Toni Morrison is famed for her portrayal of African American life in her vivid novels, especially her portrayal of African American women and their place and position within society. Morrison was herself born in a working class family but worked hard and attended Howard University and then Cornell University.
Although she faced discrimination and sexism throughout her early life, she overcame the obstacles and went on to become a successful editor before writing her first novel in 1970, The Bluest Eye. All of Morrison’s later novels earned her praise and a place within a white-dominated literary world.
She used her influence to advance fellow African American writers, but it was Beloved that she became best known for. The novel, which is set in rural Ohio following the Civil War, contains multiple stories, voices, and shifts in time. The narrative swings back and forth in time to reveal the disturbing and complicated maternal experiences of Sethe, now a former slave living with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs and daughter Denver in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Cincinnati. While much of the novel takes place in this 1873 post-war setting, the past lies at the devastating core of the novel and impacts the present with vicious intensity.
Indeed, as critic Valerie Smith points out, “The characters have been so profoundly affected by the experience of slavery that time cannot separate them from its horrors or undo its effects” (345). Certainly, this is the case for Sethe and Paul D, a former Sweet Home slave who comes to live with Sethe and Denver in Ohio after the war. Having endured unspeakable horrors during slavery, both find the past a constant, threatening presence in their lives. To a significant extent, Beloved embodies the past and serves as a disrupting force in the present.
Moreover, with her multiple incarnations, Beloved also represents the complex, multi-layered treatment given to maternal experience in the novel. The first and most obvious level of the maternal in Beloved consists of the social and historical realities that lie beneath the text. Morrison acknowledges that the actual story of Margaret Garner of Ohio provides the historical substance of Beloved (qtd. in Naylor 206). According to various accounts, Garner, like Sethe, attempted to kill her children rather return them to slavery (Lerner 60-63). She succeeded in killing one child, whom Morrison transforms into the figure of Beloved herself.
According to Morrison, “I just imagined the life of a dead girl which was the girl that Margaret Garner killed, the baby girl that she killed” (qtd. in Naylor 208). With Garner’s story then becoming Sethe’s, Morrison depicts both the cruel realities of motherhood under slavery and the interiority of such maternal experience. In this process, she exposes the “the silences in the generic first-person slave narratives” and crosses “the boundaries between fiction and history” (Grewal 156) Mothering, although about loving, caretaking, nurturing, and teaching, has the primary function of protection that stems from the request to survive.
The survival includes that of self and of offspring, who will ensure the existence of future generations of families. Because survival of self is a necessary phase of survival of the offspring, with it come characteristics seemingly unmotherly. Although mothers are stereotypically viewed as soft, selfless, and abounding with patience, in fact, they have the capacity to be selfish, angry, and cruel in the process of being protective of their children. Mothers work to maintain life, or what they regard as right in terms of their definitions of life, regardless of the morality of their actions.
And who determines the morality? Mothers are expected to be authoritative in their realm and are charged with the protection, at all costs, of the children of which they are the source or guardian. However, most of them don’t have certain rights or power to make the rules in society to carry out the protection. Therefore it is interesting to examine the social construction of mothering, both for mothers that chose motherhood, and for those upon whom motherhood was imposed; the dismantling of mothering stereotypes; and the way racial tragedies, culture, and survival define a mother’s role.
Part of the issue, then, is that we place modern day standards on women from other eras. Another issue is raised as well. It is the question as to what determines how a mother will do her job. The answer includes nature and nurture, as well as, perhaps, the division of essentialism and social constructionism. According to essentialism, a mother has born qualities, nature determined, that manipulate her thought process and her decision-making process. Yet, these born qualities co-exist with environmental factors.
Morrison therefore identifies de-essentializing critical strategies that still give a place to the slavery problem but revise the direction of this criticism. Nevertheless, the essentialist versus social constructionist theory still remains inherent to issues of motherhood. Eyer notes that “bonding is described as a maternal instinct… designed to ensure survival” (69). Yet even the notion of maternal instinct can be questioned, especially if this mean it is to question biological determinism.
Once again the issue of essentialism in motherhood is directly related to the social construction of what it is to be a “Good Mother” (Eyer 69). But who defines motherhood, survival and bonding? Is it possible that physical survival can be worse than death? Is it possible that the mother-child bond, so tightly fused, requires mothers to question the norm of the time, of the societal conditions? To protect may be interpreted as kill, as in Sethe’s case. Do these mothers have the obligation, whether essentialist or socially constructed mothers, to determine what is appropriate mothering in their situations?
Perhaps these mothering characters absorb the language of biological determinism and actually use their biological differences as the source of their power, the source of their decisions and choices. The focus of this thesis, then, is the breakdown of the stereotype of mother as a result of racial and cultural oppressions in the most extreme circumstances, or after these extreme circumstances, illustrating that the cultures themselves are not always supportive of mothers and their inherent roles in society.
The thesis also focuses on the crucial mothering characters in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as well as offers relevant theoretical background that provides important perspectives on mothering in racial and cultural contexts. Morrison presents mothers who are very willing to be soft and hard, loving and cruel, moral and amoral for the sake of future generations. In Beloved, the crucial mothers are Sethe’s mother, Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Denver. Ella and Nan, though briefly addressed, are not considered central, as their mothering or othermothering capacities are demonstrated in a limited manner.
The thesis would argue further, based upon the actions of Sethe that the socially constructed mother may refuse to act in full accordance with essentialism, for the purpose to do what they feel right, rather than the rules and morality based on social definitions. A lot of sources have been examined throughout this literary research study. A brief literature review on these sources is presented further. Deborah White in Ar’n’t I a Woman? attempts the mythology of the Southern mammy and other myths and challenges a richer, more multifaceted picture of the lives of African American women in slavery.
Drawing on historical proof, including slave narratives and the diaries and autobiographies, in addition to the modern scholarship on the African American family, the author examines slave women’s routine, livelihood, female networks, and family roles. She finds power and ingenuity, but denies that female slaves played a dominant role in their families. Toni Morrison and Motherhood, by Andrea O’Reilly, offer a critical reading of motherhood and mothering complexly depicted in Beloved.
The author intimately scrutinizes Morrison’s text and interviews as well as other appraisal of Morrison and feminism to theorize Black women’s daily experiences, which have been basically ignored by white feminists. Angelyn Mitchell in The Freedom to Remember studies current literary revisions of slavery in the United States by African American women writers. She claims that the modern studies have examined these works only from the perspective of victimization. Author transforms the conceptualization of these accounts in Beloved, focusing on the theme of freedom, not slavery, defining it as “liberatory narrative.
” The Freedom to Remember shows how the liberatory narrative serves to emancipate its readers from the heritage of slavery in American culture: by facilitating a deeper dialogue of the problem and by making them new-fangled through elucidation and questioning. In the Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness, Doreatha Mbalia followed the growing of Morrison’s consciousness from her examination of racism in her early fiction, to her growing understanding of the nature of capitalism and the necessity for collective struggle in and Beloved.
Diane Eyer in Motherguilt: How Our Culture Blames Mothers for What’s Wrong with Society, is convinced that the pseudo scientific conception of maternal “bond” is one of the ways the rules of mothering have been revised to restrain mothers’ interests in such possessions as work for income outside the home. Eyer is disturbed with the political and subjective twists that scientific investigation is given when attitudes about maternal nature and the principles of motherhood are questioned.
Jan Furman in Toni Morrison’s Fiction, traces the persistent characters, subjects, and settings that represent Morrison’s literary vision and strike a well-known chords for Morrison’s readers. Showing that novelist sturdily supports the thought that the artist must beget and interpret culture, Furman discloses the Morrison ‘s contribution to the development and restatement of the American literary tenets through her depiction of the Black woman experience. As well, Furman scrutinizes Morrison’s distress with the threat of gender and racial stereotyping and with her appreciation for those who defy such boundaries.
Pointing to the Morrison ‘s astonishing portrayals of human pain, survival, and triumph, Furman moves ahead of literary analysis to enlighten what she argues to be the crucial achievement of Morrison’s narrative: the presentation of the pathway to emotional independence and spiritual freedom. Trudier Harris in Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison, shows how Morrison’s previous novels reveal interest to the folkloric elements in the form of narrator as storyteller; in the use of folk tales, funny stories, false notions, and other kinds of traditions; and in the emphasis on such “verbal” features as music.
Jacqueline Jones’s tremendous study Labor of Love. Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, takes us far into the insinuations of the extensive social distinctions between the African American and the white experiences and practices in America. Jones’s book gets rid of several nasty stereotypes and obstinate myths, it is free of the bigotry and racism it portrays, and it shows old facts in new ways. This thesis has been divided into 5 parts, introduction, main body and conclusion. Main body is dived into three chapters. The first part explores the social construction of slavery motherhood.
Theoretical background to the mothering aspects of Morrison’s novel is presented here briefly. Certain generalized assumptions are made about motherhood, mothering and othermothering. Although they cannot be accurate definitions for all mothers or all situations, they perhaps indicate the relation between essentialism and constructionism, in the identification of motherhood. This part looks at mothering under pressure and threat. The second part examines the roles and representations of motherhood in the novel, and Sethe’s role as a mother in particular.
