitted to become legally married because marriage means giving yourself in contract to one another, and slaves are already contracted to their owners.
... her past. The quality that best describes Sethe in my mind is persistence. Her constant devotion to Denver and ... epitome of this is provided in the character Beloved. Beloved's true purpose in this book is never ... lead you to believe that Beloved is a representation of the past that has come to bring ... she is simply an entity with a purpose. Beloved could be symbolized as a biographical mirror, because ...
The prohibition of marriage also prevented the slaves from having a strong claim on their children. Baby Suggs’s loss of her eight children was nothing unusual in slave life. The names of Paul D and his brothers are also a testament to the slaves’ lack of ownership over themselves and their children. Paul D’s brothers are named Paul A and Paul F, suggesting their interchangeability in the minds of their owners. Moreover, the brothers’ last name-Garner-is that of their owner. It thus marks them as the property of another.
Sethe doesn’t feel she can lay claim to her own memories. She attributes to them powers of autonomy, and her explanation to Denver of her concept of time reveals the powerful hold that the past has on her. Sethe regards the past as a malevolent presence that defies even death. The past has damaged Sethe and Paul D to so that they wonder if it is possible to put the pieces back together. Paradoxically, Sethe tries to shelter Denver from the past by isolating her in a house plagued by the ghost of Denver’s dead sister. In contrast, Denver will not flee the past, because she ardently desires a history.
This is evident in her obsessive need to reconstruct the events of her birth in as much detail as possible. She longs for the sense of self that history provides. Similarly, her isolation from the rest of the black community impedes the formation of her identity. Denver’s attachment to her “emerald closet” is part of the novel’s broader symbolic network of trees and tree images.
For Denver, trees provide comfort and shelter. Elsewhere, the ability of trees to function as centers of solace and peace is complicated by the way white men have perverted their natural function. Schoolteacher’s men bind, burn, and shoot Six near the trees that he and Paul D found trusting and inviting. And while trees bear the blossoms that lead Paul D to freedom in Chapter 10, they also bear the lynching victims that haunt Sethe’s memory. Paul D regards Sethe’s scar — tissue “tree” with bitter irony. Since white men have re imagined trees as sites of brutality, thinks Paul D, Sethe cannot mask the ugliness and brutality of her wounds by seeing her scars as a tree.
... the life of a slave, Sethe strongly believed that Beloved should not have to live the life of a slave. Sethe felt rather than having ... for her babies? (Furman 269). Being a slave and remembering her horrible past has led Sethe to believe that a white man who ... . Some characters like Ella has tried to completely forget the past. ? The past was something to leave behind. And if it didn ...
Analysis: Chapters 4-6 Although the cheer of the carnival in Chapter 4 is tempered somewhat by the stench of the rotting roses, the chapter ends on a note of optimism that is perhaps unparalleled in the rest of the book. Sethe begins to think that with Paul D there to support her, she may be able to confront her past. There are other beginnings: Denver and Paul D begin to reconcile with each other, Sethe and Denver begin reconciliation with the community, and Paul D begins to feel at home in Cincinnati. Beloved’s mystical arrival in Chapter 5 interrupts the progress that is made in Chapter 4. In the subsequent chapters, the existing relationships in the novel become unhinged, and the characters recombine with unusual force. Beloved seems to be a manifestation of Sethe’s infant daughter who was killed.
Details linking her to the daughter include her age, her name, her lack of memory, her smooth, “new” skin, Here Boy’s disappearance, Sethe’s strange sensation of her “water breaking,” and Beloved’s impossible knowledge of Sethe’s earrings. It is never made clear, however, whether Beloved is a reincarnation of the child-an actual living human who is inhabited by the spirit of the dead baby-or simply a ghost. Paul D’s observation of Beloved’s secret strength suggests that she is capable of the supernatural violence wreaked by the poltergeist before Paul D’s arrival. In their actions, the residents of 124 treat Beloved as they would a human visitor in need. In their thoughts, however, they associate her with the murdered infant. As the story develops, all three forge relationships with her that are governed by these thoughts.
