Margaret Garner

Last Updated: 28 Jan 2021
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Weisenburger looked upon Margaret Garner as a feisty rebel against slavery. Her defiance was manifested at first by taking flight to freedom to the free state of Ohio and when that failed, she turned to death instead which resounds closely with Patrick Henry’s call of “Give me freedom or give me death! ” Weisenburger opined that: "slavery made child rearing an awful counterpart of child murder, yet this oppression never froze her soul in despair.

With her family she sought freedom, fought for it, and determined when all was lost that they should find freedom in death . . . " (280 cited in Jones & Strange 688). Margaret Garner’s story created quite a stir at the time and became a celebrated case for the anti-slavery groups to further their cause. Her full story had never been disclosed because Garner was prevented by law to personally speak in her defense in court. The newspapers, in the meantime, quickly contributed their own versions and speculations.

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It also captured the imagination of the people as she represented a real-life version of Cassy, a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 sensational best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin who killed her infant and vowed as she was crossing the Ohio River, where Garner also crossed, that “I would never again let a child live to grow up! ” In the aftermath of her case, it inspired artistic and literary renditions. Among these was the poem made by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a famous 19th century black poet.

Here’s an excerpt of her 1859 poem entitled “The Mother, a Tale of the Ohio”: Then, said the mournful mother, If Ohio cannot save I will do a deed for freedom, Shalt find each child a grave. I will save my precious children From their darkly threatened doom, I will hew their path to freedom Through the portals of the tomb. A moment in the sunlight, She held a glimmering knife, The next moment she had bathed it In the crimson fount of life. They snatched away the fatal knife, Her boys shrieked wild with dread; The baby girl was pale and cold,

They raised it up, the child was dead Sends this deed of fearful daring Through my country's heart no thrill, Do the icy hands of slavery Every pure emotion chill? (qtd in Bain 257). Morrison, on the other hand, in turning the infanticide event into a novel, took literary liberties and expounded on the action in order to lay the groundwork that would somehow justify it. She transformed Garner into Sethe and moved on several years into the future, then turned back into the past and the traumatic experience of slavery and how this conflict was finally confronted and resolved.

Insert after 2nd paragraph of page 6 of the English text which ends …historical dimension for the novel. The story could be interpreted from the text outside. It must be noted that Morrison made deliberate emphasis of the actual historical basis for her novel in the scene where Stamp Paid showed to Paul D the newspaper clipping which reported Sethe’s crime and at the same time negated it with the repeated insistence of Paul D “that ain’t her mouth” (Beloved 155). History, as evidenced from photographs or texts does not completely interpret life as it was lived.

All it does is capture that particular moment. Moreover, the slant of the reporting would depend on its readership which in that context was the perspective of the white man. The newspapers made another appearance in the novel and this was as a seemingly insignificant detail about using it to layer the pallet which Paul D used to sleep. It would have remained insignificant had it not been for the fact that these newspapers were found at the shed, the site of the infanticide.

Newspaper reports would not give justice to the infanticide action in that shed and are worth no more than mere beddings (Davis 242). Insert after 3rd paragraph of page 9 of the English text which ends …infanticide is a traumatic expereince. For Sethe, rendering the infanticide unspeakable allowed her to cope with the enormity of her experiences and actions and walk through the machinations of daily living. This fragile balance of remembering and forgetting held her together, “her mind was busy with the things she could forget (Beloved 190).

This task of filtering her memory possessed her and controlled her that she had to make conscious efforts to repress what had to be forgotten, that she had to “start the day’s serious work of beating back the past” (Beloved 73). To confront it, to speak of it would ultimately lapse into an exercise of futility of justifying the action to assuage one’s conscience. Infanticide is an atrocity that can never be justified though one can attempt to explain it. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, refused to render judgment over it and to even think about it that it drove her to her deathbed pondering exclusively on colors and nothing else.

