Themes and Meanings
The characterization of the female fugitive, Sethe, and her murdered daughter, Beloved, is without precedent in fiction. The novel is an accurate portrayal of the black slave woman’s experience. Married by age fourteen, Sethe is pregnant with her fourth child by nineteen. Although Mr. Garner prides himself on the treatment of his male slaves, he nevertheless has the slavemaster’s agenda of using slave women for the purpose of childbearing. Schoolteacher also values Sethe for her childbearing capabilities and the money she represents.
Moreover, the novel is important for its demonstration of the concern that slave mothers had for the welfare of their children. Sethe determines to kill all of her children rather than allow them to be returned to a life of slavery. Thus Sethe struggles to reach Ohio, and her children, at any costs. In fact, she repeats often that she has to get her milk to her “crawling already” baby girl, Beloved. The novel also probes the bond between the nursing mother and her infant. Sethe remembers that slavery has denied her a relationship with her own mother and determines to have a nurturing relationship with her own children. Beloved’s personality, therefore, originates from a lack of bonding with her mother and from a sense of spite, as well as from a need for retribution for her brutal murder at her mother’s hand. Although Beloved is a ghost, it is significant that she acts like a child who has experienced a loss in the infant stage of development; she is psychologically damaged and has enormous anxieties. Thus, Beloved constantly demonstrates a need to be near Sethe at all times and never gets enough of anything, especially her mother. Because of Sethe’s sense of guilt, Beloved is able to demand the best of everything and to make her mother try to meet all of her demands, no matter how ridiculous. When Sethe complains, it does no good.
The genesis of the plot of Beloved came when Morrison worked as an editor. While on a project, the author came across the story of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, who killed one child and tried to kill three others to keep them from being returned to slavery; the story was the basis for Beloved.
The novel treats the theme of the mother as nurturer and protector through the characters of Sethe and Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs protects and takes care of Sethe after her escape, and when she can no longer do so, she decides to die. Sethe sees her children as her property, as lives that she has made. An alternate example is provided by Baby Suggs, who was forced to part with all of her children but her last son, Halle. Sethe determines to put her children where they cannot be hurt by the system of slavery.
The novel is, moreover, an attempt to understand the forces, historical and personal, that would cause Sethe to murder her daughter rather than allow her to experience the horrors of slavery. The horror of the slave past is shown as a haunting, evidenced by the appearance of the baby ghost and the manifestation of the fully grown Beloved. From the opening of the novel, the means of bringing the past into the lives of Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and the community is the use of the supernatural. Beloved represents the troubled past that haunts the lives of all African Americans. This troubling past is represented by the word “rememory,” which is used throughout the novel. The characters are constantly in a struggle to “beat back the past,” which intrudes into their lives and causes a haunting pain that is physically represented by the appearance of Beloved.
Morrison unceasingly places before her readers the environment that created Sethe—economic slavery. This is the source and the context of Sethe’s madness and the impetus for her behavior. Paul D is able to understand and verbalize Sethe’s dilemma by concluding that it was dangerous for a slave woman to love anything, especially her children. Paul D thus points out the tension created by the system of slavery and the instinct of the slave woman to protect and nurture her children. Slavery claimed ownership of all of its property and ignored the slave mother’s right to determine the future of, to mold the character of, and to physically nurture her own children. Sethe instinctively sought to hold on to and love her own children, thus creating the central conflict in the novel.