Morrison’s Use of Racialized Symbols in Her Novel “ Beloved” Essay Sample
Without question, Beloved is a powerful chronicle of the social and historical elements of motherhood under slavery. At the same time, it also reaches into deeper, more mythic levels of maternal experience. Beloved is very much a novel of transformation, one that is closely linked with the female blood-transformation mysteries found in ancient and primitive cultures. These mysteries are thought to lead a woman into the experience of her own creativity and to produce a numinous impression on men. Blood, a vigorous symbol in Beloved, forms the mythic core around which the text develops. Its uses in the novel correspond with the three blood transformation mysteries once associated with the female body.
Menstruation is the first mystery, and its onset is universally regarded as a fateful moment in the life of a woman, a sign of her entry into adulthood and into the procreative processes of life. Indeed, in The Bluest Eye, an awed Claudia and Frieda regard Pecola’s menstruation as “ sacred” (Morrison, 28). Pregnancy is the second blood mystery, in which the embryo, according to primitive beliefs, develops from the menstrual blood that no longer flows out of the body during pregnancy. While pregnancy marks a period of profound transformation, birth, says Neumann, heralds a “ new archetypal constellation that reshapes the woman’s life down to its very depths.” After childbirth, a mother is charged to “ nourish and protect, to keep warm and hold fast” the child who is extraordinarily dependent upon her. The third blood mystery occurs after childbirth with the transformation of blood into milk. Belief in this process served as the basis for the primordial mysteries of food transformation. (Davis, 323-40)
The blood-transformation mysteries in Beloved are not manifested in biological order. Time is not linear in the novel, so the functions of menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and lactation are not always preserved in their natural sequence. At times they even appear fused. This disruption of the natural rhythms of the female body parallels Morrison’s portrayal of the confusion and disruption that slavery imposes on human lives. Furthermore, to cogently describe the novel’s blood transformation mysteries requires that events, which are not linear to begin with, be subjected to more disordering. The first blood mystery of menstruation is found in Beloved in the twenty-eight days of unslaved life that Sethe has with her children at the house on Bluestone Road.
The twenty-eight days correspond to the lunar cycle, but they are also representative of the menstrual cycle. This period marks a menarche, suggesting a new beginning for Sethe. She is integrated into the community in much the same way a young woman in primitive society would be assimilated after the onset of menstruation. During the time before the arrival of Schoolteacher to reclaim Sethe, she is fully immersed in the free black community. She enjoys the stories and camaraderie of both men and women and learns about freedom from them, how to claim herself, “ how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day” (Morrison 95). This stage of Sethe’s psychosocial integration into the community is short-lived, as she becomes an outcast when she kills her daughter at the end of these twenty-eight days.
Pregnancy and childbirth play a pivotal role in Beloved and constitute the second blood-transformation mystery. A pregnant Sethe flees Sweet Home, and Denver’s birth during her flight to freedom is full of myth and mystery. Instead of the customary community of women present at such births, Sethe is attended by an unlikely midwife in the Kentucky wilds. Amy Denver, a scrappy young white woman fleeing her own “ master, ” stands in stark contrast to the black women who would normally be present. She is not a mother or an experienced midwife, and she has only “ been bleeding for four years” (Morrison 83). By rights, Sethe should distrust and fear Amy Denver, but there is no difference of power between the two young women since both are runaways. Moreover, the universality of female experience and the urgency of childbirth help to unite them.
Amy serves in the traditional role of a doula, a woman who supports and nurtures the mother through the difficulties of childbirth, postpartum, and lactation. Before labor fully commences, Amy “ mothers” Sethe, massaging her swollen, battered feet and singing a lullaby learned from her own mother. Amy also tenderly ministers to Sethe’s excoriated back, which has been etched by Nephew’s whip into the image of a chokecherry tree containing a wild tangle of branches, leaves, and putrid blossoms. The tree, formed by pus, blood, and raised welts of flesh, is a perverse symbol of life and female experience, with pain, suffering, and fertility mixed together. (Chodorow, 67-70) Sethe’s wounds also represent an inscription of sorts and demonstrate how the slave mother’s body painfully served as a text written upon by the white patriarchal culture. The wild and bloody image of the tree graphically symbolizes the tangled, violent relationships that slavery often fostered between black women and white men. The tree serves as a branding which declares that Sethe’s body, like her children, is not hers to claim.
