Toni Morrison, "Beloved": The Shackles of Entrapped Ex-Slaves
What is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and what inspired the conflict within the story?
After the thirteen amendment which made slavery outlawed on a federal level in the United States of America was passed in December of 1865, shortly after the Civil War that took place between 1861 and 1865, many ex-slaves moved from their traumatic plantation lives further north, escaping their “homes” to create homes. Toni Morrison, an American writer, and professor who won the 1993 Literature Nobel Prize, sheds light on a story where a slave woman named Sethe — inspired by the story and events from a real slave, Margaret Garner — reflects on her past actions as a slave and a “free” woman in the 1987 novel, Beloved. Though Garner’s experience and Sethe’s perspective in the novel, Beloved touches on the severity slaves went through and continue to endure after their liberation, demonstrating that while Sethe was considered legally free, mentally and emotionally she was still trapped and enslaved. This concept of being free yet not feeling free is not only disclosed in Morrison’s novel but also many other articles and general discussions about slavery and the aftermath. Beloved and a varying article narrates the traumatic stress ex-slaves experience, especially the sense that they will never truly be free and will continue to suffer from the memories and trauma they endured while enslaved.
Spoiler Warning for Beloved
Morrison’s Beloved examines the aftereffects of slavery through the eyes of Sethe, an ex-slave, living in Ohio with her daughter. It’s mentioned within the first chapter that Sethe’s mother-in-law is deceased, and two of Sethe’s children had run away, stating:
“The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away (Morrison 3).”
It is also stated early on that there is the strong belief that the house Sethe and her daughter are living in is possibly haunted by another child Sethe had but passed on, believed to be the reason Howard and Buglar ran away. There was even a moment in the first chapter where Sethe and her daughter, Denver, tried communicating to the deceased sister, but nothing comes of it, and Sethe tells Denver:
“‘You forgetting how little [the baby] is,’ said [Denver’s] mother, ‘She wasn’t even two years old when she died (Morrison 5).”
Throughout the novel, Sethe experiences flashbacks to her time as a slave, elaborating on how she was born into slavery in the South to an unknown mother. When she was thirteen, she was sold to a family named Garner who owned a sadistic plantation named “Sweet Home,” and married a fellow slave named Halle, the son of Baby Suggs. The two have three children — Howard, Burglar, and the currently unnamed deceased sister. Eventually, Sethe and a few other slaves decide to run away from the Garner family, and while on the run, Sethe was now pregnant with her other daughter — Denver. After Sethe is briefly settled into her new life in Cincinnati, Ohio, a person from Sweet Home finds Sethe and her children, and in an attempt to free her four children from living a life in slavery, Sethe runs off with her children and attempts to murder all four of them; however, only her third child died from a slit throat, buried with a tombstone that simply read, “Beloved.”
It is presumed that the reason “Beloved” is haunting the home where Sethe lives is due to the guilt behind her death that is slowly taking over Sethe’s everyday life, leading Sethe to be under the impression that she must fulfill whatever Beloved wants, reaching a point where Sethe was so infatuated with pleasing Beloved that it no longer felt like a mother mourning her lost child but instead a lost child controlling a traumatized woman. Sethe killed Beloved, her child because she did not want her children to live a dreadful life in slavery-like she did — an ultimatum that was rooted in her fear, her distress, and her apprehension. Although the drastic measures Sethe took as a way to save her children seem extreme and ultimately surreal, Sethe’s reaction and fear knowing that her children would suffer as she did can be seen throughout history.
As previously stated, Sethe’s story was inspired by Margaret Garner — an escaped slave in the United States who fled to Ohio and attempted to kill her four children, killing only one.
This fear of a woman’s child being forced into slavery is rationalized in Women, Race, and Class, a collection of 13 essays written by Angela Y. Davis — an American political activist. Davis states in the first essay, “The Legacy of Slavery: Standards for a New Womanhood”:
“Since slave women were classified as ‘breeders’... their infant children would be sold away (Davis 10)”
Going on to elaborate that:
"...female slaves had no legal claims… on their children (Davis 10, 11).”
Davis states that slave women were often physically, mentally, and sexually abused, and that pregnant women and mothers had no say over their bodies or what futures their children may have, inciting that fear and drastic protectiveness within ex-slaves and Black women, explaining Sethe’s actions within Beloved.
The trauma of having to witness other women endure the loss of children due to slavery, ex-slave women were haunted by the idea of losing their children far after the abolition of slavery. In Sethe’s case, she was either given the choice of returning to Sweet Home with her four children — stripped away from their free lives — or take the extremist measure of freeing her children through her hand. Although free, she continued to be haunted by the trauma of killing one of her children; a murder that derived from her experiences as a slave. She was taken from her family at a young age, unable to remember who her mother was, and having to watch those around her lose their children.
Beloved examines the severity slavery has on a woman throughout the rest of her life. Sethe, a mourning ex-slave mother, is haunted by the daughter whose life was taken by her hand, killed because of the trauma she endured before her freedom. Beloved, the deceased daughter, drives Sethe to insanity, reminding Sethe day after day that she was the one who took her life all because she did not want to lose her children to slavery and the possibility of them being sold off to other plantations which were examined in Davis’ book: Women, Race, and Class. Enslaved women were abused while pregnant and lacked custody over their children once they were birthed, having to endure the loss of their sold children. Both Beloved and Women, Race, and Class touch on the fear that slave mothers had no control over what happened to their children, explaining Sethe’s sudden actions taken against Beloved and the guilt of her murder driving her mad, reminding Sethe and many other women during this period that they would never be truly free from slavery and its shackles.
Side Note: This article mainly focuses on the relationship between Sethe, her deceased daughter, and how this relationship is rooted in historical facts. This article leaves out other situations of the book such as Sethe's relationship with other ex-slaves and other circumstances that do not directly affect the content of this specific article and its purpose. If you are interested in the story of Beloved, I recommend reading this book in its entirety to see the other aspects that affect ex-slaves and their lives.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Classics, 1987.
Davis, Angela. Women, Race, and Class. 1981.