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.