Beloved

Major themes

Mother-daughter relationships

The maternal bonds between Sethe and her children inhibit her own individuation and prevent the development of her self. Sethe develops a dangerous maternal passion that results in killing one daughter, her own "best self." Her surviving daughter becomes estranged from the black community. Both outcomes result from Sethe trying to salvage her "fantasy of the future", her children, from a life in slavery.

In Ohio, Sethe fails to recognize her daughter Denver's need for interaction with the black community in order to enter into womanhood. At the end of the novel, Denver succeeds in establishing her own self and embarking on her individuation with the help of Beloved. Sethe only becomes individuated after Beloved's exorcism. Then she is free to fully accept the first relationship that is completely "for her", her relationship with Paul D. This relationship relieves her from the self-destruction she was causing based on her maternal bonds with her children.[6]

Beloved and Sethe are both emotionally impaired, which became of Sethe having been enslaved. Under slavery, mothers lost their children, with devastating consequences for both parties. Sethe was traumatized by having had her milk stolen, rather than being able to nurse her own child. It made her unable to form the symbolic bond between herself and her daughter.[7]

Psychological effects of slavery

Because of the suffering under slavery, most persons who had been enslaved tried to repress these memories in an attempt to forget the past. This repression and dissociation from the past causes a fragmentation of the self and a loss of true identity. Sethe, Paul D., and Denver all suffered a loss of self, which could only be remedied when they were able to reconcile their pasts and memories of earlier identities. Beloved serves to remind these characters of their repressed memories, eventually leading to the reintegration of their selves.[8]

Slavery splits a person into a fragmented figure.[9] The identity, consisting of painful memories and unspeakable past, denied and kept at bay, becomes a "self that is no self." To heal and humanize, one must constitute it in a language, reorganize the painful events and retell the painful memories. As a result of suffering, the "self" becomes subject to a violent practice of making and unmaking, once acknowledged by an audience becomes real. Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs, who all fall short of such realization, are unable to remake their selves by trying to keep their pasts at bay. The 'self' is located in a word, defined by others. The power lies in the audience, or more precisely, in the word—once the word changes, so does the identity. All of the characters in Beloved face the challenge of an unmade self, composed of their "rememories" and defined by perceptions and language. The barrier that keeps them from remaking of the self is the desire for an "uncomplicated past" and the fear that remembering will lead them to "a place they couldn't get back from."[10]

Definition of manhood

The discussion of manhood and masculinity is foreshadowed by the dominant meaning of Sethe's story. Beloved depicts slavery in two main emotions: Love and Self-Preservation; however, Morrison does more than depict emotions.

The author dramatizes enslavement to speak of the morals of manhood. It also distorts a man from himself. Morrison revealed different pathways to the meaning of manhood by her stylistic devices. She established new information for understanding the legacy of slavery best depicted through stylistic devices. To understand Paul D's perception of manhood, Morrison deliberately inserts his half-formed words and thoughts, to provide the audience a “taste” of what is going on inside his mind. Yet, throughout the novel, Paul D's depiction of manhood was being constantly challenged by the norms and values of white culture. The author demonstrates the distinctions between “Western” and “African” values and how the dialogue between the two values is heard through juxtaposition and allusions. She maneuvered her “message” though the social atmosphere of her words - which was further highlighted by the character's motives and actions.[11]

Paul D is a victim of racial inferiority in that his dreams and goals are so high that he will never be able to achieve them because of the color of his skin. However, Paul D does not see color; he sees himself as having the same status as his white counterparts although, during this time, that was never possible. He thought he earned his right to reach each of his goals because of his sacrifices and what he has been through: that society would pay him back and allow him to do what his heart desired.[12]

During the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws were put in place to limit the movement and involvement of African-Americans in the white-dominant society. Black men during this time had to establish their own identity, which may seem impossible due to all the limitations put upon them. Many black men, like Paul D, struggled to find their meaning in their society and achieving their goals because of the “disabilities” that constrained them to a certain part of the social hierarchy.

In Beloved, Sethe observes Paul D sitting on the base of the church steps “… liquor bottle in hand, stripped of the very maleness that enables him to caress and love the wounded Sethe…” (132). Throughout the novel, Paul D is sitting on a base of some sort or a foundation like a tree stub or the steps, for instance. This exemplifies his place in society. Black men are the foundation of society because without their hard labor, the white men would not profit. They were coerced into the society where they were deemed "lower-status" because of the color of their skin.[13]

Family relationships

Family relationships are an instrumental element of Beloved. These family relationships help visualize the stress and the dismantlement of African-American families in this era. The slavery system did not allow African-Americans to have rights to themselves, to their family, belongings, and even their children. So, Sethe killing Beloved was deemed a peaceful act because Sethe believed that killing her daughter was saving them.[11] And by doing this, their family is divided and fragmented, much like the time they were living in. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, ex-slaves' families were broken and bruised because of the hardships they faced as slaves.

Since slaves could not participate in societal events, they put their faith and trust in the supernatural. They did rituals and prayed to their god or multiple gods.[14]

In the novel, Sethe's child, Beloved, who was murdered by the hands of her mother, haunts her. For example, Sethe, Denver, and Paul D go to the neighborhood carnival, which happens to be Sethe's first social outing since killing her daughter. When they return home, that is when Beloved appears at the house. Throughout the novel, Sethe believes that the person claiming to be “Beloved” is her daughter that she killed 18 years prior - a scenario which shows how [fractured] family relationships are used to display the mental strife the protagonist faces.

Pain

The pain throughout this novel is universal because everyone involved in slavery was heavily scarred, whether that be physically, mentally, sociologically, or psychologically. Some of the characters tend to “romanticize” their pain, in a way that each experience is a turning point in one's life. This concept is played throughout history in early Christian contemplative tradition and African American blues tradition.

Beloved is a book of the systematic torture that ex-slaves had to deal with after the Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore, in this novel, the narrative is like a complex labyrinth because all the characters have been “stripped away” from their voice, their narrative, their language in a way that their sense of self is diminished. Also, all the characters have had different experiences with slavery, which is why their stories and their narrative are distinct from each other.

In addition to the pain, many major characters try to beautify pain in a way that diminishes what was done. For example, Sethe keeps repeating what a white girl said about her scars on her back, calling them “a Choke-cherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (16). She repeats this to everyone, suggesting she is trying to find the beauty in her scar, even when they caused her extreme pain. Paul D and Baby Suggs both look away in disgust and deny that description of Sethe's scars.[15] Also, Sethe does the same thing with Beloved. The memory of her ghost-like daughter plays a role of memory, grief and spite that separates Sethe and her late daughter. For instance, Beloved stays in the house with Paul D and Sethe. A home is a place of vulnerability, where the heart lies. Paul D and Baby Suggs both suggest that Beloved is not invited into the home, but Sethe says otherwise because she sees Beloved, all grown and alive, instead of the pain of when Sethe murdered her.[16]


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