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Past and Present in “Beloved”
The principal message of Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, is that the past should not be an impediment to the present. Slavery is an institution that dominates the past of America, and represents the horror from which the modern nation wishes to rise above. But this cannot be achieved through the willful ignorance of the past. The horrors of the past must be acknowledged before we are able to lay them to rest. However, it is a mistake too to dwell on the injustices committed by our forebears, for by doing so we only enslave ourselves to the past once more. In the novel Beloved is an allegorical character who represents the past of slavery, in the specific context of the black community. She enters the lives of Sethe, Denver and Paul D, and helps them to deal conclusively with the past, and therefore to leave it behind and face the future. Paul D insinuates that Sethe has “too thick love” for her children, and that this is the root cause of her plight. However, it is because of Sethe’s overwhelming love that Beloved appears in her life. So, even though her overbearing love causes her to murder her own daughter, it also leads to the ultimate resolution. On the other hand, Paul D’s variety of love only causes him to retreat into a shell, and from which there is no progress.
Morrison presents slavery as an extremely cruel institution, but this is not her primary intention. The more immediate message of the novel is that the past must be dealt with finally, and must then be laid to rest. A former slave, Sethe is now a free woman, living with her teenage daughter Denver. Early in the novel she admits another former slave Paul D as her partner. When he first arrives, it brings back to her the horrific past, which she is struggling to eradicate. But Paul D is just as eager to leave his slave days behind, and this leads to a rapport between the two. Sethe’s horror stems from the fact that she had murdered her two-year-old daughter, because she did not want her to be captured and put into slavery. She was fleeing from her sadistic owner, and had been raped before she took her drastic move. However, they cannot hold back the past, because soon there appears the embodied spirit of her murdered daughter, whom they do not recognize as such, but whom Sethe calls Beloved. Her appearance infuses tension into the lives of all she touches, and in this way she effects a vital transformation.
Before the advent of Beloved the story concentrates of the magnitude of Sethe’s crime. We tend to agree with Paul D’s comment that she has “too thick love”, and we believe that nothing can excuse the murder of one’s own child. Sethe’s reply is “Love is or love ain’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all” (Morrison 173). At the time we dismiss this reply as fatuous, but its significance is magnified by the end of the story. Even though Sethe has escaped slavery, and lives as a free woman with her daughter, and in the company of Paul D, we soon sense that the past remains as an overbearing presence in their lives. The author wishes to make it clear that the spirit of the dead baby is haunting house number 124, and indeed this part of the story contains the heading “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (Ibid 3). We soon come to realize that the effect on the inhabitants is not a positive one. Sethe shuts her past away, and it would have remained thus if Paul D had not appeared and brought it all back to her. Even then she is struggling to keep it away from her, and the effort leaves her morose and downbeat all the time. Paul D does nothing to help in this direction, because he too keeps his past bottled up. Indeed, he has perfected it into an art, telling Sethe how he keeps all the undesirable memories in the “rusted tobacco tin” of his heart (Ibid 77). At first it seems that Denver is not too uncomfortable with the spirit of the baby occupying the home. She has learnt to communicate with this spirit, and has developed a sort of rapport with it. However, it has rendered her shy and withdrawn, and unable to cope with the world. The overall atmosphere in the house is one of stagnation, and very much full of the “baby’s venom” mentioned in the title.
The arrival of Beloved effects a dramatic change in the household. The author leaves the identity of this character a mystery, but then again provides enough clues that point towards an allegorical interpretation. This part of the story is titled “124 was loud” (Ibid 177), and if we interpret this as a progression from the title of the first part, we easily deduce that the spirit of the baby has grown and has found embodiment in Beloved. When she is discovered by Sethe, she is homeless, without a memory of her past, and is wet and shivering from being left out in the rain. All the clues pertain to a birth, because a baby comes into the world without a memory, and is wet too. She will soon accommodate herself into the household of 124 in the most natural way, which points to the natural tie she possesses with the inhabitants. She is of the exact age that Sethe’s murdered child would have been, and indeed she reminds Sethe only of her. From all these clues it is clear that Beloved is the embodied spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter, and is the same spirit that had haunted the house in the first part. There she was merely a spiteful presence. Here, however, she is “loud”, as proclaimed in the title.
