Body narrative in Tony Morrison’s Beloved
The physical body is what acts as a mirror to one’s life’s experiences. Once the experiences have been lived through, they become memory— intangible, yet very substantial. The body imagery in the novel has a narrative to put forth.
In the process of “restorying”, Toni Morrison’s Beloved inks out the harrowing experience of slavery by utilizing the female body as a narrative space. This unconventional method denotes to the denigrated treatment of the enslaved masses – especially the doubly marginalized black women, whose violated bodies become a bloody canvas upon which unspeakable atrocities stamp life-long reminders. From the chokecherry tree designed on Sethe’s back, to the robbing of her milk; from the branding of her mother and the raw lumps of flesh that Sethe’s feet had become to the scars on Beloved’s forehead; all symbolize a narrative in Beloved that through the body imagery and the description of various anatomical features, Morrison has employed to expedite upon how the classical stance, established by the white supremacist factions, of the humanitarian disposition of the whites and the alleged savagery of the blacks, stands no grounds. Hence, in Beloved, the branded limbs of the characters are physical manifestations of the past – reconciliation with which shall heal the psychological rupture existent within them.
Narratively, the trajectory of slavery is anatomically built in the text across three generations. Sethe’s ma’am, absconded from Africa and shipped across the sea to the Western world, bears “a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin” (72). Identifying her as a slave, this mark capitalizes on the alienating effects of bondage in the novel; how being objectified as chattel meant she no longer held ownership of her own body. Morrison gives further evidence of this dehumanization through the chokecherry tree on Sethe’s back. Designed by Schoolteacher’s whip, Amy reimagines the gruesome lashings as a split open trunk that has “mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too … [with] tiny little cherry blossoms” (93). This mark - given as a form of punishment for when Sethe desired retribution and confessed to Mrs. Garner about her rape, is a patterned impression of the past that macrocosmically represents the historical tree of slavery. Indeed, the carved elongated branches tapering off into blossoming buds depict the lives and deaths of “sixty million / and more” slaves; their sufferings have not been forgotten but are permanently etched upon the body so that in their remembrance, memory washes the past of its pain and becomes a salve for the future.
Sima Farshid in her “Reclamation of the Exploited Body in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” remarks:
By portraying the exploitation, torturing and lynching of slaves by such merciless slave-holders as Schoolteacher, Morrison dramatizes one of the most catastrophic episodes of the world history, and undermines such American myths as the alleged humanity and benevolence of whites and the supposed savagery and violence of blacks. (497)
The chokecherry tree that reminds Sethe about the brutality of the schoolmaster, acts as a pivot for the articulation of many repressed emotions. It highlights how the memory agents have kept the brutality and the savagery of the white schoolmaster fresh in Sethe’s mental realms even after the lapse of eighteen years:
Whitegirl. That’s what she called it. I have never seen it and never will. But that’s what she said it looked like. A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves. Tiny little chokecherry leaves. But that was eighteen years ago. Could have cherries too now for all I know. (18)
Furthermore, the incident wherein Sethe takes a saw to her two year old daughter becomes a narration on the perversity of slavery. Afraid of inflicting tragedy upon her children that a life of slavery promises, she attempts to secure their future by ending it - “[Sethe] collected every bit of life she had made … and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.” Even though, she succeeds in killing her daughter only, the act of infanticide is testament to the horrors of slavery and the depth of love she has for her children. She is willing to butcher them in order to protect them from the gradual, more agonizing ruination caused by captivity.
However, the ghost of the murdered crawling already girl haunts the house, which, after it has been kicked out - resurrects itself in the flesh of Beloved, with a slit mark on her neck. This mark, like the ones borne by Sethe and her mother, is the result of a deed that is a painful reminder of the past – which the characters’ need to confront. Hence, the fact that Beloved was robbed of her identity as a baby, makes her hunger for stories about the past - for in them, she finds a sense of connection. Sethe’s recounting of the past also gives significance to these marks of trauma – “anything dead coming back to life hurts” (92). She relays the account of her rape and whipping through the stylized expression of stolen breast milk and the chokecherry tree on her back. These incidents metaphorically employ the body as a narrative space, speaking about which becomes cathartic for Sethe.