Although Beloved appears on the surface to be a woman, she resembles a baby in many ways. She does not walk steadily, her speech is impaired, she does not have full control over her bodily functions, and she sleeps constantly. Beloved also represents the untrained and undisciplined desire of an infant. Her single-minded fixation on Sethe resembles that of an infant, who is unable to conceive of an identity separate from its mother and who thinks of its mother as its exclusive possession. Sethe tries desperately to keep the past at bay, but Beloved’s arrival demonstrates the difficulty-indeed, the impossibility-of repressing the past. Over the course of the novel, Sethe’s confrontation with that past will prove both destructive and productive.
... supernatural and the natural world. Beloved cunningly suspends Sethe between past horrors and the potential of renewing those past horrors. Oprah Winfrey, who ... of the deep, stubborn essential to Sethe? s survival. Sethe? s friend Paul D, an ex-slave, who has wondered alone for nearly ... two decades wanders to Sethe? s door ...
This section emphasizes the beneficial aspects of the process: in Beloved’s presence, memories surface that help Sethe understand her past and, consequently, herself. For example, in Chapter 6 Beloved inspires Sethe’s memory of her mother’s hanging to come to the surface. Sethe’s story of the hanging marks the first time Denver has ever heard about her mother’s mother. Especially poignant is the blank space in Sethe’s memory for the forgotten language of her early years.
Perhaps Sethe’s failure to remember the African language spoken by her mother is a deliberate part of her attempt to repress her memory of her mother. Importantly, the lost language represents the kind of cultural devastation suffered by the slaves. Just as Beloved partially restores that lost cultural history to Sethe along with her personal history, Morrison’s novel restores a repressed part of American history to contemporary readers by including the stories and memories of plantation slaves. Later, in Beloved’s monologue in Chapter 22, the slaves’ ancestors’ memories of the Middle Passage, the ocean crossing between Africa and America, are evoked. Analysis: Chapters 7-8 Beloved incites the narration of history time and again. Often, she directly questions Denver and Sethe about the past, but Beloved also has an indirect influence, which the scene between Sethe and Paul D illustrates.
It is the couple’s argument over Beloved that sparks Paul D’s revelation of Halle’s fate to Sethe. Once Beloved has kindled the storytelling process, Sethe and Paul D devote their own energies to it, despite the pain that is involved. For as Amy says to Sethe in Chapter 3 about Sethe’s throbbing feet, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” On a certain level, both Sethe and Paul D realize that it is worth the pain to bring their memories back to life, back into the open. In releasing these memories, they themselves can come back to life and live again without fear. Aware of the pain it will cause, Sethe and Paul D nevertheless proceed to fill in the gaps in each other’s knowledge of the past. For both characters, forming a coherent identity involves weaving together the fragments of their past into a coherent narrative.
... reaching Europe via the Islamic-run, trans-Saharan, trade routes. Slaves obtained from the Muslim dominated North African coast however proved ... for research and observation and allowing new calculations. African slaves turned out to be an excellent working force in conquering ... insist that there is a definite connection between the slave trade and todays problems of Africa. Cultural and traditional ...
These chapters focus on Paul D’s identity in particular. Mr. Garner always bragged that he raised his slaves as “men,” and Paul D had always considered himself a man in his own right. But schoolteacher proved to him that his claim to manhood was not inherent and that it depended upon the will of another.
After wearing a bit as an animal would, a portion of Paul D’s identity was shattered. His relationship with Sethe prompts him to try to find a way to reclaim his humanity, and the process of narration that Beloved inspires proves integral to his attempt. Beloved also counters the more general forces of silence that recur throughout the novel. According to Sethe and Baby Suggs, one should withhold all talk of the past. Once, when Sethe did speak, she almost lost her life: her report to Mrs. Garner about the theft of her milk caused her to be whipped nearly to death.
