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Themes in “Beloved” Novel by Toni Morrison

Introduction

Beloved by Toni Morrison is an allegory of emotional and physical trauma caused by slavery. It is illustrated through the story of a black woman haunted by her daughter’s ghost that she murdered to save her from servantry’s fate. The genre used in this novel is called magical realism, which is the writing style that contains mystical elements to explore a real-life conflict (Ngom 197). All aspects of this story, starting from the plot structure to individual objects, contribute to unraveling the main character’s deep psychological issues that resulted from enslavement and her fierce resistance to it. Slaveholders also abused others in the story, but only Sethe wanted to protect her children’s future from slavery, so that she attempted to kill them. Initially, her act may appear as something unforgivable, but Sethe’s unending regret about taking her daughter’s life suggests that the lesson taught by Beloved’s selfish behavior was learned. The careful naming of the novel’s elements symbolized the generational trauma caused by slavery embodied in Sethe’s memories about infanticide and Beloved’s magical return.

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The Meaning Behind the Plot Elements

The first element of this novel that attracts a reader’s attention is focused on naming objects and placing them in a particular sequence. Indeed, the book starts with the fact that “124 was spiteful” (Morrison 10). Furthermore, each of the three chapters commences with the description of the house being spiteful, loud, and silent, setting the tone for that part of the story. The naming of 124 is not accidental because it symbolizes the murdered third child. Although the novel’s central focus is the present events in 124, the story’s timeline is nonlinear, being packaged with flashbacks of the character.

Another plot element that played an essential role in the novel was the bridge. Bridge in Beloved appeared to be an allegory for connection between past and future, life and death, mother and daughter (Meljac 43). It was not an accident that Beloved came to 124 from the side of the bridge because this ghost-girl played the role of the bridge in these three intertwined problems of slavery, infanticide, and motherhood. Like many other slaves, Sethe was not allowed to experience motherhood completely; thus, she was ready to murder her children to prevent this painful consequence of enslavement for them rather radically. However, the bridge between life and death disappeared after Sethe bestowed her love undividedly on the girl, who was probably her third daughter returning from dead.

The number 3 was another essential plot element that the drama revolved around. Beloved was the third child, and the same number 3 is missing in the house number, indicating a missing child. Therefore, the author did not allow more than three characters in this house after the third child was killed, leaving only Sethe, Denver, and the third daughter in the form of a ghost. The same pattern of three could be seen when Paul D arrived, eliminating the ghost but removing the man from the house soon after Beloved appeared. The number 3 appears multiple times in the novel, illustrating the curse of the past but hope for the future. The murdered daughter was the third child, and Baby Suggs with the broken hip walking “like a three-legged dog,” representing the dysfunctional past hierarchy in society (Morrison 120). On the other hand, three means a free future in the context of the younger generation: “You are lucky. You got three left” (Morrison 12). Morrison, naming the novel by the third daughter’s name, wanted to symbolize the transition from slavery to freedom of the whole African-American diaspore.

Generational Trauma: Realism of Growing Resistance to Slavery

Slavery was the dramatic social and political issue that initiated life-changing decisions made by the characters. Baby Suggs and Denver were the representatives of the peak and decline of slavery, respectively. Sethe was part of the transitional generation that experienced slavery but was resistant to it, executing disagreement with this societal structure by escaping from slaveholders and murdering her child. However, Beloved is not a simple demonstration of white-black discord. Instead, the novel is an inter-class conflict, which became evident when a poor white girl, Amy, helped Sethe (Morrison 34). Sethe and Amy were representatives of the generations that appeared to be blind to skin color in its hierarchical sense. Older generations acquired the role of definers who identified people of color as slaves (Thohiriyah 91). Furthermore, Morrison highlights the self-identification of slaveholders: “definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined” (161). Slavery dehumanized African-Americans by taking everything, including their identities, from them, imposing deep psychological trauma to many generations of black people (Thohiriyah 92). Sethe was also traumatized by slavery, but she became the symbol of societal resistance to enslavement.

Beloved’s Magical Return: Liberation from Haunting Memories

Beloved represents the connection between remembering and forgiving, slavery and freedom, life and death. When Beloved came to 124 as a young beautiful but childish woman, she elucidated how slavery obliterated self-consciousness in many enslaved people. The appearance of Beloved pushed Denver out of the house to seek a job and independence, enabling her maturation. Indeed, she learned to embrace her freedom and eliminate the slave mentality inherited from her ancestors, making the mother proud of her: “I’m proud of her. She turning out fine” (Morrison 224). Moreover, Beloved brought a crucial lesson for Sethe, who needed to leave her guilt in the past through giving all love, care, and protection to her third daughter. Indeed, the mother’s memories did not allow her to liberate her daughter’s ghost. Therefore, only when Sethe fully demonstrated to the returned daughter that she sincerely loved her, proving the authenticity of the signature on her tombstone, Beloved left the house, and the memory about the murder was erased because “it was not a story to pass on” (Morrison 231). Beloved’s appearance was essential for all of them to forget and forgive the past, allowing a better future.

Conclusion

Overall, Beloved by Morrison is a psychological and historical drama about the negative consequences of slavery on African-Americans. The structural components of the novel – the house, the bridge, and the number three – symbolized the transition from slavery to freedom. Sethe possesses a unique role of opposition to enslavement and painfully regained motherhood rights for black women of that time. Beloved was the magical element in this novel that was introduced to teach important lessons to Denver and Sethe. These lessons were to gain independence and eliminate slave mentality for Denver and liberate from the haunting memories of infanticide and unfulfilled motherhood responsibilities for Sethe. Beloved is a brilliant novel that incorporated magical realism to illustrate the generational trauma caused by slavery.

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Works Cited

Meljac, Eric. “Beloved as a Symbolic Bridge: An Examination of the Symbolism of Connected Spaces in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” CEA Critic, vol. 82, no. 1, 2020, pp. 38–51, Web.

Morrison, Tony. Beloved. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007.

Ngom, Ousmane. “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Aesthetics in African and Afrodiasporic Literatures.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, vol. 47, no. 2, 2020, pp. 196–214, Web.

Thohiriyah, Thohiriyah. “Solidifying the White Domination through Racism and Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Language Circle: Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 14, no. 1, 2019, pp. 89-92, Web.

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