Those born into slavery were instantly separated from their mothers and families, denied the right to know their own age or birthdays, sold in auction like cattle, and above all else were seen as property rather than human beings. Through the use of animal imagery, Morrison reveals the emotional toll of slavery, the animalistic behavior slaves were reduced to, and the dehumanization of slaves.
Morrison uses animal imagery to demonstrate the emotional toll of slavery. To illustrate, Sethe describes the Sweet Home men when she first arrives, “And so they were: Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner, Halle Suggs and Sixo, the wild man.
All in their twenties, minus women, fucking cows, dreaming of rape,” (Morrison, 13). The diction of “thrashing” depicts violent and animal-like characteristics presented by the slave men. The motif of having sex with cows shocks the reader because it illustrates the dehumanization of the men, and how a basic human need was stripped from them.
In addition, the “dreams of rape,” introduce the twisted mentality of the slave men, due to their frequent subjection to violence by their owners. Furthermore, when the family goes to the carnival for colored people, they took notice “When Wild African Savage shook his bars and said wa wa, Paul D told everybody he knew him back in Roanoke” (58-59). The “Wild African Savage” is not actually a savage, however the white people of the carnival forced him to act like one for money. The visual image of him “shaking his bars,” demonstrates the animal-like characteristics he was forced to reenact.
This also reveals characterization of Paul D when he confirms that he knows this man, indicating that he felt compassion for him, because he can relate to his situation of having no control over his own life.
Morrison’s use of animal imagery exhibits the animalistic behavior of slaves. For example, after Stamp Paid informs Paul D of the murder of Sethe’s baby, Paul D says to Sethe, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” (194). The animal imagery of “four feet,” animalizes Sethe. Because of her desperate and impulsive actions, Sethe is reduced to something less than human. Paul D believes that it is inhuman of Sethe to take the life of her own child. The metaphor comparing Sethe to a four legged creature intensifies the connection between a human and an animal, because animals only rely on instinct, just as Sethe does in an attempt to save her children. Additionally, Sethe describes her experience with the schoolteacher, “Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think – just think – what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education,” (176). The metaphor comparing the slaves to a horse, another four legged animal, communicates again that slaves are not seen as human and should be treated, and beaten as animals until they learn to follow direction. This shocks the reader because the visual image of beating a horse, uncovers the harsh and violent treatment that slaves faced every day.
Morrison uses animal imagery to explore the recurring motif of the dehumanization of slaves. For instance, in Beloved’s stream of consciousness chapter, she states, “… I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it” (249). The “circle” is a symbol for slavery itself. A circle has no start and end point, comparable to slavery for a slave, because most blacks are born as slaves, work their whole lives as slaves, and then die as slaves. The visual imagery of Beloved “biting the circle around (Sethe’s) neck” depicts an animalistic action brought on by desperation to protect her mother from slavery. Furthermore, Paul D recounts a painful memory to Sethe, “‘Didn’t you say anything to him? Something!’ ‘I couldn’t, Sethe. I just … couldn’t.’ ‘Why!’ ‘I had a bit in my mouth’” (82). The use of dialogue shows the embarrassment and degradation Paul D feels as he is forced to wear a bit. The bit, similar to that used on a horse, supports the notion that slaves are animals. Moreover, since a main difference between animals and humans is language, the visual imagery of Paul D with a “bit in (his) mouth,” reduces him to an animal by removing his ability to speak or express himself.
By amplifying animal imagery throughout the novel, Morrison highlights the inescapable hardships experienced daily by slaves. The author includes this message to ensure that the reader recognizes the dehumanizing effects of slavery on man, and how having no form of expression and no freedom will destroy a person. Morrison subtly displays these images to make the reader think about how deeply affected people are by slavery.