Beloved is a novel which is both surrealistic and realistic. Although it depicts haunted houses and people returned from the dead, it also vividly and believably portrays life as a slave, and as an ex-slave, recounting the story of a free black who is never really free from anything- -especially her past. The main storyline recounts the life and trials of Sethe, an escaped slave who is haunted by the horrors of her past, by the ghost of her murdered daughter, and the murder which she herself committed. Yet inside the lines of Beloved and Sethe’s story is a much larger story.
It is the story of slavery, as told through narrative history, as seen through the eyes of the slaves themselves. It is the story of broken families, unknown homelands, and lost identities. Of husbands and wives divided by the auction block. Of children who know their mothers only as a piece of clothing in the distant fields. It is the story of a mother who would rather kill her own children then see them become slaves, a mother who believes that death is the only freedom available, and that murder is the only solution to the white men coming into her yard.
Beloved is the story of identity and family destroyed by slavery, and of a race of eople who became afraid to love for fear of what it could do to them. It is the story of a million destroyed by what they were forced to bear, and of a million others who overcame the hardship and learned that freedom was allowing oneself to love big–even if it hurts. From the story of Stamp Paid, who gave away his wife and considered his debt settled, to the story of Baby Suggs, who lost her husband and all of her children, Beloved is a narrative of hardship and separation.
It is through these stories of identity and loss, especially loss of family and loved ones, that I would like to examine Beloved. By exploring family ife, mother-child relations, husband-wife relations, and slave-slaveowner relations I would like to explore what it meant to be a possession and not a person, and examine how blacks cultivated identity and family while simultaneously attempting to survive in an intolerable existence. Through the narrative of Beloved I would like to examine the life of an average slave, and through the novel’s characters explore the issues of love, loss, identity, family, and freedom from a black perspective.
Family and separation are central themes in the novel Beloved. Baby Suggs is separated from her children and her husband, Seth from her usband Halle, Denver from her father. The characters of Beloved are not unique, separation and loss of family was a daily occurrence for the life of an average slave. Plantation owners held little respect for the ties of a slave family; black marriages were not even recognized under white law. At any given time a family member could be sold and disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.
Even those families who were able to remain on the same plantation for a longer period were often subject to imposed separation. In order to deal with the physical and mental abuse many laves, like Paul D, learned to just shut down, closing their pains up in a “little tin in their heart,” going through the motions of life while void of the emotions which come with it. Ripped from the customs and community of a homeland in Africa, often not even allowed a chance to know one’s own mother, many blacks never learned what it meant to be a real person, what it meant to have a unique personality, and how it felt to have a real family.
Black slaves lived their lives with the knowledge that they were possessions, not people, and so held no right over their families, bodies, or future. Despite the lmost certain pain which accompanied allowing oneself to love, relationships, however fleeting, were able to grow. Marriages and friendships were formed, children were birthed, and communities were created. Yet a slave was never free to control his/her destiny. Marriages could be torn apart at a whim, women could be abused by their white masters, friends and family could be beaten, sold, or killed.
This reality of love and loss is a key factor in the shaping of each character’s life and misery within the novel. Morrison writes, “In all Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like chickens. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces were her children”(23).
Due to the hurt and pain which could result from allowing oneself to love when separation was almost a certainty, many slaves decided it was easier to not love at all–or in Morrison’s words, they learned to “love small. ” Lean’tin Bracks, in her essay Toni Morrison’s Beloved, describes the ffects of family separation and loss on the minds and hearts of many slave women. She writes, A slave woman had few options, but faith and hope kept many women and their children alive while overwhelming rage against slavery and a desire to control one’s own body resulted in abortions and infanticide.
In addition, many who witnessed the demise of their families and kin lost their psychological buffer against slavery and survived by “loving small” or in many cases not loving at all. “(59 artc) Baby Suggs is an example of someone who through hardship has lost her “psychological buffer. Her relationship as a mother to her children was both fleeting and unmemorable. After losing two children and a husband to the auction block Baby Suggs no longer allows herself to love, attempting to protect herself from the pain by forgetting and not allowing herself to feel.
Morrison tells us that Suggs never even looked at her second- youngest child (“The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway”(139) and that all she could remember from her youngest girl “is how she loved the burned bottom f bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I can remember”(5). Resigned to losing her children before they were grown Baby Suggs is startled when she is finally able to watch one of her children grow.
