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In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, there is a certain ambiguity surrounding the nature of the titular character. On the surface, she appears to be a reborn and grown up version of the child who was murdered by Sethe in an intended act of merciful infanticide. However, it is also possible that she is simply a mentally ill living woman, and perhaps a runaway slave, on whom Sethe imprints her guilt and the memory of her lost child. In addition to being a character Beloved is also, on a non-literal basis, a symbol for the repressed past returning to haunt the present. These multiple possibilities over the nature of Beloved’s existence and identity make her a subject for much debate.
It is tempting to argue that Beloved is exactly what she is believed to be by the other characters, a supernatural physical manifestation of Sethe’s dead child, aged to the point that she would have been had she been allowed to live and grow up. Indeed, the adult Beloved appears to be, in many ways, very infantile in her behaviour. For example, this is apparent when we’re told about her “sleepy eyes” and failure to wipe her own dribble off of her chin (60). Paula Gallant Eckard highlights this as she argues that “she is incontinent, unable to walk, and constantly sleeps…Beloved has to relearn everything and progress through the stages of infant development”. This supports the idea of Beloved as an incarnation of Sethe’s dead child, as she seeks the maternal nurturing and teaching that she was denied in death. The particular fixation which Beloved has on Sethe as a maternal figure further suggests that she actually is Sethe’s dead daughter. Denver observes Beloved’s obsessive inclination towards Sethe including “how greedy she was to hear Sethe talk” (72) and the way in which she “took every opportunity to ask some funny question and get Sethe going” (72). In fact, Beloved herself even admits that she came back to “see [Sethe’s] face” (86) and that “she is the one” whom Beloved needs (86).
Gallant Eckard goes on to argue that “Beloved is obsessed with her ‘mother’ to a degree that surpasses normal mother-child bonds”. This could arguably be a result of Beloved’s long starvation of maternal affection. Not only did Sethe fail to raise Beloved as she did Denver, but she actually ended the life that she had created, albeit out of intended mercy. It is not unreasonable to assume that Beloved has now returned, due to her yearning for life and for her mother’s nurture and love. The image of Beloved crawling out of the water can be seen to represent rebirth, with the adult beloved emerging from the lake much as the baby Beloved once emerged from her mother’s womb. She is “sopping wet” (58) just like a freshly delivered new born. Furthermore, on Sethe’s first encounter with the adult Beloved, “the moment she got close enough to see the face, Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity…like flooding the boat when Denver was born” (59). This creates connotations of childbirth, most specifically of Sethe’s waters breaking. It suggests that the emergence of Beloved from the water is connected in some way to Sethe’s womb as the sight of Beloved causes Sethe to suffer the onset of labour related symptoms, as only a biological child could.
In addition to her infantile demeanour and obsession with Sethe, Beloved also seems to eerily recount impossible knowledge and memories of Sethe’s life. Indeed, the adult Beloved is certainly suspicious, as she appears to know more about Sethe than a stranger possibly would. For example, she knows the song that Sethe once sung to her baby, a possible memory from the first time she lived, and of the short time she had a mother. In addition, Beloved asks Sethe about her “diamonds” (67). As a slave, it was very unlikely for Sethe to have ever owned diamonds, but was actually given crystal earrings by her old mistress. By Beloved referring to this, it is implied that she has more of a connection to Sethe than she initially reveals. Referring to them as diamonds rather than crystals also suggests that she sees things through the simple and oblivious eyes of a child, and more specifically Sethe’s child. Beloved comes to speak as someone who has been raised from the dead, as she apparently recalls her experience during the time between her death and her return. This is evident as she tells Sethe that “dead men lay on top of her…ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her” (281). This imagery of death and decay could be a reference either to the afterlife, or to the ground she was buried in which was already full of other buried corpses.
