A Tree On Her Back, Beloved Essay, Research Paper
For Morrison, history is a subject that she often reflects upon in the novel Beloved. One obvious connection between history and her novel is the inescapable horror of slavery and the impact it has on the characters, especially Sethe. At first glance, the tree on Sethe’s back appears to represent nothing more than scars from a past beating. However, when analyzed more closely, the tree illustrates the need for characters to cope with the past in order to progress into the future.
It is explained in the book that Sethe was robbed of the very breast milk, which was meant for her young baby. She was caught and whipped by the school-teacher’s boys of the plantation, who left her with “a tree on her back,” a physical scar, a metaphorical reminder of “her sorrow” (p15, 17). This sorrow which the tree represents can be seen through the character of Beloved. As soon as Sethe was reunited with Beloved in the North, she was able to let her nurse; “she enclosed her left nipple with two fingers of her right hand and the child opened her mouth. They hit home together” (p94). The importance of nursing as a bond between mothers and daughters is stressed throughout the book, when, for example Sethe’s mother “went back in rice and Sethe sucked from another woman whose job it was” (p60). The inhumanity of slavery is given power through this distinct example. The emptiness of Sethe’s relationship with her mother increased her maternal compulsions for her own children. Her need to protect them went so far as to murdering the crawling already? baby because her desire to save her children from receiving the white man’s mark was stronger than her humanity. The baby was brutally murdered, and buried under the headstone “Beloved.”
Beloved’s true importance lies in her ability to affect Sethe. The crawling already? baby is related to painful memories, and Beloved personifies the present pain due to those memories. The constant reminder of Sethe’s past, represented by the tree, is an indirect result of the baby’s existence. Sethe lost her sense of identity with the human race when she murdered the baby. The trunk of the tree functions as Sethe’s tortured soul. Sethe’s guilt about her lack of human reason in her attack of the innocent child haunts her later. At Sweet Home, she caught the school-teacher comparing her to an animal; “put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right,” he directed his students (p193). After attacking her children, she realizes that she has sunk to the sub-human level dictated by the teacher. This understanding prompts a self-destructive guilt; she will do anything to make things better.
Sethe’s guilt allows her no internal peace, and Paul D, an old friend from Sweet Home reminds her “you got two feet, Sethe, not four” (p165). Yet again, she has been compared to an animal. This pain is intolerable, and the only way she can alleviate it is to feed Beloved’s hungry mouth. Beloved as a symbol of Sethe’s wrongdoing allows her to attempt to right this wrong. As Sethe’s conscience tries to rationalize: “I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to. Why I did it. How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her. When I explain it she’ll understand, because she understands everything already. I’ll tend to her as no mother ever tended a child, a daughter. Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children…Now I can look at things again because she’s here to see them too” (p201). Beloved’s return offers the opportunity for explanation and easing of Sethe’s conscience, although repentance and remorse are not mentioned. Sethe assumes the child’s role and Beloved that of the mother. This development in their relationship is key to the idea that Beloved is Sethe’s enslaved soul. The physical ghost literally enslaves Sethe. The obvious element of Sethe’s guilt, her wish to punish herself in order to mollify the pain of her past, is also evident in her relationship with Beloved; “Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused” (p252). Beloved provides Sethe with an outlet for her guilt. By absorbing all of Sethe’s love, which should have rightly been directed at herself, Beloved is Sethe’s denial of freedom. Sethe’s guilt won’t allow her to love herself, or let herself beloved.
In the stage when the ghost is still in its intangible form and Paul D presents himself at the house, Sethe almost lets the “responsibility for her breasts, at last be in somebody else’s hands” (p18). As soon as she has this thought, the ghost attacks and gets angry due to the presence of Paul D. Sethe’s conscience, manifested in the ghost, wouldn’t allow her to be freed by Paul in this way. Through Sethe’s attempts to lessen her guilt and difficult past, she ironically worsens it, and works her way into a psychological slavery much more terrifying than the physical slavery she experienced at Sweet Home.
One branch of the tree, otherwise known as a limb of Beloved’s character is her mechanism for causing others to deal with their pasts. Beloved knows nothing better than the pain of memory. She seeks a perverted kinship with Paul D and forces him to free himself from the hindrance of his “tobacco tin of memories.” The image of a tobacco tin containing all Paul’s repressed memories of abuse and degradation through his life of slavery is used throughout his story. This tin was said to have replaced his heart and made him invulernable to all the world had to offer. Beloved seduces him in the cold house, thus provoking the flaking of the rusty tin and the exposure of his “red-heart” (p117). Beloved also “moves” him all about the house, systematically further and further away from Sethe. Paul is the only individual who shows potential of helping Sethe overcome her past. Over the course of his migrations, Sethe makes no objections, until “she solved everything with one blow,” and asked Paul if he would rather sleep inside than out in the cold-house (p130). Beloved sends “threads of malice” across the table, she is indignant that her position of power is being undermined (p130). As a mechanism of slavery, it is hard to watch the slave free himself. By requesting that Paul sleep inside, Sethe begins to forgive herself and let go of her punishment, subsequently, Beloved begins to fall apart: “she knew that she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces…she thought it was starting” (p133). Sethe’s guilt is renewed when Stamp Paid enlightens Paul to the gruesome story of how she murdered her daughter, who then confronts her about it. This is where Paul inserts his foot comment, which has already been shown to have a detrimental effect on the Sethe’s inner self. Beloved liberates Paul D from his issues in the past, yet through the dredging up these issues, Beloved also contributes to the regression of Sethe’s progress towards self-emancipation.
Another branch of the tree is the ability of Beloved’s character to function as a warning to the future generation, Denver. After the murder, but before the baby ghost arrived, Denver was approached on the subject of her mother’s guilt by a boy at school. Not able to deal with this discussion, Denver promptly lost her hearing. Expectedly, as soon as the baby ghost made its debut, Denver regained her lost sense. From this point, the ghost plays a crucial part in Denver’s life, as does Beloved when she enters the scene. Denver is the first to understand that Beloved is the baby, which her mother killed, resurrected, and at first is afraid that her mother will harm it once again. As time passes and the roles of Sethe and Beloved switch, Denver changes her opinion about the situation, beginning to fear for the welfare of her mother. The form of Sethe’s destruction at the hands of her own identity proves a valuable lesson for Denver. She realizes that she shouldn’t allow herself to be a victim of conscience, so she must help her mother help herself. On this thought, Denver ventures out into the world, for the first time, to look for any kind of assistance. By thus claiming ownership of herself and her situation, Denver indirectly contributes to Beloved’s ultimate destruction. She finds a job with the Bodwin family, the people who prevented Sethe from being lynched while on trial for the baby’s murder. On her first day of work, Mr. Bodwin drives up to the house, provoking Sethe’s memory of the school-teacher and causing her to fly in a rage from Beloved’s side. Beloved explodes. Denver rescued her mother from the net of terror Beloved had woven around her, and the leaves, spring green, filled with promises of the future, overpowered the dull tree. Sethe, with the help of Denver and Paul D, elements of her future life at last defeat Beloved a reminder to her past.
Sethe lies on the bed, finished with life and everything because Beloved “her best thing…left her” (p272). Paul, free himself, thanks to the unlocking of his tobacco tin, makes Sethe realize that she is her best thing. Sethe is herself beloved. Beloved is gone, but instead of dying, Sethe can now begin to live her free life to the fullest extent. She conquers her conscience and her past with the help of her future, her real daughter, Denver, and her lover, Paul D.