Moreover, Beloved’s body is dependent on the stories that she hears. According to Pamela E. Barnett, she “feeds on a diet of Sethe’s past and serves as the materialization of Sethe’s memory” (qtd. in Larrick). When these stories become sparse, as Paul D occupies Sethe’s attention – Beloved’s loss of tooth becomes a warning sign of physical disintegration: “Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, this is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop, maybe one at a time, maybe all at once” (157). Sethe and Denver sharing Beloved’s fear over her crumbling body, implies how they are afraid that the deterioration and disappearance of Beloved would render her lost to them. Critic, Carol E. Henderson notes how, “Beloved seems to sense that her ability to stay ‘whole’ rests on the insatiable appetites of others who want to see her remain before them as if to remind them of their own physical existence” (91). Hence, the characters and their stories are dependent on materiality – the body itself becomes a significant site of literary narrative in Beloved.
This idea is further augmented by how Beloved embodies the slave narrative - her actions wreaking havoc in the lives of those around her, stem from a sense of frustration that echoes the pain and trauma of bygone generations of slavery. As a physical vessel for a past ghost, Beloved’s body boasts of supernatural attributes which as per Barnett is indicated by “her insistent manifestation [that] constitutes a challenge for the characters who have survived rapes inflicted while they were enslaved: directly, and finally communally, to confront a past they cannot forget” (qtd. in Larrick).
Denver “dripping tears into the stovefire”, speak on part of all these people who have experienced this very lapidated, unvalued existence (Morrison 20).
The abstraction of “branding” Sethe’s mother, portrays how humans were treated as animals; the branding mark denotes how these veritable human beings, who possessed the very same anatomical features as that of any white individual, were not only dehumanized but also dispossessed of and disenfranchised from being identified as virtual beings.
With regards to this perspective, Farshid comments:
Various instances of slavery’s hideous treatment of slaves are depicted and narrated in Beloved the most ruthless of which seems to be Schoolteacher’s maltreatment of Sweet Home slaves whom he considers subhuman creatures. . . he tortures their body in the most brutal ways and thereby his charade of civilization falls apart. (497)
A similar idea also reflects through the way that the instance of rape has been presented in the novel, “after I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came for. Held me down and took it. . . .” (Morrison 19). If the physical appearance of the blacks disgusted the whites so much, how could the act of rape— that calls for physical interaction— be performed? Basically, it symbolizes not the physical disgrace, but the psychological disgrace of Sethe by the boys and the schoolmaster, who by the act established their unchecked authority over her. Symbolically it also highlights the unbridled power that the propagators of white supremacist mentality exercised over their black slaves.
The raw lumps of flesh that Sethe’s feet had become after having crawled in a pregnant state, were still there, years and years later. They symbolize the excruciating torture that has seeped into the very flesh and bones of her, “below her bloody knees, there was no feeling at all” (Morrison 41).
While taking into consideration the idea of “rememory”, which is a term coined by Morrison that she often employs in the novel, the very pertinent aspect of psychological scarring comes into perspective. It is this psychological scarring that does not let memory fade away, and a strong memory is frequently referred to as a curse, as Jose Luis Peixoto says, “Memory is like a curse. We often fall into eternity, and memory is a weight that keeps pulling us up to where we can never go back to”. However, psychological scarring, is an abstract concept, and in order to substantiate it, Morrison marks a scar on the physical appearance of the protagonist of her novel. The scar present on Beloved’s forehead evidences the perpetual twilight that the minds of the characters are under. Every time that a reader delves into the description of the Beloved in the novel and pays attention to the scar on the Beloved’s forehead, it makes the reader mentally revisit all the circumstances in which Beloved was slain by her own mother. Hence, just as Morrison’s “rememory” has an effect on the characters, it has an effect on the readership too.
Conclusively, the symbols associated with various anatomical features of the characters highlight not just the physical infirmities on a superficial level, but outline the dominating narratives of a severely pain-laden life. The anatomical imagery in the novel serves as the narrative backbone of Beloved as it is only through the branded (female) body that the characters’ stories become graphically apparent to the reader. The markings of slavery as evidenced by the diagram on the body of Sethe’s ma’am, the chokecherry tree on Sethe’s back and the slit mark on Beloved’s throat – showcase the fundamental need for body as a narrative space, without which inexpressible oral stories of slavery would be lost to the void of history; Morrison draws these stories out and visually depicts them through the flesh. The storytelling of Beloved thereby, becoming dependent on the body introduces another, more potently eternal slave narrative which, unlike others, will not be easily forgotten.
Farshid, Sima. “Reclamation of the Exploited Body in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”. International
Journal of Social Science and Humanity, vol.2, no. 6, 2012, p.497
http://www.ijssh.org/papers/155-A10018.pdf. Accessed on 7 Dec.2016
Henderson, Carol E. Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature. University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 91.
Larrick, Shelby. “Psychological Criticism of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Milikin, published in 2007, www.faculty.millikin.edu/~moconner/beloved/Larrick-Psychological-essay2. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books, 1987, pp. 2-157.