Beloved Questions and Answers
by Toni Morrison

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What is the circle and cross burnt into Sethe's mother's skin in Beloved? Why does she show it to Sethe?

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The circle and cross burnt into Sethe's mother's skin was the mark of her slavery. Like an animal, it was a sign that she was "owned," and it was symbolic of her status as a slave with no more rights or consideration than what would be given a beast. From Nan, the woman who cared for Sethe when she was a child, Sethe learned that her mother had come "from the sea," and had been used and impregnated by many white men. Sethe's mother had discarded the products of those pregnancies without even naming them, but had kept Sethe, whose father was black; to Sethe, "she gave the name of the black man." Like all the slave children at the place where she lived, Sethe was only nursed by her mother for a couple of weeks,...

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The circle and cross, positioned on Sethe's mother's rib (just below her breast) is a branding mark. Within the context of slavery, this was the mark that identified which slave master owned Sethe's mother. However, beyond that context, this mark works as part of a larger examination of the power of maternal love in Beloved.

The branding mark emerges in a story that Sethe tells to Beloved, who asks her about her relationship with her mother: "Your woman never fix up your hair?" (72). In response to this innocuous question, Sethe begins a lengthy reverie about her distanced relationship to her own mother. She remembers neither her mother's name nor even the ancestral African language she spoke, both of which are powerful markers of loss in her struggle to recall her own family. Sethe's mother was not even permitted to breastfeed her child, and Sethe spent most of her early childhood in the care of other women while her mother worked in the indigo fields. These details emphasize the ways in which slavery ripped apart families and undermined mothers' claim to their own children.

When Sethe's mother reveals her branding mark to Sethe, she does so in order to help Sethe identify her body if she is ever killed and disfigured. In one respect, by lifting the breast that has never nursed her child in order to show her the branding mark that signifies enslavement, this scene could be said to reinforce the ways that Sethe's mother belongs more to her master than to her daughter. At the same time, by teaching her daughter to use this mark to recognize her, Sethe's mother might also be said to reclaim her body in this moment, actively choosing what this mark means and how her daughter can read it.

So important is this revelation, in fact, that young Sethe begs her mother to put the same mark on her own body:

All I could think of was how important this was and how I needed to have something important to say back, but I couldn't think of anything so I just said what I thought. 'Yes Ma'am,' I said. 'But how will you know me? How will you know me? Mark me, too,' I said. (72-73)

Sethe's urge to be marked suggests that she craves a visible, bodily connection to her mother, so that the circle and cross can be something that the two of them share. Her specific need to be recognizable to her mother, as shown in the repeated question, "How will you know me?" echoes a larger theme of maternal validation in the novel, the most notable example of which is Beloved's constant need for Sethe to be looking at her.

After young Sethe asks her mother to give her a branding mark, her mother slaps her. The slap is a choice young Sethe does not understand at the time, but would grow to understand as an adult, when forced to bear her own mark (the "chokecherry tree" of scars on her back, formed during a vicious whipping). Her mother's refusal to allow her child to be marked subtly echoes Sethe's own later choice to kill her infant child, rather than allow her to be captured and enslaved. In each case, a mother would rather inflict her own violence upon her child than permit her to enter into the violence of slavery itself. The parallel between Sethe's mother's story and Sethe's own are especially noteworthy in this scene, since it is Beloved's question that begins the description of the branding mark, and Beloved is later revealed to be an incarnation of the murdered baby.