Beloved repeatedly affirms that she was somewhere “dark” (86) before arriving at Sethe’s home. This can be seen to refer to a grave in the ground like the one Sethe’s daughter was laid to rest in. In addition, Beloved says that she is “small in that place” (86). Here it is possible that she is referring to her small, baby sized corpse, and the distinction she makes between “that place” and the place she is now is highlighted by Kathleen Marks who states that “the baby now has two homes, the literal grave and Sethe, a womb/ tomb now one with the grieving house of 124”. Indeed, Beloved tells Denver that “in the dark [her] name is beloved” (86). Arguably, she could be talking about the gravestone her mother had marked with the name ‘Beloved’, leading the child to take it as her own name. It is also notable that the family dog is absent when Beloved first arrives, utilising the common convention of animals being able to sense spirits and keep their distance from them. Beloved is described as acting sick and sounding sick but not looking sick (65), suggesting that, while her body has been renewed and fully developed, her mind has not. The description of her “new skin, lineless and smooth” (59) also hints at the renewal of her body, as its description is much like that of a new born baby’s skin.
However, although Beloved is certainly believed to be a literal ghost by characters such as Sethe and Denver, it is debatable whether or not Beloved is truly supernatural in nature. Indeed, the appearance of Sethe’s dead daughter could be mental rather than physical, with a mother projecting her grief and guilt over her act of infanticide onto an entirely different person. Linda Krumholz highlights this possible interpretation by stating that “Beloved is Sethe’s ‘ghost’, the return of her repressed past, and she forces Sethe to confront the gap between her motherlove and the realities of motherhood in slavery”. Indeed, Sethe has clearly lived her life haunted by the memory of her murdered child, as evident from the start of the novel when house 124 is apparently haunted by a non-physical manifestation of Sethe’s dead child. Here, Sethe tells Denver that the ghost baby’s power is “no more powerful than the way [Sethe] loved her” (2). She also refuses to leave the house, and tells Paul D that this is because she will “never run from another thing on this earth” (15). Here it is evident that Sethe regrets her past actions, and does not want to leave the thing she believed to be her child motherless all over again.
If it is to be accepted that Beloved is not truly supernatural in nature, then the question of the physical woman’s true identity is still unanswered. Although many of her mannerisms and behaviours seem infantile and often unsettling, this could well be a result of mental trauma rather than resurrection. Daniel Erickson highlights this uncertainty by stating that “The infantile characterization of Beloved…the very features that indicate that she is the ghost of the child, also support the conflicting thesis that she is a runaway slave, who has been imprisoned for most of her life”. Indeed, this is at first her assumed identity by the other characters as Paul D simply thinks that “a young coloured woman drifting was drifting from ruin” (60). Beloved’s aforementioned claims of dead men laying on top of her and ghostly fingers being stuck into her could well be her memory of being raped, and the added inclusion of dead men and ghostly fingers could be a fabrication caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. The fingers she describes as being without skin, could be her way of interpreting the white skin of slavers who assaulted her. The way in which Beloved herself comes to identify as Sethe’s dead baby could be a result of her traumatised, perhaps amnesiac, mind absorbing the memories projected onto her by Sethe.
Whether Beloved is alive or a ghost, a baby or a homeless woman, are questions which are ultimately of less importance. What is of more importance is what she represents. The real question is not of who Beloved is, it is of what she is, with what she is being a symbol. Beloved can be seen as an embodiment of the past. She is often interpreted as being a ghost, both by Sethe’s family and by critics. She is more than the ghost of a deceased baby, she is a symbol for the way in which the characters are haunted by their traumatic pasts, much as a house may be haunted by a ghost. They have buried their pasts, just like Sethe once buried her child. Krumholz argues that “[Morrison] makes the past haunt the present through the bewildered and bewildering character of Beloved”. Indeed, when Sethe is around Beloved she becomes completely transfixed by her, and in turn, with the past. Throughout the novel, both the dead child and the traumatic pasts of those Beloved comes into contact with are unearthed and have to be dealt with. In this way, Beloved is almost a healing force, allowing the characters to reform their fragmented identities by facing their slave pasts. Denver’s observation of how Beloved “took every opportunity to ask some funny question and get Sethe going” (73) not only highlights Beloved’s obsession with Sethe, but also the way in which she coaxes out stories of memories Sethe had kept hidden and refused to speak of.