Because speech is one of the most important differences between humans and animals, white slave owners did everything they could to control the speech of their slaves. Those who rebelled or did not speak with a suitably deferential tone often had their tongues cut out. Thus, the mere act of speaking about a dehumanizing experience is a way of reclaiming one’s humanity. For slaves and former slaves, such speech often takes the form of song or metaphor. For a long while, Paul D was unable to talk about his degrading experiences, but he could describe them through songs. Sethe uses similar circumlocution when she refers to the violation and beating she suffered using the images of stolen milk and of a chokecherry tree.
Stylized expression is historically a means of secretly venting anger or criticizing. Thus, for the oppressed, including slaves, artistic expression becomes a matter of survival, because explicit language could be punished with death. Paradoxically, although Beloved incites the narratives of others, she remains quite cryptic about her own past. What we do hear of her previous experiences suggests that she may be above all a symbolic figure who represents the history of a people. In her interchange with Denver, Beloved’s memories of the “dark place” from which she came can be taken as those of a deceased infant girl, but they also greatly resemble an African woman’s memories of the “Middle Passage,” the crossing of the Atlantic on the way to America. Beloved recalls dark, hot, cramped quarters, a pile of dead bodies, and water.
Additionally, the “bridge” she talks about could be the bridge of a ship. These uncanny images will resurface in Beloved’s monologue in Chapter 22. Analysis: Chapters 9-11 Chapter 9 contrasts two philosophies of dealing with pain. One is represented by Baby Suggs; Paul D and Ella espouse the other.
Through her preaching, Baby Suggs hoped to help her fellow former slaves reclaim themselves, to “love their mouths” and express their feelings. While still in bondage, love was an emotional liability, but outside of slavery a person can have more trust that the object of his love will not be taken away. Yet, even when one is no longer a slave, one must deal with a certain amount of loss. Having already known more loss than they feel they can bear, Paul D and Ella have decided they would forego all real love for the rest of their lives rather than feel any more pain. When Baby Suggs tells her listeners to love their hearts most of all, she responds to Paul D’s “tin heart” philosophy. Baby Suggs’s message is that a sacrifice such as Paul D’s is not worth undertaking, because love is part of being human, and humanity should not be sacrificed for the sake of emotional survival.
It is questionable whether life without love constitutes “survival” at all. Sethe’s reaction to the news of Halle’s fate reveals her strategy for coping with pain and love. She wavers and is tempted to suppress her feelings as Paul D does. Ultimately, though, she supports Baby Suggs’s wise words. Having loved Halle so deeply, the news of his psychological breakdown causes Sethe great pain. Yet facing his pain and her own allows her to heal and move on.
Instead of moving to a new, un haunted house, Sethe had stayed at 124 in the hope that her husband would join her someday. As she begins to reexamine the past, Sethe contemplates constructing a new family and life with Paul D. Her decision to stay with him suggests that she is ready to confront the other painful accounts that Paul D still has yet to tell her, and to tell her own stories as well. She has taken another step toward reclaiming her identity and healing her spirit. Similarly, the sexual encounter between Beloved and Paul D causes Paul D to act against his philosophy, which suggests that it is weak in relation to that of Baby Suggs.
Paul D’s engagement with Beloved may be representative of the intense encounter with his past that he is undertaking in the novel. Somehow, the encounter loosens the lid of Paul D’s “tobacco tin” heart: his pulsating chant, “red heart, red heart,” reflects the sudden overflow of passion he feels as his tin box bursts and his past pours out. The scene between Beloved and Paul D raises many questions. Beloved’s sexuality complicates the characters’ (and the reader’s) perception of her as the embodiment of the dead baby’s spirit.
