Memories of Fruition: A Structuralist Approach to Morrison's "Beloved"
There are elements of ones humanity by which particular experiences are inherent; the moments of one’s life that have lasting significance play into the current state of their mentality. Every memory that a person encodes has an effect on how they develop their own perspective on the world and their role in it. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Sethe has a life typical of an American slave being as she has to deal with the psychological stigmas of being an object subject to being bartered. She is victim to traumas that were common amongst exploited people. In contrast, Sethe deals with incredibly daunting phenomena that has a longevity extending deep beyond her initial experiences. Sethe cannot escape the repetition of moments in her life that remind her of the horror that her existence has been. From the tattered skin of her back and the images of Sweet Home in her mind, Sethe is submerged in a world shifting in and out of the present. Through the seamless entwinement of memories and the daily dilemmas of Sethe, the reader witnesses the integral moments of her life that she cannot escape. Morrison structures the memories that Sethe harbors and acquires through others to expose a most turbulent moment of American history and the destructive associations garnered through the power of memory; for it is those very memories that prove she existed.
The entirety of Morrison’s Beloved is a literary marvel that functions as a weaving compilation of experiences chronicled by memories, where much of Sethe’s are painful and engraved by her struggles. These memories that haunt Sethe’s mind throughout the book, are much like milestones upon which she must step to transverse the landscape of her life and interact with the individuals within it. Retrospectively, the very first memory developed in Beloved is not Sethe’s at all. Baby Suggs who is the mother-in-law of Sethe recalls the memory or lack thereof her eight children. It is painful for Baby Suggs to attempt to recall memories of her children because she has none, which is the direct result of life as a slave. Baby Suggs, much like the majority of slaves, have absolutely no guarantee that they will have their children and watch them grow into adulthood. Baby Suggs develops an apathetic mechanism upon which she refuses to fall in love with her children for the very threat of them being taken away, never to be seen again, as they were. “My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I can remember.(beloved 12)”
Baby Suggs’ memories are significant to Sethe for the simple fact that she mildly resembles her in relation to her own children. It is no secret that the structures of memory Morrison constructs throughout the novel are generally initiated by memories of Sethe’s experiences at Sweet Home, a slave plantation beautifully populated by trees, and her children. Sethe has two sons, Howard and Buglar, who run away from home because of the misunderstood spirit of their baby sister haunting the house; and their own memory of being subject to attempted murder at the hands of their own mother, Sethe. Sethe connects with Baby Suggs’ memory because she realizes and empathizes with the fact that one can lose touch of their children and memory being the only thing that keeps them alive or ever being such.
Morrison is quick to define the importance of memory, and therefore things that take place and people that exist early on in Beloved. Sethe explains to Denver the severity on which memories matter. Sethe is plagued by her memories yet invites them because they are a motivating force in her life. In fact, it can be argued that it is Sethe’s very memories of her own childhood and life as a slave that initiate her to slit the throat of her baby daughter and bludgeon her two sons, Howard and Buglar, in an attempt to kill them. Sethe’s memories of Sweet Home are forged in her mind forever, which she explains to Denver, “It’s [Sweet Home] never going away. Even if the whole farm- every tree and grass blade of it dies.(Beloved 36)” Sethe lives in her memories, because what she is basically saying here is an ultimate truth for all people; everything that one remembers will always exist. If a person’s house is burned down and its debris cleaned away, as long as someone remembers the house, it still exists. Sethe even argues however, that memories still exist after a person passes on. She contends that there are “pictures” of what she did floating around are still active in the place where it happened. This is a proclamation early on in Beloved that engages the reader into Sethe’s mind-set in relation to her ideas on the consequences of one’s past and decisions that must be made to prevent the past from being repeated. If anyone knows what it means to be intent to the point of death to prevent things from recurring it is Sethe.
Sweet Home is representative of Sethe’s memories in general being that it has this deeply rooted presence in her mind. Sweet Home was not like most slave plantations because they did not harbor the most sycamores that are so memorable. Sethe and the majority of the characters of Beloved have this fond memory of the place, even though it was a place upon which their lives were confined. Specifically, it was a place that’s image defied what it truly represented for Sethe. “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. (Beloved 8)” Life at Sweet Home, as Sethe remembered it was a defining and breaking time for her. Sethe learned what it was early on to be desired because being the only female slave of the workers, she was desired by all the men. She was lucky enough to be respected and not abused, and this enriched Sethe with a pride that directly attributes to her future convictions to what life, if any her children must have. “The five who slept in quarters near her [Sweet Home men], but never came in the night. (Beloved 24)”
Sethe is also tempered with memories of Sweet Home that are demoralizing, even with people like Mrs. Garner who is compassionate to Sethe; she serves as a mother figure. Sethe was allowed to work in Mrs. Garner’s kitchen and she would imagine that it was her own kitchen when she worked in it, and over time she succumbs to resentment. Sethe realizes that being a slave she can never own her own kitchen, and it grounds her with the reality of the American slave and what life they cannot have. Mrs. Garner continues to demoralize Sethe unknowingly when she disregards Sethe’s desire to have wedding when she decides on which of the Sweet Home men to marry. Because Sethe remembers these integral character building moments, they inherently lend to create a woman scorned enough to contemplate the meaning of life and her place in it, and consequently the places not allowed. Sethe does not want this life that she is afforded when still at Sweet Home, she garners a perspective on life that would allow her to one day kill her children. It is moments such as being denied a proper wedding that Morrison endows Sethe with the potential to kill; these memories are constituted in a method by which they facilitate future events directly.
