Sethe's Act of Filicide in Beloved
Shortly after the publication of Beloved, Toni Morrison commented in an interview that Sethe's murder of Beloved "was the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.... It was the only thing to do, but it was the wrong thing to do."1 Does this remark prove the moral ambiguity of the infanticide, as Terry Otten argues?2 Yes, it was right but wrong, and wrong but right. However, the most important thing is that "It was the only thing to do." Sethe had no choice. If there is anything wrong, it must be either, in Paul D's words, her "too thick" love, or the inhumane institution of slavery. However, as Sethe answers back to Paul D, for her, "Thin love ain't love at all" (164). For Sethe, there is no such thing as "thin" love, and it is true. Her love is not "too" thick but "so" thick that she would kill her own child rather than see the baby live as a slave.
Another interview in 1994 makes it even clearer that Toni Morrison has been sympathetic to Sethe from the start. She talks about Margaret Garner, whose story gave Morrison the inspiration to write this novel. Sethe's story is almost identical with Margaret Garner's.
I had an idea that I didn't know was a book idea.... One was a newspaper clipping about a woman named Margaret Garner in 1851.... she had escaped from Kentucky with her four children. She had run off into a little woodshed right outside her house to kill them because she had been caught as a fugitive. And she had made up her mind that they would not suffer the way that she had and it was better to die. She succeeded in killing one; she tried to kill two others.... That the woman who killed her children loved her children so much; they were the best part of her and she would not see them sullied. She would not see them hurt. She would rather kill them, have them die.3
From this interview, three points can be made about what Morrison had in mind when she wrote Sethe's story, the "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken": (1) it is the suffering that the mother wants to protect her children from; (2) the mother loves her children "so" much; (3) the "would rather" does not mean that it is her "choice" to kill the children. As a loving mother, she cannot see her children sullied and hurt as she has suffered under slavery. I shall speak for Sethe in terms of the suffering and her "thick" love.
Sethe's "rememory" of suffering goes back to her relationship with her nameless mother, the broken bondage.4 Sethe, taken away from her own mother, was nurtured by Nan, who gave Sethe her leftover milk after feeding white children. Sethe's mother herself killed all her children except Sethe. Sethe heard from Nan about how special Sethe is to her mother.
She [Sethe's mother] threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more...