Her interaction with Paul D seems to prove her power over him, but it also manifests a more vulnerable, plaintive, childlike aspect of her nature. Her insistence that Paul D call her by her name communicates her insecurity about who she is as well as her neediness. If Beloved is representative of history or the past, her actions seem to suggest that although the past has power over us, it is also in a position of dependency. If we do not care for it, acknowledge it, call it by name, it may fade and weaken, but it may also resort to a state of spiteful vengeance, keeping us captive until we bow to its demands. Analysis: Chapters 12-14 The language used to describe Denver’s relationship with Beloved is loaded with the vocabulary of need and desire. Denver feels that Beloved’s interested gaze sends her to a place “beyond appetite” and that looking at Beloved is “food enough.” Beloved provides emotional sustenance for Denver in a way that Sethe never could, because Denver is simultaneously responsible for and dependent upon Beloved.
Beloved’s constant neediness is most like an infant’s desire for its mother; when Sethe is not there for Beloved, Denver becomes a sort of surrogate mother figure. She is forced out of her role as a daughter and into a more adult role that involves working in the interest of another’s welfare. Indeed, both need and desire recur in Beloved as forces active in the shaping of human relationships. Indulging desire seems to affirm life.
At the same time, repressing desire is self-destructive. Thus, Paul D’s attempts to reject his desire for Beloved are ultimately detrimental and inhibit him from constructing a complete identity. When Beloved curls up into a ball and rocks herself back and forth in the shed, her behavior recalls her description of life in the “other place”-whether womb, grave, or slave ship-where she lay curled up and hot. In this scene, Beloved points to a spot in the darkness where she sees “her face.”Me. It’s me,” she tells Denver. Beloved may be conflating her identity with Sethe’s, possibly because her premature death prevented her from forming an independent sense of self.
She could also be pointing to the spot in the shed where she was murdered. Alternatively, if we understand much of Beloved’s speech as voicing the thoughts of the slaves during the Middle Passage, her words here may refer not to her own situation but to that of the slaves. Perhaps they refer specifically to the circumstances of her grandmother, Sethe’s mother. Thus, when Beloved identifies “her” face with “me,” she may be speaking in the voice of Sethe’s mother.
Paul D’s proposal that he getSethe pregnant reveals his desire to redirect his attention from the past to the future. He has been worrying about his manhood and has been tormented by the curse Beloved seems to have cast over him. When he surprises himself by telling Sethe that he wants her to have a baby with him, he decides retroactively that a baby would be the perfect “solution: a way to hold on to her, document his manhood and break out of the girl’s spell-all in one.” But Sethe feels she has already paid too high a price for motherhood. She has already lost three children and does not want to have another, only to see it, too, run away or be taken from her. Sethe further demonstrates her reluctance to engage with her past when she ignores her earlier sense that Beloved is her daughter. Sethe does not feel ready to face up to the horrible fact that she killed her own daughter, a mother’s worst crime.
Willfully rejecting her own instinct, Sethe convinces herself that Beloved must be an ordinary girl who has escaped from some sort of captivity. Analysis: Chapters 15-18 When, after many years of service, Baby Suggs asks the Garners why they call her Jenny Whitlow, she reveals a gap in her self-knowledge. However, this gap is quickly closed and surpassed. By choosing to keep the name she knows as her own despite Mr. Garner’s protestations, Baby Suggs closes the gap and asserts her independence. She takes this further in her preaching, as it enables her to spread her messages of self-love and independence to the community.
In preaching, Baby Suggs takes her community as her family and finds a sense of purpose to her life as a freed person. But the community is fickle. Although it allows Baby Suggs to rebuild for herself a sense of belonging, it does great harm to Baby Suggs’s family. The community is implicated in the infanticide because their jealousy and mistrust weighs on the feast so palpably that it hinders Baby Suggs’s perception of the “dark and coming thing.” More obviously incriminating is that, out of spite, the community deliberately fails to warn Sethe of schoolteacher’s approach. Even after Sethe murders her daughter, the community members feel Sethe is behaving too proudly, a crime for which they will continue to shun her until Denver turns to them for help in Part Three. Morrison’s indictment of the black community in Sethe’s crime exemplifies the moral ambiguity that pervades Beloved.
