Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved tells the story of Sethe’s life
in a bildungsroman of the former slave and protagonist.
However, the story is not a chronology, but more like a duration.
Flashbacks told through the stream of consciousness technique tell of
Sethe’s past and help complete the cycle that Morrison uses in her female
characters lives: virginity, puberty, loss of virginity, motherhood, menopause,
and death. The necessary and
potentially redemptive passage from debilitating innocence to painful self
knowledge and its consequences are clearly seen throughout the novel.
The first phase of a woman’s life lies in innocence and childhood.
In most women’s lives, this time is spent being cared for by their
mothers. Unfortunately for Sethe
and the other female slaves, this time is spent without their mothers due to the
oppressive slave system. Sethe’s
future is crippled because of the absence of a mother figure in her life.
She does not learn to nurture; this will greatly affect her life,
especially the child-bearing stage of the cycle.
“Selfhood is gained in relation to others, first to the mother and
gradually to all those who form an individual’s environment…[Sethe] is a
mother-deprived daughter” (Fitzgerald 120).
Sethe does see her mother at one point and discovers from her mother’s
friend Nan that she killed many of her babies because they were conceived
forcefully. Sethe, however, was
conceived on the Middle Passage, a slave route, with another slave man
consentually. For this reason,
Sethe is the only child that has survived from her mother, Ma’am.
This system which yielded many dead babies and the pain it caused will
manifest itself in Beloved, whom Sethe will be forced to confront later in the
Morrison also writes on another change: puberty.
Once a female enters puberty, she begins to define herself as a woman. “Menstruation begins to prepare a woman for child-bearing,
just as puberty is preparing Sethe for the journey she will embark on with the
birth of Beloved” (“Unspeakable” 217).
The differences between men and women become readily apparent at this
stage, and courtship begins. As a
young woman, Sethe could have chosen any of the men on the Sweet Home
plantation, but she picks Halle to marry. This
decision has both positive and negative outcomes.
She will meet his mother, Baby Suggs, who will later help her escape from
Sweet Home by giving her a place to stay. However,
this decision will also lead to Halle’s being driven insane, leaving a family
to make a world on the outside without a husband and a father.
The marriage of Halle and Sethe leads to her “deflowering,” a pivotal
part of the novel.
The loss of her virginity proves a substantial turning point in the life
of a Morrison woman. Sexual contact
between a man and a woman establishes a strong connection between the two; for
Sethe, her first sexual encounter is the starting point of the theme of
domination that continues throughout the novel.
When Halle dies, Sethe’s physical connection to him dies as well. This absence of a husband leaves an opening of which Paul D
takes advantage later in her life. He
establishes a connection to Sethe through a physical relationship, thus
“…she is now controlled by a man who uses her sexually" (Plash 69).
When Beloved arrives, she “makes herself irresistible to Paul D,
gradually forcing him, through each sexual encounter, to retreat farther and
farther from the territory she claimed as her own” (Harris 132).
Beloved wishes to break the connection between Paul D and Sethe with the
same tactics Sethe used to establish her connections with Halle and Paul D. The fact that Halle “deflowered” Sethe, yet died
unexpectedly, leaves some connection between Sethe and Halle. A reminder of this connection is their children.
Beloved especially serves a reminder of slavery; a manifestation of
Sethe’s past which she is forced to confront after Beloved’s appearance at
Morrison spends much of the novel concentrating on the importance of
motherhood. This stage of the cycle
is most severely impacted by her virginity, more particularly the absence of
Sethe’s mother. Sethe tries to be
a nurturing and loving mother, even with her lack of a teacher.
The system of slavery try to prohibit her from doing so by taking her
children away from her as infants. One
of the few things that Sethe knows about motherhood is that her milk is
essential to her children, so when the schoolteacher’s nephews rape her and
steal her milk, they attempt to steal her ability to nurture.
The attempt, however, proves unsuccessful.
Sethe manages to raise 3 children after the incident.
After having escaped the Sweet Home plantation, the schoolmaster finds
Sethe and her children and tries to take her children back to slavery.
Sethe believes the “next world” will be better for her children than
the present one, therefore she slits the throat of small Beloved to spare her
the terrors of growing up in slavery.
In Sethe’s case, her love of her children has driven her much further
than even Paul D can see. She
[goes] to unimaginable lengths to protect them from a return to slavery,
to that life she cannot imagine enduring again (Brown 61).
living for years with her daughter Denver and the ghost of Beloved, two people
from her past physically return to her: Paul D and the exorcised ghost of
Beloved, symbolizing a return of memories to Sethe in her now older age.
Beloved’s present setting is in the stage of menopause, “a
resurgence of desire, a fleshy encumbrance which precedes death, and a well
deserved respite from indiscriminate breeding, unsatisfactory mates, and
children sold before their mothers could say goodbye” (Rigney 107).
The beginning of the novel is the beginning of this stage; Paul D returns
(a resurgence of desire), but the appearance of Beloved throws the entire female
cycle out of the loop. “Beloved
has sought in Sethe…the maternal space…[and her] desire to reenter the womb
almost kills [Sethe]” (Phelan 16). Beloved is trying to return to the motherhood stage from
which she was taken. However, the
cycle cannot go backwards, but must go forward.
Therefore, Beloved’s attempt is doomed to fail.
Denver breaks out of her mother’s “maternal space” (124 Bluestone),
from which she has never truly left, and seeks help for her mother off of whom
Beloved is feeding. The community
that spurned her comes to Sethe’s rescue, ridding her of Beloved.
Sethe has confronted her past, which she has never truly faced or
admitted to others, in the form of Beloved and now she may move on in the cycle
with Paul D and Denver by her side.
It is here where Morrison leaves her audience. The reader knows that the next logical step in Sethe’s cycle is death, and for Denver, the loss of her virginity. Beloved has shown the growth of a woman in a bildungsroman told in the stream of consciousness format. The structure sets the pattern for all of the women in the book and in life.