Beloved – Toni Morrison Essay, Research Paper
The meaning of the character of Beloved in Toni Morrison s Beloved
The character of Beloved in the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is symbolic of several important ideas that are essential to a complete understanding of the novel. In the context of the story itself, Beloved is a specter that has returned to haunt the woman that killed her when she was child. On a deeper, subconscious level to the characters within the story, the character of Beloved can be considered to be reminder of the past. Specifically, the character of Beloved helps two characters, Sethe and Paul D., to deal with their pasts. Finally, in a historical context, Beloved can be interpreted to be a symbol of the problems that developed between mothers and their daughters as a result of the atrocities experienced through slavery. This paper will examine all of these aspects in detail and also demonstrate how they are necessary for a greater understanding of the story contained within the novel and how they complement the historical context of the story.
In the storyline of Beloved, the character of Beloved is a ghost that has returned to haunt the woman that killed her. It is important to understand the circumstances around her death in order to understand why the character of Beloved must return to her mother. The character of Beloved is the daughter of Sethe. Sethe is a black woman who has escaped a slave farm in the South with her children to the house of her mother-in-law, who is named Baby Suggs. The house is referred to as 124 in the story. Sethe fled a slave owner called Teacher, who is very sadistic man that had submitted her to many kinds of mental and physical torture. One of the particularly diabolical things about Teacher was that he had attempted to study, in a scientific manner, the slaves he kept as if they were animals, treating them as if they were less than human. Sethe s three children flee to the house ahead of her and Sethe, pregnant with child, follows shortly afterwards on foot. As Sethe is running through the woods she gives birth to her fourth child, a baby girl that she names Denver. Eventually Sethe and Denver arrive at 124 and shortly afterward, a party is thrown at 124 by Baby Suggs. The other people in the town appear to be jealous of Baby Suggs good fortune, and in their jealousy do not tell her, or Sethe, that a white man is coming down the road towards 124. The white man turns out to be Teacher, who has come to take Sethe back to the farm from which she has escaped. In order to protect her children from her prior life (her past) Sethe takes drastic measures and attempts to murder her own children. She kills her second youngest child, and injures the others. When Teacher finds that what she s done he decides that he cannot recover Sethe and heads for home without her stating that she is not valuable to him anymore. After his departure, Sethe is picked up by the local authorities for murdering her child but is eventually released. Consequently, it is under the circumstances of Sethe s determination to avoid her past life that her child departs this world.
When the reader first comes into the story it is past the event of her Beloved s death. In fact, Sethe does not even remember her daughter s name, but she does remember what the priest said at the funeral. The priest said Dearly Beloved hence, the name Sethe now associates with her dead daughter. In addition, the specter of Beloved has taken to haunting the house at 124 and people now experience a sense of depression as they enter 124. Later in the story, the ghost of Beloved inexplicably returns to Sethe as a young woman by appearing outside the house one day. She even uses the name that Sethe has ascribed to the ghost Beloved. After a while Sethe does eventually makes the connection between the name of her visitor and the name of her dead daughter. At the end of the book, the ghost of Beloved is exorcised from 124 by same women that were present at the party on the day of her living death. Thus, in the context of the story Beloved really is a specter that has come back from death and that Sethe, and the community in general, must deal with in order to bring closure to the story.
On a subconscious level within the story, the character of Beloved can be considered to be much more than just a specter. In fact, she is a representative of the past to the characters in the story and her presence continues to remind them of their pasts. Specifically, the character of Beloved has a healing effect with two characters in the story, Sethe and Paul D., become able to accept with their pasts and move on with their lives. When Paul D. first arrives at 124 he brings back, to Sethe, all of the memories of living on the farm with Teacher. In an interesting turn of events, the first action performed by Paul D. upon his arrival at 124 is to confront the disembodied spirit of Beloved that creates the feelings of depression in the threshold to the house. His confrontation temporarily casts the spirit from 124 but the peace that follows is short lived and within a short time the spirit of Beloved returns to the house as a young woman. The event of her return causes a number of emotional reactions in Paul D. and Sethe.
With regards to Sethe, we find that Beloved is constantly asking questions regarding her past. She seems to have knowledge regarding past events in Sethe s life that she really should not know about and it is almost as if Beloved knows which memories will be the hardest for Sethe to deal with emotionally. She then sets out to ask questions that deliberately invoke these difficult memories and this causes Sethe to relive a number of very traumatic events from her life prior to her living at 124. While Beloved is asking these hard questions of Sethe she also sets out to control access to Sethe. Denver, Sethe s daughter, and Paul D. both feel competitive with Beloved for Sethe s affections and attention. The relaying of the stories of her past has a positive effect upon Sethe and she begins to accept her past and is able to move on with her life. In fact prior to Beloved s arrival, Sethe s life at 124 appears to be very stable at the beginning of the story because she has not yet dealt with her own past and has spent her life avoiding deliberately avoid her history. Over the course of her involvement with Beloved, Sethe becomes able to move beyond her stationary life at 124 and because of her personal healing is able to form a romantic relationship with Paul D. This romantic relationship is the basis for lot of healing for in her character.