While the pregnant maternal body is inscribed with symbol and meaning, the onset of labor proves to be equally significant. Sethe’s labor begins as she and Amy reach the river that will carry her to freedom. In a life-affirming fusion of reality and myth, Sethe’s water breaks at the river’s edge, and the amniotic fluid mixes with the waters of the river. As Sethe struggles to give birth in a leaking boat, the baby’s head appears in a face-up position. The baby, unable to maneuver through the birth canal, becomes stuck and appears to be drowning in its mother’s blood. In a duel between life and death, as blood and river water threaten, Amy screams “ Push!” while Sethe whispers “ Pull” (Morrison 84). Thus, two women—midwife and mother, white and black—work together to deliver the baby and, symbolically, the next generation of women.
While Denver’s birth is given both realistic and mythic treatment, Morrison gives Beloved an ironic rebirth of sorts. Beloved’s first appearance in the novel as a grown woman is rendered through birth imagery. She mysteriously emerges out of a stream, fully dressed, exhausted, and unknown. Like a newborn that has undergone the long, rhythmical forces of labor in the maternal womb and is then forced through the narrow confines of bone and tissue, Beloved emerges from water and collapses on the bank of the stream. She is “ sopping wet, ” painfully tired, and her shallow breathing and hurting lungs suggest a newborn that has just experienced the trauma of birth and sucked in the first blasts of air outside the womb.
Although she is fully grown and finely dressed in black with “ good lace at the throat and a rich woman’s hat, ” Beloved’s appearance suggests a new being: Her skin is “ lineless and smooth” except for three tiny scratches on her forehead that look like “ baby hair.” Childbirth imagery that parallels Denver’s birth can be seen in Sethe’s reaction to the strange newcomer. When Sethe first glimpses Beloved, she is struck by a sudden, overwhelming desire to urinate. Failing to reach the outhouse, she lifts her skirts outside its door and voids an “ endless” amount of water in the dirt. Sethe herself links the urgency and the amount of her urination with the copious amniotic fluid that flooded the boat when Denver was born: “ But there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now” (Morrison 50–51).
Beloved’s behavior following her “ birth” resembles an infant’s. She gazes at Sethe with “ sleepy eyes, ” and when she is offered water to drink, she lets it dribble down her chin without wiping it away (Morrison 51). During the days following her “ birth” she is incontinent, unable to walk, and constantly sleeps. Ironically, Beloved has to relearn everything and progress through the stages of infant development. This experience continues throughout the novel as Beloved rapidly passes through infancy into egocentric toddlerhood, childhood, and tumultuous adolescence. During each stage, Beloved is obsessed with her “ mother” to a degree that surpasses normal mother-child bonds. She and Sethe engage in a bizarre dance of testing and exploring their relationship, of expressing and acting out the anger, guilt, and ambivalence that rage between them. Beloved seems bent on consuming her mother out of both love and hate. Sethe is “ licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes” during her infantile state (Morrison 57). As an angry child, Beloved tries to choke Sethe. Eventually she seduces her mother’s lover. All of these acts symbolically culminate when Beloved takes the shape of a pregnant woman. In this state, she is the embodiment of the second blood-transformation mystery of blood forming into life.