Beloved soon becomes a demanding presence in the household, and Sethe finds herself at her beck and call. The relationship between the two becomes an obsessive one. The principle dynamic between them is the fact that Sethe does not want to face the past, whereas Beloved’s every act and indication has a bearing on Sethe’s own past. To recognize Beloved as the spirit of her murdered daughter would imply a confrontation with the past, and it seems as if the spirit is egging Sethe on to make this recognition. But Sethe is stubborn, and yet she is strangely drawn to the newcomer in the house, whom she likes to see as an adopted daughter, but nothing more. It is as if the “thick love” that she bears towards her daughter makes her compulsively drawn towards Beloved, but her inhibitions stop her from making the proper recognition. It is probably in response to this inhibition that Beloved turns more and more demanding and malevolent, which has a severe effect on the other members of the household, Denver and Paul D. Denver cannot cope with the demands of Beloved, and she is forced to move out of the household, and takes up residence in community. Paul D is also uncomfortable in her presence, and he has removed his lodgings into the barn. Despite all these drastic changes Sethe remains stubborn in her refusal to recognize the true identity of Beloved, and as a result is more and more obsessively drawn towards her.
Beloved is “loud”, and all the rest are forced to listen to her. She is an allegorical character representative of the past, and the author is suggesting that the past is asking to be heard and dealt with. We do not fail to notice that Beloved has a striking effect on all whom she comes in contact with. In the first part of the book Denver was comfortable with the spiritual presence of the baby, and she grew despondent after Paul D exorcises the spirit away from the house. But the spirit has returned in a more mature body, and this time it jolts her out of her shy and retiring shell. She moves out of the house in exasperation, but this is a positive influence on her, for now she is able to cope with the world. Paul D hates Beloved, but he can’t help being seduced by her, and in the end makes her pregnant. Through his mesmerizing sexual encounters with Beloved he learns to express himself once more. He had become so withdrawn from the world that he was beginning do doubt himself as a man, and Beloved sparks a regeneration in him. As in the case of Denver, Beloved is drawing the person out of a shell of the past and into the immediate present.
Sethe, of course, is the most difficult case, but she too is transformed in the end. When Denver returns to 124 with the abolitionist Mr. Bodwin, Sethe mistakes him for “schoolteacher”, the sadistic slave owner under whom she had suffered when she was a slave in the Sweet Home plantation. It was schoolteacher’s nephew who had raped her, and who had forced her to take the life of her own daughter. When she mistakes Denver’s companion for schoolteacher, she is overcome by rage, and attacks him with an ice pick. She is quickly brought to her senses, but this is the moment when she finally confronts her past, and therefore has dealt with it. Accordingly, Beloved is seen no more after this point, which further underlies the allegorical interpretation of her presence. The past has served its function, and now vanishes so that it is possible for all to live in the immediate present. The third and final part of the story, in which Beloved is absent, it titled “124 was quiet”, indicating a more peaceful existence in the present moment. The peace is only possible because Sethe had loved her children wholeheartedly, and enough to kill one of them. It was a crime committed under extreme circumstances, and motivated by love towards the victim. It is again the same overwhelming force of love that ushered in the presence of Beloved, so at to effect a final resolution.
In conclusion, Sethe is right in defending the “thick love” that she bears towards her children. She is right in contending that love is love, and that to compromise it in any way is to turn it into something else. We would not expect a mother to kill her child, no matter what the circumstances. But the author is making a comment on the hopelessness that faced the slaves, and the extent to which they were liable to react. The incident of Sethe killing her daughter is put forward as emblematic of the cruelty of slavery. But whatever the reality of it, it is in the past. The message of the novel is that the past must be confronted and laid to rest.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York: Plume, 1988.
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