By Rikke Aaserød Øisang
When I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved,I was immediately fascinated by her insistence on narrating the traumatic impact of slavery on the black psyche. I found it a bold attempt to dig into unexplored territory and I think Morrison does so masterfully. The critically acclaimed novel deals with the alienation of the other and does so on multiple levels. Morrison’s novel is set in post- slavery Ohio, where an African- American woman named Sethe is trying to reclaim her life and identity after having lived through the experience of slavery.
The novel works on both a psychological and physical level in both dealing with the body and psychological trauma. Morrison is attempting to articulate the unspeakable by depicting the alienation of not only the black self, but the trauma of experiencing the black body as white property. The article explores the various ways in which Toni Morrison deals with issues of the black body as ‘the other’ and the ways in which she does this.
Sethe often speaks of the past, but is often unsure of how to articulate her loss of self and the way in which she has been alienated from selfhood through slavery. Sethe says that ‘I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do.’(Morrison: 43). What Sethe is attempting to articulate is the relativity of time. With this statement, Sethe articulates vital postmodern questions of time and the ways in which time is experienced by an individual that has been denied selfhood. The issues of rememory that Sethe brings up are closely attached to her identity as ‘other’. Her memory does not manifest itself in conventional ways; however, her rememory represents the consciousness and the identity that she has lost through the trauma of slavery, but is now trying to reclaim.
Another interesting representation of the memory of the other is when Sethe’s dead daughter Beloved is coming back to life through rising up from the water. The reader is then told that ‘Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity.’(Morrison: 61). What we are witnessing is a birth metaphor. Beloved is rising from her mother’s womb and Sethe is giving birth when her bladder fills to capacity. Beloved manifests herself as a symbol of slavery when Sethe brings her back to her home and Beloved becomes increasingly demanding. ‘From that moment and through everything that followed, sugar could always be counted on to please her. It was as though sweet things were what she was born for….She gnawed the cane stick to flax and kept the strings in her mouth long after the syrup had been sucked away.’(Morrison: 64). Beloved’s greediness is like the memory of slavery that will not disappear. Beloved is terrorizing Sethe, just like the memories of the past that she is trying to suppress.
One of Morrison’s ongoing themes is the theme of blackness as marked identity. The slave holder, Mr. Garner, is described as a benevolent and paternal figure; he is even ‘tough enough and smart enough to call his niggers men.’(Morrison: 13). What is problematic is that it is still Mr. Garner who defines their selfhood and identity. Mr. Garner’s paternal attitude does not change the institution of slavery and its implications, it rather confirms it. Blacks do not have the right to define who they are and are therefore losing their sense of selfhood within the institution of slavery.
Black identity is also closely linked to being dehumanized. Paul D is tormented by his memories of wearing a bit and recalls the desperation that rose in him when he wore it. ‘Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back. Days after it was taken out, goose fat was rubbed on the corners of the mouth but nothing to soothe the tongue or take the wildness out of the eye.’(Morrison: 84). Paul D is here describing how he unwillingly becomes what the definer wants him to be. The bit makes him panic, he becomes animalistic and therefore ends up satisfying the white man’s image of him, due to the fact that definitions belong to Whites. As Paul D says: ‘Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle…But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them.’(Morrison: 234).
The absolute other is represented by the black female body. Sethe remembers the incident of white men coming to nurse her and take her milk from her baby (Morrison: 6). This incident marks her as an animal more than a human being. Her body is dehumanized and can be used in the same way as an animal’s. However, Sethe’s scarred body is seen as both alienating, but also a tool of reclaiming yourself, when Amy compares her scarred back to a tree: ‘It’s a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk- it’s red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. Leaves too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom.’ (Morrison: 93). Amy helps Sethe to see the beauty in her own body and to bring humanity back to the marked body.
Sethe’s identity as ‘the other’ is here seen as an identity that can be carried with pride. At the end of the novel, we learn that Sethe killed the newborn Beloved when they tried to escape slavery and was caught. Sethe describes this as ‘I stopped him… I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.’ (Morrison: 193). Sethe is here doing the ultimate act of reclaiming herself as the definer when she kills her daughter. She is the one who decides what is best for her children, not the slave owners.
Toni Morrison’s novel is a powerful statement and with this novel she manages to give the repressed other a voice. Her novel is a brilliant example on how language and identity is interlinked, but Morrison also claims that your memory is part of who you are. Her work is unique in its representation of the other, due to the fact that the otherness in this novel works on multiple levels, both physically and psychologically. Issues of otherness must claim their right to occupy a position in contemporary literary discourse and must challenge the male dominated canon by pointing to issues of marginal identities.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Vintage Books, 1987)
(psst! If you’re inspired to read Morrison’s book, you can find it here)