Another of the stepping stones is her vivid memory of her experience of giving birth to her second daughter Denver. It is during this birth that we are introduced to the character that Denver is named after, Amy Denver, a white Indentured Servant. Because Sethe was running away from Sweet Home shortly after being whipped and stripped of her womanhood, Amy Denver happened to be her only hope for survival. What makes this significant to Sethe’s eventual appreciation of life is the fact that the person who assisted her in a time of need, Amy Denver, was just like the people who hurt her, a white person. Sethe’s memories of Amy Denver lend to complicate the synthesis of her experience with whites as negative figures of a gruesome past.
“Morrison employs her [Amy Denver] as a literary foil to various other characters in the novel--primarily Sethe--revealing Amy as an indentured servant, a prophetic healer, and a compassionate white woman who plays a crucial role in the very continuation of the story that clearly must be "passed on.”(1)
The birth of Denver is integral to understanding Sethe’s struggle; it illustrates the love she has for life because she fights for her children, even so far as to nearly die to give Denver life. The nurturing aspects of Sethe’s mothering can be confusing considering she actually murders one child; however, one must look at the situation objectively to fully understand that Sethe would never let a child of her own live a life where she feels like there would be no life. The very birth of Denver has an enduring effect because Sethe experiences compassion and what it is to conquer death, having life spring forth. In fact it is during Sethe’s escape to the Ohio river that Denver owes her life to a man named Stamp Paid who is responsible for stopping Sethe from killing her; Sethe swung her infant body about in an attempt to smash her head when Stamp Paid intervened.
It is apparent that in Morrison’s Beloved trees are conventions that have positive qualities for the characters, especially at Sweet Home. Amy Denver gave Sethe a different perspective on her beating’s scares, imagining them to be in the form of a “chokecherry tree,” effectively helping her heal psychologically, if only partially, but healed nonetheless. It is interesting to note that such a beautiful symbol can be the result of Sethe being brutally beaten, an act of hatred, creating a sign of life. “He [Paul D] had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth, none of which Sethe could feel because her back skin had been dead for years.”(2) Although the scars are old and dead, when Paul D touches them with such compassion, it brings the tender memories back. She relived in her head the day her baby’s milk was taken from her; the day she fought for everything that she lived for, and in that moment she was liberated from the dead scars that lived again. “Part of Sethe’s price of freedom from slavery is the scars on her back from her life as a slave and the scars in her heart from the death of her daughter–huge debts that she has paid to live.(4)”
Sethe’s iconic memory of having her breast milk stolen has an extreme importance in relation to her dilemma in life and her appreciation of it. The breast milk is intended for Sethe’s children and because Sethe grew up not getting enough if any breast milk, to her it has a deep root in her young past. So when the schoolteacher and his nephews forcibly took Sethe’s milk, it was basically a declaration of taking her unborn child. Sethe has such a strong conviction to her children because she longed so dearly to know her own mother but never being able to because of the simple fact that they were slaves. It is as if Sethe, pledged to be the mother that she never had. She wanted her children to live a life that she never had.
Paul D, a slave who also lived and worked at Sweet Home, makes Sethe’s memory of being forcibly stricken of her milk significantly worse when he informs her of the fact that her husband Halle saw the atrocity unfold. Sethe is horrified to learn that Halle, the man she chose to marry at Sweet Home and the father of each of her four children witnessed her subject of abuse and refused to intervene. She was sure that he was not there and would not be able to help her, and perhaps that if her was there, the situation would not have ever even occurred; but the irony is, he was there, watching in close proximity. Paul D explains to her, in her fury, that Halle lost his mind afterwards, “Last time I saw him [Halle] he was sitting by the churn. He had butter all over his face (Beloved 69).