The role of breasts and breastmilk images are discussed and considered as a bond between mother and a child. Then, thesis, especially in terms of Sethe, distinguishes how mothers’ reactions to situations, though seemingly “animalistic” are, in fact, logically thought out, using human reasoning. If, according to society, the essential aspects of mothering are to be loving, caring, and nurturing, then it is through circumstances that a mother must determine how she can best be all these things, doing what is “best” for her child or children.
In the third part, thesis is focused on the breakdown of the stereotype of mother as a result of racial and cultural oppressions in the most extreme circumstances, or in the aftermath of these extreme circumstances, illustrating that the cultures themselves are not always supportive of mothers and their inherent roles in society. The character of Baby Suggs has also been analyzed here thoroughly, showing how a destreotyping of black womanhood can contribute to a de-essentialized image of slavery.
The thesis concludes, that the socially constructed mother who rejects the essential aspects of motherhood in order to do what she feels is “right,” rather than what is expected by society as a human mother. Thus, one must ascertain with respect to these culturally diverse mothers whether the essential aspects of being a mother transcend the socially constructed aspects of motherhood or not. Their desire and ultimate goal is still keeping their children and themselves alive. Indeed, the interpretation of mothering for each of the mothers makes the difference.
Each woman identifies herself as a mother or othermother includes motherhood into her personal identity. A mother creates identity, or, if she does not create it, she nurtures it so that it may bloom and grow of its own accord. Considering social constructionism, this creation becomes exceedingly evident in the mothers and daughters in the novel, as well as in reality. 1. Slavery and Social Construction of Motherhood 1. 1 Theoretical Background and Definitions The theoretical issue regarding essentialist versus social constructionist motherhood is called into question in this thesis.
What is useful here is Diana Fuss’ definitions of essentialism and social constructionism for woman. She defines essentialism as: a belief in true essence—that which is most irreducible, unchanging, and therefore constitutive of a given person or thing… In feminist theory… essentialism can be located in appeals to a pure or original femininity, a female essence, outside the boundaries of the social and thereby untainted (though perhaps repressed) by a patriarchal order. (2) She also defines constructionism, suggesting that:
Constructionism, articulated in opposition to essentialism and concerned with its philosophical refutation, insists that essence is itself a historical construction… constructionists are concerned above all with the production and organization of differences, and they therefore reject the idea that any essential or natural givens precede the processes of social determination. (2-3) Fuss also contends that, “The difference in philosophical positions can be summed up by Ernest Jones’s question: ‘Is woman born or made?
‘ For an essentialist like Jones, woman is born, not made; for an anti-essentialist like Simone de Beauvoir, woman is made not born” (3). One must then tread into the next relevant level, moving woman to mother. Is a mother born or made? In this thesis author would argue that a mother, although influenced by essential facets of her separate self, is made. Social constructionism, then, is at the center of this thesis due to the African-American mothers addressed within their specific environments in this novel.
Certain generalized assumptions are made about motherhood. Because of the special social condition depicted in the thesis, it’s hard to say that social constructionism or essentialism decides the motherhood. From what we read in the novel, we could speculate that the constructionism and essentialism may co-exist and influence each other. The two concepts may be interchangeable. Fuss proposes that “essentialism is essential to social constructionism” in that one must note the correlations that apply to the mothers from two culturally diverse backgrounds (1).
Therefore, by comparing the commonality of mothers in different situations we could say essentialism and constructionism sometimes are not to be separated. The issue of external influence becomes very closely related to the examination of mothers in the novel to be discussed, as the mothers and caregivers are affected by particular events and the after effects factors, which is slavery in Beloved. Mothering under these conditions does become constructed and defined by the circumstances at hand.
This idea is also mentioned by Glenn who wrote that “the existence of diverse, often submerged constructions of mothering that have coexisted alongside the dominant model… take form not just in the realm of ideas and beliefs, but importantly in social interactions, identities, and social institutions” (3-4). There is main type or general model of mothers in society, but there are still many other different mother images, which are formed in the influence of environment.
Of the mothers to be analyzed regarding the breakdown of stereotyped mothering, some serve as “othermothers”, or non-biological mothers who take on, in whole or in part, the responsibility of caring for another human being (O’Reilly 3-4). The definition of mother expands to include more than the concept of giving birth to another human being. Thus, women as othermothers can demonstrate as much motherly influence as the biological mothers themselves, sometimes more.
These “othermothers” can perform the roles of parental nurturer and life-supporter, in addition to or in the imitation of the biological mothering. By carrying out the responsibility of mother, they also affirms their positions in society, and their existence is also vital to the preservation of culture and thus to the “survival of the tribe” (O’Reilly 8), because they must raise, shape decisively, and influence the decision-making process of other individual or individuals, as well as feed, clothes, and protect that individual or individuals.
And it is the mother who defines that process, whether within or beyond society’s moral standards. These “othermothers” appear and exist in society because of the social requests. With them, orphans and other children who can’t get biological mothers’ protection in their growing period for some reasons could be protected as well. In this novel, two types of “othermothers” are mainly depicted. One is the othermother whose role and responsibility is assigned and forced to take by slave-owners, such as Nan.
Slave-owners don’t want their adult slave women to spend much time on taking care of their children, so they assign one slave woman to take care of all the children, while the slave mothers have to work at other places soon after they give birth. The other type is the women who take the role of mother voluntarily, based on the situation request or personal thoughts, such as Baby Suggs, who mothers the whole black community after she is bought free by her son Hale. Othermothers have been paid certain attention and exert great influence in this novel. The concept of protection is the common factor for mothers and othermothers.
In Beloved, Sethe’s mother protects Sethe from accepting and tolerating the socially acceptable confines of slavery at that time, and thus, when Sethe has her own children, she too protects them from slavery on her own ways through her own definition of protection. Because this is what Sethe’s mother must do, and in turn, Sethe does the same for Denver, purposely or inadvertently. Sethe does learn how to protect herself and her children, and Denver ultimately learns how to save herself and her mother. Thus, othermothers in the novel are as vital to the text as the biological mothers. 1. 2 Social Construction of Slavery Motherhood
In the United States, the roles for women and for mothers have changed dramatically based upon social, cultural, racial, and environmental issues. It is not wrong to assert that the mothers in Toni Morrison’s slave-dominated narrative, Beloved, question and change the white master’s laws, rules, and language for acceptable behavior as women, and especially as mothers because they are doing the telling and can place emphasis where they think appropriate. The powerful female characters “are richly endowed with devotion, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love—the attributes associated with archetypal motherhood” (Collins 116).
They undoubtedly defy the stereotype for motherhood, the male definition defined in his terms, his language, both consciously and subconsciously as a result of environmental factors with which they are faced. In the system of slavery, motherhood had great economic significance, as each new birth represented financial gain for the slaveholder (Jones 35). Ironically, these births were also important in preserving the integrity of the slave family because young women who demonstrated their fecundity early were less likely to be sold (35).
If they were sold, mothers and small children were sometimes sold as a family unit, which helped preserve some continuity within slave families (White, “Female Slaves” 66). Similarly, Deborah White’s investigations into the lives of female slaves reveal that motherhood was an integral component in their existence, identity, and economic value. While male slavery centered around work, much of female slavery was connected with “bearing, nourishing, and rearing children whom slaveholders needed for continual replenishment of their labor force” (Ar’n’t I a Woman?
69). Often forced into procreative sexual relations, slave women began childbearing at approximately 20 years of age and had children every 2. 5 years until the age of 35 (“Female Slaves” 60). Slave owners often accorded special treatment to pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as to women who were especially prolific (66). Such mothers would be given less demanding work and were classified as “half hands” or “three-quarter hands” (60).
However, Jacqueline Jones reports that many pregnant slaves were overworked, something which slave owners failed to connect with the high miscarriage and infant mortality rate that resulted (32). Diets dangerously low in protein and other nutrients and diseases such as pneumonia, cholera, smallpox, and diarrhea also compromised the health of slave women. Vitamin deficiency diseases of scurvy, rickets, pellagra, and beriberi (due to daily meals of rice, fat-back, corn meal, and salt pork) were not uncommon among the slave population.
Although slave women were slightly less likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth than white Southern women, they suffered from premature labor, breech presentations, convulsions, puerperal fever, placental retention, ectopic pregnancy, and prolapsed uterus—conditions that seriously threatened their health and the lives of their infants (Ar’n’t I a Woman? 83-84). Despite the many difficulties and indignities surrounding maternity, motherhood in the slave community held much significance because it brought status to women.
Motherhood was considered far more important than marriage in a young woman’s identity and her coming of age (White, “Female Slaves” 68). Much mystery surrounded conception and childbirth, and the mother-child bond was regarded as the most important and sacred relationship within a slave family (68). Prenuptial intercourse was not deemed “evil,” nor were out-of-wedlock births condemned (Ar’n’t la Woman? 106, “Female Slaves” 68). The ascendancy of motherhood over marriage perhaps lay in the fact that slave marriages were fragile institutions. They were not recognized as legal, and any vows spoken were not binding.
Having children brought some security for a married couple, but if a husband was sold off, a female slave was expected to begin an immediate search for another spouse “with whom she could have more children for her owner” (Ar’n’t I a Woman? 103). In this time period, the United States in the 1800s, African-American women are, by far, on the lowest step of the socially determined, male dominated ladder. In The Bluest Eye, though referring to a later era in the U. S. , Morrison shrewdly points out, “Everybody was in a position to give them orders. White women said, ‘Do this. ‘ White children said, ‘Give me that.
