William Shakespeare once said,”I must be cruel only to be kind; thus bad begins, and worse remains behind” (Hamlet 3. 4. 14-17). Those same words can be applied to the iconic American novel, Beloved. From the start of her story, Toni Morrison makes it apparent that slavery haunts the residents of 124, as the cruel institution has characterized their identities from the day they were born. Cruelty is constantly present in the relationship dynamic of Beloved and Sethe, who share a twisted relationship that parallels the relationship of slavery and those who were once oppressed by it.
In Beloved, Morrison portrays Beloved as a physical representation of cruelty as she evokes the painful memories of slavery in those who can’t leave the past behind, specifically Sethe – who loses her own distinction between cruelty and love by playing the role of victim to Beloved’s psychological torture. As a representation of the 60 million and more slaves who went unnamed during the era of slavery, Beloved’s form of cruelty is not letting the past be forgotten.
Morrison evaluates Beloved as a vehicle of cruelty as she forces the memories of the past on Sethe, who desires nothing more than to fix her past mistakes. The first instance of that cruelty is when Paul D, a man who had been a slave alongside Sethe, arrives at 124 and drives away the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter, arguably Beloved herself, who had been haunting the house for years. In doing so, Paul D attempts to break Sethe free from the chains of her past.
However, Beloved, as the physical representation of slavery, cannot let the voice of the forgotten slaves be unheard and appears at 124 in order to keep the presence of slavery alive there. From the time she is taken in by Sethe, Beloved eventually drives Paul D, who represents new beginnings, away and increases her presence in 124. When Sethe comes to the conclusion that Beloved is her dead daughter, she devotes all her attention to Beloved, trying to justify her reasons for her actions in the past, and begins to neglect Denver.
Most of all, she begins to neglect herself in the process and as Denver puts it, “Neither Sethe nor Beloved knew or cared about it one way or another. They were too busy rationing their strength to fight each other” (239). Beloved drives Sethe to open up about all her st memories and she becomes more and more dependent on Beloved as she does so. The cruelty Beloved is inflicting at that point of the novel traps Sethe in the past, which ironically, is a way for Sethe to learn who she truly is and how her past defines who she is..
Like Shakespeare’s words, a certain part of Beloved’s cruelty is kindness. However, Beloved’s alternate representation as the cruelness of the past is the reason why Sethe become weak as Beloved grows, because the memories of the past for Sethe are harsh and dwelling on it takes out of her life in the present. Beloved has no qualms about bringing up Sethe’s most painful memories, to a point where it “became a way to feed her” (69). Beloved’s actions towards Sethe show that she plays the role of the dead daughter, when it is seen that her cruelty is done with an intention of kindness.
However, an overall evaluation of her actions shows that she represents something far greater than a daughter who seeks to make up for lost time – she is the ghost of “the 60 million and more” who suffered under the cruelness of slavery themselves, and her goal is to connect the past to the present. On the other hand, Sethe, who is a prime example of a victim of slavery, is forced to psychological extremes by the cruelty that was unjustly inflicted upon her. As a woman who is trying to come to terms with her past, she realizes the falseness in the justification for slavery yet chooses to ignore it in order to live a painless life.
That is why Beloved, a representation of the cruelty of slavery, comes into the present in order to make Sethe realize that the institution of slavery, while accepted as a societal norm, was never justifiable towards the “60 million or more”who suffered under it. At first glance, Sethe notices the pristine appearance of the strange girl at their house, “Her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat” (51).
Morrison deliberately uses words like “flawless” and “baby” to hint to the readers about the fact that the girl is the Sethe’s dead daughter come back from the dead. This is the first instance of Beloved’s cruelness towards Sethe – coming back in the form that haunts her the most. In the past, Sethe was dehumanized at Sweet Home to the point where she suffers from a loss of identity, remaining in the present without memories of the events that had defined her as a person.
As a result of Beloved’s urging, Sethe begins to revive her lost memories and embraces them, no matter how much pain it causes her to do so. However, in giving herself completely to the past in order to satisfy her revived daughter’s wishes, Sethe can no longer see that her daughter is torturing her rather than loving her. Denver notices this and realizes that, “the job she started out with, protecting Beloved from Sethe, changed to protecting her mother from Beloved” (243).
The relationship dynamic of Beloved as cruelness and Sethe as a representation of those dehumanized under slavery demonstrates one of the overlying themes that Morrison intended to convey – that the past must be embraced and recognized to move along with the present, without dwelling in one or the other. Cruelty in Beloved reaches to two extremes, one where cruelty and kindness become intertwined and the other where cruelty is simply a behavior that causes pain or suffering. Morrison utilizes that interchangeable form of cruelty to force the idea that the past, no matter how cruel, has to be acknowledged in order to create a future.
While slavery became a social norm at the time when“Beloved” truly emerges, the present has chosen to ignore what cruelty Beloved truly represents; the reason why Beloved returns is to show that society has to return to their roots to progress without neglecting those it has done wrong to. Morrison uses the character of Stamp Paid to convey that notion as he notices that, “Mixed in with the voices surrounding the house, recognizable but undecipherable to Stamp Paid, were the thoughts of the women of 124. unspeakable thoughts. unspoken” (199).
The fact that the residents of 124 can’t speak their minds as a result of the cruelty of the past shows that cruelness was the way that slavery was left uncontested during the era when it was prevalent, because the harshness of slavery was too painful for slaves to come to terms with even in the present. While Paul D tries to help Sethe by taking an approach of leaving the past unresolved and moving on by pursuing happiness, Beloved emerges as the symbol of the past by bringing back the memories of slavery which haunt both of them.
While Beloved helps Sethe embrace the past and Paul D “open his tin can,” (117) there comes a time when she, as the past, becomes toxic to all the people of 124. Morrison’s change from a positive to a negative connotation when speaking of Beloved’s actions through the course of the novel shows that when the balance between the past and present is broken and cruelty reemerges, which returns to Morrison’s universal truth that the past and present have to be equally addressed and accepted to move on. In Beloved, Toni Morrison uses cruelty mainly as a motivation for her characters’ actions.
While Sethe’s experience with cruelty drives her to fear her past, Beloved’s symbolic representation of those who lost their “voices” to the same cruelty drives her to pull Sethe back to her painful memories. While Sethe becomes victim to Beloved’s tie with the past, embracing the memories she’s chosen to ignore is what brings her back to the present and leave “Beloved” behind – but not forgotten. Beloved and Sethe’s paradoxical relationship represents the cruelness of slavery and those affected by it, and Morrison utilizes that relationship to convey the theme of balancing the past and present to move on with life.