Toni Morrison’s central intention in writing an individual history of a former slave is to reclaim the unrecognized past and to furnish these records to future generations, ensuring that the horrors of slavery will not be repeated. Beloved is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1856 when a fugitive slave woman killed her child when they were caught. Reconstructing this incident, Morrison tries to understand the intention of the mother’s action. The novel focuses on a protagonist who kills her child and alienates herself from her world, and it shows how the memory of the past can haunt the present.
The novel reveals that Sethe’s act of murder is rooted in a motherhood crippled by slavery, thus illuminating slavery’s inhumanity. In slavery, the basic value of a woman is her role in the reproduction of her master’s commodities, as well as in his sexual pleasure. In these circumstances, mothers are neither nurturers nor protectors of their children. Baby Suggs remembers little of her seven children who were sold away; Ella, another slave, refuses to nurse her baby born from forced sex with her master.
Like many of the others, Sethe does not enjoy motherhood, either as a child or as a mother herself. As a baby, she is nursed with milk not from her mother but from another slave with the little milk left after she nurses white babies. When Sethe is still small, her mother tries to run away, leaving her behind. Later when she is a mother, Sethe is violated and has her milk stolen by Schoolteacher’s nephews. Such symbolic acts break the nurturing tie of mothers and children. Beloved mirrors Sethe’s longing for her own mother. Through her, Sethe sees herself as the daughter she might have been if her mother had been with her. It is not only Beloved but also Sethe who wants both compensation and explanation for the absence of a nurturing mother.
Through the narratives told by the characters, it is shown that Sethe’s intention in killing her daughter was to provide her with the ultimate protection from slavery’s agony. In order to compensate for the absence of motherhood in slavery, Sethe becomes an overly powerful nurturer and protector. Whether her action is right or wrong, in putting her daughter’s life to an end she remains a protector of the dead child. Her action reclaims the rights of deprived mothers and of all humans in slavery. The ironic nature of her action emphasizes the tragedy of the slavery system.
In the novel, the recovery of an individual’s history parallels that of all slaves. Sethe and Beloved, both abandoned children who cry out for the missing ties with their mothers, represent all slave mothers and children. They also signify the longing of many African Americans for the missing ties with their cultural heritage in Africa. While Sethe’s experiences mirror the suffering of the “sixty million and more” slaves to whom Morrison dedicates this novel, Beloved represents those who are not even counted in the official numbers in slavery. Beloved’s life is not recognized; she does not even have a name. Her thirst for recognition and for her mother’s love suggest the necessity of recognizing forgotten people. By giving a body and a voice to the spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter, Morrison recognizes and recovers the forgotten people in the history of slavery.
Written in the African American storytelling tradition, Beloved is full of metaphors and symbols that suggest slavery, such as water. The initial separation of the African slaves from their homeland took place in the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, and the Ohio River often separated slaves from successful fugitives. In the novel, Denver’s birth is in a river, and Beloved first rises from a river and drinks much water upon appearing. The image of a ghost also suggests the situation of slaves, who possess nothing, not even their own bodies. Furthermore, it symbolizes the African American reality that has been treated as nonexistent from the perspective of the dominant society. In narrating her characters’ histories, Morrison frequently uses exact figures concerning length of time and number of people. This approach provides a contrast to the official written documents, which record the history of slavery in vague numbers.