‘ White men said, ‘Come here. ‘ Black men said, ‘Lay down,’ ” and although they are above African-American children, they still serve them, as they are responsible for their care and welfare, either as mothers or othermothers (138). African-American women “ran the houses of white people, and knew it… They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other. The hands that felled trees also cut umbilical cords… And the difference was all the difference there was” (The Bluest Eye 138). Morrison contends that they assume power and strength regardless of their terrible social position.
Indeed, they are sometimes even forced into the “Mammy” role. But, the thesis would argue, as does Collins, if they refuse any of these roles, they assume survival skills necessary to save themselves and their own. As Beloved is a novel about slavery, issues of the Middle Passage, war, and post-slavery conditions become relevant. Doreatha Mbalia maintains that in the slave setting there is a “dialectical relationship between problem and solution: that the solution to the problem arises from the condition (or conditions) that creates it” (93).
Morrison’s slave setting, then, generates an “historical period in which the African’s primary enemy, capitalism, is unobscured by its secondary and consequential effects: race and gender oppression” (Mbalia 93). Thus, the social construction of slavery is notably at the root of the socially constructed slave mothers and their actions. The binding concepts between all of these issues are killing and death. In patriarchy, dominated by white male authority, death was acceptable under certain conditions.
White males killed mutinous Africans during the Middle Passage, white males killed defiant slaves, white males killed other white males in times of war due to political disagreements, and the deaths during postwar and post-slavery times were, perhaps, considered inevitable until stability was established. These were believed accepted scenarios for homicides. They were murders committed by men, usually white men, for the supposed sake of order. Black men killed for their own reasons as well: in order to escape slavery or in fighting the war for freedom.
However, when a Black woman kills her own child for the sake of the same freedom, morality is thrown off balance and legal battles ensue. According to Steven Weisenburger, Margaret Garner, upon whom Beloved is based, “pled with her mother-in-law, Mary: ‘Mother, before my children shall be taken back to Kentucky, I will kill every one of them! ‘ She ran to little Mary and with ‘a single stroke of the knife’ nearly decapitated the child” (74). Margaret Garner values her children’s lives, body, mind, and spirit, in freedom and thus believes her actions to be reasonable and rational.
Such is the case for Sethe, Morrison’s main character in Beloved. 1. 3 To Protect And To Kill: The Same? Death, kill and the idea of killing is implied or mentioned in Beloved many times. Stamp Paid, who helps Sethe make the journey out of slavery, thought about killing his own wife by breaking her neck, after she returned from being with the master’s son. However, a woman who saw death as better than slavery, who would kill her children and herself, was, at the same time, unacceptable (Beloved 203). Even those who understood slavery because they had been slaves did not, could not comprehend a mother killing her own flesh and blood.
Ella, who had not chosen motherhood, essentially killed her child just as Sethe had (Beloved 258-59). Ella “understood Sethe’s rage in the shed twenty years ago, but not her reaction to it, which Ella thought was prideful, misdirected, and Sethe herself too complicated” (Beloved 256). Ultimately, Stamp Paid does not kill his wife, and thus he too does not understand Sethe’s action. Therefore, although death through unnatural causes to a certain extent is socially acceptable in this time period, even expected, Sethe’s “protective murder” of her daughter is not only unacceptable, but also repulsive to the white and black communities alike.
In her novel, Paradise, Morrison writes of a cat that was “turned vicious by motherhood” and “stared at the human with warning eyes” (115). Certainly this implies that motherhood changes any female, be she human or animal. This certainly brings into question whether it is innate, instinctual, essentialist and even perhaps animalistic behavior that features the mother role regarding the protection of offspring. Sethe’s act certainly seemed animalistic, an action saved for pigs that ate their litter (Beloved 12).
Yet, it is just this idea of comparing humans to animals that Sethe morally opposes and fights while in bondage, and again later when schoolteacher comes for her and her children (Beloved 163). If this is so, then Sethe acts with her hands, killing out of her ingrained slave status; because in slavery humans treat other humans as animals without rights and reason, therefore slavery is worse than death, as death provides eternal life. Sethe has made the best choice in her mind, through her belief system instilled by her mother, for the sake of Beloved.
To answer my own previously posed questions, yes, it is instinctual, animalistic, essentialist behavior, but imposed by circumstance and thus socially constructed, that forms the mother role and allows women who are mothers to recreate survival policy as Sethe’s character illustrates clearly using her behaviors. The murder of her daughter and the attempted murder of her other three children is done in order to save them from slavery, to save them from an animal’s existence. Her actions, a result of being enslaved, demonstrate the extent to which she will “protect” her children from what she believes to be the worst possible fate.
Although she is seen as the only one to commit such a horrific crime, others in the novel do the same without similar repercussions. Here Morrison presents the readers with multifaceted examples, forcing them to examine how the stereotype of motherhood is dismantled as a result of the need for survival, and the desire to protect, through the various mothering characters in the text. Slavery and the horrific conditions it entailed, including the Middle Passage, rape, hard physical labor, and appalling living conditions, forced African women to make decisions they would not have made or have had to make under other conditions.
When other better choices were taken from them, they, in turn, changed how and on what basis they made life and death decisions. Morrison creates a very real slave mothering model in Sethe who gives everything she had to Beloved. There are several ways of denying the existence of another human being. For Sethe, she simply denies Beloved her life by taking her out to the woodshed and slitting her throat. By making her life nonexistent, she is able to prevent further harm from coming to her. If there is no living child, then there is no one for schoolteacher to take and abuse.
To Sethe, now a liberated woman with free will, this is a truly logical choice. Mitchell affirms this conclusion, noting, “Morrison’s liberatory narrative reveals to an unprecedented degree the inner life of the newly free Black woman as she tests the limits of her personal freedom in freedom” (107). This is her way of physically denying Beloved her life. Sethe acknowledges that she made a choice, which is the most important thing: “The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing – the part of her that was clean” (Beloved 251).
For Sethe, the criminal act she committed is motivated by a natural instinct to protect her children. Through this view, a criminal act is transformed into an act of love, humanity and responsibility, an act of protection of the innocence, virtue and beauty of a child. Sethe, therefore, claims for herself the virtues of motherhood; she uses a shocking and horrible act to affirm motherhood. The concept of deserting one’s child coincides with denial. Again for Sethe, the desertion comes with the murder. However, in truth, she did not intend to desert Beloved.
In fact, she meant to kill all of her children and then join them by killing herself (Beloved 203). But because her plan is interrupted and does not come to success, Beloved is the only one killed, the only one left “on the other side. ” Still, for Sethe, she put one of her children in the safest place she knew. She would rather kill her own than have them be killed by slave masters, who would not only take then-physical lives, but also their mental and emotional selves. The issue, the reality, of motherhood is that it is a permanent role.
Once one takes on the responsibility of taking care of another human being, one birthed or one assumed, one cannot suddenly go back to being the person without that responsibility. For Sethe, “As resilient as she is, she is also vulnerable, and her strength and weakness emanate from the same stream of love” (Furman 82). This is so completely true for Sethe that when Beloved returns in her physical form, as a young woman, but with certain infantile attributes, Sethe does not even need to see Beloved’s face. This connectedness, this undertaking that motherhood is, forces Sethe to question it yet again when Paul D asks her to have his child.
Sethe “was frightened by the thought of having a baby once more. Needing to be good enough, alert enough, strong enough, that caring—again. Having to stay alive just that much longer. O Lord, she thought, deliver me. Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer” (Beloved 132). Mitchell contends that “Motherhood, for Sethe, is a constant vicissitude of competing passions and emotions. Her word choice is double edged; for Sethe, a mother is a killer, and being a mother can kill” (99). Sethe as a mother struggles to find what is best for her children. In the ideal scenario, choosing to save life would be the best option.
However, under the circumstances of slavery, life for Beloved is not meant to be. Sethe has already “saved” Howard, Buglar, Beloved, and Denver through the escape from slavery that she makes possible for all of them. She also believes she “saved” her children through Beloved’s murder, as after that, no ones takes her children, least of all schoolteacher. Paul D’s request for a child, while perhaps an attempt to maintain the survival of himself, of a family that is his, is too much as Sethe’s character is not willing to be that responsible for another’s life again.
Additionally, because “her own enslaved mother had not been allowed to mother her, let alone nurse her, Sethe took great pride and pleasure in being able to mother—and to breast-feed—her own babies” (Mitchell 94). Mothers worry; they hope and pray for the best for their children; they commend, teach survival skills; they offer lessons in values and mores, and must teach by their example. When Howard and Buglar ask about their father making his escape, Sethe tells them “‘soon’ and smiled so they would think the brightness in her eyes was love alone” (Beloved 94).
This too is a mother’s role, to protect her children both physically and mentally, even if it means, as in this case, lying. Her moral sense is again affected by this painful lie, yet it is meant only to protect her children. As much as “it was an unexpected pleasure” for Sethe to be telling Beloved of her past at Sweet Home, it also makes the distance between Sethe and Denver, makes the conflicts between Sethe and Paul D worse as a result of the bond that is created through the sharing, and eventually Sethe gives up all she has for Beloved and would have died if not for Denver seeking help (Beloved 58).
