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Today, holidays and birthdays are just two of the many occasions that are centered around gifts. One gives and receives gifts, physical items that display love, thoughtfulness, and positivity. However, in many works of literature, characters are bestowed with gifts that are oftentimes not tangible and even a disadvantage. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe is gifted with a quality of unconditional motherly love. Through her love for her children and willingness to do anything to protect them from the horrors of slavery, Sethe’s actions serve as both an advantage and disadvantage. While Sethe experiences the joy of her children’s safety and freedom, she is consequently haunted by others’ negative perceptions towards her. By virtue of Sethe’s gift, Morrison expresses that slavery is so corrupt it could twist a gift of unconditional love into murder. Sethe’s figurative gift is initially beneficial during her escape from Sweet Home to 124. Her persistent desire to protect her four children from slavery’s violent and dismal conditions drives her planned escape to Cincinnati. Sethe proudly recounts of her journey to Paul D: “‘I did it. I got us all out… Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn’t no accident” (Morrison 190). It is only from her motherly love and protectiveness does she make the audacious decision to seek liberty. Sethe and her children’s freedom triumphs over her past hardships, as she experiences the happiness of living with her sons and daughters in 124. Reminiscent of her successful escape, Sethe recalls, “‘maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon – there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to’” (Morrison 190-191). While still enslaved, her children were owned by Schoolteacher and the plantation.
After reaching freedom, Sethe is finally able to view them as “her own” and appreciate them as her children, not fellow plantation slaves that she merely gave birth to. Another advantageous manifestation of Sethe’s motherly love is the birth of her daughter, Denver. With Amy’s help along her journey across the Ohio River, Sethe gives birth to Denver in a boat, and does absolutely everything to ensure her own and her daughter’s survival. Denver tells the story of Sethe’s child delivery: “She is tired, scared maybe, and maybe even lost. Most of all she is by herself and inside her is another baby she has to think about too” (Morrison 191). Despite her obstacles, Sethe prioritizes her children’s safety and uses this goal to motivate her escape. She recovers quickly from the physical injuries she endured leading up to Denver’s birth, like her ruptured feet and stolen breast milk. Sethe’s determination to survive and push through the physical pain explicitly reveals her need to save her children, because if she were not alive, neither would they be. Even towards the end of the novel when Denver and Beloved are grown young women, Sethe takes care of them unconditionally despite what they may do to her, as she equates her children with her life and happiness. Morrison claims that motivated and gifted by love, a mother can accomplish so much, from escaping a horror of the past to creating a new life for her family. On the other hand, although Sethe’s gift of love brings her joy and satisfaction, it also serves as a burden, proving to harm herself just as much as it comforts her. It is through the love for her children and her need to protect them from slavery in which Sethe commits the horrifying act of murder. Seeing her former slave owner Schoolteacher ride towards her house to recapture her family, “[Sethe] just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them” (Morrison 192).
Sethe makes the pivotal decision to choose between life enslaved and death: she attempts to kill her children, bringing them through the “veil” of death, and successfully does with Beloved, confirming how she would rather let her children die than be tortured by slavery. Moreover, this significant moment pinpoints Sethe’s gift as a disadvantage because of other people’s changing perceptions toward her. Not only does this act of “love”, in Sethe’s eyes, cause her to physically lose her first daughter, but she also ends up losing her two sons Howard and Buglar, for they become terrified of her and run away. Paul D, upon hearing about Sethe’s deed, criticizes, “‘Your love is too thick… It didn’t work, did it? What you did was wrong, Sethe… There could have been a way. Some other way’” (Morrison 194). His friendship with her breaks, he moves out of 124, and never returns. Another example of Sethe’s love being a disadvantage is when Beloved returns to Sethe’s life after rebirth. Her resurrection is a product of Sethe’s love through infanticide, eventually hurting Sethe physically and emotionally. The once-joyous dynamic between Sethe and Beloved gradually turns toxic, beginning with Sethe’s declining health: “The flesh between her mother’s forefinger and thumb was thin as china silk and there wasn’t a piece of clothing in the house that didn’t sag on her. Beloved… slept wherever she happened to be, and whined for sweets although she was getting bigger, plumper by the day” (Morrison 281). Beloved takes up all of Sethe’s attention and gets everything she wants, from food to clothing to lullabies.
Then, she accuses Sethe of “leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her. She said they were the same, had the same face, how could she have left her?” (Morrison 284). Beloved evolves into a parasite for Sethe, draining her life and energy, and making her feel guilty and regretful for doing something she had once considered to be true motherly love. Through the battle of determining whether Sethe’s love is truly a gift or a detriment, Morrison perhaps employs this ambiguity to show the fine line between advantages like love and harms like murder during the time of slavery. The author indicates that slaves like Sethe were never permitted any right to make decisions, the only choice they had was the one to die or kill a portion of themselves – their children. Ultimately, Morrison bestows upon Sethe the gift of motherly love, one that streamlines Sethe’s goals of safety and protection, and results in her successful escape, but also one that culminates in her own harm and other characters’ negativity towards her. Through Sethe, Morrison can portray the deception of any extraordinary personal quality during slavery because it is eventually corrupted by the burdens of slavery itself. Furthermore, love’s ambiguity in Beloved mirrors the equally ambiguous actions Sethe commits, such as infanticide, and reveals Morrison’s critique and perhaps warning about love influenced by an agent like slavery. After all, it is not common for a mother’s love to be executed as acts of murder, retribution, and suffering.
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