Not too long after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Sethe, the mother who murdered her child to protect her baby from a lifetime of slavery, has yet to know the true meaning of freedom. Such a controversial, hard to swallow plot is certain to stimulate a reader’s mind. Too often, however, critically scrutinized for its symbolic story and not adequately appreciated for the vivid metaphors, imperative to the understanding of the post-Civil War slavery. Morrison’s metaphors in her writing serves as a constant reminder of Sethe’s considerably enslaved life, bound to her guilt, her past life and her haunting memories.
Morrison’s prose enhanced with symbolic meaning often leaves room for various reader interpretations. While some aspects of the plot are fully developed, explained and interpreted by the author, others are merely alluded to so the reader can find their own significance in the image Morrison creates.
Morrison’s reference to Sethe’s stolen milk conveys the importance of creating a bond between mother and daughter through nursing and shows the destruction caused when the bond’s broken. When Sethe arrives in Cincinnati after escaping from Sweet Home, Sethe’s reunited with her children. This reunion is bound by a vivid image of nursing, “she enclosed her left nipple with the two fingers of her right hand and the child opened her mouth. They hit home together” (87). The importance of a daughter being nursed by a mother can be traced to the beginning of Sethe’s life when she is deprived of her own mother’s milk when she sucked from another woman whose job it was (57). Sethe relives the torture of having her milk stolen from the boys at Sweet Home because, in a similar way to how her mother was deprived, the inhumanity of slavery robbed her of the only pleasure a slave woman is given, the gift of nurturing her child. Exactly the type of meaning Morrison wants the reader to find in her writing.
On the surface many of the metaphors in Beloved appear to be too overt, but as with all of Morrison’s writing, there seems to always be hidden meaning behind her visually appealing style. Morrison’s metaphors and symbols create the story and the crucial depth they have adds more to the novel. The chokecherry tree shaped scar on Sethe’s back, for example, is a reminder of the deep sorrow of her past. Her back is important because it is always with her but she can not see it, in much the same way her sorrow is ever present but constantly pushed aside and ignored. There is clearly valid reasoning behind Morrison’s choice to shape Sethe’s scar into a tree, and she describes its appearance with graphic detail as a choke cherry tree. “Trunk, branches and even leaves. Could have cherries too” (15). The scar’s description is a parody. It creates an image of life, a blossoming tree in springtime, but Sethe cannot feel it because “her back skin has been dead for years” (17). Similar to Sethe’s emotional life, although physically alive,...