ET: Toni Morrison’s Beloved Laura Durguti Autumn 2017 8.01.18
“Unspeakable Thoughts, Unspoken” The Problem of Communicating Painful Past Experiences in Beloved
In the fragmented novel Beloved Toni Morrison plunges the reader in the middle of 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War. The readers discover the former black slaves’ attempt to fight their haunting memories on the one hand and to find their own language to talk about their painful past on the other. The protagonists of the novel know that healing from the painful past is the key to a better future. Therefor, one of the ways to evacuate the painful past is to talk about it in order to get over it. However, due to their profound trauma the characters of the novel find their “speech blocked” (Wyatt 476) impossible to express their past experiences. Through the use of circumlocutions, the tropes, the songs, the dancing, the crying and the fragmentation of the novel, Morrison demonstrates that storytelling in Beloved is an important and a problematic issue thus drawing attention to the problem of speaking about things that are difficult or even impossible to communicate.
Even if Sethe is one of the figures to tell her past stories in a narrative way, the use of circumlocutions serves as an indicator of her difficulty to communicate her past events. Firstly, when Sethe tries to tell the killing of Beloved to Paul D, she is making constant circular movements, which reflect her storytelling that is told in circumlocutions. There is a parallelism between her body’s movements “[s]he was spinning. Round and round the room.” (187), and between her storytelling “[c]ircling, circling, now she was gnawing something else instead of getting to the point”(191). The fact that Sethe is turning around the room shows that she does not feel well when she has to talk about her daughter’s death. Moreover, talking about the killing is even harder because she tries to escape from it by talking about something else. Furthermore, the description of Beloved’s killing takes six pages to be told (187-193). During these six pages, Sethe’s storytelling is filled with circumlocutions, stream of consciousness, euphemism, and gaps. On page 190 (line beginning with: “I did it. I got us all out […] ending with “I was that wide.”) Sethe plunges in a stream of consciousness where her thoughts and feelings are depicted and they leave no place to objective interruptions. The sentences are short, punctuated and with some ungrammatical constructions. Moreover, while telling her story Sethe uses euphemisms, which can be seen on page 192 “[…] over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe” and on page 193 “I stopped him, […]. I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.” The use of euphemism shows that according to Sethe death means the end of slavery, and the end of slavery means safety. Killing her baby was the only way for Sethe to keep her children free. Moreover, when Sethe says that she “stopped [schoolteacher]”, she shows that killing was the only way to stop slavery. Grillo Mirkut Giulia notes “[that] you need to die to beat the system” (75). When Sethe finally reaches to the main point of the story, she has difficulties to verbalize the act. Jean Wyatt writes that “[Sethe] finds [her] speech blocked […] a gap remains at the heart of the story which the omniscient narrator subsequently fills in” (476). By doing so, Sethe is placing herself in a position of avoidance and evasion. The narrator fills the gap and describes the killing of the crawling-already? girl as:
Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple.” (192)
This quote demonstrates in a metaphorical way Sethe’s attempt to kill herself and her children in order to prevent schoolteacher to re-enslave them. For instance, “she heard wings” can be seen as an immediate flashback in Sethe’s head, where she remembers her life as a slave. “Needle beaks”, which penetrate Sethe’s head show that she immediately reminds the way schoolteacher abused and mistreated her. She has the picture of her mistreatment stuck in her head. Thus, her mind is yelling “No. Nono. Nonono”, she knows that she does not want her children to experience the same mistreatment. Therefore, she simply decides, without reflecting, to kill them. The repetition of the word “simple” shows that it was an evidence for her; to kill them meant to free them. Later in the novel Sethe continues to explain her act by saying that “[…] if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her” (236). Once again, with the word “killing” Sethe means putting her children in a safe place, because she simply could not allow her children to experience slavery. Grillo mirkut argues that “[t]his interpretation allows the reader to understand (at least partly) the murder (76). Finally, the use of circumlocutions, euphemisms, stream of consciousness and gaps show the difficulty of Sethe to convey poignant meanings. Sethe is one of the characters in Beloved that finds herself in a condition of circling because she can neither confront nor communicate her painful story. Florian Bast points out in his article that characters in Beloved are “[…] employing perpetual troping to cognize the traumatic event.” (Bast 1079). In my view, tropes are instead reinforcing character’s troubles of communication about their terrible past events.