Beloved’s association with blood and the second transformation mystery is evident during other stages of her existence as well. In Beloved’s first incarnation, as a real child, her mother murders her rather than see her returned to slavery. To prevent her recapture by Schoolteacher, Sethe takes a handsaw to Beloved’s throat, and her near-decapitation spills rivers of blood onto the floor of the shack. This desperate act represents a subversion of the second blood-transformation mystery. Blood that would normally form life is instead associated with death. However, death is not the final stage, as the murdered child is transformed in ways that parallel female blood transformations. The pulsing red pool that appears at the beginning of the novel is the incarnation of the blood spilt in the shack. It also represents the primordial mass of blood and menstrual fluids waiting to form into life again, which it does when the fully grown Beloved emerges out of the stream. Through this imagery, Morrison, as in The Bluest Eye, enacts a harsh revision of the African view noted by Christian which links maternity with “ the marvelous creativity of the earth.” Morrison shows how slavery subverts the most essential myths and basic truths of motherhood.
The pulsing red pool also suggests the nonspecific drives and pulsions of Kristeva’s semiotic chora, the maternal space underlying the symbolic. With the maternal body “ as the gateway between the semiotic and the symbolic, ” according to Alice Adams, both the womb and chora attempt “ to create something (body or meaning) from nothing.” Until Beloved’s story is fully articulated and meaning is made of Sethe’s maternal experience, Morrison keeps both contained within the “ nonexpressive, ” nonlanguage realm of the chora, manifested through the mysterious pulsing red light that haunts Sethe’s house. Grewal identifies the house at 124 Bluestone Road as a metaphor for female interiority and sees Beloved as a “ ghostly figure that haunts her mother’s matrix, the matrix of black history.” (Davis, 155) As Beloved grows and develops within Sethe’s house/womb, so does the reader’s awareness of history and the horrors of slavery, particularly a woman’s experience of it.
Beloved’s transformation into an obviously pregnant woman also associates her with the maternal womb and further inverts the second blood-transformation mystery. Her pregnant state is not seen as a positive, life-giving condition and instead parallels the negativity ascribed to the maternal womb (and to women’s role in general) in symbolic discourse. According to Lorraine Gauthier, Kristeva sees women’s role in society as “ a negative one, in which women constantly expose the gaps in masculinist symbolic discourse.” (Gauthier, 41-46) Beloved is a most threatening presence. To the community, she is a “ devil-child, ” clever and beautiful, and represents what the community would rather deny and forget (Morrison 261). As the embodiment of the past, Beloved is a living womb, a repository of stories from the horrifying annals of slavery.
As such, she not only challenges patriarchal discourse and its writing of history but also threatens to disrupt the new, unslaved lives that individuals in the community have managed to build for themselves. (Mobley, 189-201) Sethe’s perception of Beloved, however, is quite different. Beloved is her restored daughter whom she is willing to protect and kill for if necessary. Indeed, the entire cycle threatens to begin again when Sethe imagines that another white man, Edward Bodwin, is coming for her children. Instead of killing the adult Beloved, Sethe attacks Bodwin. This time the community successfully intervenes to prevent further bloodletting. Meanwhile, Beloved is transformed again. She vanishes into the woods, a mythic, naked woman with fish for hair. Although Beloved disappears in this novel, she will be reincarnated as Joe Trace’s primitive mother, Wild, who haunts the woods in Jazz. (Gates, 78-80)
Lactation and breast milk constitute the third and final blood-transformation mystery evident in Beloved. Like blood, milk is a powerful and pervasive symbol in the novel. A “ privileged” sign of the maternal, it is a metaphor for nonspeech in Kristeva’s theorization and serves as a precursor to language in Beloved. A unifying element that links mother and daughters, milk is also a symbolic reminder of the mother tongue that has been silenced and that Sethe, Denver, and Beloved later reclaim. Milk is central to the text in other ways as well. The stealing of Sethe’s breast milk provides the critical juncture that sets events in motion and eventually propels Sethe to flight.