Like Baby Suggs, Morrison does not seem to “approve or condemn” Sethe’s act. Because Morrison centers the novel’s narrative around Sethe, and because she portrays Sethe as strong, sane, courageous, and a loving mother, we tend to sympathize with Sethe-even as she explains the circumstances of the murder. At the other extreme is the community, which completely shuns Sethe and her family after she murders her daughter. Thus, while Paul D’s initial, horrified reaction to Stamp Paid’s story is justified and understandable, it seems out of place to us because the text locates Sethe’s act outside the bounds of ethical evaluation in a way that the community does not. The text shifts the focus of the reader’s criticism from Sethe herself to the perverse circumstances that have worked upon her to transform her “too thick” motherly love into infanticide. The book’s moral ambiguity extends beyond its central conflict to all aspects of the story.
Good and evil are not split along a racial divide-we see whites performing good acts along with the bad and blacks performing bad acts along with the good. By complexly intertwining virtue and vice, Morrison makes her characters seem realistic and human, so that they rise above being simple allegorical figures. Even Beloved, the only expressly allegorical figure in the book, is an elusive character. The novel’s sole definitive moral judgment is its condemnation of all forms of slavery. Most prominently, the terror and despair slavery represents to Sethe is portrayed as the indirect cause of her act of infanticide. Even the “softer” form of slavery practiced by the Garners does not escape criticism.
The “four horsemen”-schoolteacher, schoolteacher’s nephew, a slave catcher, and the sheriff-reference the description of the Apocalypse that is detailed in the Book of Revelations. In the biblical text, the four horsemen-famine, plague, war, and death-herald the coming of the end of human existence. The horsemen in Beloved announce the end of the peaceful world that was 124. Before their arrival, Sethe lived in harmony with her family, with her community, and, for the first time, with herself. After Sethe’s attempt to murder all of her children, Baby Suggs sinks into a deep depression and never preaches again, while the community shuns 124 and its inhabitants. Sethe’s surviving children will never again trust her in the same way, and Sethe is haunted for the rest of her life-literally by her daughter’s ghost, figuratively by her deed.
In a sense, schoolteacher and his posse also herald the end of coherent meaning for the book’s main characters: Sethe’s incomprehensible act ushers in an era of moral and existential doubt in the book. Paul D, who has difficulty understanding his feelings, his motives, his manhood, and his actions, is most explicitly plagued by doubt. Analysis: 19 In this chapter, Stamp Paid’s feelings of guilt are interspersed with Sethe’s memories of schoolteacher and Sweet Home. The result is a sort of dialogue centering on issues of responsibility and blame. The majority of the black characters in Beloved are unhappy, but it is unclear whether the white people are solely responsible or whether the blacks’s or rows are to some extent due to their inability to come to terms with themselves and their pasts. The chapter also raises questions about what the black community owes to itself and about the ties that bind people who are no longer slaves.
The complex, confused dynamics of Beloved’s behavior-alternately weak and strong, vulnerable and invincible, loving and malicious, needy and omnipotent-represent the irony and contradiction inherent in Stamp Paid’s portrait of the black psyche. Stamp Paid believes that black people feel the need to work extremely hard because they wish to dissociate themselves from white people’s image of them as a savage, animalist ic species. Yet, Stamp Paid notes, the harder they work to demonstrate their humanity, the more bitter and angry they become. In the end, that rage begins to threaten the very humanity they had been trying to protect and emphasize. In this way, thinks Stamp, the whites succeed in creating a kind of savagery where there was none before, and that savagery in turn spreads to the whites themselves. The result is a snarled and anarchic jungle in which questions of blame and guilt can seem almost impossible to unravel.
