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In 1873 slavery had been abolished in Cincinnati, Ohio for ten years. This is the setting in which Toni Morrison places the characters for her powerfully moving novel, Beloved. After the Emancipation Proclamation and after the Civil War, Sethe, the mother who murdered her child to protect her baby from a lifetime of slavery, has yet to know the true meaning of freedom. Such a controversial, hard-to-swallow plot is certain to raise the hairs of many readers. Too often, however, Beloved is critically scrutinized for its ‘obviously symbolic storyî and not adequately appreciated for the vivid metaphors, imperative to the understanding of post-civil war slavery (Rumens). Morrisonís intense metaphorical writing serves as a constant reminder of Setheís infinitely enslaved life, bound to her guilt, her past and her horrifically haunting memories.
Morrison’s prose is ridden with symbolic meaning, often leaving room for various reader interpretations. While some aspects of the plot are fully developed, explained and interpreted by the author, others are merely alluded to so that the reader can find their own significance in the image Morrison creates.
The numerous reference’s to Sethe’s ‘stolen milkî could be one of the images that Carol Rumens attacks in her critique for being ‘overly symbolic.î This is an aspect of Sethe’s life that Morrison thoroughly explores and interprets in her writing. She conveys the importance of creating a bond between mother and daughter through nursing, and shows the destruction caused when this bond is broken. When Sethe arrives in Cincinnati after escaping from sweet home she is reunited with her children, this reunion is bound by a vivid image of nursing, ‘she enclosed her left nipple with the two fingers of her right had and the child opened her mouth. They hit home togetherî(94).
To suggest that such motifs as these are too obvious implies that Carol Rumens has overlooked the cardinal significance of this image. The importance of a daughter being nursed by a mother can be traced to the beginning of Sethe’s life when she is deprived of her own mother’s milk and she ‘sucked from another woman whose job it wasî (60). Sethe relives the torture of having her milk stolen from the boys at Sweet Home because, in a similar way to how her mother was deprived, the inhumanity of slavery robbed her of the only pleasure a slave woman is given, the gift of nurturing her child. This is the type of meaning that Morrison wants the reader to find in her writing.
On the surface many of the metaphors in Beloved appear to be too overt, but as with all of Morrison’s writing, there is always a hidden meaning behind her visually appealing style. When Carol Rumens described Beloved to be ‘overly symbolicî she is implying that the novel is merely a string of symbols that make up a plot. If this is the case Rumens has failed to notice the intense impact Morrison’s metaphors and symbols create, and the crucial depth they add to the novel. The ‘chokecherry treeî shaped scar on Sethe’s back, for example, is a reminder of the deep sorrow of her past. The fact that it is on her back is important because it is always with her but she can not see it, in much the same way that her sorrow is ever present but constantly pushed aside and ignored. There is clearly valid reasoning behind Morrison’s choice to shape Sethe’s scar into a tree, and she describes it appearance with graphic detail as ‘a chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves. Could have cherries tooî (16). This description is a parody. It creates an image of life, a blossoming tree in springtime, but Sethe cannot feel it because ‘her back skin has been dead for yearsî(18). This is similar to Sethe’s emotional life; although physically alive, she has been emotionally frozen or dead since she murdered her daughter eighteen years before earlier.
Stanley Crouch argues that Morrison ‘can’t resist the temptation of the trite and the sentimentalî when he refers to the scene in which Sethe receives her tree shaped scar. He has overlooked, however, the vital importance of this powerful metaphor. Morrison intentionally alludes to this ‘chokecherry treeî because it is one of her strongest metaphors for Sethe’s life that is permanently scared by the inhumanity of slavery, just as her back is permanently scared by the uncontrollable desire of the boys at Sweet Home.
Color could also be under attack by Rumens and Crouch in their reviews, but if so, the significance of such a metaphor has, once again, been sadly ignored. Baby Suggs is the first to realize its importance when ‘she used the little energy left for pondering colorî (4). She began noticing color when she was a free woman and Sethe believes that this is because ‘she never had time to see it, let alone enjoy it beforeî (201). Why then had Sethe not enjoyed or at least noticed the color of things during her time as a free woman in Cincinnati? There had only been two colors that were of any relevance to Sethe when she was enslaved on Sweet Home, and those were black and white, the two colors that dictated her entire life. Even Sethe wonders how she could go so long without so much as noticing the color of the world around her.
Every dawn she worked at fruit pies, potato dishes and vegetables while the cook did the soup, meat and all the rest. And she could not remember remembering a molly apple or a yellow squash. Every dawn she saw the dawn, but never acknowledged or remarked its color. There was something wrong with that (39).
Morrison’s solution to this issue of Sethe’s oblivion to color is simple, and is a recurring idea throughout the novel. Sethe did not know freedom. She had enjoyed the ‘free lifeî for twenty-eight days following her escape from Sweet Home, but this was cut short by the sight of her daughters red blood, and made concrete by her two-year sentence in jail. From then on, as Morrison demonstrates through the loss of color, Sethe went back to living her enslaved life, trapped in the memories of her past.
If the loss sensitivity to color portrays Sethe as a slave to her past, then the physical presence of Beloved makes Sethe a slave to her guilt. Beloved appears in the flesh the day that Paul D, Denver, and Sethe go to the carnival. This is Sethe’s ‘first social outing in eighteen years,î and therefore a perfect time for Beloved to surface and refresh Sethe’s feeling of guilt, not only for killing her daughter, but also for enjoying herself at the carnival (46). Morrison has created a devilish figure to ensure that Sethe does not get carried away, free herself from her traumatic past, and start ‘a lifeî with Paul D (46). Instead, Sethe is subtly tormented by Beloved’s presence and her persistent questions that have a tendency to dig-up unwanted memories. Questions that at first seem harmless such as ‘where your diamonds?î take Sethe back to the jail where they were her earrings were taken out of her skirt, thus reminding her of why she was there in the first place, and ultimately reviving her feelings of guilt and shame.
In a desperate attempt to alleviate her of her own guilt, Sethe becomes a slave to Beloved’s desires. Beloved is the personification of desire. She takes and takes with no feeling of guilt of her own. Her desires are first made evident by her greedy habits at the dinner table constantly eating and wanting food even when she is healthy and growing plump. Then her greed develops and ‘Denver noticed how greedy she was to hear Sethe talkî (63). As it manifests itself in the novel, Beloved’s desires grow stronger and more absurd, and she will go to any length to achieve her cravings. She wants a mother to give her all her attention, even if it leads to Sethe’s death. She wants Paul D to leave so she physically drives him out of the house into the cold house with a concoction of his desire for her. In doing so, she ultimately makes Paul D a slave to her desires too. Morrison’s use of this strong desire as a powerful force is interesting because as a result of Sethe obeying all of Beloved’s wants, she becomes less like a mother and more like a child, which prompts Denver to go the community for help, and ultimately leads to Beloved destruction.
There are novels that have everything spelled out for the reader, and there are novels that make the reader really think before they grasp the importance of every image. There are novels that the reader can put down and go to sleep, and there are others keep you awake at night thinking about why Halle had butter smeared all over his face or what was meant by orange squares sewn into the quilt. The difference between these two types of novels is the difference between good and bad. Carol Rumens critique of the novel is incorrect in saying it is ‘overly symbolicî because it was these symbols and metaphors that made Beloved the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Unlike most novels, it is not the last chapter that ultimately ties the plot together, it is Morrison’s attention to detail and development of metaphors throughout the text that made Beloved a masterpiece that can be read again and again, each time finding new meaning to images and symbols.
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