In regards to the novel Beloved Toni Morrison says, “The novel can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.” Critics argue that the novel is driven by slavery and that the interior life of the protagonists is secondary. This is true because most of the major events in the story relate to some type of slavery. The slavery that drives the novel does not have to be strictly physical
slavery. Morrison’s characters are slaves physically and mentally. Although they are former slaves, they are forever trapped by horrible memories.
The type of slavery the novel initially depicts does not correspond to what really happened to slaves in the 1800s. At Sweet Home, Mr. and Mrs. Garner treated their slaves like real people. Mr. Garner is proud of his slaves and treats them like men, not animals.
. . . they were Sweet Home men — the ones Mr. Garner bragged about while other farmers shook their heads in warning at the phrase. He said, “. . . my niggers is men every one of em. Bought em thataway, raised em thataway. Men every one.”1
The things that occurred at Sweet Home while Mr. Garner is alive are rather conservative compared to what slaves actually suffered during this time period.
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Under the management of schoolteacher, things change dramatically. He turns Sweet Home into a real slave plantation. He treats and refers to the slaves as animals. He is responsible for the horrible memories embedded in Sethe and Paul D.
Sethe feels the impact of slavery to its fullest extent. Slavery pushes her to kill her baby daughter. She feels that is the only way to protect her beloved daughter from the pain and suffering she would endure if she became a slave. The minute she sees schoolteachers hat, Sethe’s first instinct is to protect her children. Knowing that slave catchers will do anything to bring back fugitive slaves and that dead slaves are not worth anything, Sethe took matters into her own hands.
On page 164 Sethe says, “I stopped him. I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.” Paul D asks, “How? Your boys gone you don’t know where. One girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard. How did it work?” “They ain’t at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain’t got em,” replies Sethe.
This one incident does not only affect Sethe, but it changes things for Beloved and Denver as well. Beloved loses her life to slavery. Her own mother sacrifices her existence in order to keep her out of slavery. As for Denver, she is indirectly affected by the horrors of slavery. She has to put up with living in a haunted house because her mother refuses to run away again.
On page 15 Sethe says, “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running — from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth.”
Sethe becomes a slave again when she realizes who Beloved really is. She feels indebted to Beloved for taking her life. In an effort to gain forgiveness, Sethe decides to focus all her energy on pleasing Beloved.
When once or twice Sethe tried to assert herself — be the unquestioned mother whose word was law and who knew what was best — Beloved slammed things, wiped the table clean of plates, threw salt on the floor, broke a windowpane. … Nobody said, You raise your hand to me and I will knock you into the middle of next week. … No, no. They mended the plates, swept the salt, and little by little it dawned on Denver that if Sethe didn’t wake up one morning and pick up a knife, Beloved might.2
Then there’s Paul D, who replaces his “red heart” with a tin tobacco box. He refuses to love anything strongly and establish long term relationships because he is still hurting from losing his brothers and friends to schoolteacher. Schoolteacher also takes his pride and manhood away by forcing him to wear a bit. Paul D compares himself to a chicken.
On page 72 he says, “But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead. Schoolteacherchanged me. I was something else and that something else was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”
As a member of the chain gang he suffers another type of slavery because he is both a prisoner and a sexual servant. Even after he escapes and is a free man, Paul D is still a slave. He is a slave to his memory. Having been through so many horrible events, he has trouble finding happiness again.
In her novel, Morrison uses the phrase, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
This applies to each and every one of her characters. Sethe will always be haunted by the memory of killing her own flesh and blood. It will be a long time until Paul D is ready to turn his tin box back into a red heart. While Denver finally ventures out of 124, she is not going to forget being shunned by the community and being held captive by her own house. As for Beloved, she is her own slave. Her constant dependency on Sethe makes her weak. Beloved needs to free herself from Sethe. Though it is hard, she needs to accept what has happened and move on.
Beloved is about a group of people and how they deal with life’s hardships. Many issues in the story deal with control. There is a constant struggle for power throughout the novel. Each character fights to free him/herself from something or someone. The major theme in the story is freedom and how to acquire it. The critics are correct in saying that the novel is primarily about slavery, but they should mention that slavery means more than just being an indentured servant.