Stamp Paid’s meditation on the tangled network of guilt and retribution that forms racism’s “jungle” expands the chapter’s focus from individual characters and the local black community to the black community at large. Although, as his chosen name signifies, Stamp Paid used to believe that his own suffering and deprivation freed him from future obligations, he now begins to realize that it may be his responsibility to look out for Denver’s and Sethe’s welfare. He also decides that Baby Suggs is to blame for her own depression, which he saw as her surrender to her oppressors. In Stamp’s mind, when Baby Suggs decided to stop speaking “the Word,” she made a choice to “wear the bit,” even though Baby Suggs herself blamed the whites for her suffering and cited the intrusion of the four horsemen as the beginning of her emotional deterioration. Stamp Paid reminds himself that the black community contributed to Baby Suggs’s eventual descent by failing to warn her of schoolteacher’s approach, thus hindering her ability to prevent the tragedy. These memories end up muddying his formerly clear-cut understanding of Baby Suggs’s plight.
Sethe, too, deals with issues of guilt. Although she tells herself that she does not need to explain to Beloved what led her to murder a daughter because Beloved already understands, Sethe nonetheless continues to detail her motivations mentally, which suggests her need to justify her actions to herself. Sethe has invested all of her identity in motherhood. Every sacrifice she made was for her children and every abuse she suffered she felt as an offense against her children because, in Sethe’s eyes, her children are extensions of herself and vice versa. Her behavior-plotting out how to explain her act of infanticide to Beloved and to herself-suggests that however much Sethe blames her murder of Beloved on the oppression of slavery, she in fact places a good deal of the blame for the murder on her own shoulders. Analysis: Chapters 20-23 When Stamp Paid hears the unintelligible clamor outside 124 in Chapter 19, the narrator identifies the noise as “the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.” In these chapters, the “unspeakable” and “unspoken” thoughts are put into words.
They are turned into literature through the use of literary devices such as imagery, allusion, and symbol, which are what allow the seemingly “unspeakable” to be verbalized. Indeed, the language in Chapters 20 through 23, which is extremely stylized to represent each character’s stream of consciousness, seems to emphasize the fact of its literariness as much as the nature of its message. As she meditates on her murder of her daughter, Sethe makes mental and emotional connections to her own mother, whom she suspects of having tried to escape without bringing Sethe along. Sethe wants to differentiate her act of infanticide from what she imagines to be her mother’s rejection of her.
She conceives of her own act as one of love, free of the disregard or contempt that would motivate an abandonment. Moreover, Sethe sees the fact that she protected her children from slavery as a step toward countering her own mother’s desertion of her. But Denver’s monologue also focuses on family bonds, and her words reveal a previously unarticulated pain at not having grown up in a complete family. She, too, seems to feel abandoned in some sense. More generally, Denver’s monologue seems to suggest that even in freedom, the black family as an institution suffers fragmentation and destruction.
The fragmented nature of each of the three monologues is representative of each character’s fragmented, incoherent identity. And when their voices mingle in Chapter 23, it is difficult to attribute each phrase to its appropriate speaker. One interpretation of this predicament is that Sethe, Beloved, and Denver have conflated and confused their identities beyond recognition. Beloved cannot cut the psychological umbilical cord that attaches her to Sethe.
Beloved’s monologue is highly impressionistic, incredibly dense, and its meaning is elusive. The cramped, dark place that she describes could be a grave full of the “black and angry dead,” like the one Stamp Paid perceived to be lingering around 124. It could also be a metaphorical, inescapable womb. The reading the text best seems to support is that Beloved is describing a slave ship transporting Africans to America. For instance, she mentions piled-up corpses. Packed in overcrowded hulls, many Africans died of disease and starvation on the journey to America.