Furman contends that “She had been willing to die with and for that child to keep her from slavery; years later, she willingly enslaves herself to the incubus whom she continues to believe is her best thing” (82). Until Beloved’s story is fully articulated and meaning is made of Sethe’s maternal experience, Morrison keeps both contained within the “nonexpressive,” non-language realm of the chora, the mysterious pulsing red light that haunts Sethe’s house. Sethe loses her job and rather than looking for another, she “played all the harder with Beloved, who never got enough of anything…
If the hen had only two eggs, she got both” (Beloved 240). From this we could see how deep Sethe’s love is to Beloved. To Denver, “It was as though her mother had lost her mind” (Beloved 240). Beloved “said, ‘Do it,’ and Sethe complied” (Beloved 241). This is the dedication of a mother, socially constructed by slavery, who now must deal with extreme survivor guilt; this is how motherlove is a killer. Beloved would do this if not for Denver. “Beloved is obsessed with her ‘mother’ to a degree that surpasses normal mother-child bonds… Beloved seems bent on consuming her mother out of both love and hate” (Eckard 69).
Mothers do not have the luxury of being carefree. Sethe contemplates slavery versus death, with the potential of an afterlife, a heaven, and consciously chooses death. These were the most painful choices for the mother, but decisions were made based on the socially constructed situations in which they existed. Although the decisions at that situation are instinctual, thus leaning toward the essentialist view of motherhood, there would be no need for choices like these without the socially constructed tragedies that accompany them. 2. The Roles and Representation of Mothering 2. 1 Sethe As A Mother
Morrison creates a slave woman, Sethe’s mother, with the capability to choose or refuse motherhood, choose or refuse life even. This is what makes her as a woman, a mother, who transcends the conventional notion of motherhood. Sethe’s mother is undoubtedly special and difference from others in her actions, yet she celebrates all that she can in her enslaved position, thus influencing her daughter, and her daughter’s own mothering behaviors. Shaw affirms that “Where women engaged, directly and indirectly, in abortions and infanticide, they picked away at one of the bases of the system’s life itself—reproduction.
And even as they performed mothering tasks that reinforced the system of slavery, they also chipped away at institutional assumptions about dependency (cultural, material, and political) and thereby helped to prepare their children for freedom” (253). Motherhood here becomes a weapon of resistance, a refusal to perpetuate the inhuman exploitation of the slave. Sethe’s mother, her behavior, her words, her actions, her death, all profoundly affect Sethe, perhaps more than Nan’s othermothering, because of the special nature of her “mothering.
” Whether intentional and conscious or not, Sethe’s mother does what actual mothers in slavery did. She “transmitted a set of values and traditions to…Sethe that reinforced a kind of self-sufficiency, community culture, and group identity that could help to sustain her within and beyond her enslavement” (Shaw 253). Sethe, then, grows into a woman who understands the potential of choice in a world in which choice is not given to African-Americans, especially African-American women. Sethe uses choice as a defense mechanism, as did her mother before her.
Her mother chose to abandon infants rather than suckle and raise the products of rape and hatred. Her mother chose death rather than sitting back and passively accepting the atrocities of slavery. Sethe’s mother was a powerful woman, socially constructed by her life in Africa, by the Middle Passage, and by slavery in America. Because the construction of her character did not begin in slavery, she is able to draw upon other experiences in order to attempt to make a change in her life, or in the lives of others around her.
In dying for her cause, if nothing else remains, not language, not culture, not love, she transmits her belief system to her daughter, therefore passing on a legacy of atypical mothering. This legacy, then, comes to fruition in Sethe. When Sethe is sold to Sweet Home, Mr. and Mrs. Garner, who amazingly and out of character for slave owners have “high principles,” give her a choice (Beloved 10). She does not get to choose whether or not to be a slave, whether or not to produce offspring and be a mother, but she is permitted to choose her mate, her husband, from among the male slaves who are there.
As much as Sethe is “given” the option to choose her mate, one must question if every girl would have been given the same option. Was Sethe given a choice because at thirteen she was already “iron-eyed” as a result of her mother’s influence? In any case, Sethe makes her choice and takes it one step further, borrowing fabric from around the master’s home to sew “herself a dress on the sly” for “their first bedding,” a dress that she would have to dismantle in order to return all the pieces to their proper places (Beloved 11). This all occurs when Sethe is not a biological mother yet.
Thus, her mother’s influence is already clear. At this point, she is still the object of her mother’s mothering. A biological mother certainly could reject her children, reject motherhood, and remain only selfishly self-aware. Therefore even if Sethe gleaned something from her mother’s rebelliousness, she nevertheless also took with her mother’s slave status. What differentiates Sethe as a woman and moves her to the subject position as a mother occurs during her escape from Sweet Home and twenty-eight days after she has attained her freedom.
Her actions in this time period, without question, demonstrate her atypical behavior as a mother. O’Reilly reads, “Sethe’s numerous maternal feats, from escape to infanticide, as planned acts of resistance grounded in her abhorrence of slavery,” certainly part of her mother’s legacy (133). Sethe, for twenty-eight days, had great hope for a new life outside the confines of slavery. It is destroyed by one man, one vision of a hat, causing her to “misuse her children” without question (Garner 83).
Sethe, an eighteen or nineteen-year-old female African-American slave, is the representatiion of what it is to be at the bottom of a ladder and her role in this novel is multifaceted. She is daughter, if only for a short time, and she is mother. She resents the loss of her time as daughter, and thus feels the need to make up for this loss with her own daughters. Kubitschek calls this her “unsatisfied hunger which… conditions her own extremely possessive definition of motherhood” (171). Sethe remembers “belonging and having been loved” and must pass that on (Kubitschek 170).
O’Reilly claims that “Sethe’s maternal identity is inseparable from her identity as daughter… and… This yearning to be daughter originates from Sethe’s own displaced identity. Her self has no familial or ancestral grounding” (87, 88). However, this girl, barely a woman, not only gets her three existing children to freedom, but also, nine months pregnant, gets herself to freedom, even after being physically and mentally abused by schoolteacher and his nephews. One nephew beat her to the point of damaging all nerve endings, giving her a permanent “chokecherry tree” on her back (Beloved 17)
Sethe knows her mother only by a mark under her breast, a circled cross “burnt right in the skin” (61). Sethe’s mother remains essentially unnamed in the novel, and for the most part she exists only in fragmented memories. Sethe’s “Ma’am,” as she is called, was hanged early in Sethe’s life and her body burned or mutilated beyond recognition. This attempt at erasure or annihilation of the maternal fails, however, for “Ma’am” still functions as a vital link in the matrilineal heritage of Sethe and her daughters. Sethe’s mother transforms a physical mark of violence into a symbol of identity.
When Sethe’s mother asks her daughter to always identify her through a cross mark on her rib, she is writing her own history; she is also claiming a voice. She subsequently defies the dominant discourse, which denies her both a self and a history. Sethe is therefore provided with a past she can claim, an identity to which she can refer. The female body as a text that records the history of slavery through suffering and conveys this history through an exhibition of the violence on the male and female slave is revised here by Sethe’s conscious narration of the black women’s self identity.
The story of her mother becomes her alternate text of black womanhood, undermining the definitions imposed upon others. 2. 2 Breasts And Breastmilk: A Bond Between Mother And Child More psychologically than physically painful was the fact that the other one sucked the milk from her breasts, milk for her “crawling already? girl” she had sent on to freedom (Beloved 152). Physical pain Sethe can handle. The pain of not being the mother she wanted and intended to be by not being able to get her breastmilk to her daughter is far more painful. It is the embodiment of motherhood for her.
In some ways, Sethe and her “crawling-already? girl” do work as one. Sethe certainly believes this and demonstrates it through her deliberate mothering role and her daughter knows no other way; hence she believes in the unity as well. Here we can see the salutary bond between a mother and a child in the novel once again. Although this construction reveals that Sethe should protect her children, as she protects herself, especially the two youngest girls who still would be sharing her ego, the key here is that they have a whole life before them.
To Sethe, that whole life before them is better to be nonexistent than for it to be spent enslaved. Thus, to have that distinct link between mother and child affects Sethe more than any beating ever could. Breasts and breastmilk are unquestionably essentialist aspects of Sethe’s mothering. Yet, her reaction to the handling of them is socially constructed by slavery and by her mother. Sethe’s identity, inscribed by her own mother’s actions, has bound her to the notion that both her breasts and her milk were her own. Schoolteacher’s nephew distorts her identification as a mother and as an individual entity on purpose.
He affects her psychologically, with the knowledge that taking something of her motherhood will be particularly painful to her. Thus he nurses, taking away the milk she has made and is saving for the “crawling already? girl” who has already escaped to freedom. When Sethe explains the abuse to Paul D, she first tells him,” ‘those boys came in there and took my milk… Held me down and took it’ ” (Beloved 16). She explains the beating as a secondary act of abuse. But Paul D does not comprehend the meaning of this act; he understands only the physical pain, not psychological.
The nephew can take motherhood away from her by selling her children to other farms, but with her children already gone, he can only do the next worst thing which leaves no evidence as a beating does. Using Sethe’s word: take her milk, milk that only she can produce, milk that only she can get to her daughter, Paula Eckard explains the value of this nurturance noting, “Milk… represents life, sustenance, and maternal nurturance while everything in the culture and environment conspires to destroy such forces” (72).