When Schoolteacher’s nephews attack the pregnant and lactating Sethe, they engage in an act of sexual, racial, and maternal defilement that represents a complete perversion of the third female blood-transformation mystery. Sethe’s maternity offers her no protection from violence, just as it failed to exempt other slave women. (Angela,. 2-15) Jacqueline Jones tells how blood and milk often flowed together during the whippings of nursing mothers. She describes how trenches were dug to accommodate the bellies of pregnant women during whippings and afford their unborn children, the master’s valuable property, some protection. As “ graves for the living,” (Jacqueline, 20) these trenches served as a symbol of how women’s roles as workers and child bearers ironically and violently came together. Quite literally, their bodies served as the terrain upon which the patriarchy was erected. (Kristeva, 173-74)
With a hole dug to protect the unborn Denver, Sethe is whipped and silenced; she bites off a piece of her tongue during the ordeal. This image mirrors the silencing of Sethe’s mother, who wore “ the bit” clamped upon her tongue so often that her lips were forced into a permanent smile: “ When she wasn’t smiling she smiled” (Morrison 203). Unlike Ma’am, who was hanged, Sethe regains her will and voice following the attack by Schoolteacher’s nephews. The theft of her milk makes Sethe all the more determined to get milk to her infant daughter in Ohio, even “ if she ha[s] to swim” (Morrison 83). Later, when she recounts the attack to Paul D, her repeated, outraged cries of “ they took my milk” demonstrates that she is able to give voice to the unspeakable violation she endured (Morrison 17). Her words also suggest the lamentation of slave mothers who were forced to serve as wet nurses and provide care and attention to the master’s children at the expense of their own.
After giving birth to Denver following her escape from Sweet Home, Sethe has two children to nurse. Milk thus continues as a powerful symbol of the maternal throughout the novel. It represents life, sustenance, and maternal nurturance while everything in the culture and environment conspires to destroy such forces. Breast-feeding maintains the symbiosis begun during pregnancy and strengthens the mother-infant bonds necessary for healthy growth and development. However, in Beloved this process is interrupted and subverted when Sethe and her children are tracked down. In the horrifying killing scene in the shack, the symbols of blood and milk fuse together in a perverse mixture of life and death. Holding both a dead child and a living one, Sethe forces a bloody nipple into her live baby’s mouth. Thus, Denver takes her mother’s milk and the blood of her sister at the same time. This act brings together the primary roles of women as mother, daughter, and sister. Later, in an image that reinforces the paradoxical fusion of life, death, and motherhood, the hot sun dries Sethe’s blood-and-milk-soaked dress “ stiff, like rigor mortis” (Morrison 153). The dried blood and milk thus create a scarlet emblem upon Sethe’s dress, symbolizing her maternity and her sin of daring to claim her children as her own.
As in The Bluest Eye and Sula, the maternal body serves as a vital source of myth and metaphor in Beloved. However, Beloved does not reflect the same dichotomizing of body and voice shown in the earlier novels. Body and voice are effectively split in The Bluest Eye, and voice is all but absent in Sula. In Beloved, Morrison seems intent on unifying these two aspects of the maternal in order to depict a more holistic and collective rendering of female experience. The fact that Morrison so sharply foregrounds the mother’s body and her experience of childbirth and lactation essentially gives voice to the maternal experience. Ultimately, however, voice evolves through the female experiences connecting generations of women in Beloved.
These connections are forged primarily through language and storytelling, even when the mother tongue has been silenced and forgotten. This is evident in the character of Nan, who spoke the language and is the repository of women’s stories from the past extending back to Africa, and in Sethe, who heard the language of Nan and her “ Ma’am” as a child and attempted to pick “ meaning out of a code she no longer understood” (Morrison 62). These connections are further entrenched in Denver, the keeper of her mother’s stories. Denver in turn uses these stories as a net to hold Beloved. Like the blood and milk that fuses the two sisters together in the shack, Sethe’s stories bind the characters together. The female connections also lead to Baby Suggs, the Great Mother who is the spiritual voice of her community.
