Identity after Trauma

Categories: Identity

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”. Made up of our characteristics, such as self-conception, identity defines who we are within a larger group. This idea of identity is explored throughout Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The story follows a former slave named Sethe and her family during the post-slavery era. Through the story of Beloved and the use of Gothic elements such as isolation, the supernatural, and the oppression of women, Morrison explores the theme of the loss of identity as a result of trauma, and how one can claim it through the community.

Paul D’s struggle with his loss of identity and self-conception is enhanced with Morrison’s use of gothic elements. The most prominent of Paul D’s struggles with identity comes from his “manhood,” or lack thereof. At Sweet Home, Paul D “grew up thinking that, of all the Blacks in Kentucky, only the five of them were men. Allowed, encouraged to correct Garner, even defy him” (Morrison 147).

Get quality help now
Writer Lyla
Verified writer

Proficient in: Identity

5 (876)

“ Have been using her for a while and please believe when I tell you, she never fail. Thanks Writer Lyla you are indeed awesome ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Thus, for Paul D, his manhood lay in his ability to have agency and power in his life. Later in his life, the trauma caused by Beloved’s rape of Paul D causes him to question his manhood. During this rape, she tells him that “you have to touch me. On the inside part. And you have to call me my name” (137). After this confrontation, Paul D remarks that he was “being moved, placed where she wanted him, and there was nothing he was able to do about it” (149).

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Check writers' offers

You won’t be charged yet!

Thus, Beloved has challenged Paul D’s manhood by taking away his power and making him a “ragdoll.” Moreover, this situation employs the gothic element of the oppression of females by males. Though not a female character, Paul D embodies a gothic female as a “victim,” helpless and passive, whereas Beloved embodies a more masculine character through her aggression and dominance. Morrison’s use of the gothic element of oppression of female characters enhances Paul D’s struggle with his loss of manhood (and thus identity) through the underscoring of his masculinity by placing him in a traditionally more feminine role.

Morrison’s use of gothic elements extends the idea of Sethe’s loss of identity and self-conception through trauma. Throughout her life as a slave, Sethe has created her identity at the hands and definitions of the white people. In the first chapter, Sethe discloses to Paul D that after helping her three children escape from Sweet Home, Schoolteacher “used cowhide on you […] and they took my milk” (21). Additionally, on another day at Sweet Home, Sethe “stopped because I heard my name […] when I heard him say, ‘No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; animal ones on the right’” (228). This demonstrates that, at Sweet Home, the slaveowners have stripped her of her identity: depriving her of the motherly responsibility of nursing her young and equating her to an animal. After she escapes, however, Sethe has no form of self-conception and thus begins to become defined by her past. In the third chapter, Sethe realizes that “124 was so full of strong feeling perhaps she was oblivious to the loss of anything at all” (47). In this instance, the “strong feeling” that Sethe refers to is the ghost of her dead child that haunts 124. This haunting by a ghost employs the gothic element of supernatural activity. Here, Morrison’s use of supernatural activity enhances the idea of Sethe’s lack of self-identity by demonstrating how her past continues to “haunt” her in the present and how it has consumed and defined her to the point where she does not perceive the lack of color. Sethe’s loss of identity stems from her trauma at Sweet Home and continues in the present through her lack of self-conception.

Denver’s lack of self-conception is created through Morrison’s use of gothic elements. Throughout much of the first part, Denver’s life is characterized by the gothic element of isolation. Denver’s isolation came as a result, not because of her actions, but because of Sethe’s killing of Beloved and the trauma of Sethe’s past that led her to that decision. Moreso, however, Denver does not have a past like her mother and thus fails to have self-conception in a history that excludes her. This conflict is expressed in Denver’s first interactions with Paul D, where she states that Sethe and Paul D “were a twosome, saying ‘Your daddy’ and ‘Sweet Home’ in a way that made it clear both belonged to them and not to her. That her own father’s absence was not hers” (15). The bitterness in Denver’s tone reflects her internal turmoil and her difficulty of self-conception within a world that does not include her. Thus, Morrison’s use of the gothic element of isolation creates Denver’s struggle with her identity.

Morrison uses gothic elements to demonstrate the importance of the community in the recreation of one’s identity. Most broadly, Morrison uses the idea of community as the antithesis of the gothic element of isolation. Throughout the third part, Sethe begins to delve into madness, becoming increasingly isolated within 124. In order to solve this, Denver “leave[s] the yard, step off the world, leave the two behind, and go ask somebody for help” (286). It is only when she leaves for her community and comes out of the isolation that Denver becomes an independent woman and thus begins to understand who she is in the world, epitomized by her remark that she was “her father’s daughter after all” (296). Denver’s venture into the community leads to their support for Sethe, culminating in “the voices of women [searching] for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words […] it broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its watched” (308). This “baptism” is what drives Beloved out of 124, which thus allows her to move on from her past into a new future. Thus, as the antithesis of the gothic element of isolation, the community acts as a way to reclaim one’s identity.

Through her use of gothic elements, Morrison develops the idea that trauma creates a loss of identity which is resolved through the community. Though the novel was set in the Reconstruction Era, the idea of the importance of the community is still an important facet of modern life. In a time of unprecedented polarization, Morrison’s lessons about community and trauma offer an important insight into what it means to be human.

Cite this page

Identity after Trauma. (2020, Sep 17). Retrieved from

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment