Tragedy and Redemption in Beloved
"This is not a story to pass on."(1)
With these enigmatic words, Toni Morrison brings to a conclusion
a very rich, very complicated novel, in which slavery and its
repercussions are brought into focus, examined, and reassembled to
yield a story of tragedy and redemption.
The "peculiar institution" of slavery has been the basis for many
literary works from Roots to Beloved, with particular
emphasis on the physical, mental, and spiritual violence
characteristic of the practice of slavery in the South.
A far greater shame than slavery itself is the violence that was
directed against slave women in the name of slavery. Slave women bore
the heaviest burden of slavery, forced to be not only fieldhands and
domestic workers, but to satisfy their masters' sexual appetites.
Frederick Douglass wrote that the "slave woman is at the mercy of the
fathers, sons or brothers of her master."(2)
Slaveowners considered their slave women to be fair game, forcing
themselves on their female slaves with impunity, and any resulting
children were considered property, to be sold like the calves from a
cow. The family institutions of the slaves meant nothing to their
owners; the children of slaves were likewise considered property and
could be sold at their owners' whim. Schoolteacher referred to Sethe
and her children as "...the breeding one, her three pickaninnies and
whatever the foal might be..."(279) Slave children often did not know
who their fathers or even their mothers were. Such basic instincts as
maternal love, however, were impossible to eliminate from the slaves,
who grew to treasure and guard what little they were able to get - the
core of the novel Beloved.
At the center of the novel is Sethe, a former slave who escaped
to the North before the Civil War. When the novel begins, a dark,
terrible secret hangs over Sethe that keeps her apart from the rest of
the people in her neighborhood. As the novel progresses, the story of
her life emerges in a complex patchwork.
Sethe's life for the most part, had been relatively sheltered;
at fourteen, she was sold to Sweet Home, where she was a domestic
servant rather than a plantation worker. She also had the "amazing
luck of six whole years of marriage to that "somebody" son who had
fathered every one of her children"(29) - a rarity for a slave in the
South. Given these circumstances, the abrupt arrival of schoolmaster
and his tyrannical methods was a shock to the sensitive Sethe. For the
first time in her life, she is whipped; even worse, she is subjected
to a forced suckling by...