Memory in Toni Morrison's Beloved
Memories are works of fiction, selective representations of experiences actual or imagined. They provide a framework for creating meaning in one's own life as well as in the lives of others. In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, memory is a dangerous and debilitating faculty of human consciousness. Sethe endures the tyranny of the self imposed prison of memory. She expresses an insatiable obsession with her memories, with the past. Sethe is compelled to explore and explain an overwhelming sense of yearning, longing, thirst for something beyond herself, her daughter, her Beloved. Though Beloved becomes a physical manifestation of these memories, her will is essentially defined by and tied to the thoughts, experiences and emotions of Sethe. Sethe's struggle is an intensely personal process of self negation; her identity is complicated, convoluted, and nearly consumed by her memory. Morrison suggests at least implicitly that Sethe's crisis is by no means unique. Rather than a positive or negative trait, memory (and the self destructive powers contained within it) may be an unavoidable part of the human condition.
Like Mr. Bodwin who hid his childhood treasures in the yard at 124, Sethe attempts to bury her most precious possessions in order to protect them literally and metaphorically. "Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing...the part of her that was clean" (251). Sethe cannot bear for her children to possible suffer the pain and humiliations she has endured. She would rather live with the memories of her crimes, the memories of how her children might have been, than surrender her future and theirs to school teacher. Her decision to kill her children and herself is simultaneously an act of self affirmation and self destruction, paradoxically selfish and selfless.
Memories, however, persist. They remain, lurking in places like 124 and Sweet Home to remind Sethe that the punishment she suffers is self inflicted and self perpetuating. First as a poltergeist and later as a mysterious young woman, the memory of Beloved remains unrequited. Beloved's appetite is insatiable. She "never got enough of anything... the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain.." (240-1). No effort, no amount, no explanation is adequate. Sethe gives her face to Beloved and still she demands more. Beloved eventually becomes bloated with Sethe's loving excesses, but her thirst remains...