Beloved Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Color (Symbol)

After Sethe kills Beloved, Baby Suggs recedes from the world. She stops giving her sermons in the Clearing and eventually stops going outside. She secludes herself to her bedroom in 124, where she eventually dies. When her good friend Stamp Paid tries to get Baby Suggs reinvigorated about life, Baby Suggs tells him that she just wants to lay in bed and think about colors. For Baby Suggs, colors symbolize “something harmless in the world” (Morrison 310). She tells Stamp Paid that “blue...don’t hurt nobody,” and neither does yellow (Morrison 310). When she thinks about colors, Baby Suggs focuses on one for a long period of time before shifting to the next one. Before she dies, she gets through blue, yellow, green, lavender, and pink, but she never makes it to red. According to Sethe, Baby Suggs avoided red on purpose. We can infer that Baby Suggs avoided red because it is the color of blood and not symbolic of harmlessness. All in all, colors represent Baby Suggs’ method of coping with the traumatic events of her life and her desire for a harmless world.

Milk (Symbol)

Mother’s milk is the primary source of sustenance for newborn babies. Because of this, mother’s milk symbolizes life, love, and a mother’s responsibility to her child. Sethe has a complicated relationship with mother’s milk. As a young girl, her own mother was constantly working in the plantation fields, and she had to share her caretaker’s milk with the white babies on the plantation. The white children would be nursed first, so sometimes Sethe would go without. So, when Sethe has her own children, she resolves to always have enough milk for her own babies. Tragically, her breast milk gets “stolen” by the schoolteacher's nephews. This incident traumatizes Sethe, not only because she was sexually assaulted, but also because she feels as if she failed her children. Interestingly, at the same time that Sethe hopes for Beloved’s forgiveness for killing her, she also hopes that Beloved will forgive her for the stolen milk. This demonstrates how powerful a symbol mother’s milk is for Sethe. Though is it a symbol of defilement and slavery’s horrors, it is also a symbol of her love and dedication to her children.

The Importance of Places (Motif)

“Place” is one of the driving forces behind Beloved’s plot. Changes in setting can signal changes in narrator, time period, mood, etc. For example, when the setting changes from 124 to Sweet Home, we jump back years into the past, before the end of slavery. The events at Sweet Home lay the foundation for the events that unfold at 124 in the future, so by taking us back to the past, Morrison is explaining the present. Furthermore, the ease with which the novel’s characters slip into their memories of the past demonstrates how strong of a hold those remembrances have on them. Another example of this is when the setting changes from 124 to Alfred, Georgia. This change in place is accompanied by a change in narrator, from Sethe and Denver to Paul D. The mood also changes from glum and melancholic to dangerous and dramatic as Paul D and his fellow slaves escape from the chain gang. These are just a few ways that “place” is an important recurring idea in the novel.

The Ribbon (Symbol)

One day at the river, Stamp Paid finds a red ribbon embedded in the riverbed. Attached to the ribbon is “a curl of woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp” (Morrison 313). The sight of the ribbon makes Stamp Paid feel dizzy and out of breath. To him, it symbolizes the violence and terror that white people have continued to mete out to black people in the years following the Civil War. He’s heard news of 87 lynches alone in Kentucky, four black schools burned to the ground, black women being raped, etc. The stench of death and suffering clings to the ribbon and reminds him of the smell from a lynch fire. All the violence makes Stamp Paid question whether the white people who commit these atrocities are even human.

Loneliness (Motif)

Loneliness is another recurring motif in Beloved. Most of the central characters grapple with feelings of loneliness. After her brothers leave and Baby Suggs dies, Denver is lonely and turns to 124’s ghost for comfort. Her loneliness is compounded when Paul D appears in Cincinnati and monopolizes Sethe’s attention. Sethe deals with a more complex loneliness. After she kills Beloved and scares her sons away, she loses her sense of self as well as her family. She still has Denver, but she withdraws from her with a kind of self-imposed loneliness. Paul D is also lonely, but like Sethe, his loneliness is self-imposed. After the pain and suffering he’s endured during and since Sweet Home, he’s learned to lock away his feelings and emotions in his “tobacco tin.” When he’s reunited with Sethe at 124, he begins to open up again, but Beloved’s arrival has a chilling effect. Finally, Beloved is the manifestation of several negative emotions, including loneliness. She has the pain, fury, sense of betrayal, confusion, and loneliness of a baby who was killed by their own mother. These emotions fuel her, particularly near the end of the novel when she struggles against Sethe.