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Thursday, August 11, 2011

“Beloved”: At the Mercy of the Past

According to Dr. doCarmo’s notes on Realism and Naturalism, “Naturalism’s central belief, in fact, is that individual human beings are at the mercy of uncontrollable larger forces that originate both inside and outside them.” In “Beloved”, nearly all of the characters show in one way or another that they are at the mercy of their feelings about the past.  In the obvious sense, Sethe is at the mercy of her dead daughter – while in a more profound sense; she is at the mercy of all she has been through; circumstances and memories that haunted her to the point of killing her child and beyond.  “How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her” (Morrison 236), in Sethe’s mind, Beloved’s death by her mother’s hand was simply the better choice than a slow death under the keeping of the schoolteacher.
            When Sethe is first introduced in the novel, there are three occupants in her home.  She shares it with both her daughter, Denver, who is very much alive and her dead daughter – Beloved - who haunts the house with not only a sadness but with “outrageous behavior”. (Morrison 4).  She has lost the admiration and love of those around her, including her other children as well as their neighbors and friends due to the “baby’s venom” that lives within 124. (Morrison 3).  However – it is not so much the actual spirit of her daughter that scares those around them away, it is the actions that lead to her dead daughter’s death to begin with, namely the fact that she murdered her daughter with a handsaw.  As the novel progresses, a man from her past becomes part of her present and begins to share their home.  This fourth person in the house is too much for Beloved to bear, so she comes from beyond the grave to reveal herself in human form.  At first, she appears to be a lost and sick visitor.  By novel’s end she is a true terror to all those around her.  “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it.” (Morrison 295)
            During their lives Sethe, Paul D, Baby Suggs and Stamp have lived an endless mire of oppression by whites.  They all feel it, they all know it; “what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble.  That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind.” (Morrison 295)  For Sethe, however, her own past has eaten her alive and has begun to eat away at her child Denver as well.  Sethe is unable to let go of her memories and it has not only deadened her eyes but also the whole of who she is.  When Paul D comes to stay, a part of her is awakened not only as a woman but simply as a human being. “She knew Paul D added something to her life – something she wanted to count on but was scared to.” (Morrison 112)  This awakening uproots not only Sethe’s established household (including both Denver and Beloved) but Paul as well.  He is a wandering man, afraid to stay in any one place for too long.  The past they shared while both slaves, bonds them in a way that nothing else could. 
            Trauma and its lasting effects are felt throughout this intense novel.  All of the characters show in their own ways that some scars do not heal.  Whether brought on by others or by oneself, some things just appear too much of a strain to be able to get over.  A life in captivity, whether it is by a ghost or by plantation owners – is barely a life worth living.  Yet, if someone is pushed hard enough it is possible to overcome.  Denver shows this when she grows the courage to reach out for help. “So it was she who had to step off the edge of the world and die because if she didn’t, they all would.” (Morrison 281)
            What haunted Sethe most turned out to be not her daughter’s ghost coming to tangible life but the guilt, victimization and condemnation she lived with for so many years.  She received condemnation from the surrounding community – as well as herself, she was victimized from her various keepers – both human and inhuman and she felt tremendous guilt about a child she loved right into the grave.  Her life so desperately wanted the freedom she was both unwilling and unable to give it and what proved to be necessary was the eventual depletion of these emotions that came from Beloved feeding off her.  “Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind.  Alone. Again.” (Morrison 309)
Many times, it is just this – moving beyond all of what one has known and leaving the past as it is that leads to the greater freedom that most people truly long for.  “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” (Morrison 111)

Works Cited
doCarmo, Dr. “Dr. doCarmo’s Notes on Realism and Naturalism”. BCCC Faculty Web Server. Web. 31 May 2011

Morrison, Toni.  Beloved. New York: Vintage Books. Print.

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