Beloved’s references to rape echo the experiences of Sethe’s mother, who was “taken up many times by the crew” during the Middle Passage. Sea-colored bread refers to the moldy, inedible provisions on board, and the “hot thing” could be a branding iron like the one that marked Sethe’s mother. The “men without skin” seem to be the white captors and masters who oppressed the slaves. Thus, Beloved reminds Sethe not only of the crime for which Sethe cannot forgive herself but also functions as a conduit for memories of the history of slavery. Within the novel, the two are certainly presented as interlinked, and Sethe needs to come to terms with both her family’s history and the history of slavery. Of course, literariness in Beloved is not limited to these four chapters: as a larger story and work of art, the novel allows its characters, and, more important, their real-life counterparts (the generations of men and women victimized by slavery), to transcend the limits of speech and memory.
The book as a whole gives voice to a suppressed history and recovers the memories that the characters themselves-both white and black-try to destroy. Morrison demonstrates literature’s ability to recuperate a history that would otherwise be lost to the ravages of willed forgetfulness and silence. Analysis: Chapters 24-25 Although Stamp’s act of renaming himself signals a kind of spiritual rebirth and reclamation, his new name also testifies to the trauma he has endured under slavery. There is an element of loss in what is otherwise a gesture of strength and self-affirmation. Indeed, in many ways the renaming might be seen as a metaphorical suicide: Stamp had initially wanted to kill one of the masters rather than surrender Vashti, but Vashti had insisted that this would lead only to Stamp’s own death and begged him not to undertake the murder.
Thus, although Stamp preserved himself out of respect for Vashti’s wishes, he denied his natural feelings of rage and assumed a new identity free of emotional ties or bonds. Stamp estranges himself emotionally from Vashti and devotes the rest of his life to helping others pay off “whatever they owed in misery.” While Stamp’s new identity is assuredly a positive one, it is still born at the expense of the old. Like Stamp Paid, Paul D is estranged from himself. Since slavery, Paul D has developed emotional coping mechanisms-such as the “tin heart”-that discourage him from loving too passionately and require him to keep his feelings and memories locked away. The novel is full of evidence of Paul D’s self-alienation. For example, on one occasion in Georgia, Paul D was unable to tell whether the screaming he heard was coming from himself or from someone else.
He often questions his worth, as he does in Chapter 24, and he frequently seems unsure of why he does certain things. For example, he cannot explain why he succumbs to Beloved’s seductions, or why he suddenly suggests that he and Sethe have a baby together. Paul D’s thoughts in Chapters 24 and 25 focus on his fear of asserting his humanity, which is something that he had always considered a given before Mr. Garner’s death.
After Mr. Garner’s death and the commencement of schoolteacher’s abuses, Paul D learned that his humanity was in fact subject to a white man’s whim. A white man could beat it out of him, or even make him want to deny it to himself, as Paul D’s contemplation of suicide demonstrates. In retrospect, Paul D doubts whether he was ever a man at all, because even Mr.
Garner’s presumably enlightened version of slavery denied Paul D the power to define his identity as a male and as a thinking, feeling human being. As long as Paul D fears the idea of claiming his humanity, he will continue to feel alienated from himself. Analysis: 26 As Sethe’s only remaining child, Denver represents the future. In Part Three, Denver transforms from a girl into a woman and begins, for the first time, to develop an independent sense of self. She serves as a bridge between Sethe and the rest of the community, and she provides Sethe with an opportunity to escape the haunting memories and sins of the past. She feels a sense of responsibility for her mother, who grows weaker and weaker in the shadows of Beloved’s power and of her own guilt.
Ironically, Sethe’s regression toward infancy triggers Denver’s maturation. While Denver represents the future, Beloved, of course, represents the past. Throughout the book, Beloved stands for the haunting legacy of slavery. As her presence becomes a danger to the whole black community, we see that the consequences of slavery haunt not only individuals but whole networks of people. Correspondingly, Beloved’s exorcism will provide a catharsis for the town’s entire black population as well as for Sethe. It is significant that it will take the community as a whole to rid 124 of Beloved-to exorcise the universal ghostly presence of slavery.
