Toni Morrison’s Beloved: The Effects of Slavery on Family Bonds

Category: Beloved, Slavery
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved analyzes the effects of slavery on the lives of the African Americans in a very original and profound way. Instead of telling a story about the violence of the white slave masters and about the sufferings of the black people, Morrison reviews the way in which slavery affects the sense of selfhood and identity in the African Americans. The enslaved self cannot relate to the world in the same way as the free self. The master and slave bond is reenacted in the family relationships of the former slaves.

Thus, the text investigates the perpetuation of violence and possessiveness after the liberation of the African Americans has taken place. The climax of the novel is indeed an extremely violent moment- Sethe, a runaway slave from the Sweet Home plantation attempts to murder her own children in order to protect them from future slavery. She only has time to kill her baby daughter, Beloved, before the white men stop her. The black slave thus turns the violence that was done to her against her own children in two ways: first of all, Sethe kills her daughter because she thinks death would be better her than a life of slavery.

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However, this violent reaction of the mother has another meaning as well: she acts as if her children were her own possession, as if she were a white master herself. However, motherhood is not the only relationship that is affected by the dark past.

Morrison’s novel exemplifies, through a number of relationships, the way in which slavery affects the unity of the traditional African family. In this respect, Beloved traces the reconstruction of African American identity and of the African family as a central structure of society, after the freedom has been obtained.

Thus, Toni Morrison’s novel is a different type of slave narrative, told from the point of view of the African Americans, and focusing on the psychological effects of the slavery on selfhood, identity and love. First of all, the bond that is most investigated in the novel is that between the mothers and their children.

Through this however, the author points at the destructive force that slavery has on the entire African American community, and especially on the family. Motherhood symbolizes creation and as such, it is the center of any human society.

Morrison reveals the violence of white people indirectly, through the murder performed by the mother against her own child, which is obviously a remnant of master and slave relationship. The relationship between Sethe and her daughter Beloved, who haunts her first as a ghost and then as a nineteen old girl, is certainly the central one in the novel and the one that best represents the extent to which slavery can affect the human nature. The master/slave bond is essentially based on dependence, violence, transgression of boundaries.

Selfhood for the black people was reduced to the definition of the white men, who took possession of them as if they were objects and not human beings. The motive that the whites used to justify the slavery of the blacks was always the fact that the latter were savages.

Morrison deftly inverses this statement, and points to the fact that the jungle was actually created by the white people, who annihilated the sense of selfhood and humanity in the slaves: “Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle.

Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. . . . But it wasn't the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew.

It spread…. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own. (Morrison, 198-199) The strong bond between Sethe and her children reflects this ownership of the slaves by their masters.

The jungle that was planted by the white people in the blacks through slavery is mirrored in the Sethe’s violence. The murdering act of Sethe can thus be explained: she does not know herself and mistakes her own identity with the fate of her children.

Unable to see herself as an independent person, Sethe clings to her role as a mother and becomes extremely possessive. She mistakes her own identity with her motherhood, and thus, in a way, reenacts the violence of the white masters against her.

Sethe feels she has no power over her own self because the white people had crossed all the boundaries and not only taken everything she possessed physically, but everything she had dreamed as well: ‘”Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,' she said, 'and broke my heartstrings too.

There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks. '”(Morrison, 89) It is obvious that the “whitefolks” are “bad luck”, that is, for the black slaves they were the instruments of destiny itself, trough the power have over their lives.

Thus, when Sethe kills her infant daughter, she obviously acts, although out of love, as a white master would. As Malmgren remarks, Sethe’s violent act against her own child is actually a perpetuation of the logic of slavery: “Sethe so identifies her Self with the well-being of her children that she denies their existence as autonomous Others, in so doing unconsciously perpetuating the logic of slavery. ”(Malmgren, 103) Morrison’s novel thus reflects the violence of the white race against the black one indirectly, showing how weak the theory that the African American are less than human has proven over time.

The white people are actually the ones who took their humanity by treating them as objects or animals. Beloved therefore reviews the manner in which the master/slave bond affects the selfhood of the former slaves, to the point that it is replicated in Sethe’s murder o her own daughter.

