Research Paper: Why Sethe Is Innocent of Killing Her Baby and Slavery Is Guilty

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¶ … Healing in Morrison's Beloved

While we like to believe that we are responsible for everything in our lives, especially as adults, there are external circumstances that often complicate matters and make life more challenging. One of the most prolific examples of this is the institution of slavery, which affected many lives and undoubtedly destroyed thousands of individuals from the inside out. Tony Morrison's novel, Beloved, delves into this issue by focusing on the life and Sethe and her attempts to live a normal life despite a life of slavery. With Sethe, we see the mental, physical, and spiritual effects of slavery as well as the difficulty associated with overcoming them. Moving forward is not easy and some were never lucky enough to escape the shackles of slavery, even after experiencing freedom in the legal sense of the word. Healing is a long and painful process at times but it always necessary for growth. Sethe knows this process as she attempts to recover from murdering of her child. She might have committed murder but she should not be condemned because her actions were pure and her intentions honorable.

Nothing on earth matches the mental and physical cruelty involved with slavery. Freedom, physical and emotional, can only be imagined by the slave while their real life is nothing short of a nightmare. Slave owners wielded complete control over the minds and lives of slaves, creating a class of broken individuals that were conditioned "not to attach themselves too strongly to the things they love" (Hinson). This is significant when it comes to examining Sethe's life and actions because love is never considered without the notion of loss in some form or fashion. Along with brutality, slaves are "powerless to confront their oppressors" (Hinson) and generally turn on "equally powerless members of their own community" (Hinson) to cope with the circumstances. Love is muddled in this topsy-turvy slave world and, as a result, a dangerous investment. These are the kinds of realities slaves had to live with every day, each one creating mental, spiritual, and physical barriers represented through Sethe. Sethe demonstrates how there is no escape from certain things. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run away and not even the freedom of slumber allowed any true reprieve.

The metal anguish of being a slave was the primary reason why Sethe behaved the way she did. Her life was not easy and the last thing she wanted to do was bring another person into that kind of existence. Murder, however, is never this easy, as the human psyche must cope with it in one way or another. As a ghost, Beloved confronts Sethe, who believes she is justified. Sethe wants only to prevent her daughter from living a painful life. Beloved emerges as a way to cope with guilt and pain. Jennifer Holden-Kirwan writes, "subjectivity becomes "attainable" (Holden-Kirwan) through Sethe's character. Beloved is essential for Sethe to recover from the mental anguish of murder. This becomes evident as Sethe tells Beloved how she cared for her while she was a baby. Beloved doubts Sethe and she is "uncomprehending everything except that Sethe was the woman who took her face away, leaving her crouching in a dark, dark place, forgetting to smile" (Morrison 296). This image becomes "tragic" (Holden-Kirwan) but it is important to the development of Sethe's character. Finally, Sethe sees the dead baby because that baby desires to be known. This desire, according to Holden-Kirwan, "can be read as a demand for recognition from the other" (Holden-Kirwan). Beloved's presence also represents the Sethe's relationship with her mother. Deborah Horvitz believes Beloved causes Sethe to "remember her own mother because, in fact, the murdered daughter and the slave mother are a conflated or combined identity" (Horvitz). The mother and daughter relationship brings the Middle Passage to the forefront of Sethe's mind and this "relates that ordeal through a coded message from the ship revealing that she too is a Beloved who, like Sethe, has been cruelly separated from her own mother" (Horvitz). From this perspective, Beloved's presence finishes a sequence of "mother-daughter loss, perceived abandonment, betrayal, and recovery (Horvtiz)" in the novel. These issues must be faced in order for Sethe to heal mentally.

Sethe's spiritual suffering is significant and it, too, must be addressed if any type of healing is to occur. This involves remembering, which is perhaps one of the most difficult things anyone in emotional pain can do. Memory and history is important and while Morrison writes, "This is not a story to pass on," she is not indicating anyone should forget the past. Angela Simpson notes that Morrison feels a need is to "correct the misleading information and truthfully, even painfully, represent the past for the common good" (Simpson). The mere writing of the novel suggests the importance of the past and Beloved, Sethe, Paul D., and Denver "represent the exorbitant price paid by those who survived slavery as well as the price paid by those whose history was blocked " (Simpson). Nothing should be forgotten because it did happen and it demonstrates the significance of healing from such traumatic experiences. Simpson writes, "By allowing the truth about the past to resurface, Sethe and Toni Morrison bring about the possibility for healing. Morrison creates a parable for twentieth-century readers and serves as a medium so that we will not 'pass' on the experience" (Simpson). Kristin Boudreau states that Beloved "presents an alternative to self-development that does not necessitate suffering" (Boudreau). Pain does not have to shape us, she writes. She goes on to say, "Suffering, as Beloved seems to cry in repeated anguished moments, unmakes the self and calls violent attention to the practice of making and unmaking selves" (Boudreau). This recognition is essential to overcome spiritual pain and move forward. Boudreau writes, "The most pain can do, as the novel suggests, is call attention to the violent and necessary process whereby self is constructed by other" (Boudreau). With this in mind, we see the characters as complete characters, not defined by pain but the overcoming of it. In this way, we can see how Sethe tried to cope with the spiritual pain of slavery through killing her baby. She was dealing with the pain in the best way she knew how. In her mind, she was stopping the pain from spreading throughout more generations.

Physical pain and suffering is sometimes easier to cope with than mental or spiritual because the body can heal itself if it is treated well. Physical wounds need time and there is no xxx involved with them. Beloved's presence eventually takes a toll on Sethe physically. Her body withers away. We read, Beloved "whined for sweets although she was getting bigger, plumper by the day…[She] never got enough of anything: lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, the top of the milk. If the hen had only two eggs, she got both" (Morrison 240). Beloved's hunger for the past parallels her physical hunger; she consumes lullabies as well as eggs. We read, "Beloved ate up her [Sethe's] life, took it, swelled with it, grew taller on it" (250). Sethe's body shrinks and as Paul D. comments, her love for Beloved becomes "too thick" (164). As Sethe wastes away, she relives the history of slavery that she wants so desperately wants to escape. This history is filled with millions wasting away just like Sethe. This physical decline must be realized, confronted, and conquered for Sethe to move forward with her life.

Morrison's Beloved is a portrait of Sethe's mental, spiritual, and physical journey. Through her experiences we begin to understand the pressure involved with being a slave. To be owned by another person is perhaps the most dehumanizing thing known to mankind. In this kind of situation, hope is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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