The Topics of Trauma and Memory in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Term Paper 2013 11 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Trauma
2.1. Definition
2.2. Trauma in relation to Memory

3. Trauma in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
3.1. The use of the colour red
3.2. The repression of Memory
3.3. The return of the Repressed
3.3.1. Remembering Sweet Home
3.3.2. Remembering the Infanticide

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

This term paper is concerned with the topic of trauma reflected in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, published in 1987. The novel deals with the life of Sethe and her daughter Denver after they escaped from slavery. Throughout the story, we can find flashbacks as well as memories leading the reader into the past years of Sethe’s life as a slave.

The aim of this term paper is to exemplify the widespread topics of trauma and memory and to analyse in how far Morrison manages to illustrate them in Beloved. Besides, I will concentrate on Morrison’s strategies to integrate the themes of trauma and memory into the novel and to illustrate these subjects to the reader.

The first part of the term paper will be concerned with a general overview of the issue of trauma. More precisely, I will define trauma and analyse in how far it is related to the idea of memory. The themes of memory and trauma are widespread so that I will concentrate on the most important characteristics which can be linked to the novel.

In the second part of the term paper I am going to figure out in which ways the topic of trauma is symbolised in Beloved. In this context, my focus is on the use of the colour red as a symbol and metaphor. The next step will be to handle the repression of memory. At this point, I will briefly mention Sethe’s strategies of repressing memory. After that, I am going to concentrate on the return of the repressed memory. In doing so, I will refer to the memories of Sweet Home, the place Sethe lived as a slave, and to the memories of the Infanticide. For the most part, these memories belong to Sethe but I will also refer to other main characters of the novel which are important in this context. When referring to the memories of Sweet Home, Paul D plays an important role as Sethe’s interaction partner whereas the role of the ghost and afterwards girl named Beloved is significant by regarding the memories of the Infanticide.

At the end of the term paper, a conclusion will be drawn in which one can see in how far Morrison enhances the topic of trauma in her novel and what she is trying to achieve by using it. Furthermore, I will resume the role of Beloved, both as a figure and a symbol.

2. Trauma

2.1. Definition

In early editions of the Oxford English Dictionary we can find an entry that defines trauma as “a wound, or external bodily injury in general” (Luckhurst 498). According to the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud “a psychical trauma is something that enters the psyche that is so unprecedented or overwhelming that it cannot be processed or assimilated by usual mental processes” (Luckhurst 499). The event cannot be processed so that it drops out of the conscious memory but however is still present in the mind of the traumatized person. Thus, it exists as a ghost or an intruder. (cf. Luckhurst 499).

Cathy Caruth elaborates on the definition of trauma by explaining that the overwhelming event causes a response which takes the form of repeated intrusive dreams, hallucinations, thoughts or behaviours arising from the event. In fact, the event cannot be experienced fully at the time it happens. More precisely, the event is only belatedly experienced in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. Therefore, a traumatized person is possessed by an image or an event of the trauma (cf. Caruth 4).

Therefore, the trauma can be seen as a repeated suffering of a traumatic event, but it is also a continual leaving of its site. The traumatized persons either carry an impossible history within them or they may become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess (cf. Caruth 6). In this context, the belated history can only take place through talking with each other about the traumatic event (cf. Caruth 11).

2.2. Trauma in relation to Memory

“While the images of traumatic re-enactment remain absolutely accurate and precise, they are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control” (Caruth 151). We can say that the most significant characteristic of traumatic recollection is the fact that it is not a simple memory (cf. Caruth 151).

Instead of directly recalling a conscious memory, a traumatized person rather gets access to it in form of flashbacks. The history which is being told by a flashback literally can be placed neither in the past, in which it could not be fully experienced, nor in the present, in which its images cannot be fully understood. Consequently, a flashback is not only an overwhelming experience or memory, but an event that is created by its lack of integration into consciousness (cf. Caruth 152).

A confrontation with the traumatic experience takes place but it cannot be assimilated within the schemes of prior knowledge. The event cannot become a narrative memory because it has not been fully integrated as it occurred (cf. Caruth 176). The traumatized person has to return to the memory several times in order to integrate it in existing mental schemes and to transform it into narrative language. If the integration and transformation have been successfully, the person does not suffer anymore from trauma and is able to look back at what happened. However, it is also possible that traumatized persons experience long periods of time in two different worlds. They live in the world of their trauma and at the same moment in the world of their current life because they cannot separate these worlds (cf. Caruth 176).

3. Trauma in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

3.1. The use of the colour red

Regarding the novel Beloved, it is striking that the colour red appears over and over again throughout the plot. There is a strong connection between the colour red and the novel’s portrayal of trauma. The novel narrates the character’s processing of trauma through their experience with this colour (cf. Bast 1070). In addition to its function as a link between voicelessness, troping and trauma, the colour red symbolizes slavery and the concepts that are associated with it (cf. Bast 1071).



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Title: The Topics of Trauma and Memory in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"