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The Theme of The Extreme Demolition of One’s Identity in Toni Morrison’s "Beloved"

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Slavery has brought devastation to communities and countries across the globe for many years. This destruction can be in physical ways, psychological ways, and the lacking community togetherness. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the author presents themes of the extreme demolition of one’s identity through slavery, the importance of community support and involvement, and the limits and powers of language. Because of the crude and inhumane acts of slavery upon not only Sethe but millions of innocent people across the United States, these people often struggled with their ability to have their own identity and their ability to feel even some form of self-worth. Sethe begins to lose her thought of self-esteem when she had walked in on a school teacher giving a lesson that described her animal-like features. After this incident, she begins to express self-loathing thoughts and alienate herself from others. Sethe expresses that Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another(Morrison 95).

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Sethe also does not have one single attribute concerning herself that she genuinely likes thus she believes her children to be her only good characteristics. She fears that when she dies, she will be living in a state of madness, and to prove that to be true, the act of killing Beloved exhibits her extremity of folly. Although the horrendous act of homicide upon Beloved it also demonstrates the love that Sethe had for her daughter because she not only freed herself from slavery but made it impossible for Beloved to have to ever go through the abominable acts of slavery. Slavery, being the cause of these actions and emotions, taught that the slaves were only subhuman because they were traded continuously and sold at values based on their ability to work.

Another example of the destruction to a human because of slavery is shown through Paul D. Early in the novel, he admits to hearing screaming voices, and he is unable to decipher whether he is screaming or if he understands it from someone else. He has also had trouble with his self-identity as a man. He feels as though he does not have any value to him so he can not consider himself to be a real man (Morrison131). As a result of his self-loathing, Paul D later becomes depressed and emotionally tired. Denver also shows a lacking of value. She confuses her own identity with Beloved’s and felt herself, which was Beloved, begin to disintegrate and that not only confused her with Beloved’s character but made her disinherit more of what she had as her own identity leaving her with next to nothing.

Along with the detriment of dealing with the self-value from slavery, Morrison emphasizes the importance of community togetherness. Before Sethe was set free she admits that slave life had ‘busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb, and tongue,’ she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart-which she put to work at once” but soon her heart began to get exhausted too (Cosca). When Sethe is set free, within her twenty-eight days of freedom she becomes involved in the African American community across Cincinnati. While becoming involved with this community, Sethe unearths a small piece of her new self-worth. The Cincinnati community plays an influential role in the events that take place at 124. This community, consisting of Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and many other African Americans, banded together at the end of the novel to exorcise Beloved from 124, and this allows Sethe to feel at peace finally. Paul D. works together with his inmates in prison to prove a point that the only way they can escape is through teamwork.

The community also upheld each other through religious support. Baby Suggs offered a different approach to a traditional church setting; his church was hands-on and corporal, and Morrison described as it started with laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath (Morrison 104). These spiritual experiences led to people to grow together and form connections based on their shared religion of Christianity. Some of the white townspeople, however, did not approve of Suggs because they could not stand the constant reckless generosity that 124 displayed. Some brought what they could and what they believed would work stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their necks, lying in the space between their breasts. Others brought Christian faith—as shield and sword. Most people bought a little of both. They had no idea what they would do once they got there. They just started out, walked down Bluestone Road and came together at the agreed-upon time. The heat kept a few women who promised to go home. Others who believed the story didn’t want any part of the confrontation and wouldn’t have come no matter what the weather. And there were those like Lady Jones who didn’t believe the story and despised the ignorance of those who did. Thirty women made up the group and sauntered toward 124 to the gathering. The language was also an issue and a significant power to possess during this period.

Olivia Pass, of University College of Tulane, describes the author’s writing style by stating, Morrison’s Beloved beautifully exemples the  steps as Sethe travels through them to accept her infanticide by the novel’s end (Pass). When Sixo turns the schoolteacher’s reasoning around to prove having broken the rules, the schoolteacher whips and tortures him to demonstrate that definitions belong to the definers, not to the defined (Morrison 176). The slaves eventually come to understand the illegitimacy of most of the white definitions. Mr. Garner, for example, claims to have authorized his slaves to live as real men, but Paul D. questions just how masculine they are. Paul D. finally comes to realize with bitter irony the fallacy of the name Sweet Home.

Although Sixo eventually reacts to the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of slavery by abandoning English altogether, other characters use English to redefine the world on their terms. Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid, for example, rename themselves. These characters show how language can be such a powerful yet tormenting skill. When the characters are slaves, they manipulate language and transcend its standard limits. Their command of communication allows them to adjust its meanings and to make themselves indecipherable to the white slave owners who watch them. For example, Paul D and the Georgia prison inmates sing together about their dreams and memories by misleading and tricking the words (Morrison 84). Morrison states that they were close friends and would share dreams and sing together to get through the tough times.

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The title of the novel, Beloved, alludes to what is generally the product of a linguistic misunderstanding which further proves that language is too powerful. At her daughter’s funeral, Sethe interpreted the minister’s address to the Dearly Beloved as referring to the dead rather than the living. All literature is indebted to this slippery, shifting quality of language: the power of metaphor, simile, metonymy, irony, and wordplay all result from the ability of words to attach and detach themselves from various possible meanings. Toni Morrison in Beloved demonstrates how slavery has brought decreasing self-esteem amongst the slaves, how community brings together people even in difficult times, and the power of conversation and confrontation along with the manipulation of others’ words. Though the times have transfigured, and the world is a far better place now, lessons have been learned from this novel through the themes that Morrison presents. Slavery has been abolished for reasons of what is being demonstrated in the story. No human, any race from any background should have to live in fear for being alive, being made to serve another person, or live in guilt for a decision that was meant to benefit another person.

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