Community in Toni Morrison's Beloved
What Is Community?
A community is a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage (dictionary.com). You’ll find many examples of community in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The characters of Morrison’s story move in and out of different communities. For a person to be received into a community, he must renounce his ego. Likewise, when a person appears too prideful, the community denies him. For these reasons, Sethe and Paul D. move in and out of communities the most. Baby Suggs is a character who does nothing more than appear arrogant, and thus the community denies her. Denver isolates herself, but returns humbly to the community and is accepted. Because of Baby Suggs’ appearance and her own arrogance, Sethe is rejected, but thanks to Denver’s humility, she is saved. Hence, the common theme for acceptance into a community is admitting humility.
Paul D.'s community
Paul D. and his chain gang exemplify a compulsory type of community. This extreme form of a community is created because the men are forced into a brotherhood. When they are bound together, they are required to be submissive. They are obliged to be at the mercy of the slave owners. When the men work together as a community to free themselves they succeed. Paul D. describes the miracle: “Holding the chains in their hands, they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Beloved 130). As the men do not desire to be a part of this community, they do not remain any longer than necessary. As soon as they are able, they show their chains to the sick Cherokee, admitting humility, and receive aid. Once freed, each goes his own way. It is not until the men are relieved of the chains that their pride returns. As a consequence they part ways and remove themselves from their compulsory community.
Paul D. wanders in isolation for many years until he finally thinks he settles with Sethe at 124. After leaving 124, Paul D. is left without a place to stay. Stamp Paid thinks that any family should welcome Paul D—not because Paul D. has done anything to help the community—because he is intrinsically a part of the community. Since Paul D. is a Negro, Stamp Paid believes that he should be welcomed into any person’s home. However, Paul D. does not feel as though he is a part of the community, and thus declines Reverend Pike’s offers to sleep in his home. When Stamp Paid hears that Paul D. is sleeping in the cellar, he’s shocked because, as he says, “any number’ll take [Paul D.] in” (219). The reason Ella thinks Paul D. is not sleeping in a home is because “he’s a touch proud” (219). Pride therefore inhibits Paul D. from entering the community.
Before he begins sleeping in the cellar of the church, Paul D. is a part of the community. In fact, he initially brings both Sethe and Denver back into society, taking them to one of the only social gatherings they ever attend. The group goes to a carnival and Paul D. says “howdy” to everybody within twenty feet (57). By joking with—and smiling at—the people of the community, Paul D. helps assimilate Sethe and Denver. Even a few people say hello to Denver, who had not been away from 124 for years. More surprising than that, people smile at Sethe. Thus the carnival reveals that it is not difficult for a person to be reintegrated into the community. It is simply necessary not to show pride or appear condescending.
Beloved, The Movie
Before the carnival and the arrival of Paul D., Sethe shows her pride and is renounced by the community. After fleeing Sweet Home, she appears humbly at 124, dirty and in need of much help. She is welcomed into the community, although her reception only lasts 28 days—after killing her youngest child Sethe is taken to prison. Ella believes Sethe’s reaction to her own rage was “prideful [and] misdirected” (302). Additionally, when Sethe leaves 124 for prison, she shocks the community with her posture. The narrator wonders: “Was her head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight? Probably” (179). Because she walks in an arrogant manner the community does not sing for her. They do not lament her prison sentence. If she had appeared more humble, “some cape of sound would have quickly been wrapped around her, like arms to hold and steady her on the way” (179). Instead, because Sethe appears prideful after killing her daughter, the community watches without singing, marking the beginning of Sethe’s isolation.
In addition to climbing self-importantly into the Sheriff’s wagon, Sethe’s actions after returning from prison bother some of the community members. Ella is particularly annoyed by the way Sethe behaves. Sethe “made no gesture toward anybody, and lived as though she were alone” (302). This infuriates Ella especially because she had her own troubles, but did not isolate herself or act condescendingly. From Sethe’s point of view, she spent eighteen years being condemned by the community and living a lonely life. To her,“Twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life” (204). It seems that Sethe is unaware of her own character and lacks understanding of why the community dismisses her.
Do You Know Beloved?
Have you read Toni Morrison's Beloved?