While Sethe is powerfully aligned with the maternal body, Baby Suggs epitomizes voice. Like that of Claudia’s mother in The Bluest Eye, her voice is given full range of expression. Before Sethe’s arrival at 124 Bluestone Road, the house mirrors Baby Suggs’s spirit and voice: It is “ a cheerful buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised, and soothed” (Morrison 86–87). In her sermons, her voice achieves even greater virtuosity: Baby Suggs preaches, prays, advises, sings, and shouts. She exhorts the people of her community to give voice to their own spirits—to laugh, cry, and sing.
However, when she commands them to dance, to touch one another, and to love every part of their flesh—“ Love it hard…. You got to love it”—Baby Suggs celebrates the physical body as well (Morrison 88). Rather than dichotomizing body and voice, Baby Suggs integrates them. Her exhortations reveal an instinctive knowing that a fully integrated self is critical to both individual and community identities, as well as to the physical and spiritual survival of all. (Grewal, 140-73) Baby Suggs embodies Abena Busia’s idea that the orality of black women’s traditions in African and diaspora cultures plays a critical role in communal survival. In addition, she “ nurture[s] the spoken word” in the same manner that Karla F. C. Holloway ascribes to black women writers. (Busia, 1-41) Through her songs, stories, and sermons, Baby Suggs celebrates language, serves as the oral archive of her community, and preserves culture and memory. (Holloway, 31-38)
Such holistic integration of body and voice, self and community becomes Baby Suggs’s legacy to Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. In separate chapters, the three achieve voice through first-person interior monologues that articulate their individual experiences, with Beloved reaching into the past to voice even Ma’am’s experience of the Middle Passage. In the poetic “ rememory” passage, all of the voices are unified, blending mother, daughter, and sister into one. With astounding intimacy, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved engage in what Morrison deems “ a kind of threnody in which they exchange thoughts like a dialogue, or a three-way conversation, but unspoken … unuttered.” (Darling, 5-6)
Beloved You are my sister You are my daughter You are my face; you are me I have found you again; you have come back to me You are my Beloved You are mine You are mine You are mine (Morrison 216)
These lines reflect a kind of female interiority and internal voice arising from a maternal source. The fluid boundaries within the passage suggest the fluidity of women’s bodies and language that Hélène Cixous posits. Given the emphasis on milk throughout the novel, the passage also mirrors the associations Cixous makes between milk and the reclamation of the maternal voice. In The Newly Born Woman, Cixous writes: “ Voice: milk that could go on forever. Found again. The lost mother/ bitter-lost. Eternity: is voice mixed with milk.” (Cixous, 93) Morrison achieves the same sense of reunification in the rememory passage and in the breast milk imagery she uses throughout the novel, particularly the scene where Denver takes the blood of her sister along with Sethe’s milk. The fused voices in the rememory passage, like the blended blood and milk, reflect women’s multiple roles and delineate the intricate nature of female relationships. “ I have found you again … You are mine” could refer to mother, daughter, or sister quite interchangeably, but the words also comprise a reclamation of memory, identity, and the mother tongue long denied by the slaveholding patriarchy.
The passage effectively integrates female and racial experiences into one voice. It also foreshadows Sethe’s discovery of self at the end of the novel, her startled realization that she is her own “ best thing” (Morrison 273). This establishment of both individual and collective identities is perhaps the ultimate procreative experience. Thus, in Beloved the maternal becomes something more than blood and milk, extending beyond exclusively female functions into a more universal realm. (Byerman, 121-28) It is a spirit that infuses, undergirds, and transforms human experience. Most importantly, the maternal in Beloved emerges as a force that celebrates both the individual and a people and gives voice to their experiences. Although its final chapter insists “ This is not a story to pass on, ” the novel is a powerful testament to the importance of memory, remembrance, and the maternal (Morrison 275). Beloved is a story that must be passed on.
