Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved". An analysis

Seminar Paper 2003 19 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1.0 Introduction

2.0 The Individual’s Emotions and Interpersonal Relationships
2.1. Mother-Love and Black Women’s Situation in Slavery
2.2 Self love versus Dehumanization
2.3 The Meaning of the Relationship between Man and Woman

3.0 Present and Past
3.1 The Memory and the Problem of Overcoming the Past
3.2 The Role of the Supernatural
3.3 Sixty Million and More”: Collective Memory and Responsibility

4.0 Aspects of Narration, Structure and Style

5.0 Conclusion

6.0 Comment

7.0 References

8.0 Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

In Mari Evans's 1984 book Black Women Writers [i], Toni Morrison states that to her the best art “is unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time”, a standard many readers believe she has met in all of her work.

Morrison’s novel Beloved, which is discussed in this term paper, is full of emotions and feelings. It balances fear, hatred, tension, passion and also love, which appears in various forms such as motherly love, physical love or the abstract love of freedom. The analysis of this important and interesting theme focuses on questions like, e.g. How are feelings (especially love) presented and described? What significance do exemplarily selected relationships in the book have? How far are psychological aspects involved ?

Likewise, it is shed light on the political aspects in the book . Morrison questions the American maxim, which is stated in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal” by showing how slaves worked, fought and even died for “natural” human rights like freedom, the pursuit of happiness or, even more fundamental, the merely recognition as human beings. The multi-perspective view on the slaves’ every-day live before, during and after the escape into freedom is both a fascinating and upsetting description of how slavery really was and, furthermore, an accusation of injustice and inhumanity throughout the time of slavery and today. In 2.0, the facets of slavery and its consequences are centred. It shall be shown how this dark part of the American history influenced, respectively manipulated, human beings and their actions and feelings.

The analysis in 3.0 concentrates on the memory of the individual, i.e. it is examined whether and how it is possible for Sethe and other characters to overcome their horrible past. In addition, the issue of a collective memory is regarded. Moreover, the thesis that working through the past and overcoming it is closely connected with the supernatural, especially with the ghost of Beloved, is debated. Here, attention is turned in particular to Morrison’s roots of African traditions and the question how (much) they inspired the book and in what respect they are interwoven in the plot.

Throughout the whole analysis, such important aspects as the physical and psychological effects of slavery, the special situation of women and narrative and stylistic features are considered, the latter is surveyed more detailed in 4.0.

In the conclusion it should be summed up what was found out and it is shortly reflected on the author’s intention and message. At the end, a brief personal comment will be given on Beloved.

2.0 The Individual’s Emotions and Interpersonal Relationships

2.1 Mother-Love and Black Women’s Situation in Slavery

Morrison’s work is not only about slavery, about history or about the people’s sorrow now and then, it is also about love. What makes the novel so special is not only its lyrical language, its trapping suspense and the mystery in it but its multi-perspective. Therefore, the reader is able to see the action through the eyes of the various characters like Denver, Sethe, Beloved, Paul D. or Baby Suggs. Especially striking is the fact, that in the book women and their particular situations and problems dominate the plot. The reader’s attention is drawn to the triple burden enslaved women had to carry: they had no control over their children, husbands or own bodies.

Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved fits into that scheme: she is a woman, she is a slave, she is black. These are the three circumstances which determine and nearly destroy her life. But there is still another fact, which determines her life- her motherhood. This is one of the central topics in the novel and the action gradually indicates why.

First of all, it was not a matter of course for enslaved women to have a child. Generally, a slave’s child was regarded as an increase of the slave-holder’s wealth (since human beings were regarded as property) and that already shows the consequences: the mother was able to care for her child (if it survived[1]) only for a short time until it was either old enough to be sold or to work, both meant a separation from the mother. However, the worst thing was that the mother knew what a slave had to face and could not help her child. Sethe’s destiny shows what the results of a mother’s desperation in such a situation might have been. Her anguish and helplessness lead her to the decision to kill her own child. The question whether she did this although or because she loved her child can not be answered easily.

Secondly, the child is a motivation for Sethe to escape. The situation in which Sethe and Halle live is totally determined by slavery and let a normal life with normal needs and joys seem utopian. Neither they have the possibility to see their children grow up happily, nor can they offer them education, family life or anything else we would associate with “normality”. Sethe knows that everything would be better for her children than slavery, connected with the loss of dignity, liberty and control over the own body. So it is Sethe’s motherly instinct which makes her dare the flight and it is her motherhood that makes freedom essential.

Thirdly, maternity is so central in Sethe’s life, since its circumstances lead her to an extreme decision, which changes and influences her life, namely the murder of Beloved.

This term-paper supports the thesis that Sethe’s mother-love is the basis for her deed, because she is presented as a loving although inexperienced mother, whose readiness to do everything for her children seems to go beyond death. This conclusion can be verified, e.g. by shedding light on the incident, when Sethe pays the carving of Beloved’s tombstone with her body. The fact that she ‘sells’ her body to the stonemason more or less voluntarily, so to speak as the last means, is a signal both for Sethe’s helplessness and her readiness for self-sacrifice. The latter feeling is motivated by her conviction that there is something which is worth the pain: “The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her (…), but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing- the part of her that was clean.”[ii] Sethe sees herself as inferior to her children and because of that it is natural for her to sacrifice herself for the children. This is doubtlessly an aspect which also encourages her to murder Beloved, because on the one hand this decision saves Beloved from slavery, on the other hand it makes Sethe an outsider and criminal, even an outlaw of the black community. Thus this act was self-sacrificing and self-seeking at the same time. It is Paul D. who summarizes what was going on in Sethe’s mind then: “Your love is too thick”[iii]. It can be said that Sethe subordinates her and her children’s chance of a free and enjoyable life together to her personal horror of the life she had before. Here, the feelings of mother-love and self-love merge.

