A study of mental and emotional suffering in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved
Beloved by Toni Morrison is a significant slave narrative whose theme and story revolves around the killing of a child by her own mother only to save her unborn child from the horror of slavery. Beloved could be considered as a Holocaust book depicting the worst human atrocities on both historical and sociological level. Before writing beloved she has written four other novels namely The Bluest Eyes, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Sula. These novels also deals and talks about the life story of African people in America and Beloved expresses the phase of most oppressed form of slavery in the history of African people.
It is not only a slave narrative but it also touches the themes of supernatural elements like bodies hanging from the tree, spirit entering into the child, hallucination of seeing already dead people and various other scenes. This novel talks about the adverse after effects of the slavery and the mental and emotional suffering brought by the slavery to its victims. It also talks about the undesirable trauma and suffering caused due to rape and abuse inflicted on the black people by their masters.
The novel is based on the newspaper clipping about a fugitive slave in Ohio who killed her own infant rather so that she did not have to see her infant return to the bondage in South. Morrison found the newspaper clipping in The Black Book magazine which chronicles the life of African people in the United States, from slavery through the civil rights movement. Morrison gets the essence of her novel from the news article entitled “A Visit to the slave mother who killed her child”: I found her with an infant in her arms only a few months old and found that it had large bunch on its forehead.
I enquired the case of injury. She then proceeded to give a detailed account of her attempt to kill her own children. She said that when the officers and the slave hunters came to the house in which they were concealed she caught a shove and struck two of her children on the head and took the knife and cut the throat of the third and tried to kill the other than if they had not given her time she would have killed them all, but she was unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done. I enquired if she was not almost excited to madness when she committed the act. No she replied I was as cool as I am now and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings then have them taken back to slavery and be murdered by the piece- meal….. The two men and two other children were in another apartment but her mother in law was in the same room. She says she is the mother of eight of children most of whom have been separated from her; that her husband has been separated from her Twenty five years, during which time she did not see him; that could she have prevented it ,she could never have permitted him to return, as she did not wish him to witness her sufferings or be exposed to the brutal treatment that he would receive. She states that she had been a faithful servant and in her old age she would not have attempted to obtain her liberty but as she became feeble and less capable of performing labor her master became more and more exacting and brutal in his treatment, until she could stand it no longer, that the effort would result only in death at most she therefore made the attempt. She witnessed the killing of child but said that she would never encourage nor discourage her daughter in law—for under similar circumstances she would have done the same. The old woman is from sixty to seventy of age, has been a Professor of religion for twenty years, and speaks with much feelings of the time when she shall be delivered from the power of the oppressor and dwell with the Savior, “where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.
In the story of the novel the two year old baby ghost that is ‘Beloved’ appears because of the filicide committed by Sethe her mother to protect her from the upcoming sufferings. This two years child haunts Sethe around in the House, 124. In the beginning the way which Beloved opted to communicate was to express her by moving household items, to show her frustrated and anger she begins to throw objects. But when Paul D; friend of Sethe exorcized the spirit of beloved from the house, The next time when Beloved returns she comes in physical form as an adult girl just outside the house.
Later in the novel we find that Beloved wants to cling to Sethe to such an extent that she does cannot think of losing her again because separation has already been too much for her to bear. The separation was obviously traumatizing as she remembers clearly how she has lost Sethe thrice:
“Three times I lost her: once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke; once when she went onto the sea without smiling at me; once under the bridge when I went to join her” (Morrison 253). And it’s basically this fear of losing her mother Sethe again which is bringing her more close to Sethe. While she does not fully imitate Sethe but one can find fear of separation anxiety:
Like a household figure beloved hang around near the room of seethe. She rose early in the dark to be there, waiting in the kitchen when Sethe came down to make bread before she left for work. In lamplight and over the flames of the cooking stove, their shadows clashed and crossed the ceiling like black swords. She was in the window at two have Sethe returned or the doorway; then the porch its steps, the path the road till finally surrendering to the habit , Beloved began inching down Bluestone Road further and further each day to meet Sethe and walk her back to 124 (Morrison 69).
During the years of slavery when seethe used to work at the plantation, once She was attacked by two young white boys who held her down and stole her milk, preventing her from feeding her daughter. “After I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came in there for .Hold me down and took it” (Morrison 19). The painful memory of this incident left a long-lasting image on her heart and soul.
Not only Sethe but Paul D, also struggled under the unkind circumstances of slavery. He has endured severe mental and emotional tragedies that eventually have forced him into a state of trauma, preventing him from healing properly. Beloved brings these memories out and forces him to open his “little tobacco tin” that holds the horror of his past (Morrison 137). ‘
The characters present in the novel have been treated with the approach to show how the lives of the slaves and their family held no importance and value in the eyes of their employers and masters. They were treated as mere property and there were devoid of their all the rights as humans. In the later stage even when the practice of slavery ended and slaves were freed from the bondage of obligations to serve their masters, the cruelty inflicted upon their mental, emotion and physical being kept them restrained from getting healed completely from the horrors of slavery in their past. It got engraved on their mind and soul. We can see the Characters such as Sethe and Paul D struggling throughout the novel to overcome from their past traumas and sufferings. The relationship between Beloved and Sethe also signifies emotional connection between mothers and their children. .
The other important characters like Baby Suggs who got freed from the slavery by her son, Halle also remain torn emotionally and mentally due to the pain they have endured during slavery. “Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it” (Morrison 3).
Slavery has narrowed the Baby Suggs’ confidence and zeal towards life by devastating her family. To present the feeling of people affected by slavery, Due to the sharing of the pain of same kind called slavery the feeling of love and kindness towards fellow slave especially between women, Morrison writes, “We read about Ajax and Achilles willing to die for each other but heard very little about the friendship of women and them having respect for each other, like it” something new. But black women had always had that they had always been emotional life support for each other. Because when Sethe arrives with her new born daughter tied to her chest, Baby Suggs welcomes her. Sethe has a powerful cultural mentor in Baby Suggs who kindles a desire in her to know her past and to love herself as a person She is seen as wise and spiritual even in her last days. “You lucky .You got three left. Three pulling at your skirt and just one raising hell from the other side”(Morrison,5).
The loss of identity with the loss of self-belief and passion towards life due to the havoc and destruction of ‘self’ value for the slaves created by the effect and pain of slavery could be clearly seen in the character of Paul D.“There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep” (Morrison).
In all her novels including Beloved, Toni Morrison through the depiction of her characters and their mental and emotional journey, tried to present the essence of her culture’s values, rich heritage and also the pain-striking issues like slavery suffered by the African people. Through her works Morrison always tried to present and talk about the issues which were normally considered as taboo or controversial by the people.