The presence of Beloved has similar effects on the character of Paul D. Although she is competing with him for Sethe s attention the positive affect Beloved has on Sethe also indirectly affects Paul D. Sethe s remembering of her past initiates his own journey of recovery and down the paths his own memories and he too is forced to deal with his past. Directly affecting him, Beloved attempts to get rid of Paul D., by having sex with him. Her plan succeeds to one extent and Paul D. moves away from 124, but it also serves to awaken Paul s emotions that he thought he had carefully stored away in a metaphorical tobacco tin. It would seem that the presence of Beloved seems to be the catalyst that both Paul D. and Sethe need to their confront their pasts and her connection to the past heals them and enables them to consider a romantic relationship with each other. Arlene Keizer presents this same idea in an article entitled ‘Beloved’: ideologies in conflict, improvised subjects, that appeared in the African American Review in spring of 1999. Keizer states, For Sethe and Paul D, trying to survive in the present, the past is a dangerous undertow which threatens to drown them. Yet they must incorporate their past experience into their present lives in order truly to claim their freedom. (4)
Finally, in a historical context, Beloved can be interpreted to be a symbol of the problems that developed between mothers and their daughters as a result of the atrocities experienced through slavery. The descriptions given by Beloved of the hereafter before she is reborn bear a resemblance to those experienced by slaves coming to America in the hold of a ship. The description reads:
Dark, said Beloved. I m small in that place. I m like this here. She raised her head off the bed, lay down on her side and curled up.
Denver covered her lips with her fingers. Were you cold?
Beloved curled tighter and shook her head. Hot, nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in. (71 Morrison)
The above passage can be understood she was curled in a fetal position in a hot dark place. Continuing on with this description we learn that there were many others in the dark with her. This description shows how Beloved in a historical context is representative of slavery and how her presence demonstrates how that past of slavery can have an enormous affect on the present. Even the name of Beloved reflects confusion on the part of Sethe. The name, which is taken from the preacher during her funeral service, is a reference to those that mourn the dead child. In an article entitled Beloved and the Problem of Mourning by Teresa Heffernan this confusion is described in the following manner.
Even her name, Beloved, which is inscribed on her tombstone, is borrowed from the
Preacher s funeral sermon, seven letters exchanged for the ten minutes of sex Sethe has
with the engraver. Hence, she in turn mocks the desire to represent, to categorize, and to
In essence, Heffernan is stating that Sethe is naming Beloved after herself and those attending the funeral. This shows how Sethe is not only confused about her own identity but also that she cannot separate her identity from that of her children. Sethe s identity confusion is also demonstrated in the recollection of Denver s birth. In the narration of the story, Sethe refers to herself as her children s mother. (p. 5 Keizer) which demonstrates that not only does Sethe not know who she is due to the brutalization of her persona, but that by depersonalizing the whole incident she makes herself into a symbol of all mothers. This creates the following representative relationships; Sethe a symbol of motherhood, and Beloved a symbol of slavery and the past, is also Sethe s child. In addition, Beloved is also named after the funeral attendees, which included Sethe and the other members of her community thus they are mourning themselves.
Taking all of these symbols into consideration one can make the following logical conclusions. The damaged relationship that is shared by Sethe and Beloved demonstrate how slavery damaged the ability of black women to form relationships with their daughters. This damage occurs on multiple levels. First there is the damage to the mothers, as they attempt to avoid their past instead of attempting to reconcile with it. This avoidance affects their ability to move forward emotionally with their lives and accept themselves. In addition, because of the avoidance of their past they are unable to truly know themselves which prevents them from forming strong relationships with their children. Also, there is damage on the part of the children, since they originate from parents that are damaged they are unable form strong relationships with others because they are not taught to know their own histories by their mothers. The confusion created by not acknowledging their past creates an enormous amount of difficulty because both the mothers and the daughters are unable to connect not only with each other but also with others. Finally, as we ve seen in Beloved that although one attempts to avoid the past, we are never truly free from it because it is an important part of who we are as individuals. Therefore, we must be able to deal with it as individuals because this affects our ability to interact with others and destroys our sense of belonging to our community (and race).
It is also important to deal with slavery on a community level. This is symbolically represented in the novel by the exorcism of Beloved at the end of the book when the community of women bands together to exorcise Beloved from 124. Since Beloved is named after the same people that must eventually cast her out of the world and into oblivion it would seem that the Morrison is saying to us that the community must deal with their past together to stop it from negatively affecting the present.
In conclusion the three levels of depth to the title character of Beloved create various ways to understand Toni Morrison s messages conveyed by her novel Beloved. As a specter, Beloved is a haunting reminder of a child that was destroyed because a mother wouldn t let the past come back into her life. Secondly, as a representative of the past to the characters of Paul D. and Sethe she is a catalyst for healing and shows how the only way to move onward is to deal with the past instead of avoiding it. Finally, as a symbol of the damaged relationships between mothers and daughters as a result of slavery we come to understand that slavery is a community issue that has far reaching effects on today s black community. The dedication in the front of the book reads Sixty Million and more, which is the number of African Americans that died as a result of slavery. In effect, a historical massacre that all Americans must deal with if we are to move forward not only as a national community, but individually as human beings.
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Heffernan, Teresa. Beloved and the Problem of Mourning,(Toni Morrison). Studies in the Novel Winter 1995 v30 p558 (1)
Holden-Kirwan. Jennifer L. Looking into the self that is no self: an examination of subjectivity in Beloved. . African American Review, Fall 1998 v32 n3 p415(12)
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Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Books, 1988