Toni Morrison has created Beloved not only to show the means of torture, punishment and beatings of the white people upon slaves but also to allow the reader to understand black people’s world and see them as humans. Sethe’s desperate actions prove her to be a mother in the real sense of the word , contrary to what black slaves where: just used to breed, reduced to the state of an animal. (Lidinsky, 191-216) But Beloved, having the mind of a child cannot understand Sethe’s actions and will end up by taking revenge, working her way into her mother’s mind and ruining her completely. From this point of view it can be said that Beloved is only Sethe’s ghost, because she happily accepts the situation and still moans her baby.
No child born in slavery is due to stay with his mother or alive even. That is why Sethe’s boys ran away, her husband has gone insane and probably died, Beloved was killed. The only “ miracle” is Denver, who was brought into the world by a white girl born on the run and the only one who was able to stay with her mother. The fact that she sucked blood along with the milk is showing, in an extremely tragic way, that the death of her sister had given her life. What white people did to the slaves was not just the stealing of their freedom, but along with violence they had played with their minds, shaped their personalities with their actions, and changed their lives forever.
There is a very strange scene when Sethe is at the clearing. Beloved comes over and starts kissing Sethe’s neck. Eventually, Sethe pulls away and she smells Beloved breath. Sethe describes it as smelling “ exactly like new milk”. Then Sethe goes on to tell Beloved that’s she’s “ too old for that.” I believe that “ that” was nursing. Beloved was trying to nurse off Sethe like she did when she was a baby.
After the skating adventure, when Beloved, Denver and Sethe were at home, Sethe hears Beloved humming a tune that Sethe made up herself. That is the incident that finally convinces Sethe that Beloved is her daughter. The only way the Beloved could know the song is if Sethe had sung it to her. And the only way Sethe would have sung the song to her is if she were Sethe’s child.
When a person dies, certain things happen to their bodies. For instance, they become very cold because the heart is no longer pumping blood through the body. All the blood stops, and settles everything cools off. Also, bodies become very dehydrated because there are no more fluids being ingested. When Beloved arrives, she is very cold and drinks a lot of water. An explanation of her dehydration and coldness is that she had been dead. (Harris, 220-25)
Through her usage of symbolism, Morrison exposes the internal conflicts that impede her characters. By contrasting those individuals, she shows tragedy in the human condition. (Henderson, 79-106) Both Sethe and Beloved suffer the devastating emotional effects of that one fateful event: while the guilty mother who lived refuses to passionately love again, the daughter who was betrayed fights heaven and hell- in the name of love- just to live again. Sethe was a woman who knew how to love, and ultimately fell to ruin because of her “ too-thick love” (Morrison, 164). Within Sethe was the power of unconditional love for her children– she had “ milk enough for all” (Morrison, 201). Morrison uses breast milk to symbolize how strong Sethe’s maternal desires were. She could never forget the terror of the schoolteacher robbing her of her nurturing juices, she crawled on bleeding limbs to fill her baby’s mouth with her milk, and finally, she immortalized that grim summer day when she fed Denver her breast milk– mingled with blood.
The bestial image of milk and blood further fortifies the eminence of maternal instinct by portraying the value of a mother’s milk as equal to that of her blood. And the great depth of Sethe’s maternal love is expressed through the course of all events: she loved her children so much she was willing to die with them, so much she would rather kill them than have them suffer, and so much that after that one fateful afternoon, her entire life’s happiness dwindled away to near-nothingness. When the schoolteacher came for them, Sethe “ just flew. [She] collected every bit of the life she made…[to] a place where no one could hurt them” (Morrison, 163). It was Sethe’s overpowering love for her children that drove her towards a desperate attempt to kill them.
