Beloved By Toni Morrison “It is the ultimate gesture of a loving mother. It is the outrageous claim of a slave”(Morrison 1987). These are the words that Toni Morrison used to describe the actions of the central character within the novel, Beloved. That character, Sethe, is presented as a former slave woman who chooses to kill her baby girl rather than allowing her to be exposed to the physically, emotionally, and spiritually oppressive horrors of a life spent in slavery. Sethe’s action is indisputable: She has killed her child. Sethe’s motivation is not so clearly defined.
By killing her “Beloved” child, has Sethe acted out of true love or selfish pride? The fact that Sethe’s act is irrational can easily be decided upon. Does Sethe kill her baby girl because she wants to save the baby from slavery or does Sethe end her daughter’s life because of a selfish refusal to reenter a life of slavery? By examining the complexities of Sethe’s character it can be said that she is a woman who chooses to love her children but not herself. Sethe kills her baby because, in Sethe’s mind, her children are the only good and pure part of who she is and must be protected from the cruelty and the “dirtiness” of slavery(Morrison 251). In this respect, her act is that of love for her children. The selfishness of Sethe’s act lies in her refusal to accept personal responsibility for her baby’s death. Sethe’s motivation is dichotomous in that she displays her love by mercifully sparing her daughter from a horrific life, yet Sethe refuses to acknowledge that her show of mercy is also murder.
Throughout Beloved, Sethe’s character consistently displays the duplistic nature of her actions. Not long after Sethe’s reunion with Paul D. she describes her reaction to School Teacher’s arrival: “Oh, no. I wasn’t going back there[Sweet Home]. I went to jail instead”(Morrison 42). Sethe’s words suggest that she has made a moral stand by her refusal to allow herself and her children to be dragged back into the evil of slavery.
From the beginning, it is clear that Sethe believes that her actions were morally justified. The peculiarity of her statement lies in her omission of the horrifying fact that her moral stand was based upon the murder of her child. By not even approaching the subject of her daughter’s death, it is also made clear that Sethe has detached herself from the act. Even when Paul D. learns of what Sethe has done and confronts her with it, Sethe still skirts the reality of her past.
Sethe describes her reasoning to Paul D., “.. So when I got here, even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something from a piece of cloth Baby Suggs had. Well, all I’m saying is that’s a selfish pleasure I never had before. I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was, and I couldn’t let her or any of em live under School Teacher. That was out”(163). Sethe’s love for her children is apparent, yet she still shifts the burden of responsibility away from herself.
She acknowledges that it was a “selfish pleasure” to make something for her daughter, yet Sethe refuses to admit any selfishness in her act of murder. She is indignant and frustrated with Paul D. confronting her: Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn’t get it right off– she could never explain.
Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono.
Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them thought the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them”(163). Sethe’s frustration is a product of her contradictory reasoning. She views her children as an extension of her life that needed to be protected, at any cost. Sethe’s concept of loving and protecting her children becomes synonymous with her killing Beloved and attempting to kill the rest.
Sethe can see no wrong here. Placing her children outside the horror of slavery, even if it meant taking their lives, was in her mind a justified act of love, nothing more. Ironically, it is Paul D. who reveals the contradictions that Sethe refuses to see in her own logic: “This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here Sethe didn’t know where the world stopped and she began.
Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paid wanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she had claimed. It scared him”(164). Paul D.’s character suggests that although the killing act might have been committed out of a irrational, hysterical, loving mother’s need to “protect” her children, Sethe’s “claim” that she was and is justified in those actions can not be accepted. Paul D. recognizes what Sethe can not; her act of supreme love is also an act of insurmountable selfishness.
When Paul D. calls into question her thinking, Sethe still refuses to see her own role in what has come to pass: ‘What you did was wrong, Sethe.’ ‘I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?’ ‘There could have been a way. Some other way.’ ‘What way?’ ‘You got two feet, Sethe, not four..’ (165) Sethe’s problem is rooted in her inability to recognize the boundaries between herself and her children. Paul D. stabs at the heart of this problem by suggesting that Sethe had overstepped her boundaries by killing her child.
The concept that Sethe equates her life and self-worth with her connection to her children is most graphically illustrated in her mad ravings to the reincarnation of “Beloved”. Sethe details a defense for killing her baby to the woman she believes is her reincarnated, murdered daughter. Within this defense, Sethe explains in the greatest detail her reasoning for cutting her child’s throat. Sethe pronounces that the worst thing in life was: That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own.
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.(251) Sethe’s words suggest that the only part of herself that she cares for is her children. Indeed, the only reason that she killed her daughter is because Sethe refused to let School Teacher or any other white person “dirty” her children as Sethe herself had been dirtied. Sethe’s nobility, however irrationally predicated, is apparent. She loves her children to much to let them be tarnished by slavery. Unfortunately, Sethe’s nobility is tainted by the fact that she can not recognize absurdity of the murderous act she has committed.
Even in her shameful defense, Sethe is proud. Sethe’s undaunted pride is illustrated by her words, “And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no. Maybe Baby Suggs could worry about it, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe refused- and refused still”(251). Toni Morrison, in an effort to describe the motivation and pride of Sethe’s character, made the statement, “To kill my children is preferable to having them die”(Morrison 1987).
Saving her children from slavery and the promise of spiritual and emotional death that such an institution imposes is the rational of love that Sethe’s character clings to. The truth that Sethe’s character selfishly avoids is the actual physical death that she has inflicted upon her child. Understanding why a woman would kill any child, let alone her own baby, is at best an enigma. Sethe’s character is no exception. Sethe’s motivation does not fit into a simple schematic. Sethe is presented as a woman who loves her children so much that she is willing to kill them rather than allow them to be broken by an evil institution.
Love is, then, Sethe’s primary motivation for killing her baby. However, Sethe’s love for her children does not preclude her responsibility for Beloved’s death. Indeed, Sethe’s selfish fault lies in the fact that she has shifted the locus of responsibility from herself to the institution that has spawned her. Ultimately, it is Sethe who is responsible for her child’s death, not slavery. Sethe kills her daughter to demonstrate her love. Sethe exhibits her selfish pride by repudiating her own guilt. Does Sethe realize her fault? Perhaps.
When presented the notion that Sethe, and not her children, is her own “best thing”, her reply takes the form of a question, “Me? Me?”(273). Morrison leaves the reader with the sense that Sethe might realize that she has loved her children too much, and herself not enough.