Morrison structures Sethe’s memories of child bearing with a confusing chronology in relation to Beloved when she is found randomly after Paul D, her, and Denver return from a carnival. The woman sitting on the stomp outside the house 124, where Sethe and Denver live alone, is 19 years old, and she seems to have an entirely unused body. Before Sethe could inspect the girl, she had a sudden urge to urinate, that was akin to a pregnant woman’s water breaking. This is a literary hint to the origin of who this girl is. She is the spirit of the murdered child that resided in 124, returning in the flesh after being cast from the house by Paul D. Sethe also sees Beloved’s face before she here water breaks and her face had scratches that reminded Sethe of baby hair. Sethe cannot at this point make the connection that the spirit cast out by Paul D is indeed her dead infant. It is vital to note that Morrison’s constructions of Sethe’s memories have manifestations in the present, which alludes to the idea that memories have longevity and more importantly have real-time consequences or occurrences.
Morrison continues her unremitting constructions of memory and their perpetuating associations through Beloved and Sethe’s growing relationship. Beloved becomes incredibly affectionate of Sethe and simply being in her presence; especially when Sethe tells her stories, or of memories she has- as painful as they tend to be. These moments force Sethe to dig deep within her collective pool of memories and retrieve answers because Beloved asks questions that warrant it. Beloved asks a question that conjures one of Sethe’s most painful memories, “Your woman she never fix up your hair? (Beloved 60)” Sethe answers with the fragments of memory she does possess of her mother, and from those few fragmented memories, she remembers “Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. (Beloved 61)”
Sethe makes mental note of the torments her mother faced, a marking similar to that of cattle. The most horrible aspect of remembering her mother is that she remembers that her mother was hung. Beloved forced Sethe to examine her past in a manner she had avoided before Beloved came. Sethe never even told her only living daughter Denver about the memories of her mother. Morrison continues to initiate the construction of memories and their lasting impression on the present when Beloved asks Sethe about the “diamonds” she remembers. Sethe still does not make the connection between Beloved and the spirit of her murdered child.
The murder of the books namesake, the infant affectionately called Beloved is the most significant memory that Sethe possesses. This is an area of the book that can be confusing to the reader because it is such a horrific act. Even Denver does not truly trust her mother because of what she did, and the fact that there is something in her that makes it ok to kill her children. Sethe is forced by her own idealism to end a young life because she refuses to allow others to hurt her children. She loves her children so much that she will protect them even if that means to take their life with her own two hands. This memory is the driving force behind Beloved . “When Sethe makes the decision to condemn her children to death rather than let them suffer as she has done, she refuses boundaries between her and them--they are "the best part of her" without a separate existence and separate interests.(3)” Sethe’s determination to give her children a better life and bury the memories of her past lead her to murder Beloved.
Morrison references Sethe’s ability to be violent because of her memories again when Mr.Bodwin, a white abolitionist, comes to 124 to retrieve Denver for work and she attacks him with an ice pick. Sethe’s memories are so raised to the surface of her consciousness that she is fooled by them, and mistakes Mr.Bodwin for schoolteacher, and remembers the horrible milk incident and loses control. Sethe synthesizes the present with her past and has this psychotic break where she is placed back into the frame of mind that leads her to attempt murder of all her children. She erupts with the memories coagulating instances of slavery and bringing children into a world where they can have absolutely nothing, not even themselves. Sethe refuses to do that. “Sethe "work[s] hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe", she lives these profoundly visceral memories with all the immediacy of the moment; they fill and shape her life. (5)”
A driving theme of the memory constructions in Morrison’s Beloved is Beloved’s obsession with Sethe and her memory of being abandoned. Beloved is subject to this dark innate desire to understand why she was murdered but more importantly abandoned by her mother. All of Beloved’s memories are fragmented, which is why she predominantly remembers Sethe’s face as an infant. She has this brooding desire to consume Sethe that is ultimately destructive. Beloved being the conflicted spirit that she is, is subjected to the bodily temptations of a woman. She finds sexual solace in that of Paul D, who is already having issues with Sethe at that point. Before this Paul D had become someone integral to Sethe and even Denver because he made them a family; something Denver never really had considering she never met or lived with her father. She in fact is constantly waiting for him to return. Paul D manifest the memories and new memories Sethe reserved for her husband Halle; Paul D is his replacement but in some ethereal sense he is Halle. “Just as a new family structure begins to tentatively coalesce, Beloved arrives to do what the ghost could not. Her narrative strand confronts the romance strand with the interference that "rememory" poses to "memory," the crucial problem underlying romantic remembering. (5)” Sethe is subject to her emotion and the lack over them because Paul D elicits them with his very presence. Paul D provides for Sethe a sense of life because he gives her reason to live beyond her life with Denver, he helps her, at least for a moment, garner a measurable grasp on the present time. “As "the last of the Sweet Home men", Paul D offers Sethe "a life" through a romance that builds on and reshapes their shared past; with him to support her, he promises, she can "go as far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles. Make sure you get back out". (5)”
It is well into the middle of the novel when Sethe realizes that Beloved is her daughter reincarnated in the flesh. “I would have known right off, but Paul D distracted me. Otherwise I would have seen my fingernail prints right there on your forehead for all the world to see.(Beloved 203)” But it is fascinating to analyze what Beloved actually represents. Yes, she is the spirit of Sethe’s murdered child reincarnated; however, she is also a vessel upon which other slave spirits, or memories can be transported into the physical world. Beloved functions as a medium by which other slaves use her to communicate. Basically, Morrison constructs this myriad of memories of hard life and the stories of passed on slaves focusing them in Beloved: a shifting symbol of loss and anger.
