What is an example of a paradox in Beloved?

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One of Toni Morrison’s most famous novels is Beloved, which tells the story of Sethe, a former slave, and her family in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In literature, a paradox is a situation or statement which is contrary to expectations. A paradox appears to be self-contradictory but usually contains a deep latent truth which helps the reader better understand a theme.

Beloved contains numerous paradoxes, but the largest and most expansive is the paradox that Sethe’s family is free. It’s true that Sethe’s family escaped slavery. However, slavery has so impacted Sethe that her family will never be able to truly experience freedom. Sethe’s daughter, Denver, is unable to make friends and unable to leave her house, which represents both a physical and mental confinement. Both of Sethe’s sons ran away from home, much like slaves ran away from plantations.

In the most poignant moment of the novel, the reader learns that Sethe killed her oldest daughter in order to “keep her safe.” In Sethe’s mind, death is a better situation than slavery. This insight helps the reader better understand and contextualize slavery and the extreme negative impacts it had on humans.

Another paradox is when Sethe is unable to stop spoiling Beloved. Beloved becomes a stand-in for Sethe’s murdered daughter. Sethe spoils Beloved, which is the opposite of the way she treated her daughter.

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As the other educators have noted, a paradox is a seeming contradiction. It is a situation wherein rather than the usual outcome one would logically expect, one is found with the opposite. In Beloved, the most obvious paradox is that Sethe must murder her children to keep them safe. There is also a paradox in the fact that Beloved only returns to her mother only in death. Normally, death is the ultimate separation; surely, when Sethe made the impossible choice—which is also a paradox!—to murder her baby daughter, she never expected to see her again. However, in the novel, we see that Sethe can only actually be with her daughter after her daughter is dead and returns. The very idea of the dead returning is an inherent paradox.

In the context of the institution of slavery, so many simple facts of human nature are denied and turned on their head; families were ripped apart and humans were denied basic human rights. Morrison uses paradoxes to show the gross manipulations of reality that slavery created. The paradoxes she creates are not simple; it's not as as if the murdered daughter returns in peaceful calm. Beloved consumes Sethe, and indeed all of 124 gets brought into her chaos. They are all victims of slavery's atrocities, even after they are free.

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A paradox can be a situation or a statement that seems to contain an illogical contradiction. However, importantly, there is always some key piece of information that resolves the paradox and helps to explain why it actually does make sense, even though it does not seem to at first. A...

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really simple example of this would be the line from a well-known poem, "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." This statement seems to contradict itself, right? How can there be water everywhere but the speaker cannot drink a drop of it? This line is from a poem called "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The mariner is in the ocean, and so the water is salt; if he drinks it, he will dehydrate and die faster, so he cannot drink a drop of it. Knowing that he is in the ocean and that the ocean contains salt water is the piece of information that resolves the paradox.

In Beloved, we learn that Sethe once tried to kill her children—all four of them, though she only succeeded in killing her older daughter—in order to keep them "safe." This situation certainly presents a paradox because we typically do not think of death as being synonymous with safety. Usually, when we want to be safe, we are trying not to die. However, Sethe was thinking relatively. She wanted to keep her children safe from Schoolteacher and from the horrors of slavery. When she saw Schoolteacher, she could not allow her children to be taken away by him and remanded back to the horrific conditions of enslaved people. She

... collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, 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.
For Sethe, slavery is a fate worse than death, and she believes that life goes on in a different way after we die. Therefore, she thought of her actions as rendering her children safe, even though that meant their physical death.
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A paradox is a statement or situation that seems self-contradictory or logically wrong. The most obvious paradox in Beloved is the seminal moment upon which the story hinges: Sethe's murder of her unnamed infant in order to save her (and indeed, her attempt to murder all of her children for the same reason). 

It was not uncommon for slave women to drop their infants over the side of ships to cheat the slavers, so the murder of an infant by a slave woman was nothing unusual. What shocked everyone was how Sethe did it. In Beloved's case, she cut her throat with a handsaw, an act that requires a far greater force of will. 

This paradox causes a rift between Sethe and Paul D, who, when he learns of what she has done, cannot understand--and she cannot explain it. She only knew that in her mind, slavery was far worse than death itself, so there was "logic" to her act: she took her child's life to save her from the worse threats of slavery (of rape, of being beaten, of losing herself and her individuality). Hers was an act of compassion, but is it compassionate to deny a child the chance at a life--any life? Thus, paradox. 

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