Beloved Metaphors and Similes

Sethe’s Tree (Metaphor)

“I don't see nothing growing on your back."

"It's there all the same.”

“Who told you that?"

"Whitegirl. That's what she called it. I've never seen it and never will. But that's what she said it looked like. A chokecherry tree” (pg. 32).

The severe corporal punishment that slave masters meted out to their slaves is one of slavery’s defining characteristics. Sethe was no stranger to this treatment and received a severe beating from the schoolteacher's nephew before she fled Sweet Home. When Amy sees the scars on Sethe’s back, she compares them to a chokecherry tree: a slim tree that flowers and produces round, hard berries called bitter berries. This leads the reader to believe that Sethe’s back is bumpy, lumpy, and filled with unhealed wounds from past beatings.

The Jungle (Metaphor)

“Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle” (pg. 349).

Here, Morrison uses a metaphor to explain how white people in the antebellum South viewed the psychological, mental, and emotional sides of slaves. She suggests that no matter how civilized, polite, or devoted a slave seemed to be, white people still believed that a wild, untamed, and barbaric jungle lurked underneath a slave’s skin. Indeed, even in the modern day, there is a lack of literature regarding the psychological and emotional perspectives of American slaves and freed slaves. Beloved is in part an attempt to fill this gap and bring the inner life of the American slave to light. In Beloved, we witness firsthand how slaves suffered from PTSD, depression, agoraphobia, and various other psychological issues stemming from their experiences during slavery. We also see the deeply emotional and complex relationships slaves have with each other. In this way, Beloved stands as a stark contrast to the literature that came before it, and one reason why it’s considered a cornerstone of American literature.

The Tobacco Tin (Metaphor)

“It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest” (pg. 204).

Paul D’s PTSD is a central element of Beloved. Scarred from his time at Sweet Home and his time in a chain gang, he locks away those memories, along with the sights and smells that trigger them, “into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest.” This tobacco tin is a metaphor for what remains of Paul D’s heart. By comparing his heart to a tobacco tin, Paul D is illustrating how he has shut himself off from emotions and vulnerability in order to protect himself from life’s harshness.

A Game of Checkers (Simile)

“It made sense for a lot of reasons because in all of Baby's life, as well as Sethe's own, men and women were moved around like checkers" (pg. 44).

This simple simile compares slaves to checker pieces moved around according to the whims of their masters. This comparison is apt, as masters bought, sold, and moved their slaves without a care for the relationships and emotional ties their slaves might have. It also speaks to how masters viewed their slaves: they treated them as bartering chips and property to be used however their masters saw fit.

The Hawk (Simile)

“So Stamp Paid did not tell him how she flew, snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing; how her face beaked, how her hands worked like claws, how she collected them every which way: one on her shoulder, one under her arm, one by the hand, the other shouted forward into the woodshed filled with just sunlight and shavings now because there wasn't any wood. The party had used it all, which is why he was chopping some. Nothing was in that shed, he knew, having been there early that morning. Nothing but sunlight” (pg. 278).

Sethe’s devotion to her children is simultaneously powerful and tragic. On the one hand, it’s what gave her the bravery to run away, but on the other hand, it’s what drove her to commit filicide (killing of one’s own child). In this simile, Stamp Paid compares Sethe to a powerful hawk, stern and fearsome, who acts on instinct to protect her young. Tragically because of the terrible options slavery created, Sethe believed the best means of protecting her children was killing them. Nonetheless, as Stamp Paid can attest, no one that saw Sethe that day could challenge her love and devotion to her young.