Motherhood is exemplified in the novel not only in the relationship between Sethe and Beloved, but also in the relationships between Ma’ma and Sethe, or Baby Suggs and her own children. Infanticide seems to have been rather common among the former slaves, as a means of protecting their children.

Although Sethe had barely known her mother, she is told that the latter also killed her children, all but herself since she was the only one begotten in love with a black man and not through the rape of a white master: “She told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea.

Both were taken up many times by the crew. ‘She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without name she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him.

The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe. ’”(Morrison, 98) As Demetrakopoulos points out, the slavery affected motherhood in such a way that it permitted the excessive and protective love to endeavor guard the child from the cruelty of life itself: “In this act, Morrison gives us the most searching portrait I know of the paradoxical polarities in motherhood. For Sethe the children are better off dead, their fantasy futures protected from the heinous reality of slavery.

It is better, Sethe's act argues, to die in the cradle than to live out one's full life p soul-dead, a zombie/ puppet daily treading the process requirements of someone else's life and needs. The child as the adult's fantasy of the future is obviously central to Sethe's murder of Beloved. ”( Demetrakopoulos, 53)

In this way, motherhood crosses the normal limits of human love and seems to be reminiscent of the instinctual bonds between the animals and their babies: “Even her escape from slavery was not really for herself.

Her swollen breasts and the baby kicking within pressed her onward to the baby waiting for her milk. Biological necessity made her create a life that would allow her children to grow up. Sethe carries Beloved on her conscience and in her heart. For the mother, the dead child is maternity in potentia, the mother truncated.( Demetrakopoulos, 54)

The white domineering culture that enslaved the black is the main cause of this displacement of identity in all the characters in the novel.

Although in the text the ghost and then the embodiment of Beloved appear as the main motives for the destabilization and deterioration of all the other family relationships, it is clear that the murdered child represents not only motherhood but also love itself. The possessive and narcissistic love that is exemplified in the relation between Sethe and Beloved replaces the normal emotions for the troubled self. This kind of love that ignores the boundaries of selfhood is obviously the result of the years of slavery and dependence.

The liberated self does not know its own substance and limits: “Beloved/ You are my sister/ You are my daughter/ You are my face; you are me/ I have found you again; you have come back to me/ You are my Beloved/ You are mine/ You are mine/ You are mine. ” (Morrison, 216)

Paul D fears Sethe's love precisely because he realizes it is extremely powerful and fierce : "This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began . . . more important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed.

It scared him"(Morrison, 90) As Barbara Schapiro emphasizes in her study called The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Morrison constructs in her novel precisely the kind of love that is based on possession, dependence and entrapment to show that the consequences of slavery affect the sense of self in the individuals: “Toni Morrison Beloved penetrates, perhaps more deeply than any historical or psychological study could, the unconscious emotional and psychic consequences of slavery.

The novel reveals how the condition of enslavement in the external world, particularly the denial of one's status as a human subject, has deep repercussions in the individual's internal world. These internal resonances are so profound that even if one is eventually freed from external bondage, the self will still be trapped in an inner world that prevents a genuine experience of freedom. ”(Iyasere, 155) Paul D calls this type of love that Sethe manifests for himself and for her children “too thick”, as if it were undiluted by the sense of identity.

This type of love, that Sethe has shown in killing he baby daughter is afterwards perpetuated by her in her relationship with the ghost, with Beloved and with Paul D. Thus, the very opening of the novel plunges into Sethe’s world and briefly exposes the nature of the relationships in her family. The house itself is called “spiteful”, that is haunted by the dark past in the form of Beloved’s ghost. The two sons of Sethe have left and Baby Suggs is dead, all because of Beloved’s ghost.

Slavery thus still haunts the lives of the liberated people, and not only in the form of guilt. The fact that the murdered daughter is named “Beloved” hints to the way in which emotions have been affected and altered: “124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years, each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.

The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old -- as soon as merely looking in the mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny handprints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).

Neither boy waited to see more, another kettleful of chick peas smoking in a heap on the floor: soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed.

