Toni Morrison, 1987

This is a novel widely regarded as one of the best ever written. I whole-heartedly agree. Not only is the story itself incredibly moving, every single character is compelling and well-developed, the sense of place and history is more vivid than any novel I can recall, and the prose is absolutely stunning.

Plenty has been written on Beloved by more qualified scholars than myself. What interests me most about this novel is the story of a mother desperate to protect her children, her limited options for doing so, and the judgement she faces as a result. Spoilers follow, quotes from Vintage 2007 ed.

We get the full history and experience of Sethe, a mother of four who risks literally everything to free her children and herself from slavery. After they successfully escape, there is a moment when their recapture is imminent, and Sethe immediately decides to murder her children instead of allow them to live the terrifying life she had as a slave. She kills one, known as Beloved, but is stopped before she can kill the other three. After this scene, she and her family are ostracized in their community. Obviously this is an important example (real life, in fact) of the impossible decisions foisted on Black Americans under slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. It is a shameful part of American history. This is not my area of expertise. Instead, I want to focus on how motherhood and maternal responsibility are portrayed in the novel.

Those studying maternity and motherhood, particularly in the United States, often argue that mothers face difficult choices every day. Child care is expensive, parental leave is scarce, maternal health care is lacking (and worse for women of color), and support for single mothers and families living in poverty is pathetic. While these circumstances pale in comparison to those suffered by slaves and by Sethe and others in Beloved, it does make the novel an extreme example of the unfair choices women face even today. I would argue that mothers are one of the most self-critical groups I know, but I attribute that to the insecurity most feel precisely because it is a job that is impossible to get right all the time. When she considers getting pregnant again, Sethe was “mostly…frightened by the thought of having a baby once more. Needing to be good enough, alert enough, strong enough, that caring–again. Having to stay alive just that much longer.”

About halfway through the novel, Paul D, who has been living with Sethe as her partner, meets her at work to make a confession. He says, “Sethe, you won’t like what I’m ’bout to say.”

She stopped then and turned her face toward him and the hateful wind. Another woman would have squinted or at least teared if the wind whipped her face as it did Sethe’s. Another woman might have shot him a look of apprehension, pleading, anger even, because what he said sure sounded like part one of Goodbye, I’m gone.

Sethe looked at him steadily, calmly, already ready to accept, release or excuse an in-need-or-trouble man. Agreeing, saying okay, all right, in advance, because she didn’t believe any of them–over the long haul–could measure up. And whatever the reason, it was all right. No fault. Nobody’s fault.

p. 150-151

Here Paul D acknowledges Sethe’s strength and resilience. He knows better than most what she has been through. He hasn’t raised children, but he knows the brutality of their shared experience and he respects her. He seems to believe that she is the better, stronger person. However, when he later learns that she killed her baby, he can’t accept it. He decides that because Sethe killed one of her children to save her from slavery, that she is no longer the woman he thought he knew. “This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn’t know where the world stopped and she began….It scared him” (p. 193). And for Sethe’s part, she acknowledges that it will be impossible to explain herself to anyone else: “Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask.”

Now, Sethe’s strength becomes a fault in Paul D’s eyes. Although he knows the trauma that would be a return to slavery, he can’t accept her actions, and he leaves.

Another tragedy follows, as Sethe tries to explain her actions to Beloved (who she believes to be her murdered baby returned), with Sethe’s older daughter Denver there to witness it all: “Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it. But there would never be an end to that, and seeing her mother diminished shamed and infuriated her.” Sethe is desperate to make Beloved understand instead of leave, but it is precisely because Beloved was spared the horrors of Sethe’s earlier life that she cannot understand: “…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…And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own” (p.295-6).

While this novel is an emotional and thought-provoking story of the many splintered experiences and lasting effects of slavery, it is also the story of a mother who is not understood or accepted. Paul D tells Sethe her love is “too thick.” She loves too much, and for that she is punished.

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