At the same time, it takes one woman, with her own personal sense of past suffering, to organize and lead the exorcism. Due to her own painful relationship with the past, Ella is the most attuned to the invasive and harmful aspect of Beloved’s resurrection. When Ella decides to rid the community of Beloved’s presence, she leads an exorcism of past traumas as well as of past sins. She wipes away the legacies of slavery’s evils and the memories of the evils that slavery induced in its victims, such as Ella’s own rejection of her baby.
Sethe’s mistaking of Mr. Bodwin for schoolteacher during the exorcism indicates the extent to which she is immersed in the past. Instead of repeating the past by running to protect her own children, Sethe does what she wishes she had done before: she attacks the perceived enemy. Schoolteacher is not really present, though, and Sethe’s violence is misdirected. She nearly kills Mr. Bodwin, who not only helped Baby Suggs but also fought for Sethe’s release from jail and is now trying to help her daughter find work.
While Sethe does reenact her past mistake in a way, this time the mistake will not prove tragic; instead, it opens the door to potential growth. Just as this episode gives Sethe the chance to revise and emend the actions that have haunted her for eighteen years, it also grants the townswomen the opportunity to revisit and adjust their own past behavior. One of the reasons schoolteacher’s visit years ago ended so tragically was that the community had failed to warn Sethe of his approach. Now, the townswomen take action to stop Sethe from doing something she will regret later. The individual and the community work together to learn from past mistakes and to heal themselves.
In many ways, Beloved itself functions as a kind of exorcism. Morrison creates a space for both the victims and the perpetrators of oppression to confront and narrate their pasts. As readers and as heirs to American and world history, we are able to gain understanding of, and thus control over, prior sorrows and crimes. Through the confrontation of a dehumanizing past, humanity can be affirmed.
Morrison suggests that we must learn to confront the past both as individuals and as a community before we can truly begin to extinguish its dangerous legacies. Analysis: Chapters 27-28 When Paul D first showed up at the doorstep of 124, he seemed aware of the necessity of confronting the past in order to escape its grip. He assured Sethe that with him there to pull her out, she should feel safe about venturing “inside” her painful memories. When Beloved’s arrival forces Sethe to face the past, these memories begin, as Sethe feared, to consume her completely.
Only with the help of those around her can Sethe escape Beloved’s hold. Denver keeps Sethe alive, the community helps to expel Beloved, and Paul D supports Sethe by telling her that she, and not her children, is her own “best thing.” By dealing with the past, Sethe and Paul D secure the possibility of enjoying a future together. Beloved performs a similar function. The novel catalogs a past that contemporary readers must contend with before moving forward. Through most of the book, the narrator filters almost all of the story through the various perspectives of Sethe, Paul D, Denver, Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid, schoolteacher, Lady Jones, Mr. Bodwin, Beloved, and Ella.
In the short, closing chapter of the book, Morrison returns the narration to a more universalized, abstracted, and distanced voice. The result is poetic: words rhyme and phrases repeat, affecting an almost trance like state in the reader. Morrison punctuates these mesmerizing, cadenced paragraphs, describing how everyone gradually forgot Beloved, with the blunt explanation, “It was not a story to pass on.” Enigmatically, this phrase evolves, by the chapter’s end, into a warning: “This is not a story to pass on.” And yet Beloved does pass that story on. Its purpose is to restore a history to a people whose history has been erased by centuries of willed forgetfulness and forced silence. The narrator’s warning is intended to remind us that it is not easy to keep that history in our memory. Nor is it necessarily helpful for us to remember that history if it is not conveyed with responsibility and sensitivity.
Resurrecting the past is a painful process, and Beloved is an emotionally painful book to read. Like its title character, it is a difficult entity to contend with, one that can inspire or distress the reader with equal intensity. Yet, by engaging with this disturbing, unrelenting force in a conscientious way, we may begin to understand the past, as well as its impact on our present.