Only able to hold onto Halle into adulthood, Suggs reminds Sethe that she should be grateful for the children she was able to keep instead of mourning the loss of only one. She tells Sethe, “You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don’t you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased”(5). It is not until Halle buys her from Garner that Baby Suggs understands what it means to be free, what it means to have family, and what it means to love.
United with her grandchildren, and now part of a family made up of her entire black community, Baby Suggs discovers herself, then turns to preachin’ to spread her joy and her newfound heart. It is not until School-Teacher comes into her yard and shatters the newfound happiness that Baby Suggs realizes she will never be free from the pain inflicted by whitepeople. She tells Sethe, “Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks”(89).
Resigned to a life of misery and pain from the whitemen and defeated by the knowledge that she will never be free from the remnants of slavery, Baby Suggs takes to her bed to think about color, one of the few things left which no one can take away from her. Baby Sugg’s story of lost family and love is strikingly familiar to many other slave narratives. Children were born, children were taken. Husbands were married, husbands were sold. Yet love and marriage occurred, although it was always under the control and often the supervision of the white slaveholder.
Couples wedded aware that their marriage would last only as long as their master allowed. A married couple could never be free from the fear of separation and the desires of the white man, and a male slave could never guard against the violation and separation of his family. Even courtship and love was done under the eye of the slaveowner, often stolen conversation and kisses in the dark after field labor was done or on Sundays when most slaves got the day off.
One slave narrative recounts how male and female slaves would court with the white man looking on in the distance: We would just sit and talk with each other. I told him once I didn’t love him… and then I told him again that I loved him so much I just loved to see him walk. You had to court right there on the place, ’cause they had padderrollers. (qtd in Greene 41) Sethe’s courtship and marriage to Halle was likewise carried out either under the eyes of the Garners or under the cover of night.
Sethe tells the reader, “For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness”(25). Halle’s work in the fields lasted from early morning until dark, Monday through Saturday. Time for his wife and children was limited but valued, he spent his time “storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week. A slave’s life revolved around the wishes of their master, so even Sethe and Halle’s marriage was only an agreement by Garner that yes she was actually married.
There was no ceremony or paper which marked the occasion, only the consent of her owner for his property to consider themselves wed. Sethe fared better than most slaves however, a kind master which never sexually assaulted her and didn’t use her as a breeder to create more slaves was more than many slave women could claim. Harriet Jacobs, in her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , describes the disgust and helplessness she experienced when, at the age of fifteen, her master forced her to become his mistress. She writes, I turned from him with disgust and hatred.
But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him–where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the mast sacred commandment of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. Where could I turn for protection… there is no shadow of law to protect from insult, rom violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men”(qtd in Andrews 490). Compared to many slave women, Sethe’s situation as a married woman and mother on the Garner farm was fortunate to say the least.
Sethe, grown used to decent treatment by Garner, foolishly begins to take her situation for granted (“Sethe had the amazing luck of six whole years of marriage to that “somebody” son who had fathered every one of her children”(23)) which was why the coming of SchoolTeacher and the stealing of her milk came as a brutal enough shock to make her flee for freedom, even at the risk of the hild she carried within her womb. If slaveowners held no respect for the union of a black man and his wife, they held even less respect for the union of a mother and her child.
Mothers were often taken from their children at an early age, forced to work in the field while other slaves cared for their young. Sethe’s story of her childhood is a common example. She lived on a large plantation until the age of thirteen, after which she was sold to Sweet Home to be a replacement for Baby Suggs. Her memories of her mother are few, and the images of the plantation itself scattering. What does stand out in her emories, however, is the black woman, Nan, who nursed her and cared for her, and the distant figure in the fields who she was told was her ma’am.
Sethe recalls, I didn’t see her but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo. By the time I woke up in the morning, she was in line. If the moon was bright they worked by its light. Sunday she slept like a stick. She must of nursed me two or three weeks–that’s the way the others did. Then she went back in rice and I sucked from another woman whose job it was. (60) The practice of having other women care for the children while the mother orked was not uncommon on plantations.
Often it was the elderly who were left responsible for their care, with the mothers either infrequently or never available to care for their young. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, Douglas recalls similar circumstances. He relates, “It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on a farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under he care of an old woman, too old for field labor”(Andrews 117).
Douglas’ narrative describes his relationship with his mother, a slave on a farm twelve miles away, as a series of meetings, perhaps four or five times in his lifetime, in which his mother came to him and held him under the cover of night. The news of her death at the age of seven was received, he says, “with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger”(Andrews 118). By tearing children from their parents at an early age white slave owners were able to break family ties, break hearts, and eaken spirits. It was understood by most slaveowners that a slave with no will will not run.