No. Each one fled at once -- the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. ” (Morrison, 3) Heller showed that Morrison’s novel is an attempt at reconstructing of the family relationships, which had been so much influenced and deteriorated by the slavery system: “As a study of the connection between the historical and the familial, Beloved is concerned with the healing of the black American family and the "reconstruction" of kinship structures.

These structures had been violated by the cruel fact of family life under the slavery system: as enslaved Africans, women and men had no right to themselves, to one another, or to their children. ”(Heller, 108) Love and family relationships are clearly affected by the question of identity.

For the former slave identity is still undefined since he had been so long treated as an object which has a certain price but no value as a human being. In some of the plantations, the slaves were not allowed to have their own families, and the black women were often raped by their masters.

In these conditions, it is obvious that the people had no sense of self and therefore could not relate to someone else. As Carl Malmgren comments in his study Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery, the novel points to the way in which love is affected by the loss of identity: “The novel thus meditates upon and mediates between the various forms that love takes. In this regard, its dominant theme is the problematic of love, particularly as regards the question of identity. ”(Malmgren, 105)

Denver, Sethe’s second daughter is also affected by Sethe’s love for her dead child. She intuitively feels that the relationship between Beloved and Sethe is wrong, and she lives with the anxiety that the mother could at any time repeat the murderous act and maybe kill her too: "All the time, I'm afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don't know what it is, I don't know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again.

I need to know what that thing might be, but I don't want to. Whatever it is, it comes from outside this house, outside the yard, and it can come right on in the yard if it wants to. So I never leave this house and I watch over the yard, so it can't happen again and my mother won't have to kill me too. ” (Morrison, 205)

Denver is actually the one that saves Sethe by deciding to go out of the house in search of food, and to break thus the mother’s total isolation. She makes therefore the first step to establish a relationship between herself and the outside world.

She also evinces a much stronger sense of identity in her desire to listen to stories that only talked about her: “Denver hated the stories her mother told that did not concern herself, which is why Amy was all she ever asked about. The rest was a gleaming, powerful world made more so by Denver's absence from it.

Not being in it, she hated it and wanted Beloved to hate it too, although there was no chance of that at all. "(Morrison, 62) Teresa N. Washington in The Mother- Daughter Aje Relationship in Toni Morrison’s’ Beloved’ shows that Beloved actually is a symbolic incarnation of the African American consciousness coming back to life:

“But in having equated her best self with her children, making the decision to save that precious self, and summoning the self for a discussion, Sethe comes face to face with her spirit, her embodied conscience, and her own (and all her people’s past. )” (Washington, 184) Thus, it is the white culture that first took possession of the black people’s selves and identities, thus destabilizing the entire African American community: "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…The best things she was, was her children.. "(Morrison, 251) The novel concludes with the hope of Sethe’s regaining of her lost self: “You your best thing, Sethe. You are. ” "Me? Me? " (Morrison, 273).

The master and slave relationship is also based on dependence, and this is why Sethe has no sense of her real, independent self. She does not even dare to “go ahead and feel” for example: "Would it be all right? Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something? " (Morrison, 38).

This re-appropriation of the self is a symbol for the reconstruction of the African American identity and culture, and an example of the way in which the past can be accepted. The sense selfhood and the consolidation of the family bonds represent the consolidation of the African American community.

Works Cited:

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “Maternal bonds as devourers of women's individuation in Toni Morrison's Beloved. ” African American Review. 1992. Vol. 26(1): 51-60.

Heller, Dana. ”Reconstructing kin: Family, history, and narrative in Toni Morrison's Beloved. ” College Literature. Vol. 21(2). 1994.

Horvitz, Deborah. "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1989, pp. 157-67.

Iyasere, Marla and Solomon Iyasere. Understanding Toni Morrison's Beloved and Sula: Selected Essays and Criticisms of the Works by the Nobel Prize-Winning Author. Troy: Whitston Publishing, 2000.

Malmgren, Carl. “Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. ” Critique. 1995. Vol. 36(2).

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987. Washington, Teresa. The Mother- Daughter Aje Relationship in Toni Morrison’s’ Beloved’.

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Toni Morrison’s Beloved: The Effects of Slavery on Family Bonds. (2016, Jul 27). Retrieved from

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