Denver is completely isolated for the community, though it seems to be her preference. She is certainly the most physically isolated of the characters in Beloved. She comes into the community as a child just before the great party and is immediately cut off from the Negro community because of Sethe’s actions. She incorporates herself by attending school with Lady Jones, but quickly removes herself again. When she is once more isolated from the community, it is by choice. Aside from a few kind hellos at the carnival, Denver does not speak to anyone other than Paul D, Sethe, and Beloved. She then becomes obsessed with Beloved and no longer sees any need for community involvement until Beloved completely consumes 124.
Community becomes relief when Denver realizes she must bring herself back into the community in order to save Sethe. At this point, Denver does not consider herself a member of the community and denies Lady Jones’ offer of complete charity, “as though asking for help from strangers was worse than hunger” (292). However, she does ask if she might do any work for food. Lady Jones notes that Denver appears humble and childlike, seeing “some vulnerability [laying] across the bridge of the nose, above the cheeks” (290). Because Denver is barely able to speak, Lady Jones suspects humility. Just as Denver goes into the community to admit that she needs help, the community responds. They give her food and ultimately save Sethe.
When the women of the community come together, they rally to save a fallen member. They realize that disowning Sethe for so long was erroneous and they decide to make up for it. As the narrator explains, people can only hold a grudge for so long. Ella thinks that Denver must have some sense as she at least “had stepped out the door [and] asked for the help she needed and wanted work” (302). So although Sethe was prideful and arrogant, Ella desires to save her from the spirit. Furthermore, Ella and the other women remember being helped by Baby Suggs. The narrator lists the reasons why the women decide to help Sethe:
Maybe they were sorry for her. Or for Sethe. Maybe they were sorry for the years of their own disdain. Maybe they were simply nice people who could hold meanness toward each other for so long and when trouble rode bareback among them, quickly, easily they did what they could to trip him up. In any case, the personal pride, the arrogant claim staked out at 124 seemed to them to have run its course. (293-4)
Toni Morrison on Beloved
It becomes clear that Baby Suggs—or her house—helped all the women of the community at some point. They learn that one of their lost members has been troubled and they team up to redeem themselves. The narrator makes it clear that Sethe’s pride is gone and the community appreciates it. For this reason, and to make up for their own mistakes, they receive Sethe again into their community.
Unfortunately, Baby Suggs is a part of the reason the community does not warn Sethe about the whitefolk who come to take her back into slavery. Schoolteacher and three other men arrive at 124 without warning, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Stamp Paid makes it clear that someone should have run with the message: “new whitefolks with the Look just rode in” (184). Stamp Paid believes that the party is a component of the reason that nobody “sent a fleet-footed son to cut ‘cross a field soon as they saw the four horses in town” (184). Still, he wonders if it’s spite—not tiredness from the previous day’s feast—that keeps anyone from bringing the news. By portraying Sethe as an attractive and competent woman, the narrator here implies that the community was jealous. Sethe is fortunate and, “had the full benefit of Baby Suggs’ bounty and her big old heart” (185). It seems that the people were envious, and also might have wanted to see how much power Baby Suggs really had.
Baby Suggs’ giving heart and powerful speeches in the Clearing may have provided the community with the idea that she was special. Perhaps they thought she was above them. This is an example of unintentional pride. Although Baby Suggs did not act arrogantly, it looks as though she was commanding and held sway over people. She helped them by allowing 124 to be a way station on the road into the community. She gave them a place to hear news of family members or leave their children to be watched. 124 was a place where people gathered, and Baby Suggs taught and gave healing remedies. Baby Suggs was a wonderful woman—she made impressions on people in the Clearing and in her home. Unfortunately this caused her to appear higher than the rest of the community. The party was too much, and this caused the community to abandon her when her kin needed help.
There are many examples of people shifting in and out of communities in Beloved. Sethe is welcomed, denied, and eventually welcomed again. Paul D. does not allow himself to become a part of any community until the end, when he decides to remain with Sethe. Similarly, Denver keeps herself from joining a community until she is in serious need of help. Baby Suggs is abandoned by her community simply because she appears a certain way. When people give the impression that they are prideful and arrogant, their community may disown them. This theme is apparent and recurring in Beloved. In addition, Sethe’s life is repeatedly affected by her family members’ exit from—and entrance into—the community. When the community denies Baby Suggs, Sethe is as well. Again, when Denver is accepted into the community, Sethe is saved. It is only when the characters deny their egos and act humbly that they can be accepted.