Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The characterization of the female fugitive, Sethe, and her murdered daughter, Beloved, is without precedent in fiction. The novel is an accurate portrayal of the black slave woman’s experience. Married by age fourteen, Sethe is pregnant with her fourth child by nineteen. Although Mr. Garner prides himself on the treatment of his male slaves, he nevertheless has the slavemaster’s agenda of using slave women for the purpose of childbearing. Schoolteacher also values Sethe for her childbearing capabilities and the money she represents.
Moreover, the novel is important for its demonstration of the concern that slave mothers had for the welfare of their children. Sethe determines to kill all of her children rather than allow them to be returned to a life of slavery. Thus Sethe struggles to reach Ohio, and her children, at any costs. In fact, she repeats often that she has to get her milk to her “crawling already” baby girl, Beloved. The novel also probes the bond between the nursing mother and her infant. Sethe remembers that slavery has denied her a relationship with her own mother and determines to have a nurturing relationship with her own children. Beloved’s personality, therefore, originates from a lack of bonding with her mother and from a sense of spite, as well as from a need for retribution for her brutal murder at her mother’s hand. Although Beloved is a ghost, it is significant that she acts like a child who has experienced a loss in...
(The entire section is 756 words.)
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Despite having killed her own child, Sethe is presented as an admirable character, for Morrison's emphasis is on the no-exit choices slavery imposed on people. Sethe acted out of love and years later defends her action: "But she had to be safe and I put her where she could be." One of the central themes Morrison treats has to do with the dehumanizing effects of slavery on moral choice. When Schoolteacher comes to recover Sethe and her family under the Fugitive Slave Law, she has no viable option. If she permits this to happen, she and her children will return to conditions that have deteriorated at Sweet Home and will be even worse because of the escape. As she tells Beloved, to return would subject her and her children to the white man's abuse, sexually, physically, and psychologically — the very things that drove Sethe's mother into rebellion. The alternative Sethe chooses is monstrous, and much of the novel is concerned with the debilitating effects her guilt and Beloved's haunting her house, once a way-station on the road to freedom, have on her and her family. She accepts ostracism from the community and has turned inward. Her sons run away as soon as they can; her daughter Denver lives in constant fear that her mother may again be placed in a predicament in which her only choice will be to kill a child. While Morrison does not justify Sethe's decision to kill her children and herself — intervention by an ex-slave who has committed his life to helping others...
(The entire section is 1620 words.)
Race and Racism
"You got two feet, not four," Paul D. tells Sethe when she reveals her secret to him, and the dehumanizing effect of slavery is a primary theme of Beloved. According to the schoolteacher, slaves are just another type of animal: not only does he list their "animal characteristics," he considers them "creatures" to be "handled," similar to dogs or cattle. In some ways, they are not even worth as much as animals: "Unlike a snake or a bear," he thinks while pursuing the runaways, "a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin." Because slaves are treated no better—and sometimes worse—than animals, it leads them to question what it is that makes one human. While Mr. Garner was alive, for instance, Paul D. truly believed that he was a man. But after the schoolteacher arrives and puts the bit to him, he learns a different lesson: "They were trespassers among the human race." There is another side to the dehumanizing effects of slavery, however: just as it turns slaves into animals, it turns owners into monsters. As Baby Suggs thinks of white people, "they could prowl at will, change from one mind to another, and even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did." Stamp Paid understands this effect as well: "The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince [whites] how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, ... the deeper and more...
(The entire section is 1545 words.)