With the appearance of Beloved and after seeing her for what she was, Sethe lost her battle with her memory and felt compelled to make Beloved understand “whispering, muttering some justification, some bit of clarifying information to Beloved to explain what it had been like, and why, and how come" (Beloved 252). Eventually, she lost her substance while Beloved gained hers (Levy 117). Insert after 5th or last paragraph of page 10 of the English text which ends …horror experience should be rememoried. Baby Suggs made reference to this collective trauma in her preaching at the Clearing.

She called upon all her black brethren to remember their treatment as animals by the white man, the probable fate of hanging that awaited them, to accept it as fact and instead rebel quietly by rising above it and emerge as men: And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver--love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet.

More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart (Beloved 88-89). Insert after 3rd paragraph of page 11 of the English text which ends …brutal reality of the history of the black people. Sethe’s personal trauma was no less violent. She was beaten and whipped to such an extent that rendered her back forever scarred and dead of feeling. She was held down and raped and had her milk that was intended for her child forcibly sucked out of her. They stole from her and they stole from her children.

A madness and resolute action overtook her and this was physically manifested by the change in her eyes which had turned all black. This physical change was seen by Paul D as she informed her of her decision to run for freedom even without her husband, Halle or the rest of the Sweet Home men, even despite the seeming impossibility of it being alone and pregnant. This same madness and resolve was once more witnessed in the shed as she successfully killed one child and tried to kill the other three. Halle, as Sethe belatedly found out, had witnessed the violence against Sethe and the traumatic effect it had on him was simply madness.

However, in spite of the cajoling and demand of Paul D to Sethe to come clean with the past, she was still unable to address it directly. She merely circled around the subject until her final cryptic remark, “I stopped him. I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (Beloved 202). It was therefore necessary for her to confront her historical past from without which Morrison thus provided with a physical manifestation of her trauma through the resurrection of Beloved. This is a literal take that runs along the Gothic literary tradition and supports the representation of a traumatic history. R.

Clifton Spargo defined trauma as “a phenomenon that violently interrupts the present tense of consciousness, occurring for the first time only by being repeated... As an excess or afterlife of the event, trauma refers to… a specter of the past” (113) and in Beloved, it took on a literal meaning. However, Beloved is not merely an incarnation of Sethe’s murdered child. She also embodied the rememory of the Sixty Million or more blacks who died within the hold of the slaveholder’s ships during the passage to America better known as the Middle Passage. She carried along with her a racial trauma that is shared by all the black people.

Theirs were the “recognizable but undecipherable voices” that Stamp Paid heard in 124 which he believed was the “mumbling of the black and angry dead”. In the section that was narrated by Beloved, she recollected how it was to be in the slave ship. She narrated how “All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too” (Beloved 259). Therefore, the exorcism of Beloved was not for Sethe to bear alone. In an article written by Joseph Flanagan, he contended that the “cultural primal scene” of the Middle Passage played a significant role in the act of infanticide by Sethe.

It had instilled a latent trauma into Sethe and to all other blacks. In Sethe’s case, history and her own personal trauma had intersected which was “(re)activated after the appearance of her owners” and this “forces her to sacrifice her children to prevent them from being returned to slavery” (Flanagan 387). Insert after 2nd paragraph of page 13 of the English text which ends …for the white people talking? The usual approach in winning over an audience to one’s cause is to play up their sympathies for the protagonist by heaping upon her one suffering after the other.

Any atrocity that committed was to be against her. In Beloved, Morrison went against the grain and had her protagonist commit the atrocity. And what an atrocity it was. She committed a murder most foul, a mother killing her own child; a mother who was supposed to care and nurture and protect had instead snuffed the life out of a trusting and helpless infant. To further blacken the image, she nearly decapitated the child. This was how the case was sensationalized during Garner’s time. The headlines were screaming, "Stampede of Slaves: A Tale of Horror!