Secondly, there is another interesting passage that indicates well Sethe’s problem of communicating her past events. For instance, she never says to Paul D that she was beaten; in the passage on pages 18-20 she talks in circumlocutions and gaps as well. While Paul asks her more information about the tree, there are gaps, which are filled by the omniscient narrator, who describes what Sethe does and how she avoids answering. Paul D (the reader as well) must find it out by himself over the space of three pages (18-20). Sethe circumvents the details of the event. Instead she calls the scar of her back, which is left by whipping, a “chokecherry tree”, as Amy Denver said it to her (18). The imagery and the metaphor of the tree in Sethe’s back not only hide the violence of the event but it also confuses Paul D. When he tries to learn more about it, Sethe talks in circumlocutions and she avoids mentioning directly the mistreatment she experienced; she shifts from the tree on her back to her breasts full with milk. She now prefers to focus on her maternal side. She puts herself in a position of a nurse, because what hurt Sethe the most, is the fact that schoolteacher took her milk (19), thus depriving her from her mother role. It is this fact that destroyed Sethe more than the scars on her back. Even when Paul D finally finds out that schoolteacher’s nephews had beaten Sethe, she never affirms it directly. Instead she focuses more on the loss of her milk: “They used cowhide on you?” “And they took my milk.” “They beat you and you was pregnant?” “And they took my milk.” (20) Through this quotation Sethe affirms that she was beaten indirectly throughout the conjunction “and”. The conjunction shows that she agrees that she was beaten but there was a bigger loss, which is the fact that they took her milk. The repetitions of the sentence “[a]nd they took my milk” points out the fact how tormented Sethe was by the deprivation of her role as a mother. Schoolteacher deprived her as well from her exclusive bond with her crawling already? girl, which is breastfeeding. Once again this passage demonstrates Sethe’s impossibility to convey her experiences as a slave. One of the ways that communities find expression in Beloved is through song. Firstly, Baby Suggs’ ceremonies are centred around song and dance. For instance, Baby Suggs is the preacher of the black community; she leads them to an open place called the Clearing. However, she knows that the community has difficulties to evoke their past experiences. Therefore, instead of asking them to express themselves in a narrative way, she helps them to evacuate through singing, dancing, laughing and crying. “It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up” (103). Hence, Baby Suggs is helping her community to heal themselves, by going back to their roots in order to let her community understand that they have ancestors and an identity. Nonetheless, the fact that Baby Suggs has invented a new mass ceremony demonstrates that her community is stained with past scars that need to be healed. It also demonstrates that there are some experiences that are simply impossible to communicate. Therefore, they are healing themselves from distasteful past events that are difficult to be told in a narrative way. Secondly, Paul D. hardly ever talks about his painful past. He has difficulties to communicate his experiences as a slave. Instead of talking about it, he chooses to sing: Little rice, little bean, No meat in between, Hard work ain’t easy, Dry bread ain’t greasy.
This poem sang by Paul D masks suffering through the beauty of rhymes, rhythm, and melody. In order to focus on the meaning that the poem conveys, Paul D gives the reader the possibility to focus on the poetic part such as the very regular tetrameter and the couplet rhymes. There is also a consonance of the sound “I” in “bean” and “between”. Thus, by singing it is easier for Paul D to evoke his past, because he hides behind the music the fact that he and other slaves had to work hard and they got almost no food in return. Moreover, singing is linked to the community moments, which allow him to go back to his roots.