This becomes evident in the novel through the opposition of life-giving and supporting forces, such as mother love and life-denying entities such as slavery and oppression. Thus, schoolteacher’s nephew has degraded her mothering status in her mind. Wilma King emphasizes that “The emotional costs of these ordeals… lasted far longer than the physical pain,” which explains why, when talking with Paul D about this, she relates the rape of the milk as the primary offense (98). However, the breastmilk is Sethe’s second most important focus, second only to getting her children out of slavery.
Nevertheless, she endures it all and delivers her fourth baby in the process. In fact, what little help she gets from others, including Amy, Stamp Paid, and the boy with him, is really quite insignificant considering the circumstances. Sethe must continue to be the unconventional woman and mother, who can count on no one but herself to make sure that her children are cared for in the manner she thinks appropriate. Thus, later, when she does have some control, she uses it by killing Beloved. Her actions should not be surprising considering her life in slavery, especially the events immediately preceding her escape.
A unifying element which links mother and daughters, milk is also a symbolic reminder of the mother tongue that has been silenced and that Sethe, Denver, and Beloved later reclaim. Milk is central to the text in other ways as well. The stealing of Sethe’s breast milk provides the critical juncture that sets events in motion and eventually propels Sethe to flight. When Schoolteacher’s nephews attack a pregnant and lactating Sethe, they engage in an act of sexual, racial, and maternal defilement that represents a complete perversion of the third female blood-transformation mystery.
Sethe’s maternity offers her no protection from violence, just as it had failed to exempt other slave women. Historian Jacqueline Jones tells how milk often flowed together during the whippings of nursing mothers. She also describes how during such whippings trenches were dug to accommodate the bellies of pregnant women to afford their unborn children, the master’s valuable property, some protection. As graves for the living, these trenches served as a symbol of how women’s roles as workers and childbearers ironically and violently came together (20).
Quite literally, their bodies served as the terrain upon which the patriarchy was erected. 2. 3. Maternal Instincts vs. Social Instincts Sethe’s most severe behavior as a mother, that distinguishes her as socially constructed by both her mother’s actions and the abuse of slavery, because she alters the rules, determines for herself what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is right and what is wrong, suggests that she is simultaneously the best mother and the worst, and without question, revolutionary.
Trudier Harris notes that Morrison “succeeds in making Sethe so simply human and American (the God-given right to motherhood, love of one’s children, desire of a better life for them, love of freedom, nonconformity) that we cannot easily condemn her act even when we clearly do not condone it” (Fiction and Folklore 171). This is the case when social and moral norms are being neglected before the maternal instincts, which are proven to be more powerful than social ones. Yet Sethe was a “pretty little slavegirl that had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children” (Beloved 158).
The rapidity with which she acts certainly shows it’s innate and essentialist behavior. Sethe is a mother both under the confines of slavery and then in freedom. But she is a different mother in each situation, thereby confirming the socially constructed nature of her mothering. She proudly explains to Paul D the essence of motherhood; and Paul D “knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now, that was freedom” (Beloved 162). Sethe is proud of herself, her accomplishments, and appreciates her freedom.
O’Reilly suggests that “Sethe’s flight to freedom is structured specifically as a heroic quest” (133). (Please explain a little) In reality, “The very meaning of a hero and heroism is redefined, making it possible for Sethe to inscribe herself as subject and celebrate the reproductive feats of nursing and birth as heroic labor” (O’Reilly 134). Heroism here is referred here to boldness to become a mother in such a life-denying circumstances. This is true also for Sethe’s rebellious and atypical rescue of herself and children as well.
Interestingly, when Sethe is no longer someone else’s “property,” she suddenly sees her children as her own – her own property, so to speak. After being owned, she wants ownership too, of herself and her children. Sethe has never had anything to call her own in her life and suddenly everything is her own. She acts and reacts based upon everything she has seen, heard, and felt in her lifetime, a lifetime of slavery. She knows the notion of ownership. Sethe reacts as a result of her newfound possessiveness and ownership of her children. Again, she is creating her own language and law for motherhood.
Paul D understands part of this: the possessiveness, the love, and the freedom. But he does not understand the killing. To her, death and the potential of heaven is better than slavery and hell on earth. Thus, this murder may prove her more “animalistic,” as schoolteacher would argue she already is, or perhaps, less so, because her decision was a conscious one, thought out and made of her own free will (Beloved 193). She takes responsibility for herself and her actions by refusing to accept patriarchal society’s laws regarding slavery, laws regarding murder, and traditions regarding a woman’s place, especially a black woman’s place.
So, instead of returning to slavery under schoolteacher and his two physically and emotionally abusive nephews, she assumes society, institutes an instant matriarchal ruling system, the social instincts, empowered by her own mother’s actions and perhaps toying with God’s power: what Sethe giveth, Sethe taketh away. She does not regard the murder of her daughter as taking life away from her daughter, but as keeping her daughter’s life away from schoolteacher, away from slavery, and putting it in a better place. Sethe believes that once Beloved is dead and moves on to eternal life, neither schoolteacher nor slavery can touch.
She is safe. She will be where Sethe’s own mother is. Sethe believes she is preserving Beloved by killing her. She is preserving the purity of her body and mind. Beloved will not be ripped apart by the men or the institution that governs slavery. She will not be raped physically or emotionally. Thus, to Sethe, she has succeeded in preserving her daughter. In Beloved, Sethe is both subject and object, rigid and excessive, mother and daughter. She is exerting influence as well as receiving it and she exerts it because of the way she has received it from her own mother.
This becomes relevant to her handling of Paul D, as well. Paul D does not understand what he must accept in order to make a life with Sethe. He cannot accept his place in the household as something other than the head and he does not understand Sethe’s love, protectiveness, or murder of her daughter. Paul D’ s reaction to the knowledge of Sethe’s actions, according to Jan Furman, forces her to “rebuff all attempts to minimize her victories as a woman, as a mother. And so she takes back from Paul D the responsibility for her breasts that she had given” (75-6). She takes all responsibility back.
This tells the reader again that Sethe’s strength surpasses all. Morrison flat out tells the reader that she is “tougher, because she could do and survive things they believed she should neither do nor survive” (Beloved 47). She cannot be the weak slave woman when her actions, her love, and her strength of character make her larger than, more powerful than schoolteacher, Halle, Paul D, maybe all of patriarchal society itself. Her actions certainly disrupt the societal norms. However, the inherent issue remains regarding essentialism and social constructionism. Is birth civilized or is it animalistic?
Mothers are trained, from the onset of motherhood, to virtually be more natural, more like animals. Then, later in life, when those tendencies take a different form, in protectiveness of their young, mothers are maligned for the same behavior and actions that were instilled upon them during pregnancy, labor and childbirth, and this is Sethe’s plight. She attempts to take the proper measures, which is her defined, unstereotypical manner. Therefore, as in Sethe’s case, the concept of mothering may have essentialist qualities, but the individual mother is socially constructed.
Why, then, does Sethe kill Beloved? Why, after her milk was taken from her by one of the nephews, taking practically all of her motherhood with it, does she begin to take motherhood away from herself when she fought so hard to get it under freedom? Why wouldn’t her sons, Howard and Buglar, “let go each other’s hands” (Beloved 183)? They fear the one person who should be their haven in this world. Is motherhood that powerful? Why does it take Sethe twenty years to figure out that she should have killed schoolteacher, not her own child, as is evidenced by the fact that when Mr.
Bodwin comes to take Denver to work, Sethe goes after him and not Denver (Beloved 262)? Is it because the institution of slavery was so strong that it would have claimed her and her children even if schoolteacher were dead? And if the structure of slavery were so powerful, and one sees the negativity, the hatred, the racism in its structure, then one must claim matriarchy for the solution. One must see Sethe as a powerful and revolutionary woman who, although she commits murder, although she kills her own “best thing,” her “crawling already?
girl” who impresses her with her advanced physical capabilities, makes her own decisions under her own set of rules, given to her because she is a mother. She can no longer conform to an authority that prevents her from “protecting” her young in undoubtedly excessive ways once the hummingbirds of motherhood point their beaks into her heart. Paul D and schoolteacher reference Sethe in terms of animal characteristics with a negative connotation. But if one can co-opt the male master’s language one can offer that it is not always bad for a mother to have animalistic tendencies, though she should not be measured by them.
Interestingly, the non-biological mothers will offer even further examination of social constructionism, because they are created out of necessity. The question arises, then, as to whether their mothering behavior becomes “essentialized” once they assume the role of mother. A biological mother certainly could reject her children, reject motherhood, and remain only selfishly self-aware. Yet, for the most part, the mothers do not make that choice. Are the attributes of motherhood universal, essential, regardless of the societal constructs playing on their decisions?
Or do these “stereotypes” for motherhood break down under severe circumstances? Let us answer these questions in the next section. 3. Destereotyping Mother’s Role 3. 1 Breaking of Stereotyped Mother Image In Beloved, Morrison offers mothers who represent the past, present, and future of motherhood. The primary mother characters include Sethe’s mother and Baby Suggs, who represent the past; Sethe, who represents the past, present, and future because of her past mothering and present influence on her daughter; and Denver, who becomes an othermother in the text and will presumably one day become a mother in her own right.