A Negro Child's Throat Cut from Ear to Ear - The Cincinnati Enquirer” and “A Slave Mother Murders her Child Rather than See it Returned to Slavery - Cincinnati Gazette)” (qtd in Gelfand 2005). It evoked disgust in some quarters, morbid fascination in others. The slave owners probably expressed dismay over the loss of a valuable property while the anti-slavery groups snatched it up to further their cause who were represented in the novel by the Bodwins and the Society they belonged to “who managed to turn infanticide and the cry of savagery around and built a further case for abolishing slavery” (Beloved 260).

Ironically, a more pressing issue then was how Garner was to be tried, i. e. “whether to charge her for destruction of property - because she had destroyed her master's property - or for murder, which would give her ‘human’ status. She was not tried for murder” (Gelfand 2005). Had Morrison not resurrected Garner’s story, it would merely have been relegated into the black’s collective memory and forgotten by the majority as an insignificant episode in the fight against slavery. The fact alone that it was a subject that was deeply disturbing merited it a closer look.

Infanticide by itself is an act so troubling that one would be compelled to ask the question why. It is an act that is simply beyond comprehension that an immediate understanding of it is demanded. Morrison realized this and she used schoolteacher’s nephew to vocalize it, “What she want to go and do that for? ” (Beloved 165). Morrison knew that the white readership would need to know the reason and it is precisely this reason that Morrison wanted her readers to explore. Insert after the heading 2. 3 Resolution of the Trouble and before its 1st paragraph on page 19 of the English text.

Sethe was unable to confront the rememory of the infanticide by herself and thus her grief and her crime pervaded the house on 124. However, the haunting was not fixed exclusively on 124. Baby Suggs herself had declared when Sethe suggested that they move, "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief” (Beloved 5). Indeed, there was no Negro character in the novel who did not suffer from the hands of the white man. Baby Suggs had all her children taken away except one but who was probably killed later trying to escape.

Stamp Paid could not do anything when his wife was acquired by a white man as his mistress. Ella was taken by a father and son. Paul D was beaten and chained like an animal. And there were the deaths in the ship’s hold from the nightmares of Beloved of the Middle Passage. Insert after 2nd paragraph of page 21 of the English text which ends …satisfied by the return of Beloved. While reclaiming the life of a dead child is impossibility, Beloved’s appearance did serve as a catalyst not just for Sethe but also for the community to come to terms with their own grief and shame.

To be free of the past, Sethe needed to confront it and the community needed to confront itself and their collective shame for their passive action that contributed to Sethe’s decision to murder her child. Beloved return led to the events that brought the episode into a close. Beloved had brought with her love as manifested by the kiss in the Clearing but it was a love that was coupled with vengeance that threatened to permanently obliterate Sethe. Sethe slowly become consumed by her guilt over the handsaw, the implement that she used to kill.

Her greatest fear had become the departure of Beloved, ". . . before Sethe could make her understand what it meant . . . that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just kill, or maim you, but dirty you…that what she had done was right because it came from true love" (Beloved 251). This was the core of Sethe’s motivation for the infanticide and brought a morality to it. However, this was the realization but not the resolution. The community, led by Ella, no longer stood at the side and washed their hands clean of 124.

It was decided that an exorcism was in order because Ella “didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present" and "The past," she thinks, "well, you might have to stomp it out" (Beloved 256). Ella's decision represents the pragmatic communal response… Beloved, as a living symbol of the pain and loss of the past, can destroy Sethe's life; Ella and the other women stomp out that kind of relationship between past sin and misery and contemporary possibilities for freedom and self-realization’ (Levy 120).

As a final resolution, Sethe was allowed to relive the moment immediately prior to the infanticide. She was at 124 with her daughter Beloved. She was holding a sharp implement. Here comes the white man – who was actually Bodwin coming to fetch Denver but who Sethe thought was the schoolteacher coming to take her children. And Sethe did not turn to Beloved. She turned to the white man to kill. For Sethe herself, infanticide was an indefensible act thus despite the fears of her remaining children and that of Paul D, Sethe will never again protect those she loved by liberating them from life.

