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Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison depicts a fictional account of the real troubles that escaped African-American slaves faced after the Civil War. The novel gives a voice to those who were denied one, African American women in particular. The story's time scheme undermines the conventional idea of writing chronologically; instead, Morrison juxtaposes the past and the present to arouse forgotten experiences and emotions. From the beginning, Morrison suggests that love can be a mixture of passion, need, lust, loyalty, and blood, which he portrays in many different ways throughout the novel.
The very notion of love is challenged in one particular scene in which the main character Sethe, an escaped slave on the run, exercises motherly love to justify killing her baby daughter Beloved; however, was it the right thing to do as schoolteacher came through 124 to take the family back to Sweet Home? Through this scene, Morrison challenges his audience to contemplate whether a life of servitude is worse than not giving someone a chance at life. Considering that Sethe herself was a former slave and managed to escape, how does the audience know that the baby could not have done the same? Sethe narrates the scene to Paul D while displaying her struggle to determine whether or not she did the "right" thing by killing Beloved. Morrison highlights the internal conflict that she faces as this is the only time Sethe shares own personal account of what happened. Sethe's motivation for killing Beloved is not so clearly defined, but through close examination, the novel challenges if Sethe was carrying out true love or selfish pride to escape the horrors of slavery.
The stereotype of slavery involves shackles, chains, and back-breaking work. What many ignore, however, is the impact of the psychological and emotional bondage of slavery. In order for a slave to be truly free, he has to escape physically first; once that is accomplished, he has to confront the horror of his actions and the memories that a life in chains has left behind. Morrison criticizes the stereotypes of that time while emphasizing the class differences through the different accounts of the events that transpired. Despite schoolteacher seeing Sethe as an inhumane "barbarian for her actions "Morrison suggests through Sethe's narration that her act was one of love.
While at Sweet Home, Sethe cannot take care of her children because they are viewed merely as property; when Sethe is at 124, she can truly "love" her children because there is no higher governing force than her own. When schoolteacher attempts to return Sethe to a life of servitude, she realizes she has the power to control the destiny of her own children. Sethe soon felt hummingbirds were picking at her head then she "Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them" (Morrison 190). Sethe's dangerously protective bond of her children illustrates her deep hatred for the outside world, which is mainly caused by the institutions of slavery.
Sethe chooses to kill her baby girl rather than allowing her to be exposed to the physically, emotionally, and spiritually oppressive horrors of a life spent in slavery. Sethe describes the moment when she first met eyes with schoolteacher, "By the time she faced him, looked him dead in the eye, she had something in her arms that stopped him in his tracks. He took a backward step with each jump of the baby heart until finally there were none"(Morrison 190). When schoolteacher sees her actions all he feels is that he has lost property. Sethe's actions are indisputable; she has killed her child in a barbaric way, unforgiving of any mother, or so it would seem to the outside observer. Paul D judges her love too, citing that, "The prickly mean-eyed Sweet Home girl he knew as Halle's girl was obedient, shy, and work-crazy. He was wrong. This here Sethe was new. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw" (Morrison 191), Morrison suggests the power of deep love and the bond she had with her children.
Throughout the scene, Sethe's love is challenged not only by schoolteacher, but by Paul D as well. Looking into the complexities of Sethe's character, it can be said that she is a woman who chooses to love her children but not herself. Sethe expresses the love for her children by saying "Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all"(191). However, Paul D does not see love the way Sethe sees it, supported through his argument that, "Your boys gone you don't know where. one girl dead, the other won't leave the yard. How did it work?" (Morrison 191). Sethe kills her baby because, in Sethe's mind, her children are the only good and pure part of who she is and must be protected from the cruelty and the "dirtiness" of slavery. She reflects on cruelties of slavery by saying "It ain't my job to know what's worse. It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that"(Morrison 192). In this respect, her act is that of love for her children. The only selfishness of Sethe's act lies in her refusal to accept personal responsibility for her baby's death.
In essence, Toni Morrison's Beloved is a novel that addresses the cruelties resulting from slavery and the power that love has over Sethe actions. Morrison depicts an African American's quest for a new life while showing the difficulty of escaping the past to create a future. For Sethe, slavery is not over; Beloved serves as a form of therapy for her as it evokes the painful memories and provides her with a second chance to right her wrongs. Sethe simply wants to claim freedom and create a sense of community; however, slavery prevents her from doing so as she has to sacrifice her child. We are left to come to our own conclusions and our own interpretations. Morrison's overall moral is that Beloved is not just about individuals and individual experiences but about the experience of a race and a community.
On my honor I have not given nor received nor witnessed any unauthorized assistance on this work.
William. D. Kwok