Many women who were unwilling to bear children only to supply slaves for their white masters resorted to infanticide and abortion as a solution to their problems. Lean’tin Bracks recounts that “Many slaves responded to their treatment by developing ways to abort pregnancies with herbs and potions. Recipes had been passed down from woman to woman, generation to generation, for those fortunate enough to have access to them”(58). Those who kept their children lived with the knowledge that the only future which ay ahead for their infant was a future of pain and suffering.
Harriet Jacobs, in her nineteenth century slave narrative, describes the mixed emotions of birthing a child under slavery. She writes, When I was most sorely oppressed I found solace in his smiles. But… I could never forget that he was a slave. Sometimes I wished that he might die in infancy. God tried me. My darling became very ill. I had prayed for his death, but never so earnestly as now I prayed for his life. Alas, what mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery”(qtd in Johnson 135-136).
The many emotions which accompany motherhood in a slave society is vividly portrayed within the novel in the characters of Sethe, Sethe’s mother, Ella, and Baby Suggs. Through their narratives Morrison illustrates the complications which arise from loving your child, but not owning him, and the response which many slave women had to the situation– not allowing themselves to love their children at all. Infanticide is seen in Beloved in the figure of Sethe’s mother, who we are told “throws away” all the children borne to her resulting from iolation at the hands of the white man.
Nan tells Sethe as a small girl, “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around”(62). Infanticide is also seen within the novel in the case of Ella, who is imprisoned by two white men and continuously raped and abused. After giving birth to a “hairy white thing,” which she refuses to nurse, Ella allows her child to ie rather than live as both a testimony to her suffering and as a slave to her abusive masters.
The most prominent example of infanticide within the novel is the story of Sethe’s unnamed child, or Beloved. Although infanticide was a common slave practice in Africa for children who were products of “adultery or polgynous relationships where there is jealousy between co- wives”(Gaspar and Hine 204) the child was commonly either still in the womb or just born when it was killed. Sethe’s cold-blooded killing of her two year old shocks not only the white community but the black community as well.
Yet what horrifies both communities and leads them to label Sethe a murderer is not an act of madness or hate, but a misunderstood act of love. Sethe knew what pain a life lived in slavery held, she had already paid the price in her milk, her back, and her husband. She would not allow one of her children “the part of herself that was clean” to suffer the same. What was so shocking and worrisome about the murder to the black community was that Sethe loved her child so much that she was prepared to send it to its death to protect it.
Most ex-slaves, including Paul D, knew what danger lay ahead for a black girl who loved too much. He tells us, “For a used to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her own children she settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one”(45). For Sethe, killing her child was simultaneously saving her, and so stood as a testimony to her love.
She knew that a life of slavery was no life, and that death was Beloved’s only chance at freedom–a freedom only possible beneath the sharp lade of an old handsaw and the bloody hand of a desperate mother. Denver was perhaps the only person who understood, although she feared the part of her mother that would make her able to murder her own child. She knew of Sethe’s fear: That before Sethe could make her understand what it meant-what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under her little chin; … Beloved might leave.
Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that–far worse–was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. (251) Denver understood, and through her narrative it is made clear that Sethe’s greatest fear is losing Beloved before she can make her understand as well.
That she will lose her daughter twice, never able to let her know what she was saving her from, and not able to make her understand that she did it for love, was more painful for Sethe than the murder itself. With intolerable circumstances and inhumane conditions African slaves created communities and families which allowed them to overcome the pain of existence and the hardship of loss. Although to love another opened oneself up to intolerable pain, some slaves ignored the dangers and opened their hearts.
Others locked up their emotions where the pain of loss and separation could not touch them. Beloved is a testimony to these individuals who overcame everything no matter what the cost, even if it meant the sacrifice of one’s own. It is a testimony of those who suffering, abuse, and even death could not defeat, and of those who somehow anaged to come out of the experience with a yearning for joy, the ability to love still within them, and the capacity to look ahead to the future while still immersed in the horrors of the past.
Although some, like Paul D, needed time and space to allow themselves to settle, and others, like Sethe, needed love and family to find worth, Beloved is above all a story of survivors. It is a written testimony that human will can overcome almost anything faced against it, and that love can prevail–even in the face of centuries of opposition and an almost bottomless pool of hate.