In the book, Sethe is presented as a victim, her sufferings are described and her deeds grow comprehensible to us. Therefore, the reader sympathizes with her, although she is the murderer of her child. Nevertheless, the circumstances which led to this crime, caused undoubtedly a certain ‘irresponsibility’ and it could be considered that the murderer was committed within an emotional impact.

In his book “The Art of Loving” Erich Fromm mentions some important aspects of mother-love, which might help to consider mother love in Sethe’s special case:

“Mutterliebe ist keinen Bedingungen unterworfen. (…) Die Liebe der Mutter bedeutet Seligkeit, sie bedeutet Frieden, man braucht sie nicht erst zu erwerben, man braucht sie sich nicht zu verdienen. Aber diese Bedingungslosigkeit der Mutterliebe hat auch ihre negative Seite (…) sie kann nicht unter Kontrolle gehalten werden.“[iv]

Toni Morrison never really polarizes, which means that blacks are shown as victims and as offenders and that whites are not the scapegoats because “for every Schoolteacher there would be an Amy; that for every pupil there was a Garner, or Bodwin, or even a sheriff, whose touch at her elbow was gentle and who looked away when she nursed.”[v] That is, what makes Morrison’s novel critical but never unjust and this modus operandi seems to be a good compromise for the reader to judge Sethe’s deeds.

2.2 Self love versus Dehumanization

The Bible says: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[vi]. That means, self-love is as important as the love toward your ‘neighbor’, i.e. your husband, wife, child, a friend or a stranger.

Erich Fromm states the following thesis: „mein eigenes Selbst [muss] ebensosehr Objekt meiner Liebe sein wie ein anderer Mensch. Die Bejahung des eigenen Glücks und (…) der eigenen Freiheit ist in der Liebesfähigkeit eines jeden verwurzelt“[vii]. Those statements point out the connection between self-love and the love for others, both deep-rooted in human instincts and needs. Therefore, the special circumstances of slavery under which slaves like Sethe should not develop self-love, self-respect and self-reliance must be contemplated.

Slaves were property of their owners, they were normally treated like animals or worse. They were taught to surrender their labor force and life to their “masters”. Sethe and the other slaves had a rather bearable life as long as Mr. Garner was the owner of Sweet Home. When School-teacher takes over the farm things begin to change. Schoolteacher rules not only with physical but also with psychological violence. Now slaves are no human beings but animals in any respect. This is despicably clarified when Sethe overhears Schoolteachers words to his students to note down Sethe’s “animal characteristics” as well as her “human characteristics”[viii]. Sethe’s horrified realisation that Schoolteacher sees her as sub-human (and thus she has to prove her humanity to whites) is one of the reasons why she decides to run away. Under such constant indoctrination it is not a matter of course that black people, misused as slaves, could develop natural feelings like self-love or self-respect. On the contrary: the process of dehumanization led by the whites made the slaves suffer from a loss of identity. This process included not only devaluation and humiliation but also ‘de-identification’: the annihilation of the slaves’ identities through arbitrary naming by the slave-owners. In Beloved a lot of victims of such naming are to be found: Paul A and his brothers, Sixo, who is reduced to a mere number or Baby Suggs, who was called Jenny because nobody was interested in her real name.

That naming had a lasting effect on the slaves, can be seen in the dialogue between Paul D. and Denver: “ Good morning Mr. D.”- “Garner, baby. Paul D. Garner.”[ix] Paul D. is a free man and no longer a slave but he still keeps his name, maybe out of habit, maybe as a mark of respect for Paul A and Paul F, whom he feels allied with, even beyond death. That incident is a further proof for the far- reaching and durable wounds slavery left in the victim’s hearts and minds. It alludes to the fact, that theoretically slavery restricted freedom of acts and mind only until the abolitionists triumphed, but practically it exists in the people’s head until today.

By naming the slaves arbitrarily, the whites could connect them with the place where they lived and worked, like in the case of Paul D., who is named after his owner Mr. Garner. That shows, that the power of naming is white and that the struggle for black identity begins with an insistence on being named correctly and according to human dignity.


[1] “Based on detailed records (…), scholars have calculated that more than half of all slave babies died in

the first year of life.” From: Tindall, George and Shi, David, America, New York: W.W. Norton, 2000, 489

[i] See: Evans, Mari and Ed, Black Women Writers 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, Anchor, 1984

[ii] Morrison, Toni, Beloved, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, 308

[iii] Morrison, 202

[iv] Fromm, Erich, Die Kunst des Liebens, Berlin: Ullstein, 1999, 52

[v] Morrison, 231-232

[vi] The Holy Bible, Leviticus 19, 18

[vii] Fromm, 74

[viii] See: Morrison, 237

[ix] Morrison,14


ISBN (eBook)
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2.2 MB
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Institution / College
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Institute for Anglistics/ American Studies
1 (A)
Toni Morrison Frauen und Sklaverei slavery



Title: Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved". An analysis