Other characters in the novel, such as Ella and Nan; Beloved, who appears pregnant just before she disappears; the Thirty-Mile woman, Patsy, who is pregnant with Sixo’s baby, “Seven-O”; and Amy, who helps Sethe deliver Denver, are all involved in the mothering process, yet do not bring to bear as much influence on other characters through their mothering as the earlier mentioned mothering characters do. Additionally, with the exception of Ella, the little mothering in which they are involved is more stereotypically oriented.
In Beloved, the major mothering figures affect existing characters, belief systems, and accepted or traditional institutions. Sethe’s mother, then, is the place to begin to understand what differentiates a mother who remains in the stereotype from a mother who consciously opposes and breaks down the stereotyped mother role. Sethe’s mother’s life includes the Middle Passage, the horrid conditions on slave ships, the shock to one’s system of being caught and transferred away from one’s home, the slave branding. What her life did not include was acceptance of this situation. She does not tolerate the injustice.
She rebels. This is evidenced by the fact that she was hanged with many others and by the heavy tone Morrison uses to describe the event and the event that preceded it. Prior to the hanging, Sethe’s mother shows Sethe her slave marking, explaining, “‘If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark'” (Beloved 61). Sethe’s mother is anticipating that her death will not be of natural causes, because she is willing to fight her master, fight slavery, even if the result is her death, even if she orphans the one child she chose to keep.
Sethe’s mother is hanged and left in the tree as an example to warn other slaves that actions such as hers, although not explicitly presented in the novel, will meet with retribution. Sethe then explains that, ” ‘By the time they cut her down nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or not, least of all me and I did look'” (Beloved 61). Sethe is the devoted, ever-faithful daughter. Mothering for Sethe’s mother is not about the day-to-day aspects of feeding and cuddling, or even the day-to-day protection needed from undue heat or cold or illness.
Rather than to feed her daughter, Sethe’s mother’s role was to make change in the world so that her daughter might live a better life. She attempts to impress this upon her daughter, giving her father’s name, a piece of her past, “‘Seth-thuh'” (Beloved 31). Though she is not permitted to nurture her child long, she demonstrates to Sethe that she retained her cultural heritage and danced and sang, “shifted shapes and became something other. Some unchained, demanding other whose feet knew her pulse better than she did” (Beloved 31). This demonstrates a stereotyped image of African-American mother.
This relates directly to Collins’s viewpoint that “African-American mothers try to protect their daughters from the dangers that lie ahead by offering them a sense of their own unique self-worth” (127). Sethe is meant to gain self-worth in knowing her heritage, in watching the dancing, in her name. This is the attempt at protection that Sethe’s mother offers: protection from slavery, disguised as rebellion against it, and all that it contained, so that her daughter, the one she chose, the one she kept and named, might not know the pain she has known.
Collins’s point of view directly relates to Sethe’s mother’s choices. Sethe’s mother leans with the latter, being willing to sacrifice her own life and Sethe’s for the sake of personal identity and self-worth. Undoubtedly, Sethe learns from her mother’s example. Sethe’s own actions later in the novel, when she attempts to kill her four children, and succeeds in killing one, rather than allow them to be returned to a life of slavery, demonstrate that her mother’s actions profoundly affected her own decision-making process. Garner offers that “the mother…
is inextricably bound up with the fact that she is a daughter, whose caretaker and primary childbearer was her own mother and a woman” (82) Although not entirely true for Sethe, as she is physically raised more by Nan, another slave, than by her own mother, she is highly influenced by her mother’s work and rebellious actions. Thus, “Both the capacity and the desire to mother grow out of the mother-daughter relationship” (Garner 82). Sethe does recall her mother, as evidenced by her actions and in her “rememory,” after Beloved asks her if her “woman never fix up her hair” (Beloved 60).
This memory also influences Sethe and gives belief to Sethe’s independent attitude and resolutions, regarding her reconciliation with Beloved, her “crawling already? girl,” even if they mean losing other stable aspects of her life including her job. What Sethe remembers at this point is a time and a language that she repressed. The time is before Sweet Home, when she was a child and before she was sold, and the language she remembers is her mother’s African dialect. What she recalls, though, serves as the primary influence on Sethe and her concept of what it is to be a good and caring mother, who takes care of her own in her own way.
The message comes directly from Nan, the wet nurse, but the content is all based upon Sethe’s mother and her actions. Interestingly enough, the language hi which Nan gives this information is not the master’s language. It is through the African dialect that Sethe later thinks of as a code, a language of the slaves, a language of the women (Beloved 62). What Nan explains to Sethe is part of the Middle Passage, how she and Sethe’s mother were repeatedly raped by the crew, and then later by other whites. What Sethe learns from this information, however, is the difference in the value of life.
Sethe’s life was valuable to her mother because she loved the black man with whom she copulated. Thus, Sethe’s life was not one to throw away, for she was the product of love. Sethe’s mother did not value the lives of the babies conceived out of rape, out of hatred, so she chose to rid herself of them. She consciously refused motherhood at a time when she could refuse nothing else and had control over nothing, not even her own body. This is a powerful example to set. Sethe’s mother murders; she murders by desertion, by neglect, by the refusal to mother.
Later, when the reader sees Sethe murder her own daughter, albeit one she loves, for different reasons and in a violent manner, one can comprehend at the very least the mentality of choice, the maternal influence, that demonstrates one who has strayed from the stereotypical role of mothering. Sethe’s mother does more mothering and has a greater affect on Sethe by the work she does, the few words she says, and the actions she takes, than through typical, expected acts of mothering. Sethe’s mother redefines what it is to be a mother.
Slavery does part of this for her; she is not allowed to mother Sethe on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis because she is made to work for the white master. Shaw emphasizes the fact that slave owners frequently did not allow slave women to mother their children. The women’s productive labor was often viewed as much more valuable to their owners than the reproductive labor involved in rearing a child who, as yet, had no value. As a consequence, new patterns of child-care emerged, with a variety of people mothering slave children. (242) In this case, Nan is the designated othermother. 3. 2 Motherhood and Slavery
As a capable black woman and as a mother, Sethe feels obligated to provide Beloved, whether her daughter or not, “a bed to sleep in and somebody there not worrying you to death about what you got to do each day to deserve it” (Beloved 67-68). Therefore, her job as mother, as caretaker, as “life-giver” and “life-maintainer” is never-ending, and because it is never-ending, it has the potential to take her to her grave. Beyond that, Sethe fears losing Beloved before she can make her understand that worse than killing her own daughter, “—far worse—was what Baby Suggs died of what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble.
” (Beloved 251). Although not entirely true, for Sethe’s best thing is herself, the one thing about herself that she values, that slavery has not taken away from her is motherhood. This, for Sethe, is maintaining a mental survival for her children, preventive medicine for the ills of slavery. As Kubitschek notes, “On the plantations… black women’s nurturance—from the physical (nursing milk) to the metaphysical (energy and patience)—is used up primarily in working fields and tending white children” (166).
But for Sethe, who was able to have her children with her, “the major means of protecting children from slavery is to value them and to communicate this value to them” (Kubitschek 166). This is a sacrifice Sethe and many mothers, traditional and nontraditional, are more than willing to make. This becomes especially painful in part two of the novel. When Sethe thinks about Beloved and her own actions, she says she will explain it all to Beloved, reflecting, “How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her… I’ll tend her as no mother ever tended a child, a daughter.
Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children” (Beloved 200). Here we can see transforming and destereotyping potential of Sethe’s actions. She goes on thinking of how she will change, how she can mother now as a free woman. In this case, it is as if Sethe must be a nontraditional, unstereotypical mother in order to accomplish the traditional mothering role she wants to attain. She also reflects on her faults when Beloved returns, how she was distracted by Paul D and should not have been. But it is at this point that she demonstrates the difference between man and woman, between father and mother.
Kubitschek argues that “In the twilight area of an illegal freedom, Sethe has immediately, upon being summoned back to slavery, acted on a slave definition of mothering: presence is all” (167). Being together, even if dead together, was enough. “Presence is all. ” Lucille Fultz cites Marsha Darling’s interview with Morrison in which Morrison asserts: “Under the theatrical conditions of slavery, if you made that claim… that you are the mother of these children you were claiming the right to say something about what happens to them. ” Morrison terms Sethe’s commitment to her children “an excess of maternal feeling, a total surrender.
” This surrender is configured in Sethe’s desire to protect her daughter from the ills she suffered as a female slave. ” (40) Sethe takes her protection of her children one step further. Fultz contends that “Through desire and knowledge Sethe achieves subjectivity for herself and her children. She refuses to subscribe to the system that treats her and her family as objects” (38). She especially needs to make up to Beloved, perhaps because she killed her, or perhaps because the death separated them as Sethe had been separated from her own “ma’am.
” Kubitschek asserts, “Still defining motherhood as keeping her children with her, Sethe cannot reject the ghost’s presence” (167). Perhaps it is more a loss of a time component than the actual murder component that Sethe regrets. Thus, because she spent so little time with her own mother, she must spend as much time with her daughters as possible, which leads to their month of playing together. Morrison visually paints their month, noting the “star-loaded sky,” “sweet milk,” “string puzzles in afternoon light,” “shadow pictures in the gloaming,” “a garden of vegetables and flowers” (Beloved 240).
All of this serves Sethe’s purpose until Beloved decides it is not enough, and Denver realizes “that her mother could die and leave them both and what would Beloved do then? ” (Beloved 243). Beloved has no life of her own, no name, and never did. She was never called anything but the “crawling already? girl” and “Beloved” as her gravestone marked her. Not a name to cling to. Morrison tells us that “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name” (Beloved 274) because she is a representation of life, many lives, but does not get the opportunity to live her own.
