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The Black Women as Victims in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’

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The Black Women as Victims in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ essay
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The Afro-American novelist Toni Morrison’s fifth novel “Beloved” was published in the year 1987. Being a staunch advocate of the rights of Black woman, in “Beloved”, Morrison set out to narrate the saga of the most chaotic occurrence of the American slave-trade which dehumanized Black woman in particular. The first Black woman Nobel laureate, Morrison was of the belief that – no other women group had suffered such a degree of dehumanization and oppression as faced by the Black women.

Set in the Reconstruction period, after the American Civil War, “Beloved” is a symbol of how horrendous the impact of slavery was. Morrison engaged the audience with a tale about how black women suffered from triple jeopardy- forced to accept the slavery system, the white racial imperialism as well suffer under the patriarchal dominance.

Quite different from her previous novels “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula”, “Beloved”, based on a real life incident, narrates a heart-rending tale of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave woman of Kentucky Plantation who opted to kill her children instead of seeing them enslaved again under the ‘Fugitive Slave Act’. Turning this story into an unforgettable prose depicting the horrors of the past, the history of slavery and “circles and circles of sorrow” proved a milestone in Morrison’s career and even won her the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Though both- the male and female- slaves were treated as beasts of burden by their White masters, the Black man’s condition was still much better than that of the Black woman. Racism and sexism co-existed in a traumatic alliance within the life of the Black women. In the midst of both the aggressive institutions, though the protagonist Sethe somehow survives but her fate ends in self-destruction.

At the novel’s very outset, an ex-slave, Sethe is seen residing with her elder daughter Denver at 124 B in Cincinnati, Ohio. Through a series of flashbacks and memories, Sethe’s wandering mind goes back to the memory of thirty years ago, i.e. to the days spent under the physical and mental tortures at the slave plantation at Kentucky. Sethe suffered as a slave since the age of 13. She is brought to “Sweet Home”, the slave plantation at Kentucky to replace another slave Baby Suggs who later becomes her mother-in-law.

As black-slave woman, Sethe was considered dirty, soulless and promiscuous by her plantation owner. She was considered a prostitute and treated as an animal. The institution of slavery created a myth that all the Black women were eager for sexual exploits and voluntarily loose in their morals. Therefore, she was seen as undeserving of the consideration and respect granted to white women. Though the treatment of slaves at Kentucky was bearable under the reign of White Garner couple, but soon after Mr Garner died, his brother- the Schoolteacher took control and treated the slaves with inhumane animosity.

Not only did he thrash and whip the slaves, but he also treated and talked of “mating” them as animals. The episode in which two nephews of the Schoolteacher steal away Sethe’s breast milk and various episodes depicting the black female being a victim of multiple rapes by their masters and fellow black men depicts how a slave woman was deprived of her femininity. Thus, Sethe becomes victim under double-edged persecution: both as a worker and as an object of sexual exploitation.

Thus, having faced utter horrors and brutality under the hands of the Schoolteacher, Sethe along with her four children, escapes from the hateful plantation to Cincinnati, a place where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs resided. She does this in order to save them from being subjected to the same brutality that was meted out at her. Though her escape demonstrates her strong will-power, but it also foreshadows the desperate measures that she takes later.

When the Schoolteacher surfaces at Cincinnati too and threatens to attack her children, in an attempt to save them, Sethe tries to kill all her children with a “handsaw”. Only her two-year-old daughter gets killed. As Sethe knew what it was to be a slave in America, this act of killing her own daughter does not emerge out of spite. She kills her unnamed child because she wanted her not to witness the travails of slavery. Regarding her act as the ultimate expression of a mother’s love, she says:

“No more powerful than the way I loved her.”

Thus, Sethe’s act is an example of serious resistance to slavery and not a senseless crime. After the death of Baby Suggs, Sethe stays in the house with her only remaining daughter, Denver. The house is haunted by Sethe’s killed baby girl’s ghost, who drives away her two sons forever. Paul D, a former fellow-slave at ‘Sweet Home’, comes over and begins changing Sethe’s and Denver’s lives by running the baby’s ghost out of the house. Thus, Paul D and Sethe reunited in post-Civil War America, start a relationship.

Morrison saw this relationship as a part of healing process which once could not spring under slavery as black people were not allowed to have free physical and emotional relationships. He brings back to Sethe the memories she has been trying to forget and the hopes she had stopped nourishing long ago.

However, their reunion is problematized by their respective relationships to Sethe’s children, one of whom is a ghost incarnate of the child murdered by Sethe. A mysterious young woman who calls herself Beloved interrupts their reunion. Progressively taking possession of the house and Sethe apparently, she runs Paul D out of the house. The three women, Sethe, Denver and the ghost Beloved form a ‘sisterhood’, and start a life of self-absorption in which they fill the empty spaces left in each other’s lives. Sethe quits her job and tries to satisfy Beloved’s demands.

