The novel Beloved is based on the tragic story of Margret Garner, a runaway slave, and her kids, whom she attempted to kill to seek a “fate worse than death” than allowing them to be taken away from her by slave catchers. She, however, is only successful with one–two year-old Beloved–before she is caught. This traumatic event leads to the basis of the story being a ghost story where an eerie presence haunts the grounds of 124 Bluestone Road. Margret Garner is the inspiration for the character “Sethe” in the novel. Paul D is her close friend from the past that becomes her lover. Denver, one of Sethe’s daughters, is a child who fears leaving the house and interacting with the community. She becomes attached to the character “Beloved”, a mysterious character that emerges suddenly in the novel. The story is set in the past, which presents flashbacks about the traumatizing moments of slavery, and the present–after slavery. The author, Toni Morrison, uses motifs of love and slavery throughout the novel to reveal how the experiences of slavery promote suffering through a loss of identity and leads to a lack of compassion and emotion. The narrative acknowledges America’s relation with slavery and promotes the idea of which stories are passed down and defined in American history.
Love is widely represented in this novel and is a great symbol of connections between people; however, it is also suppressed by the characters as a coping mechanism to attempt to forget about the past and its treacherous memories. This can be seen during an interaction between Paul D and Sethe. As Paul D shares his memories with Sethe about his past in slavery, he tries extremely hard to numb his emotions: “He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut. He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him. And it would hurt her to know that there was no red heart bright… beating in him” (86). Sharing the memories of his past scares Paul D into thinking that revealing too much might cause him and Sethe to be sucked into a past where they won’t be able to escape. Paul D and Sethe have established coping mechanisms for themselves in the prevention of dealing with their pasts. Paul D functions by sealing his memories up in his heart, which is imagined as a “tobacco tin”. This ultimately, however, is self-destructive and leads to a loss of identity because of how the suppression of emotions causes one’s own identity to be less recognizable through a lack of self-consciousness. The separation from his emotions means that his affection is estranged and shows how willing Paul D is to forget about the traumatization of his past.
Originating from this, Paul D talks about how he is concerned for Sethe and her emotions and concurrently confused as to why Sethe is so sentimental about her children: “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit” (54). Stemming from his ideology of suppressing emotion, Paul D believes love is risky, especially for slaves. Since children were an asset to slave owners and no regard was given to family love, Paul D feels it is easier not to love at all, seeing as there is nothing to lose. The author is displaying how Paul D’s past in slavery has crippled his ability to fully express and feel emotion. This disability has now led to his loss of identity because of how he cannot fully be sentimental, which leads to his lack of being able to understand himself; therefore, a part of his existence is lost.
Slavery in this novel is established as the basis of the plot, representing the sadistic experiences most of the characters have gone through. It is represented through motifs in the novel, included in the flashbacks of the characters. These experiences have introduced a loss of identity that has led characters to make abnormal decisions that don’t correspond with their personalities. This can be examined where the author talks about how slavery deteriorates one’s own personality and, in a way, makes decisions for the characters through Sethe: “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up” (295). Sethe genuinely wants Beloved to understand that slavery degraded her to the point that made her decide to kill her own children. Slavery has tainted her and others like her, but those not born into slavery are still pure. Sethe knows that she will not be able to protect her children from the life under cruel slave owners. So, she makes the decision to attempt to kill her children, pursuing the idea without a doubt or emotion. Her trauma is almost making decisions for her without her consent, numbing her of any apprehension.
Another illustration of when the trauma of slavery has affected one’s own identity was when Stamp Paid was talking to Paul D about when his wife was repeatedly raped by their owner’s son: “I looked at the back of her neck. She had a real small neck. I decided to break it. You know, like a twig—just snap it. I been low but that was as low as I ever got… I changed my name” (275). Stamp’s story exposes the brutality and injustice of slavery. Since Stamp has no power to prevent the rapes from happening and cannot channel his rage toward the white man, he decides to focus it on his wife. Stamp then mentions that he has taken on a new name, which indicates that he no longer has to oblige to anyone. This reveals that the anguish of slavery has messed with Stamp Paid’s compassion because of how he thinks of hurting his wife instead of feeling sorry for her. This has led to Stamp changing his name, and in turn, lose a significant part of his identity.
One of the overall messages of the novel is the acknowledgement of America’s relationship with slavery and the decision of which stories should be passed down. The main point of where this is illustrated is at the end of the narrative where the people of the community have begun to forget about Beloved and who she is: “They forgot her like a bad dream… It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said… So, in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise” (323). Beloved’s story is not even one that she herself can control since “they” are the ones that pass it on. “They” can fabricate and lie about any story that has occurred, and no one would know since they were not present for them. Remembering seems to be unwise because it itself seems to do so much damage, for example, triggering PTSD and a damage to one’s own identity. This relates to America’s relationship with slavery because it describes how the writers of history get to choose what gets passed on and what doesn’t. Morrison is forcing her audience to recognize that the story she is telling is an important story that no one knows because it hasn’t been widely passed on throughout history. The act of remembering is just too shameful for America to acknowledge, so it has been decided to just suppress those memories in order to avoid embarrassment and shame.
Briefly, Morrison has expressed how slavery has tainted the minds of the affected through trauma and a loss of identity, which has led to an unfortunate inadequacy of compassion and sentiment. This, overall, has opened up eyes to reconsidering how history should be passed down and why it is important to acknowledge such stories like this.