Throughout the book Beloved by Toni Morrison and the slave narrative of Aunt Betty’s story, the significance of the roles of the main characters as women, their strive for their freedom from the era of slavery, the memorys and ‘rememorys’; that serve as a reminder to Aunt Betty and a haunting past to Sethe help to shape their character and further their generations by coming to grips with the past in order to move forward. The ultimate importance of Toni Morrison’s work in Beloved in contrast to the real life testimony of Aunt Betty is being able to look at the different horrors of the slave era as seen through the eyes of black women.
The significance of family, their roles as women, the impact on their children, and the men who help them with their struggles gives us an understanding of how it was for them to escape slavery and face their past in order to make forward progress and emerge into a free society. ‘Feel how it feels to have a bed to sleep in and somebody there not worrying you to death about what you got to do each day to deserve it. Feel how that feels. And if that don’t get it, feel how it feels to be a colored woman roaming the roads with anything God made liable to jump on you.
Feel that. (Beloved 67-68)’; These are Sethe’s words to Paul D that describe her feelings about the torture she received in the barn at the hands of Schoolteacher’s boys. Her emotional and physical scars run deep because of the sexual violation and the beatings she took. Life on Sweet Home wasn’t always a hell on earth though. Before Schoolteacher, she and the other Sweet Home men had a certain degree or respect. She was allowed to choose Halle out of the men to be her husband and was disheartened to learn there would be no ceremony for them.
She had four children by him, one of which is killed. She shows a tremendous love for her children when she chooses to kill them as opposed to let Schoolteacher return them to slavery. After her escape with one daughter, Denver, she has an undying devotion to her and does a tough job of raising her and taking care of their home by herself with no help from a man. Living through all this and carrying the guilt of killing her daughter, when Beloved returns in the flesh, she takes her in and tries very hard to make up for the decision she felt she had to make.
Toni Morrison uses Sethe’s character to show all the hardships that a black woman in those times would have dealt with. The story of Aunt Betty depicts some of the hardships as well. At one point her master Mr. Kibbler, with a nail rod, beat her for telling her mistress that he hit her with the rod in the first place. But with Betty most slave owners in the area knew that if she was treated well she would work well, and if mistreated she was not a cooperative worker.
It is amazing she wasn’t killed for her stubbornness, but she wasn’t. She was also a devoted wife. When she and Jerry were to be married she said she didn’t want a white persons wedding, ‘forsaking all others, because I knew at any time our masters could compel us to break that promise. (Narrative 18)’; She had two children whom she tried to love faithfully. Her daughter was, in contrast to Sethe’s first daughter, sold away from her. Her son however, was able to stay with her throughout her time in slavery.
In both of these stories the point of view of the story is told through the eyes of a woman, which in the fictional Beloved, Morrison uses all the horrors of a black woman through Sethe, whereas Aunt Betty’s real life showed some of the trials of Sethe but not to the same degree. The strive for freedom is alive in both Sethe and in Aunt Betty. Sethe, her husband Halle, Paul D, and Sixo all have a plan to escape at one point in the story. When Halle doesn’t show up at the meeting place, Sethe goes back to see if something had happened and is caught by Schoolteacher and his boys.
She is then raped and beaten for her troubles. After the severe lashing to the back, she attempts to escape by herself to Halle’s mother, Baby Suggs’, house in Ohio. In contrast, Morrison uses her to show the great courage that some of the slaves of the time had to have to escape from this living hell. In the face of death, pregnant, violated, and beaten she, with the aid of a white girl, manages to birth a healthy baby girl and escape to Ohio. It was courage also that got her to the other side of the Ohio River when a man named Stamp Paid helped her across with two other men on a riverboat.
Aunt Betty’s escape from slavery was not quite as hard-pressed. She and her husband Jerry contemplate a possible escape together to the north through the mountains. After she weighs the consequences of being caught and resold to a strange land she said, ‘It was for the better for me to stay where, for miles and miles, I knew everyone and everyone knew me. (Narration 21)’; When Jerry’s master comes looking for him, Betty has the courage to not tell the whole truth about the whereabouts of her husband.
Eventually he is found and sold off to a slavetrader named David McCoy. Betty’s freedom and escape to the north actually came a few years later when under the ownership of two men from Massachusetts agree to take her and her son with them to their home in Providence, Rhode Island. After staying in Providence for a while the men move Betty to Worchester, Massachusetts where she is then granted her and her son’s freedom to live their own lives. Sethe’s courage and survival in comparison to Betty’s is certainly harsher.
