It is difficult for anyone today to believe that a mother could be driven to kill her child because the life the child would have to live is worse than death. In her book, Beloved, Toni Morrison conveys a gruesome account of the terrible way slaves were treated by their owners, and she tries to convince the reader that Sethe was right to kill her daughter because such a life would indeed be worse than death.Â Sethe's continued relationship with her child as a ghost and later, as Beloved reincarnated, also shows that her motherly love is so strong that it transcends death.Â By the conclusion of the book, we have learned through Sethe and Paul's memories enough about the horrors of slavery that we can sympathize with Sethe's decision to kill her own child. Sethe's mother in law, Baby Suggs, describes Sethe's character as follows, "The best thing [Sethe] was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing" (Morrison 251). Here Baby Suggs is explaining how Sethe will subject herself to any horrific treatment, as long as she can achieve a better life for her kids. For one of her children, the better "life" would be achieved by death. Sethe's sacrifice of this child enables her other children to escape. Eventually, through her youngest child Denver, the reader can see the hope of a better future for Sethe's children.
Through Sethe's and Paul D's memories, we learn about their horrific treatment at the hands of their sadistic, white owners, particularly "schoolteacher," who takes over management of the slaves at Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies. Schoolteacher treats Sethe and the other slaves as animals, using her as a scientific experiment to teach his workers her animal characteristics. Sethe is a very proud woman, and this experiment offends her even more greatly than the rape she endures at the hands of schoolteacher's nephews, while her horrified husband, Halle, looks on. After witnessing his wife's rape, Halle then deteriorates into madness. When Sethe then tells Mrs. Garner about what happened, schoolteacher whips her while she is pregnant. This cruel treatment gives Sethe the determination to escape for the sake of her children, and the baby she is carrying. These brutal treatments at the hands of the white slave owners show how slavery deprived the slaves of their sense of self as human beings. It also helps the reader to sympathize with Sethe and understand how Sethe can express her motherly love and devotion to her children by murdering them instead of allowing them to live a horrific life as a slave. As Stamp Paid explains,
"White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way . . . they were right. . . . But it wasn't the jungle blacks brought with them to this place. . . . It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them" (Morrison 204).
Stamp Paid is describing how the white slave owners convinced the slaves themselves that they had no value and no ability to think for themselves. Baby Suggs also expressed this effect of the slave owner's treatment when she said, "Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed, and broke by heart strings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks" (Morrison 105).
Paul D's memories provide the reader with additional examples of the horrors of slavery and also help the reader to sympathize with Sethe's actions. Paul D was forced to wear a bit in his mouth, like a horse, and was put in a cage each night while chained to other working slaves. These are further inhumane examples of how Sethe's children could expect to be treated. Through this cruel treatment, Paul D has lost so much sense of himself that when he screams at night, he cannot tell whether it is his own screaming or someone else's. By being treated as sub-human, Paul D has lost the ability to value himself. Like Seth, he tries to lock his traumatic memories away in the past, but events in the present keep bringing the past to confront him.
In the new phase of her life as an escaped slave, Seth continues to be devoted to her children. It is through Seth's determination to escape from Sweet Home for the sake of her children that they are able to live in freedom. Ironically, she achieves this freedom by killing her baby daughter, Beloved, who continues to haunt her in her new life as a freed slave. Schoolteacher is so horrified by Sethe's murder of her daughter that he lets the other children go free.
Sethe's youngest daughter, Denver, born while Sethe is escaping from Sweet Home, is devoted to her mother and entirely dependent on her until the arrival of the "reincarnated" Beloved. Denver resents her mother's attention being taken away from her by Paul D and the newly arrived Beloved. When Beloved becomes nasty and parasitic, Denver develops the courage to get help from the community, which exorcises the reincarnated Beloved from the house and helps to nurse Sethe. Denver is then treated kindly by the Bodwins, members of the community who encouraged her to go to Oberlin college. Through Denver, we can see a new and better life for Sethe's children, offspring of the freed slaves, providing hope for the future and the promise of a life without the horrors of slavery. It is only through Sethe's strong character, devotion to her children and her courage to escape from Sweet Home that her children can have the opportunity of a better life of freedom from the cruel white slave owners.