Theme of Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Novel ‘Beloved’': Critical Essay

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Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ revolves around Sethe, a former slave who lives in a haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road. Sethe’s past is complicated: her two sons abandoned her, and her house is haunted by an abusive ghost that everyone believes is the spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter. As the book furthers, it is released that Sethe herself killed her daughter, Beloved. As Beloved reintegrates herself into Sethe’s life, Sethe’s maternal instincts are portrayed and change drastically throughout the novel. Due to the trauma of slavery in ‘Beloved’, Sethe’s view of motherhood is drastically altered and defined by this generational oppression.

Due to her past, Sethe only discovers what actual parenting entails for the first time in her life when she settles at 124. She can care for her children, and when she explains to Paul D why she decided to kill Beloved, she states she can never go back to not being able to stitch a single item of clothing for them. Mrs. Garner had given her the finest cloth with stripes and flowers, which she had forgotten at the plantation, but had yearned to sow for her daughter ever since. “So when I got here, even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something from a piece of cloth Baby Suggs had. Well, all I’m saying is that’s a selfish pleasure I never had before. I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was, I couldn’t let her nor any of em live under the schoolteacher. That was out” (Morrison, 162-163). Sethe simply yearns for the act of mothering and caring for her children by sowing something nice for them. She never could provide for her children before, and now that she knew what motherhood was all about, Sethe did not want to give it up again. She says: “The truth was simple … 'I stopped him', she said, staring at the place where the fence used to be. 'I took and put my babies where they'd be safe'” (Morrison, 249-250). Thus, her actions were determined by the terror and trauma of slavery. As a result, the dread and pain of enslavement shaped her conduct. Sethe believes that motherhood is about keeping one's children safe, and when she fails to do so, she resolves to kill her own children and plots to kill herself as well. As stated by the author Morrison at the outset, Sethe's story and the infanticide are relevant to many black African Americans, and when Sethe tries to explain why she did it, she is expressing an outrage that has been passed down through generations of women who have had no influence over their children's lives, no say in their upbringing. Sethe contemplates the difficulties of becoming a mother while enslaved in the novel: “Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love” (Morrison, 247). Sethe is well aware that she does not own her daughter; she is merely the slave owner's property, and she is a victim of slavery. Sethe's perspective on parenting is revealed when Paul D asks her to have a child with him: “Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer” (Morrison, 132). She believes it is impossible to be a caring mother in her current situation, and therefore the only way to be a mother is to be 'carefree'. Slavery robbed black people of their selfhood for a long time, especially women, who were robbed of their motherhood.

One method in which Sethe is dehumanized is by denying her the human urge for a suitable wedding. Sethe enlists the help of Mrs. Garner, the nice wife of her previous owner, in order to arrange a wedding. Mrs. Garner laughs, hinting that Sethe's wishes are absurd — slaves were not entitled to conventional weddings; they were part of white people's traditions. Mrs. Garner answers “You are one sweet child” (Morrison, 26), and touches Sethe on the head and by doing, so she clearly demonstrates Sethe’s wishes of a proper wedding is intrusive of white tradition and culture, Sethe's wishes for a decent wedding are plainly infringing on white tradition and culture, as she touches her on the head. Not only is she denied her identity and demeaned by being deprived of a wedding because to the color of her skin, but she is also denied a funeral for her dead daughter. She is also denied her self-hood since she is unable to pay and is therefore compelled to donate her body as a favor to the engraver in exchange for her dead daughter's gravestone being carved. He promises to engrave seven letters on the baby's headstone in exchange for ten minutes of sexual exploitation from Sethe. She chooses Beloved, which is “the one word that mattered” (Morrison, 5) from what she remembers the preacher saying at the funeral of her daughter.

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There are numerous occurrences of how slaves are treated as animals in the novel. As Sethe tries to explain her motive for killing her child to Paul D, he compares her to an animal by saying: “You got two feet, Sethe, not four” (Morrison, 252). Sethe's activities were not only reviled by white people but also by her fellow slaves in her society, as Paul D's comments demonstrate. Morrison incorporates depictions of black slaves from the perspective of white people several times, reinforcing the idea of black slaves as equivalent to, or even less valuable than, animals. The schoolteacher talks about how the former slave-owner Garner “mated them niggers” (Morrison, 340), and Morrison incorporates depictions of black slaves from the perspective of white people several times, reinforcing the idea of black slaves as equivalent to, or even less valuable than, animals: “Unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin” (Morrison, 228). The comparison between slaves and animals is also evident to Sethe, who feels like she is treated no better than an animal. “They handled me like I was the cow, no, the goat”, she says. White dominance has yet again proven to dehumanize the black character Sethe by making her feel like an animal. This then causes a shift in her mindset towards motherhood – thus establishing Sethe in a giver role, like Baby Suggs was. It has been imprinted in her mind by white people that she should not focus on the emotional connection with her children – that she should just focus on giving them a roof over their heads and feeding them. It is this lack of connection that may have driven her to make the inhumane choice to kill Beloved in the first place. In ‘Beloved’ the negative consequences of the institution of slavery on black people are obvious.

Throughout the story the theme of milk reoccurs, and it acts as a symbol for motherhood. When Paul D arrives at Sethe's residence, which Morrison refers to as 124, she tells him about the incident in which she was beaten and whipped so cruelly that her back is scarred so terribly that it resembles a tree. The violence upsets Paul D, but Sethe is more enraged by the fact that the two rapist youths stole her milk: “‘They used cowhide on you?’. ‘And they took my milk’. ‘They beat you and you were pregnant’. ‘And they took my milk!’” (Morrison, 17). Turning to what Sethe said just before her conversation with Paul D shows the robbed milk is a symbol of lost motherhood for Sethe. Looking back at what Sethe mentioned immediately before her conversation with Paul D, it's clear that the plundered milk is a symbol of Sethe's lost motherhood. The milk is much more important to her than being beaten and raped. Sethe seems to consider milk and nursing as more than just feeding her children, more than making sure their hunger is satisfied, because she is unable to build a stable family life for her children while enslaved at Sweet Home. Aside from the apparent importance of providing the newborns with adequate sustenance, she appears to believe that nursing her children is the essence of motherhood. Sethe cannot provide a safe home, nor warm clothes, or any of the commodities of the white family, but she can provide her babies nutritious food and also a moment of maternal care, which she is usually unable to do while working the fields away from her children. Sethe thinks about her milk again later in the story as she considers how she will prove her love for Beloved. She has resolved that no one will ever steal it from her again. Even though she slit her throat, she thinks that by expressing how tenderly she cared for her milk, Beloved will understand that she loved her. Accepting milk as a symbol for love and motherhood, what Sethe is saying is that she is hoping Beloved will see that Beloved is “The one [she] managed to have [love and motherhood] for and to get it to her even after they stole it”.

Throughout the novel, the definition of family and love transform and are muddled - Sethe’s good intentions are ultimately lost among her fatal decision to kill her own children rather than let them be taken back into slavery. Due to her past, her definition of motherhood becomes infinitely complicated, and ‘Beloved’ shows how slavery has caused this generational oppression.

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Theme of Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Novel ‘Beloved’’: Critical Essay. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Theme of Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Novel ‘Beloved’’: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023,
Theme of Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Novel ‘Beloved’’: Critical Essay. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
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