Morrison makes the identity of Beloved ambiguous through such references. Whilst allowing it to be conceivable that Beloved is a real person she also uses references to Sethe noticing that her breath smelled ‘ exactly like new milk’ (Morrison, 99) and her own narration that a ‘ miraculous resurrection of Beloved’ (Morrison, 105) had taken place, to give a supernatural element to Beloved’s character. With Sethe as a major character, Morrison actually describes every black man or woman who was not allowed to be human and reduced to the state of an animal. (Wendy, 233-44)
Sethe’s love for her children, however has turned her into a hero and given her the strength to fight against the white people, run away and face death. To her, death is a relief rather than an end. She is more than a slave woman, and, just as she hurt even when mosquitoes bit her children, she is hurting every day of her life for the loss of her baby girl. She decided to kill all her children when the white men entered into her yard, but only managed to kill her oldest daughter. Desperate, thinking about her children having to be slaves, beaten and abused, raped and tortured, with no free will and no power, she chose the only thing she could: to set them free. (Krumholz, 107-25) The greatest act of love put her in prison and brought upon her the hatred of her neighbors.
Though Beloved brings strife and division to the unity implied by the shadows of the three returning from the carnival, her appearance in the flesh makes an immediate impression on Sethe, who welcomes her into 124. When Sethe sees the face of the girl who comes out of the water and says she is thirsty,
Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity…. She never made the outhouse. Right in front of its door she had to lift her skirts, and the water she voided was endless. Like a horse, she thought, but as it went on and on she thought, No, more like flooding the boat when Denver was born. So much water Amy said, “ Hold on.… You going to sink us you keep that up.” But there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now. (Morrison, 51)
As Beloved gulps water from a tin cup offered by Paul D, Sethe voids her own water. Although Beloved is an uncanny reminder of Sethe’s life-giving force—and in a very real sense Sethe here gives birth to Beloved—Beloved is also capable of sucking life-giving water out of Sethe and consuming it for herself.
Deep in the watery place from which she came, Beloved seems to have swum with Sethe’s dead self, the part that is unreachable by anyone. While she was on the bridge somebody told her about “ this house” (Morrison, 65). Beloved tells Sethe, “ She told me” (Morrison, 65). Sethe thinks that the “ she” to whom Beloved refers “’Must be somebody from the old days.’… The days when 124 was a way station where messages came and then their senders. Where bits of news soaked like dried beans in spring water—until they were soft enough to digest” (Morrison, 65). The implication is that Beloved is a kind of message sent by Sethe to herself. The she is Sethe, the Sethe that is dead and that wants to live, and that has Beloved as a filter, as a reflective, watery mirror with which to remember herself. The uncanny feeling occurs because Sethe is confronting a part of herself that has become distorted by the waters of her rememory, unrecognizable because of long separation, and because that part has degraded and become mixed up with others’ dead yet unresolved pieces of the past. (Mbalia, 89-94)
Sethe is reduced to bovine-like status as a “ grotesque parody of Madonna and child.” In fact, “ Sethe’s milk, like her labor and the fruits of her womb, is expropriated. But the theft of her ‘ mother’s milk’ suggests the expropriation of her future—her ability to nurture and ensure the survival of the next generation.” (Henderson, 89) If Sethe’s moment of being “ raped” of her milk seals her identity as a Persephone figure, one that is divided from the mother, her own maternal role has also been jeopardized. The Ohio River now separates Sethe from three of her children; her milk has been stolen; and the baby she is carrying will have to undergo a treacherous escape in the womb of a woman who has been badly beaten.
The open wound that divides her back and that bothers Sethe almost as much as the theft of her milk marks another point of the separation of self. By the time Sethe recounts the incident, the wound is nothing but a tree-shaped scar, and yet she says, “ It grows there still” (Morrison, 17). For Sethe dead things seem to be “ still” suspended between life and death; they seem always present and yet unattainable. For instance, Sethe has never seen the tree on her back. This inability to look back, as well as her walking backward to the grape arbor while facing danger—a confrontation in retreat—both show Sethe’s ambivalent engagement with past and future, trauma and healing.
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