She can be the woman during the Middle Passage; she can be the woman in slavery; she can be the woman who escaped slavery; and she is all of these. She “embodies each and every woman of the African American motherline… and… is also linked to Sethe’s own mother who, like the murdered granddaughter, remains nameless” (O’Reilly 86, 87). But as a result, she is never herself. Morrison poetically crosses three generations of women, who learn and demonstrate survival skills, in a very matriarchally religious trinity—mother: Sethe’s mother; daughters: Sethe and eventually Denver; and “holy” ghost: Beloved.
Each fights for survival of herself, and of future generations through different means. Sethe’s mother rebels and is hanged, but impresses upon her daughter what truly matters—the self and a sense of connection with one’s own matrilineal line. Sethe escapes slavery with her children and is willing to kill them so that they may “survive” maintaining their natural selves. Beloved is reincarnated. This is her survival, but it also leads to Denver’s ability to survive on her own, which further protects and preserves the potential for future generations.
Essentially, all these women can fight for survival at this point in the novel because there is a sense of belonging, of necessity. Sethe gives herself inherence when she places complete necessity on herself for the responsibility of her children. Morrison describes Sethe as a free woman, as a free mother, writing, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (Beloved 95). But that is what Sethe is able to do. In the Clearing, she claims herself. At this point, she is finally able to attach herself to the self that she can create.
As a result, she can also, hi her mother role, help begin to claim selfhood for those around her. Thus, she returned to 124, “opened the door, walked in and locked it tight behind her” and when “Sethe locked the door, the women inside were free at last to be what they liked, see whatever they saw and say whatever was on their minds” (Beloved 198, 199). This is all part of Sethe’s role as mother. She defends others, her own girls especially, with her whole body, her whole home. Yet, the one thing she does not immediately understand or establish for herself, until Paul D makes her realize it, is that Beloved, her “crawling already?
girl,” was not her “best thing. ” Sethe is a woman destined for survival early on because of the actions she takes and the decisions she makes as a mother, but she cannot see her personal value beyond powerful motherhood until the end, when she is a free woman: free of slavery, free of Beloved, beginning to be free of the past, free of the blame of murdering her daughter to “save” her, and free of the blame of making the ink schoolteacher used to assess their animal characteristics and measurements (Beloved 271). Then and only then does she fully comprehend the destereotyped notion of “best thing” as herself.
Redefining motherhood for herself, Sethe also redefines the foundation of humanity. By making her character commit that horrible act, Toni Morrison asks her reader: is the inhumanity in Sethe’s killing of the baby or is it in the horrible system that drives her to commit this act? Playing with the reader’s mind, Morrison dislocates scenes of the slaves’ beating that are prevalent in narratives of slavery. For the image of the master holding the stick, she substitutes that of the slave committing a violent act on her own child.
From now on the slave is given the opportunity to have a voice. Why murder her baby? With this infanticide, Sethe’s writing of history undermines the ideology that founded the white masters. This ideology, based on a racial and gendered duality, locates humanity within the white race. It is this vision and appropriation of humanity that Morrison attacks. If humanity lies in the empowerment of the white man who engages in a violent exploitation of the non-white, driving the latter to kill her child, where does inhumanity stand?
3. 2. Baby Suggs: The Holy Hope In addition to Sethe and her mother, and eventually Denver, there is Baby Suggs, holy, who demonstrates survival at all costs through her mothering capacities. Due to the selling of human beings during the time of slavery in the United States, mothers who were slaves were often unable to actually mother their own children for any length of time. Although this is not the exact case with Sethe’s mother, or even Sethe, it is true of Baby Suggs.
“Through Baby Suggs and the other slave women, Morrison delineates the dilemma of slave mothers caught in the web of a cultural and economic system that sought to denature human feelings and sever family ties” (Fultz 36). In other words, since the enslaved woman is being denied the right of being a mother to her own children, so is Morrison’s character choosing to waive this right in order to assert strength and claim her humanity. By rejecting motherhood, she rejects the assumption that because she is doomed to be a mother, so is she born to serve his master.
Halle, Baby Suggs’s youngest son, is the only child of eight she really has the opportunity to see grow up. Halle, in turn, buys her out of slavery, and ironically, never sees her again. Thus, Baby Suggs’s mothering of her own eight is almost nonexistent. She tells Sethe, “Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased… My first born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember” (Beloved 5). However, Baby Suggs mothers more than her own.
One might even suggest that her biological motherhood does not allow her to aid the survival of her offspring because she is neither empowered by that mothering nor permitted to do it. Her children are taken away from her, sold. She does not mother them; she is not given the opportunity to do so. In addition, she is not permitted to love them and mother them the way she would like to in the time she does have with them, because they are not free. Perhaps her most important mothering, and the survival skills she teaches, occur once she has been freed.
As a free woman, she is able to give caring and love and advice to people who actually have the choice whether or not to take it, as they, too, are free. Harris notes that Baby Suggs “becomes hope-bringer and visionary” (174) as an unofficial preacher to the children, the grown men, the women, mothering them all by teaching them to love themselves because even as free blacks, they are not loved by white people. Baby Suggs is empowered here by the faith all the people in the Clearing have in her. They believe her, listen to her, take her at her word, and thus begin to learn to love themselves.
Consequently, they learn emotional survival skills as a defense against the white, racist world in which they live. Baby Suggs has more of a mothering capacity as a free woman, more potential to do good in her world, more ability to love and care “that much,” all of which gives her the power to effect change for the future (Beloved 45). Her people listen to her and will love themselves and will be different from their slave selves or their parents’ slave selves. Thus, Baby Suggs has atypically created a power base for herself and her people, and become a source of spiritual survival.
Baby Suggs also mothers Sethe more than her own children, for Sethe brings the future with her when she escapes slavery and Sweet Home. She gets her children out and brings a newborn baby with her, her first and only child born out of slavery. When Sethe arrives at 124, Baby Suggs “kissed her on the mouth” (Beloved 92). Morrison makes a point of telling the reader “on the mouth” to demonstrate that the connection made here between Baby Suggs and Sethe is stronger than mere mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Though not biologically mother and daughter, they will live as such for twenty-eight happy days.
Baby Suggs goes beyond her mother-in-law role here, and truly nurses Sethe back to comfort and health as a mother would. Her silent understanding and smart actions are also examples of motherlove and care, knowing when to ask questions and when to keep quiet and deal with the symptoms without pressing for the cause. This is the exact level of motherhood that Sethe craves when, “She wished for Baby Suggs’ fingers molding her nape, reshaping it, saying, ‘Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down'” (Beloved 86).
As an othermother here, Baby Suggs does more than care for Sethe’s physical self. She cares for her mental and psychological self that cannot separate her present from her past, her “rememory” (Beloved 99). Baby Suggs is seen as a woman capable of doing that affects more than one entity, far more. In effect, Baby Suggs’s lifestyle creates a new and altered proverb: Care for someone, and she’ll be well that day. Teach her how to care for herself, and she’ll be well for a lifetime. Baby Suggs can do this and does for many. Morrison also defies the assumed natural bond between mother and child.
She claims that the black woman, put into the context of slavery, can choose to reject the alleged bond of motherhood. Knowing that her children would be taken away from her and sold, Baby Suggs made the decision to break the bond of motherhood. With a non-maternal attitude, Baby Suggs chooses to reject any emotional attachment to her newborn to avoid or maybe survive the tragedy of seeing her children taken away. Even with her only child that was left with her, she asserts that she was prepared for Halle’s death more than for his life.
This attitude that may apparently sound pessimistic reveals a certain force as Baby Suggs takes her destiny in her own hand. She attacks the biological, cultural and nurturing aspect of motherhood, the very elements used by the white race to justify slavery. In other words, since the enslaved woman is being denied the right of being a mother to her own children, so is Morrison’s character choosing to waive this right in order to assert strength and claim her humanity. By rejecting motherhood, she rejects the assumption that because she is doomed to be a mother, so is she born to serve his master.
The assumed nurturing aspect of the slave woman is rejected by Baby Suggs to undermine the conception that presents the condition of the slave as natural. She rejects the theory that deprives the slave of the “masculine” traits of strength, rationality and common sense, exhibiting tremendous strength to resist attachment and the logic of refusing to care for children she will not be permitted to keep, thus increasing her master’s profit at her own emotional expense. Perhaps Baby Suggs is better able to mother once Halle buys her out of slavery because she was unable to do so as a slave.
She does not even bother to examine her last child, “to try to learn features she would never see change into adulthood anyway,” and this one, Halle, is the one she was allowed to keep (Beloved 139). This is atypical mothering in the traditional sense as women stare at babies simply for enjoyment. This is not the case in slavery; not so for Baby Suggs. She is never given that luxury. But in not examining her last child, she is also not examining herself. The most important question here, is, of course, “Could she have been a loving mother?
” The readers know the answer to that question became we see her as a loving mother to other freed slaves, to her daughter-in-law and to her grandchildren. However, because she takes the time to ponder that question, one also knows that she did not always believe in herself or recognize her ability to affect the survival of herself and her off-spring. This even becomes evident in her renaming of herself. At Sweet Home, she is referred to as Jenny, and her bill of sale reads Jenny Whitlow. However, her “husband’s” name was Suggs and he called her “Baby” so her freed name by which she identifies herself is Baby Suggs (Beloved 142).