But again this is Morrison’s use of not only horrible treatment but a terribly hard escape as well, whereas Betty’s escape was more or less granted to her after taken to the north under ownership. Both Sethe and Aunt Betty have to come to grips with their past and the choices they made and the ones made for them. Once she and Denver were settled in Baby Suggs’ house in Ohio, she decides that the future for her and her daughter was merely keeping the past at bay.
But the reality of the past for her is alive in the spirit of her dead baby who haunts the house and won’t allow peace for her, her daughter, or anyone who would visit them in the neighborhood. They ostracize her in town because they know of the haunting and of the choice she made in killing her baby girl. The arrival of Paul D not only rid the house of the ghost but also brought the arrival of the spirit of her daughter Beloved in the flesh. This is why Toni Morrison uses the word, ‘rememory’; because according to her a rememory is almost a reliving physically as opposed to just the remembrance of something.
Because of Sethe’s choice to kill her baby instead of give her up to Schoolteacher, the spirit chooses the rememory for her to deal with. Beloved’s return in the flesh nearly destroys Sethe because of the guilt she feels. She tries immensely to prove to Beloved that she loves her and that she did what she did out of the toughest love for her. Because Beloved has almost totally consumed Sethe, this forces Denver to finally leave her house, go into town, and get a job to support her family.
And on the day that her boss, Mr. Bodwin, comes to pick her up, Sethe who is very deranged thinks she sees Schoolteacher again and as a result tries to attack him. At this time the spirit in flesh of Beloved is driven away by the women from town singing hymns. Having to deal with the loss of her daughter for the second time, Sethe is broken and won’t leave her bed. When Paul D. returns to find her in such away, she looks at him and thinks, ‘he is the type of man that can walk right in a house and make the women cry.
Because with him, in his presence they could cry and tell him things they only told each other. (Beloved 272)’; As she cries to him she says that she felt Beloved was her best thing. Paul D. then answers, ‘Me and you got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow. ‘; He touches her and says ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are. (Beloved 273)’; This shows how hard emotionally it was for her to face her past but with the aid of Paul D, who lets her know she has a future and he wants to have it with her so the both of them could move forward together.
In contrast, Betty’s reminder of the past comes when, in her northern home, she notices the differences in things like kitchens in the north. She says, ‘I couldn’t help feeling bewildered sometimes at the differences in so many ways, and for a moment wished myself back in Old Virginny with my own people, and I very often longed to see the old familiar faces and hear the familiar sounds, but never could I forget to be grateful for my escape from a system under which I had suffered so much. (Narrative 39)’; Eventually she decides to take a journey home to the south and confront her past face to face.
On her first trip she is unbelieving at the sight of free Negroes in the south going about their own business. In celebration she and another black man share a watermelon together and discuss their new life and where they had been. She also runs into her old master that sold her first husband Jerry away from her. He had changed his name and upon seeing Betty says hello as she says, ‘in a manner as one whom had at least learned something from the logic of events of the difference in our relations to each other.
On a second journey Betty finds her daughter married and with a child. She convinces her daughter and her family to go north with her, which they do. She eventually gets most of her relatives to Massachusetts with her. So unlike Sethe, Betty’s experience of facing her past was not quite as painful. However she knew that she couldn’t make forward progress in her life unless she went back to confront it and try to gather her family together.
In closing, Toni Morrison uses a fictional character in a fictional story to show us the horrors of the life of being a female slave. We see some of the same horrors in the actual experiences of Aunt Betty. Morrison also shows us the intense amount of courage it took for slaves at that time, especially a pregnant, raped, and beaten woman, to have in order to capture their freedom in a new land. This is paralleled in Aunt Betty’s story because instead of using courage to try and escape she focuses her courage on trying to survive where she is a little longer.
Finally Morrison shows how hard it must have been for slaves in that time to deal with the guilt and memory of the choices for survival they had to make through the character of Sethe. Both Sethe and Betty had to come to grips with their past in order to be able to have any future life or family for themselves. In Beloved, Toni Morrison’s fictional depiction of total hell for a black woman named Sethe is in some ways realistically shown through the story of Aunt Betty in both their struggles to get to a free society.