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The degradation imposed upon all slaves, the relationships among enslaved and the changes in their own perception of themselves, the meaning of time and memory and how it influences the future are some of the problems explored by Toni Morrison in her novel “Beloved”. What really impressed us while reading the book were the various ways she approached her readers. The style combines literary realism with biblical myths, folklore, and pure historical reality with deep symbolism.
The role of the symbols is the focus of this paper. Different authors have investigated the symbols in “Beloved” but still not much is written about some of the symbols that are the object of this research – the number 124, the name Sethe and the colours used in the narration. The three symbols will be approached separately despite their common role in the narration. The main task is to familiarise with these symbols, to present some authors’ remarks about them and to point out the multiple ways to read symbols. A further analysis of their interconnection may come out as a separate work.
A symbol, as defined by Merriam-Webster online Dictionary and Thesaurus is something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance. Quite often it is a visible sign of something that can not be seen. The word symbol comes from the Greek verb “symballein” which means “to put together” and the noun “symbolon” which means “mark”, “taken” or “sign”.
To suit our purposes a more complex explanation of the symbols will be of better use:
A symbol has complex, not only “literal” meaning, but also additional meaning(s) beyond the literal. Sometimes the literal meaning of a symbol is absurd, so that the symbolic meaning over-rides and cancels out the literal meaning. A symbol may have more than one meaning. In fact, the most significant symbols do convey an indefinite range of meanings (Doty 1).
But one should not forget that the meaning of a piece of literature depends on the reader’s freedom to perceive and understand it in a unique way. So weather a symbol is well chosen or not will be judged by the way the reader responds to it. In Beloved Toni Morrison uses a variety of symbols in order to escape from the conventional and at the same time to ensure that the message she wants to convey will reach its audience. Colours, numbers, names, trees and different images all come to help her transfer her ideas to the public. In this work the focus will be on three main symbols used and their role in the narration: number 124, the name Sethe and the colours.
- Number 124
Having in mind the idea of symbols and their meaning, the first thing that strikes is number 124. It actually is connected to the spot where most of the action takes place – the house at 124 Bluestone Road, .a residence where every inhabitant feels secure, surrounded by the community and sometimes suffocated by the too tense atmosphere. But if the reader decides to look further, he will notice that if the separate digits are summed up, 7 is reached. “124 fits this astrological delineation because the sum of the three digits…add up to aforementioned 7” (Essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved 1). According to the numerology number seven represents creation as well as vitality and mystery which are the key points of the whole novel. It also identifies a positive renewal and stands for the punishment, the purification and the penitence.
Another way to interpret the number is that 124 stands for Sethe’s four children among whom the third one – Beloved, is absent (Atousa 6). Perceived in this way the symbol is extremely strong in reminding the reader of the murdered child, its ghostly presence in the life of the family and Sethe’s great sense of loss.
- The Name Sethe
Even the name of the protagonist – Sethe is symbolic. Using it Toni Morrison connects the story of the proud and independent woman who has dedicated all her life to her children with the ancient Egypt, on one hand, and the Holy Bible, on the other. The two ways to read the symbol may be seen as an attempt of the author to reach a wider audience or to show the complexity of the character.
The God of chaos, wind and storms – Seth- a man with the head of an animal or bird, gives some masculine features to this female slave but at the same time emphasises her chaotic state of mind that leads to breaking down the “polarities of right and wrong” (Lewis 1). The Biblical Seth – the child of Adam and Eve – also adds strength and determination to her character and represents her skills to fight and overcome difficulties. Yet, as a typical representative of the enslaved, she has spent all of her efforts not trying to avoid pain but to get through it as quickly as possible.
- The Colours
Colours take significant place in the setting, describing the way people feel or conveying hope for a brighter future. They are symbols of life which Sethe does not take for granted. Trying to find the vitality in the moment, she follows her inner self. Black and white represents the obvious contradiction between the world of people whose skin is white and those with black one. White is usually accepted as a symbol of innocence, life, light, purity, or enlightenment, while black is seen as a cold and negative colour suggesting passivity, death, ignorance, or evil. In Beloved one can speak of colour-consciousness presented as a part of a relationship that has affected the lives of many. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, says “Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed. . . and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks”(89). Her words describe the bitterness and destruction crying deep in her heart.
Another symbol coming from the red part of the spectrum could be seen over and over again throughout “Beloved”. Red symbolizes action, courage, vitality. For Amy Denver, the red velvet signifies her ambitions for a calm and peaceful life, while ‘the red heart’ of Paul D stands for his emotions. Life and death, presence and absence go together in the novel and their influence could be felt at each stage. The red roses which line the road to the carnival herald its arrival in town but also mark the beginning of new life for Sethe, Denver, and Paul D, their expectations. These roses at the same time are to remind the death. “Red” is all that Morrison need say, for she shows us what it means to know color as a matter of life and death” (Morey 1040)
There are many different artistic devices used in literature. Toni Morrison has applied a variety of techniques but certainly a strong point in her style in Beloved is the usage of a vast number symbols conveying often mixed messages. 124 when summed up makes seven which symbolises creation and vitality but seen as a sequence is the sign of something lost forever. Sethe is both the name of the child of Adam and Eve, strong in coping with difficulties and the name of the God of chaos and storm, restless in his pursuit of good and bad. Black and white, dark and light, the colours that are commonly associated with the slaves and their enslavers and red – the colour of love and yet sometimes smelling of death. The symbolic dimension of Toni Morrison’s novel goes together with the development of the narrative and sometimes even takes over. It is a powerful means to present the plurality of races, genders, classes, and ethnicities in America at that time.
Karen Bernardo says that “just as characterization and dialogue and plot work on the surface to move the story along, symbolism works under the surface to tie the story’s external action to the theme”(Bernardo 1). That external action in our opinion is often more influential than the surface one as symbols convey deep messages that are transferred sometimes even without the conscious knowledge of the reader. The only requirement is to read with open senses.
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