Sethe in Beloved
Toni Morrison‘s Beloved reflects the harsh reality of a black mother, a former slave, and voices the positions of daughters, grandmothers, fathers, male friends, neighbours, community and the mother herself. And Sethe Suggs is that central figure, whose actions are measured and weighed against numerous atrocities and destructions, and possible responses to them. Morrison unearths that “silenced voice of the black slave women in the protagonist of Beloved through whom she probes deeper into the psychological effects of missing mother-infant bond and unearths the psychic damage of slavery to the mother-child relationship.
A Former Slave Woman
Sethe was born in the Deep South as a plantation slave. She barely remembers her mother (called Ma’am) being hanged and a one-armed woman Nan who had travelled from Africa with Sethe’s mother and who was her wet nurse. Sethe worked on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, where she married a fellow slave, Halle Suggs. They had four children. She gave birth to her last child, a daughter, during her escape. When she moved to Ohio to live with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. There, she killed one of her children in an effort to keep her safe from the monstrosities of the Sweet Home owner, schoolteacher.
For most part of the novel, Sethe is haunted by her memories of slavery and guilt of having committed infanticide. She has spent some time in prison for her crime, but the novel focuses on Sethe’s life after Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone Road. It is difficult for her to separate the present from the past- and even harder for her to make plans for future in a house that is haunted, first by her baby’s ghost, and then by the arrival of Beloved, her murdered child’s grown-up reincarnation in the flesh.
Sethe’s Body as Text
Sethe’s body, ironically, becomes a text upon which her white masters inscribe the discourse of slavery. When schoolteacher appears on the scene after Mr. Garner’s death, in order to help Mrs. Garner run Sweet Home, he becomes the speaking subject of slavery’s discourse. Sethe tells Paul D about her last nights’ harrowing experience at Sweet Home.
Her benefactor, Amy Denver, called it a “chokecherry” tree. To quote Rafael Perez-Torres”, Sethe’s body is violated. Once when its nutrient is stolen, then again when torn open by a whip. Just like the page of schoolteacher’s notebook, Sethe is divided and marked inscribed with the discourse of slavery and violation.
Her name, Sethe, means “resurrection” according to St. Augustine’s City of God. Her sense of rootlessness and incompleteness becomes a driving force in her quest of wholeness. She has analysed her experiences well, and she wants to keep her children from “what! I know is terrible”, even if it means injuring Howard and Buglar and murdering Beloved. Paul D realizes that it is her selfhood that has made him whole. When, therefore, she grieves that Beloved has left her, who was her “best thing”, he comforts her, holding her hand as he does so, “You your best thing, Sethe you are”.
Sethe: An Extraordinary Woman
Sethe is no ordinary woman. Proud and noble, she insists on sewing a proper wedding dress for the first night she spends with Halle in the cornfield, and she finds schoolteacher’s lesson on her “animal characteristics” more debilitating than his nephews’ sexual and physical abuse. Although the community’s shunning of Sethe and Baby Suggs for thinking two high of themselves is unfair, the fact that Sethe prefers to unfair, the fact that Sethe prefers to steal food from the restaurant where she works rather than wait on line with the rest of the black community shows that she does consider herself different from the rest of blacks in her neighbourhood. Yet, Sethe is too proud to accept support from others in every instance. Despite her independence and distrust of men), she welcomes Paul D and the companionship he offers.
Sethe: A Possessive and Loving Mother
Sethe’s most striking characteristic, however, is her devotion to her children. Beloved in characterized by mothers losing their children: Sethe’s mother-in-law barely glanced at the last of her eight children (who had six fathers) “because it wasn’t worth the trouble”. Baby Suggs asks Sethe to be thankful to have act her children (that the same father) with her: “Be thankful why don’t you? I had Everyone of them gone away from me.” Sethe’s own mother was hanged when Sethe was a small child, and she had not be been allowed to nurse Sethe. This is echoed in Sethe’s faint memory of her own mother’s life, a woman she hardly knew the only sign of recognition she could recall being the brand in her flesh. She and the woman Nan bore children to the crew on the ship and to other white men but “threw them all away”, keeping Sethe, the only child she conceived with the black man she leaved.
Unwilling to relinquish her own children to the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma she had endured as a slave, Sethe tries to murder them in an act that is, in her mind, one of motherly love and protection. Her memories of this cruel act and of the brutality she herself suffered as a slave infuses her everyday life and lead her to contend that past trauma can never really be eradicated – it continues somehow, to exist in the present. Even eighteen years after her escape, Paul D recognizes that Sethe’s mother love is risky:
“for a used to be slave woman to love anything was dangerous especially if it was her children who had settled on to love.”
When Beloved comes back to pass judgment on Sethe and Sethe realizes that Beloved is the ghost of her third child, she wants desperately to make her understand that she tried to kill her babies so that they would be protected from captivity forever. Perhaps Sethe’s fear of the past is what leads her to ignore the overwhelming evidence that Beloved is the reincarnation of her murdered daughter.
Indeed, after she acknowledges Beloved’s identity, Sethe shows herself to be still enslaved by the past, because she quickly succumbs to Beloved’s demands and allows herself to be consumed by Beloved. Sethe assumes that Beloved would forgive her, but the latter does not do so. Beloved becomes mean-spirited and exploits her mother’s pain. Beloved has returned “to fix her mother”. Sethe is helped out of the abyss by her other daughter, Denver. Morrison here clearly demonstrates that the mother-daughter relationship can be destructive or constructive.
Fortunately, Beloved’s final departure and Paul D’s reappearance with the statement, “Sethe, you, and me got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow,” brings her back from the threshold of death-in-life. Sethe is claimed by Paul D, Denver, and her community, as a result of which is able to claim her wholeness. The realization of intimate relationship with those close to her finally fears off the “veil” that has been keeping her away from herself. Only when Sethe learns to confront her past head-on, to assert herself in its presence, can she extricate herself from its oppressive power and begin to live freely, peacefully, and responsibly in the present.
Morrison’s treatment of Sethe’s crime exemplifies the moral ambiguity that pervades Beloved. Like Baby Suggs, Morrison does not seem to “approve or condemn” Sethe’s, act. Because Morrison centres the novel’s narrative around Sethe, and because she portrays as strong, sane, courageous, and a loving mother, we tend to sympathize with Sethe – even as she explains the circumstances of the murder The text locates Sethe’s act outside the bounds of ethical evaluation that her community does not. The text shifts the reader’s criticism from Sathe herself to the perverse circumstances that have worked upon her to transform her “too thick” motherly love into infanticide.
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