Please explain the concept of "re-memory" used in Beloved.
Beloved by Toni Morrison explores the concept of rememory —the process of returning to memories again and again, in such a way that they affect a person's processing of their present. Sethe, especially, is haunted by memories of her time at Sweet Home and how she murdered her daughter so she wouldn't be enslaved. She is unable to completely separate her past from her present.
Sethe explains the concept of rememory to Denver, her surviving daughter, saying,
Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.
Her point is that memory isn't just a concept of the past. It's something that affects the present; it's in the world, not just in her memory.
Morrison demonstrates this when Paul D first comes to visit Sethe. He interrupts her in a memory of Sweet Home. Her greeting to him shows just how deeply that memory is ingrained. Morrison writes, "And although she could never mistake his face for another's, she said, "Is that you?" The question, to Sethe, is whether Paul D is there in person or as another haunting memory, because at times she cannot distinguish between the two.
Morrison shows that Sethe's memories of Sweet Home are stronger than anything, even the more recent memories of her sons who have run away. She remembers the landscape of the plantation more clearly than her sons, and "it shamed her—remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys" (7). Her memories are a weight she bears that impacts the present, which is what the concept of rememory is all about. However, when Paul D appears, he sweeps the past out of 124 and allows Sethe and Denver to live free of its weight for the first time, to some extent.
Beloved herself, when she appears, is the opposite of Sethe, who is weighed down with the vivid memories of her past that play such a role in creating her present. Yet Beloved herself brings a barrage of negative memories and recriminations, from forcing Paul D to relive his enslavement to punishing Sethe for what Sethe has done in the past. Ultimately she traps Sethe even more than the years of memories; she feeds off her until Sethe is wasting away and Beloved is growing even larger.
When Paul D returns and the women in the community force Beloved out, there is hope for Sethe. Paul D tells her, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow." The constant reliving of her past through the rememories that haunt her may be pushed back so that she can have a real future.
The concept of "re-memory" arises in this incredible novel to point out the way in which the legacy of slavery is captured in the emotional and mental scars that the various characters in this novel bear. Again and again, the characters in this text engage in a battle with their memories, choosing to focus on only the good things that happened to them in the past and blocking out all of the bad things. Paul D., for example, has "shut down a generous portion of his head" so that he can ignore memories of Halle and Sixo. Sethe is a character for whom "re-memories" are so strong and vibrant that they almost assume a reality in their own right. Note what she says to Denver:
If you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again.
The character of Beloved has managed to forget all of her past, and Sethe's reaction when she comes to view Beloved as her daugher is particularly interesting, as she was "excited to giddiness by the things she no longer had to remember." This suggests that memories for Sethe are a form of self-inflicted torture for what Sethe did in the past. The novel as a whole seems to suggest that "re-memory" is actually a bad thing, as it depicts Sethe's survival at the end of the text as something that is accomplished through putting the past behind her. The narrator is complicit in this act of forgetting, as she says "Remembering seemed unwise," and so the story of Beloved, one that is "not a story to pass on," is deliberately and consciously forgotten. "Re-memory" is therefore a force against which characters struggle, and which assumes itself in the physical character of Beloved, only to be forgotten and consigned to the past once again.