Beloved Theme Analysis | Teen Ink

Beloved Theme Analysis

March 14, 2022
By Jackren BRONZE, Shanghai, Other
Jackren BRONZE, Shanghai, Other
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Beloved is a novel by Toni Morrison published in 1987. The Nobel Prize winning piece presents a story of slavery, motherhood, and traumatic memories.

Set right after the Civil War in the United States and among-slaves, a primary theme of Beloved is slavery. The protagonist, a former slave called Sethe, used to serve at the Sweet Home farm. Despite the head of Sweet Home being generally considered a “kind” slave-owner, he still considered slaves as properties: he only gives Baby Snugs freedom after Halle buys her contract. After the death of Mr. Garner, Schoolteacher becomes the head of plantation. He is not as lenient as Garner was. Under oppression and inhumanity, Sethe and other slaves plan to escape. Only Sethe and Paul D survive, condemning the ubiquitous discrimination and cruelty towards slaves. The pervasiveness of slavery is severer than we can imagine: there is no true freedom for them. Even if one gains temporary freedom, one can easily be re-slaved. Soon enough, when Sethe barely settles into a Black community in Cincinnati, the new owner of Sweet Home, Schoolteacher, comes to re-slave Sethe and her children. His arrival becomes one reason for the great tragedy that occurs in the book: Sethe kills her child with the saw in the shed. Before Sethe can end her own life, she is sent to jail. It is hard to imagine that such an immoral and radical act can come from a mother who is supposed to prioritize her children over anything. However, it is, essentially, the desperation and torture from slavery that causes this tragedy. All Sethe wants is do is to protect her children from the dooming destiny of being a slave. The inequality and catalytic harm of slavery is put under limelight without euphemism.

Apart from the upsetting theme of slavery, Morrison also praises the formidability and selflessness of motherhood. When Beloved, the murdered child, comes back for Sethe’s compensation, Sethe sees this as the return of her lost child. Sethe is obedient to all commands of the child’s ghost, and she constantly expresses her love and regret for Beloved. Eventually, she is tortured and devoured by the ghost into fragility and insanity. If Denver had not walked out and asked for help, Sethe would have been be depleted into a husk of her former self. The persistence in Sethe’s request for forgiveness shows her ever-existing love for her lost children, even after 18 years have passed.

The story ends with Paul D’s statement: “…we need to have some tomorrow.” Throughout the piece, past traumas haunt the characters. They are constantly deluged by memories of slavery, of humiliation, and of killing one’s own beloved. The house that harbors Sethe and her child, 124, is the symbol of Sethe’s internal prison: her past memories. Due to her strong maternal love and dignity, she is trapped in her past trauma and isolated from community. She never leaves her house where her daughter’s ghost dwells. She feels conflicted as she is submerged in the guilt of killing her child, while still believing what she did protected Beloved from a dooming destiny. Through the intermittent exchange between memory-recount and present narration, which is represented by Sethe and Denver’s recall of past memories triggered by present incidents caused by Beloved, readers are consistently reminded of the negligible gap between past and present and how past experiences continue to influence the characters’ lives.

Beloved centers around Sethe’s experiences with oppression and inequality from slaveholders. Sethe is haunted by the ghost of her past because of her great maternal love for all her children. Ultimately, what we learn is this: we must walk out of the “house” and cooperate as a community, just as Denver walks out of 124 and pursues a more purposeful and optimistic life in the end. 


The author's comments:

This is a piece based on my understandings on the book Beloved.


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