At first, Denver too feels happy for her sister’s arrival, but later, when Sethe is deteriorated physically and mentally, Denver asks for her neighbor’s help who all gather together in prayer to rescue her from the baby ghost who has come back to destroy her. Thus, the horrors of slavery completely torment the physical and mental health of Sethe. Slavery interfered with a woman’s basic rights of starting a family and exercising her motherly rights.

How slavery interferes with ability to form families is further dealt with in the case of Baby Suggs. Serving as a breeding slave woman and attendant to the Garners, she had to undergo a forced separation from her husband. Though she had borne eight children from different fathers, she couldn’t exercise her motherly rights ever. Morrison herself said:

“These women were not mothers but breeders.”

Her freedom was bought by her own son, Sethe’s “Sweet Home” husband Halle. In spite of having lost all her children, she proves a great surrogate mother to Sethe and her children and offers them all the love and care when they come to her house as an escape from Kentucky. Under her care, Sethe’s children grow up healthy and happy. Finally, when she moves across the line of demarcation from slavery into freedom, she gains a new look at herself. She transforms and becomes a spiritual leader possessing a passionate love for life. Though Morrison portrays her as an emancipated black woman, the loss and damage done to her psyche is seems huge.

The titular character Beloved, deceased daughter of Sethe, is symbolic of the horrible impact that slavery had casted upon Black woman that denied them to exercise their motherly rights. Longing for identity and for identification with her mother brings back the ghost of baby Beloved. Unable to bear the separation from her mother, even in death, she returns to enjoy her as much as possible.

Her driving out Paul D, Sethe’s lover, who had driven the baby ghost from the house where he now lives with Sethe, can be seen as an act of revenge. Because firstly, though he wasn’t her father but represented fatherhood in general, and secondly, jealous of Paul D’s proximity with Sethe, Beloved proceeds to drive him away by forcing him to sleep with her. As per Denver’s point-of-view, Beloved can also be regarded as an embodiment of the danger of the past, as she causes Paul D and Sethe to remember and reflect upon their personal stories.

Thus, in a way, she gives voice to the pain and suffering of all slaves, as she is able to somehow recall the middle passage from Africa to the United States. Since Sethe’s contemporaries were dead, Morrison invented and employed Beloved as a tool to inspect Sethe’s ghastly action of killing her own daughter. Though Sethe comes closer to and keeps overwhelmed by Beloved’s presence, her attachment to Sethe becomes destructive as it never lets Sethe forget her traumatic past as an enslaved woman.

Sethe’s inability to escape her past also trapped her younger daughter Denver. For Denver, who had been denied a normal childhood, she relies and relishes on the story of her birth. It seems to her as a means of finding herself and her matriarchal roots. Though Denver displays intelligence and promise as a child, but her innocence is destroyed when she discovers what Sethe did to her elder sister and had planned the same for her as well.

With the loss of her brothers and grandmother, Denver becomes increasingly isolated and self-centered. Even as a young adult, her attitude is still very childlike. With Beloved’s arrival at 124, Denver’s transforms and finally has someone to devote herself to and someone to love. As Beloved gradually takes over the house and weakens Sethe, Denver recognizes that the family’s survival rests upon her shoulders.

Thus, with her masterpiece “Beloved”, Toni Morrison set out to demonstrate that how the horrors of slavery and the painful past never ceases to tug at the proverbial chains around the necks of Black slaves. As Sethe claimed in the novel:

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

The evilness involved in slavery seems unimaginable. The physical, emotional and psychological sacrifices made by the black slave women for their children and loved ones makes Morrison’s novel emerge out as an everlasting narrative about the debased and inhumane slave-trade and its side-effects on Blacks in general and the black female in particular. Though Sethe’s unrelenting courage to liberate herself and her children is an act par excellence, she becomes the loser of her own flesh.

The Black Women as Victims in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ essay

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The Black Women as Victims in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’. (2020, Dec 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-black-women-as-victims-in-toni-morrisons-beloved/

FAQ

How did slavery affect the characters in Beloved?
In Beloved the slaves working on Sweet Home experience violence, brutality, and are treated like animals. In the novel, the character who is mostly affected of slavery's severe conditions is Sethe. Sethe gets tortured, raped and mistreated.
How does Beloved symbolize slavery?
On an allegorical level, Beloved represents the inescapable, horrible past of slavery returned to haunt the present . Her presence, which grows increasingly malevolent and parasitic as the novel progresses, ultimately serves as a catalyst for Sethe's, Paul D's, and Denver's respective processes of emotional growth.
Is slavery a theme in Beloved?
Slavery is another overarching theme of the novel, Beloved . Most of the characters had to bear the burden of being from the African American community, a traditional community of slaves with no human rights. The novel presents the cruelty and barbarism meted out to the slaves. They were treated even worse than animals.
What is Toni Morrison's message 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.
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