Baby Suggs is a survivor, self-proclaimed, while Jenny Whitlow is a slave. As a result, she passed on her newfound spirit. This self-proclaimed Baby Suggs, holy, is not simply impressing survival skills on others due to her name, but due to her actions. Her preaching reaches out to people and gives them guidance, thus making her subject, not object. She is the center of “the Word” as Stamp Paid believes it (Beloved 177) and “although Baby Suggs ‘forgets’ the necessity of collective responsibility in celebrating her daughter-in-law’s safe arrival out of slavery, her actions overall are characterized by selflessness” (Mbalia 92).
Unlike the stereotyped black mammy, Baby Suggs has a spirit of her own. She makes choices such as renaming herself. By addressing slavery in its most negative aspects, Baby Suggs therefore undermines the image of the slave as consenting to his condition. She shows awareness of the condition of the slave and challenges certain tropes of identity such as naming within the system of slavery. As a result, Baby Suggs, holy, becomes more than a human being; she becomes an icon. All of the experiences Baby Suggs has endured finally beat her down, and Morrison tells us “—well, it could wear out even a Baby Suggs, holy” (Beloved 177).
The use of the article “a” before Baby Suggs, holy, is what transforms her from human to icon, from freed ex-slave to mother, even grand mother, with power. As an icon of motherhood, she is needed by more than Sethe and her children; even the fact that she is Halle’s mother, which leads to the perpetuation of her family. Morrison defies here the assumed natural bond between mother and child. She claims that the black woman, put into the context of slavery, can choose to reject the alleged bond of motherhood.
Knowing that her children would be taken away from her and sold, Baby Suggs made the decision to break the bond of motherhood becomes secondary. She is needed by her entire community. She is mother to them all in the sense that her guidance is requested even after the tragedy occurs in her yard. Morrison attacks here a romanticized version that presents motherhood as a one-sided vision of a natural bond between a mother and a child. With a non-maternal attitude, Baby Suggs chooses to reject any emotional attachment to her newborn to avoid or maybe survive the tragedy of seeing her children taken away.
Even with her only child that was left with her, she asserts that she was prepared for Halle’s death more than for his life. This attitude that may apparently sound pessimistic reveals a certain strength as Baby Suggs takes her destiny in her own hand. She attacks the biological, cultural and nurturing aspect of motherhood, the very elements used by the white race to justify slavery. Yet a part of being this icon, in defining one’s self on one’s own terms, also means that one can have unanswerable questions that erode the self.
Yet Baby Suggs does question. Because she cannot “approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice” she seeks out “something harmless in this world” (Beloved 180, 179): colors, colors that she has never before had the time on which to focus. Mitchell contends that “Baby Suggs abandons all hope and takes to her bed to contemplate color, the very entity that has determined her life” (100). She goes on to note, “That slavery and its aftermath caused even Baby Suggs to quit suggests how pervasively pernicious is the institution” (Mitchell 100).
In other words, since the enslaved woman is being denied the right of being a mother to her own children, so is Morrison’s character choosing to waive this right in order to assert strength and claim her humanity. By rejecting motherhood, she rejects the assumption that because she is doomed to be a mother, so is she born to serve his master. The assumed nurturing aspect of the slave woman is rejected by Baby Suggs to undermine the conception that presents the condition of the slave as natural.
She rejects the theory that deprives the slave of the “masculine” traits of strength, rationality and common sense, exhibiting tremendous strength to resist attachment and the logic of refusing to care for children she will not be permitted to keep, thus increasing her master’s profit at her own emotional expense. We see that, contrary to the popular black mammy, who is a static and predictable character, Morrison produces through Baby Suggs a counter discourse. Baby Suggs is a more developed character; she is unpredictable and alive. As a character, she grows and surprises the reader with her strength and resourcefulness.
From the stereotyped depiction of an old mammy, weakened and handicapped by her hip, unaware of what she looks like or who she really is, the characterization of Baby Suggs suddenly moves to a more lively persona, taking consciousness of her strength. The last battle she fought was against her own daughter-in-law, for the sake of her youngest grandchild. Baby Suggs loses and Denver drinks the blood of her sister with Sethe’s milk. Although she loses the battle over Denver when she is an infant, perhaps Baby Suggs wins the final battle over Denver, as Denver is the saving grace for Sethe at the end of the novel.
She can mend what Sethe broke for herself, for her children, and for Baby Suggs: the community. As saddened as Sethe is by the fact that Howard and Buglar left for fear of her, their mother, and tired by the baby ghost, they chose the safety of themselves over making their mother happy. In truth, this is what Sethe would want and has trained them to believe is the right action to take. This is not so different from their journey out of slavery. The analysis of the character of Baby Suggs offered here shows how a destereotyping of black motherhood can contribute to a destereotyping historiography of slavery.
From a site where it once symbolized the nurturing disposition of the slave towards her white masters, the black female body is displaced to a different location where it is able to destereotype the gendered and racial discourse used to justify slavery. As a symbol of the black female body, Baby Suggs addresses such issues as the passivity, the physicality and the irrationality of the female body, to destereotype fixed racial and gender identities, all of which facilitated the success of the slavery system. Conclusion
Morrison presents other characters in Beloved who are mothers, either biologically or through their actions; however, their role is either limited or their influence is. For example, Beloved appears to be pregnant and Patsy, the Thirty-Mile Woman, is pregnant during the course of the novel. However, since the reader neither sees them giving birth, nor actually mothering anyone, they exert no motherly influence that can be pinpointed and analyzed. Ella, mentioned briefly, refuses to mother even though she does, in fact, give birth to a child.
Nan othermothers Sethe, but the reader sees very little of her. In addition, Lady Jones serves to mother Denver to a point (and potentially others), through her schoolteaching. The fact that Denver comes to her first when she needs help is demonstrative of this. However, her role, though vital, is limited. Finally, Amy plays a caretaking role for Sethe when she delivers Denver, but like Lady Jones, her role is transitory. Unlike Lady Jones, whose role does influence Denver, Amy’s role is truly limited to the physical assistance and emotional support Sethe needs during childbirth.
All of these women who act in some capacity as mothers must not “be overwhelmed and determined by an oppressive past… but must be able to live in the present and conceive of a future” in order to assert themselves into a male-dominated patriarchal society, that although a post-slavery society (except for Sethe’s mother), nevertheless imposes restrictions on womanhood, on motherhood” (Kubitschek 144). They may “lack the perspective to comprehend historical experience as a part, rather than the whole of, their identities,” yet they must persevere (Kubitschek 144). And, in some way, to some extent, they do.
Perhaps through their own methods, but they do. Amy tenderly ministers to Sethe’s excoriated back which has been etched by Nephew’s whip into the image of a chokecherry tree containing a wild tangle of branches, leaves, and putrid blossoms. The tree, formed by pus, blood, and raised welts of flesh, becomes a perverse symbol of life and female experience, with pain, suffering, and fertility mixed together. Sethe’s wounds also represent an inscription of sorts and demonstrate how the slave mother’s body painfully serves as a text written upon by white patriarchal culture.
The wild and bloody image of the tree graphically symbolizes the tangled, purulent relationships that slavery often fostered between black women and white men. The tree serves as a branding which declares that Sethe’s body, like her children, is not hers to claim. This thesis evaluated the socially constructed mothering of mother figures: Sethe’s mother, Sethe, Baby Suggs and Denver. Like real mothers, each in her own way, and as a result of historical conventions, they affect the development of subsequent characters, of biological offspring or of children over whom they have chosen to assume responsibility.
All are different, yet share commonalities associated with motherhood. These mothers take it upon themselves to determine who is their own, who they will accept as or make their own, and then they mother those children, passionately, forever. They are not real mothers addressing real life, real tragedy. Yet they are art imitating life, the real life of motherhood, not in a vacuum, but socially constructed by history, by family, by patriarchy, by imposed value systems. Real mothers do make immediate and impossible decisions about children in their care in real life.
Real mothers can define their own value through breastmilk. Thus, rather than question or degrade any of these mothers, one must applaud them for persevering in motherhood under duress or the ramifications thereof. They achieved life, reproduction of life, and the goodness they could provide as essential mothers, socially constructed by a society that disempowers them consistently. Then, if aspects of mothering are universal, is mothering essentialist or socially constructed? Well, perhaps both. Mothers are undoubtedly constructed by the society in which they act as caregivers, nurturers.
Nevertheless, some of the actions they take in this society become, without question, essential to their being, once they are mothers. To save, to protect one’s child is essentialist, like the stork who will guard only her own. To have circumstances under which a mother must do this suggests socially constructed events. Thus, one must ascertain with respect to these culturally diverse mothers whether the essential aspects of being a mother transcend the socially constructed aspects of motherhood and thus their desire and ultimate goal of keeping their children and themselves alive.
Essentially, humans want to be alive, but mothers who accept motherhood are taught to keep their children alive by the implicit role and social definition of mother. Ultimately, then, the concept of mothering is essentialist, but actual mothers, including those analyzed here, are socially constructed. Each woman identifies herself as a mother or othermother and thus subsumes motherhood into her personal identity. Bibliography Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1991. Eckard, Paula Gallant.
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