In Beloved, what is the significance of the antelope metaphor?

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The antelope metaphor in Toni Morrison’s Beloved appears in chapter 3 of the novel. In a story filled with rich and vivid imagery, this metaphor in particular is quite meaningful. Denver is recalling the story she loves to hear her mother tell about her birth. Sethe made her escape from Sweet Home in Kentucky, where she was abused by her slave master and his nephews, while she was late in her pregnancy. Sethe gave birth to Denver in the woods on her way to Ohio with the help of another escaped runaway, Amy, who had been a white indentured servant. Before giving birth, Sethe struggled to keep going,

But she could not, would not, stop, for when she did the little antelope rammed her with horns and pawed the ground of her womb with impatient hooves.

Sethe is Mother Earth in this image, and the unborn Denver is the antelope. Denver is struggling for freedom from Sethe’s womb, paralleling Sethe’s own struggle for freedom as she heads north. It is significant as well that the antelope is native to Africa, a reference to the Middle Passage and the removal of Africans from their homeland as a part of the slave trade.

In another reference:

And oh but when they danced and sometimes they danced the antelope. . . . Some unchained, demanding other whose feet knew her pulse better than she did. Just like this one in her stomach.

Again, the reference evokes Africa, where everyone was “unchained.” And again, it is clear that Denver is represented by the antelope. While her mother was born into slavery, Denver will be born free and will be closer to the freedom their ancestors experienced in Africa.

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Toni Morrison's Beloved is, perhaps, her most modernist-styled novel. There are numerous narrators, flashbacks, fragments of story-telling, and even ghosts. This novel is also rife with metaphors and symbols, most of which are suggestive of slavery, as Morrison dedicates her novel to the African slaves.

In Chapter Three Sethe's daughter Denver recalls a time when she looked up at the house in her loneliness and saw her mother praying, but there was also a white arm around her mother. This sight reminded her of the tale of her birth, a tale she enjoys remembering, about how a white girl--Amy Denver--for whom she is named, helped Sethe have her baby. Sethe, in her desperate attempt to reach freedom, refused to stop, walking on feet so swollen that she no longer could feel the pain.

But she could not, would not, stop, for when she did the little antelope rammed her with horns and pawed the ground of her womb with impatient hooves.

As she struggled onward, Sethe fell onto the grass and could no longer move. She felt as if "[N]othing was alive but her nipples and the little antelope...whose feet knew her pulse," the unborn child moving in her womb.

"Well, at least I don't have to take another step." A dying thought if ever there was one, and she waited for the little antelope to protest, and why she thought of an antelope Sethe could not imagine since she had never seen one. 

Sethe imagined her baby as an antelope causing her the sharp pains of childbirth as well as her struggle to escape slavery, perhaps in imitation of her ancestors who struggled. In another passage of the novel, she remembers watching the adults "dance the antelope" as they sang when she was a girl; so, perhaps this memory as well as the haunting specter of slavery which she tried to escape entered into her mind. 

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