Sethe because of her memories of murder and her innate fear of thinking that the spirit of her murdered child does not understand that she was murdered because Sethe would much rather prefer that her child die than be subject to a life of slavery. It is apparent that Beloved does not understand this fact, because she continually illustrates her feelings of abandonment. This feeling of abandonment caused the spirit to be negative and its presence in 124 is naturally dark. Sethe believes that the spirit is not evil; however, it is not until Beloved comes into the flesh that her motives become clear. She has this desire to consume and basically hurt Sethe. Beloved becomes this incredibly obsessive force in Sethe’s life. She begins to take time and food from 124. She basically grasps a hold of Sethe psychologically weakening her. Sethe becomes this lesser energy in relation to this dominating Beloved. It is as if Beloved wants Sethe to herself to make up for all of the years she missed; Denver is jealous, but because she is so in love with Beloved and the company garnished from her, she keeps her distance and watches the over-bearing relationship unfold. It is not until Beloved’s presence is known to the community that people come to cast the negative spirit from Sethe.
Beloved is a device in Morrison’s novel that is a, from beginning to end, statute of memory and its longevity. Beloved disappears near the end of the book. Morrison basically shifts the grounds upon which the novel is constructed because unlike everyone else, Sethe remembers them and will continue to remember. These figures of the past last beyond their own death and the deaths of those who remember them. They are these immortal “rememory” that Sethe speaks of. Beloved will not be remembered. The people who met Beloved on the porch the day she disappeared and even the people who loved her tried their very best to forget she ever even existed. All of course except Sethe; but even she is not able to hold on to who and what Beloved is. It appears that because Beloved longed to be remembered and exist so much, that it is enough to pull herself from the abyss of death; yet it has the very opposite effect because she wanted to be loved so badly it leads to her being forgotten. Beloved in some sense never actually existed from the simple fact that she is not remembered, not even in fragments, but something that is entirely forgotten. She willed herself into existence only to have all evidence of her willed out. “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. (Beloved 274)"
Memories in Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved are at the very core of what makes life meaningful. Every memory that the characters share weave a fabric upon which lives are altered and in Beloved’s case taken. Morrison outlines the state of the human condition and experience when subjugated to cruelties and beauties. She exposes the monopoly that memories have on the perspectives and experiences of life, and the fundamental elements of what it means to be human in a shifting world. Sociality and civility are not barriers for the influence of one’s memories; it is not something that can be controlled when they have such a lasting impression. That is at the heart of what Morrison is attempting to tell the reader. However, Morrison does not simply tell the reader of what the history of atrocities can have upon a group of people or individuals, but she evokes an experience that will not be forgotten. Beloved is a narrative upon which lives are altered because it gives the reader insight on the power of their own particular struggles in life and convictions that are developed because of past transgressions or wrong doings, past love and hatred; every microcosmic and macrocosmic event encoded with significant meaning is grandiose in its significance. Memory is a scornful plague and simultaneously a beautiful tapestry that is to be respected, feared, and honored.
1. Coonradt, Nicole M. "To be loved: Amy Denver and human need--bridges to understanding in Toni Morrison's Beloved." College Literature 32.4 (2005): 168+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Mar. 2011.
2. Morrison, Toni. Beloved: a Novel. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print.
3. Vickroy, Laurie. "The Force outside/the force inside: mother-love and regenerative spaces in Sula and Beloved." Obsidian II 8.2 (1993): 28+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Mar. 2011.
4. Pass, Olivia. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: A Journey through the Pain of Grief." Journal of Medical Humanities 27.2 (2006): 117-124. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.
5. Carden, Mary Paniccia. "Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison's Beloved." Twentieth Century Literature 45.4 (1999): 401. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.
6. “Beloved Themes and Topics and Book Notes | BookRags.com." BookRags.com | Study Guides, Lesson Plans, Book Summaries and More. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <http://www.bookrags.com/notes/bel/TOP1.html>.
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