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When hearing about Toni Morrison’s novel, “Beloved”, one may imagine it as being another story about a slave’s life. And this is not wrong. “Beloved” does tell the tales of many slaves. It tells of whippings, rape, hard work and escape. But, while drawing this image of the historical aspect of enslavement and black culture, Morrison also tells the personal story of a very strong female slave. Morrison’s novel focuses mainly on the female characters – Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, Beloved – and their relationships.
If feminism may be defined as a major movement in western thinking in western thinking since the 1960s, which puts particular emphasis upon the importance of women’s experience, then “Beloved” can be regarded through a feminist perspective. Even though “Beloved” tells the story of many slaves, because of its focus on the proactive and independent women in the novel, it also makes a feminist statement. Morrison has a particular way of writing the female body into the discourse of slavery, motherhood, human rights and morality.
She presents the exploitation of the female body in both a sensory and psychological way. There are many examples in the novel that illustrate this aspect. In the case of Sethe, one of the major characters, we can observe both ways of exploitation of the human body. The stealing of her milk during the rape she suffered writes her experience as a woman slave who has no right to her body and also her experience as a slave mother with no defense, who is used to the violation of her own body, but cannot bear the forcible extraction of her milk meant for the child in her womb.
The psychological trauma left behind this experience is felt by the mother who is symbolically separated from her child. The earliest need that a child has is mother’s milk. Sethe is traumatized by the experience of having her milk stolen because it means she cannot form the symbolic bond between herself and her daughter. Sethe’s body shows nothing but suffering if one takes into consideration the chokecherry tree scar on her back caused by the cruel whipping she suffered in the same night of the rape and her attempt to escape.
She also felt pain when she gave birth to Denver, thing which can be judged by the bleeding feet about which Amy sais “it hurts for something new to grow”. The only time when Sethe uses her body for her own pleasure was when she has sex with Paul D. Another example of the female body being written into discourse is illustrated through Beloved, a mysterious character thought to be the daughter Sethe murdered when the girl was only two years old. Beloved’s skin is like a baby’s skin, she sleeps a lot and her faculties of speech and movement are not well developed.
Physically Beloved is the embodiment of the discourse of motherhood for a slave, of the evil. Her body is a sacrifice that saves the other children’s lives from the meanness of the schoolmaster through her death. From Sethe she feeds on the attention and the maternal guilt that has been poisoning her life. Finally the physical disappearance of her body and her death is the absolving exorcism that removes the last vestiges of torment left over from the slave days.
The character of Beloved is the epitome of the past and present entwined in a consciousness. She is still a baby in terms of behavior but the body is like that of the woman she would have become if she wasn’t killed. Her supernatural manifestations are the result of the unresolved conflicts in the mother-child bond between Sethe and Beloved and its very existence is because of the non linearity of her consciousness. I see Beloved’s murdering of her child a desperate gesture of a mother who wants to protect her children from salvery.
The community sees Sethe’s murder an unforgivable one. Slavery created a situation where a mother is separated from her child, leaving devastating consequences behind: a whole life suffering from a bad guilt and also a psychic trauma. Motherhood feeling is universally deep and when mothers are unable to provide maternal care for their children, or when their children are taken away from her then they feel a lost sense of self. Similarly, when a child is separated from his mother, he also looses the family identity.
Sethe was never able to see her mother’s true face because her smile was distorted from having spent too much time with the “bit”, so she was not able to connect with her own mother and therefore does not know how to connect with her own children even if she longs to. Concerning the language of the novel, the way of writing, one can observe a feminine way of writing, the semiotic language that Julia Kristeva mentioned sometime. There can be observed a freeplay of language, a fluidity of words free of any control unlike the fixity and linearity of male discourse.
There is a passage in the third part of the novel that best illustrates this way of writing, the fluid and poetic nature of the narrative in one of the dialogues between Beloved and Sethe. There can be observed a long flowing verse in which the mother and daughter identify eachother, establishing the long lost maternal bond and acknowledging the events that took place between them: “Why did you leave me who am you/ I will never leave you again/ I drank your blood/ I brought your milk/ You forgot to smile/ I loved you/ You hurt me/ You came back to me/ You left me”.
There are no punctuation marks and one sentence runs into another, each sentence is loaded with intense feelings showing accusation, guilt, assurance, love, like a rushing river that carries all the emotions in its fierce fluidity. The depth of a maternal emotional experience is rendered throughout this novel. The other female characters, Denver and Baby Suggs had the chance to see the beauty of freedom. Baby Suggs’s freedom was bought by the sacrifice of her son Halle, while Denver is far from the tormented life in slavery thanks to her mother’s protection and estrangement from the black community.