It also allowed her to go back into the community as “the Africans' corporeal experience in the airless cargo space of a slave ship” was recreated. “This historically fraught sensation of massed bodies, later reproduced as the women's rescue party, is the means by which Sethe is eventually reincorporated into her community” (Gottfried 66). Insert after the heading 3. 2 The Infanticide and Slaved Black Motherhood and before its 1st paragraph on page 25 of the English text. Slavery was a crime against the family. It had wiped out traditional familial values and corrupted the family unit.

Whilst a slave mother would try as much as possible to hang on to their children, like Sethe’s mother who risked punishment by letting her know who she was and for Sethe to know her no matter what, it was but a futile effort. Baby Suggs had eight children and she lost them all. Black children are viewed as property and slave women are viewed as valuable assets for their capability for reproduction and adding to the slave owner’s wealth. However, not all slave mothers were instinctively protective of their offspring. In fact, infanticide was not an entirely rare happening in the slave community.

In Beloved, there were two other characters that killed their children almost as soon as they were born. One was Sethe’s mother who threw away the babies which were conceived from the rape of the white man crew members. Another was Ella who, "had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing…it lived five days never making a sound" (Beloved 258-59). From actual historical records, there were similar reports. One was about a slave mother who killed her youngest child because she could no longer bear to see her sold off like the child’s other siblings. Then there was Letty who in 1822 crushed her baby’s skull on account of its color.

In 1846, Nelly was arrested for killing her child. She belonged to the estate of Gov. John C. Edwards who was also speculated to be the child’s father (King 37). These women were victims of the whims of the institution of slavery and they responded in accordance to the limited alternatives that they had. Sethe, herself was a victim and her choice was to save her child from slavery by killing it and would in doing so, it would have a better life. It was an action borne of desperation. According to Jean Wyatt, it was the “ultimate contradiction of mothering under slavery" (qtd in Person 33).

Insert after 3rd paragraph of page 30 of the English text which ends …Sethe’s decision to kill. The forcible taking of her milk at Sweet Home was another significant indication of her ties and possession she had with her children. In relating her experience at the hands of Schollteacher and his nephews, she did not dwell on the rape or the flogging. Instead, she repeatedly emphasized that they took away her milk. It was a complete violation for her that they tried to take away her motherhood. Thus, she had it embedded in her mind that her children will never possess anything as long as there is a white man to take them.

Bibliography Davis, Kimberly Chabot. "Postmodern Blackness: Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' and the End of History. ” Twentieth Century Literature, 1998, (44): 2. Flanagan, Joseph. “The Seduction of History: Trauma, Re-memory, and the Ethics of the Real. ” CLIO, 2002 (31): 4. Gelfand, Janelle. “A historic tragedy unfolds as the real Margaret Garner chose death over servitude for her child, the stage was set for the slavery era to come to its violent end. ” Enquirer. (July 10, 2005). 12 January 2009. <http://news. cincinnati. com/apps/pbcs. dll/article? AID=/20050710/ENT07/507100323/1025/LIFE>

Gottfried, Amy S. Historical Nightmares and Imaginative Violence in American Women's Writings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. King, Wilma. "’Mad’ Enough to Kill: Enslaved Women, Murder, and Southern Courts. ” The Journal of African American History, 2007, (92):1. Levy, Andrew. “Telling Beloved. ” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 1991, (44): 1. Person, Leland S. “The Dark Labyrinth of Mind: Hawthorne, Hester and the Ironies of Racial Mothering. ” Studies in American Fiction. 2001, (29):1. Spargo, R. Clifton. “Enslavement in Morrison's Beloved. ” Mosaic, 2002, (35): 1.

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Margaret Garner. (2016, Jul 27). Retrieved from

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