Although it is clear that Beloved is a representation of the past and its influence on the individual characters, she also holds a much wider significance. As Carolyn Foster Segal states, “that the title character of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a composite character is clear”. Indeed, Beloved is more than a character, she is an allegory for slavery itself, and the composite of the traumatic experiences many black people suffered because of it. Regardless of whether she is the ghost of a baby killed by its mother to save it from slavery, or a living black woman subjected to captivity and rape by slavers, she stands as a character who is a slave and who has suffered unimaginably because of it. Her return after years of being dead conveys the message that the experience of slavery, even after one had escaped or been freed, would stay with a person for life haunting them much like a ghost. Krumholz argues that “Beloved comes to represent the repressed memories of slavery, both for the characters and for the readers”. Indeed, Beloved, as well as embodying slave related torment, also serves to bring to the surface the dark memories of slavery for Paul D and Sethe. For example, as she seduces Paul D in the barn, he thinks through a string of horrific memories he had buried inside. Heerak Christian Kim argues that “Morrison effectively uses the genre element of horror to preserve important past memory of the African-American community and to help the present identity of the community”. Indeed, the horror surrounding Beloved’s appearance at house 124, and the history behind Sethe’s dead daughter, effectively delineates the suffering that black people have been subjected to throughout history. Indeed, Christian Kim goes on to state that “contrary to the superficial surface reading, the greatest horror is not a mother killing her child. True horror is the oppression of slavery”. The idea of Beloved as a collective symbol rather than a physical character is supported by the footprints in the woods mentioned in the final chapter of the novel.
The footprints the ghostly Beloved leaves are described as being “so familiar. Should a child, an adult, place his feet in them, they will fit” (321). This highlights that the tragic loss of life suffered by Beloved at the hands of her mother mirrors the loss of life suffered by all condemned to slavery. Although they may not all have lost their lives in the same physical sense as Beloved, they lost their freedom, their possessions, their loved ones and were forcibly taken from their native homes. The footprint symbolism further highlights the collective suffering caused by slavery, as the narrator says that if the person who had placed their feet into the footprints were to “take [their feet] out they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there” (321). This can be taken to represent the dehumanization which slaves were subjected to, being treated like animals rather than people. Similarly, Sethe’s baby is never actually named in the book. Beloved is the name of the adult woman, but that is simply what was etched into the baby’s gravestone, highlighting the loss of identity which many slaves experienced. White slavers rarely referred to slaves by their names, leading them to become estranged from their humanity and identity. Furthermore, Krumholz also states that “Beloved is also everyone’s ghost”. Indeed, although she stands as a representation of those subjected to slavery, the past she represents is shared by everyone. Through the character of Beloved, the reader is driven to confront the past of slavery just as much as the characters. In a post slavery world where the horrors are often forgotten, Morrison uses a characters supposed return from the dead to show that just because a horror is in the past, does not mean the repercussions are. Krumholz argues that “Beloved is the Reader’s ghost forcing us to face the historical past as a living and vindictive presence”.
In conclusion, Beloved certainly is, to an extent, a physical character and is the core driving force of the narrative. The importance of her physical presence in the novel is highlighted by Krumholz, who argues that “Beloved cannot just be reduced to a symbol as she manipulates the characters with her sweet, spiteful and engulfing presence”. Who she is remains ambiguous throughout, as she is never explicitly labelled as a supernatural entity or as a living woman. Overall however, her physical identity in the novel is irrelevant, as it is not ‘who’ she is which is important, but rather ‘what’ she stands for. Indeed, Beloved truly stands as a symbol for the horrors of slavery, and a past which cannot be forgotten or erased even in a post-slavery world.
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