Motherhood in Toni Morrison's Beloved

The novel is a dialogue with the American idea of oneself and the American sin of slavery. Beloved is concerned with sacrifice. It illustrates the disremembering that is found in life and art in the United States.

The novel’s ‘rememory’ is a response to all that was lost: to the loss of memory, of Africa, of history, of language, culture, people, and the dead. The characters go through a constant struggle to beat back the past, however, it would not stay buried.

They have lost their identities as human beings in the process, due to being treated as animals. Late in the novel, we have the passage ‘Remembering seemed unwise’ (Morrison, 137), and indeed to read this novel is to confront a historical past, to be forced to think about traumatic national stories and the ways they continue to live in the present. It is a story with a burden.

Passing is another keyword used to describe this novel. By the end of it, she says that ‘This is not a story to pass on’(Morrison, 137) twice.

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Which makes us as readers ask ourselves: Is this memory toxic to pass on? Should it be acknowledged?

The death of the young child can be seen as part of liberation from the world of racism, but the child is too young far too young to understand race, to have it into her world. But it is also a sacrifice which is too much. Sethe has to forgo too much, as a mother, to protect her children from the cruelty she has lived through.

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In the process of what Sethe and Paul call ‘rememory’(Morrison, 107) we, as readers, are confronted with the reality of what love and life look like in a world of twisted conscience and we are left with the undeniable resiliency of human beings to continue to survive despite all attempts to dehumanize them.

‘Definitions belonged to the definers, not the defined’(Morrison, 95) is an important phrase from the novel – it is a world in which slaves were defined as inhuman, as in the novel they were compared to hogs, cattle and horses, they find ways to humanness despite it. They have resisted and persevered, and that is where the hope lies in this novel.

Beloved, the character, is a symbol for the 60 million and more lost in slavery whose stories and names are forgotten, to whom the novel is dedicated. The novel has left no real clues to help the reader identify if she is a ghost or not, part of it suggesting that she is the ghost of Sethe’s child returned in human form and another hinting that she is a woman who has recently escaped exploitation who happens to just call herself Beloved. And this uncertainty is what makes her a good vessel to embody all those real people who have been forgotten. Morrison takes the tragedy of slavery and gives it shape that the readers can deal with. Near the end of the book, Morrison writes ‘Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her. And even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name?’(Morrison, 137).

The mother-child relationship is considered to be one of the most important ones among humans and most other animals, but in the context of slavery, as Morrison writes, ‘Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer’(Morrison, 66), and the novel represents that in a literal way. Sethe was raised motherless in a system of slavery that had intentionally disrupted the mother-child relationships. We learn that Sethe, as a baby, was fed by another woman’s milk, which could be linked to the moment later in the novel where she is frightened by the idea of her own milk being stolen by the white men who abuse her. Children were often sold separately from their mothers, marriages were not recognized, and during the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, even in freedom, Sethe’s children were still considered to be claimable property. This develops her anxiety over the question: if your children literally do not belong to you, what does it mean to be a mother? (O’Reilly, 86)

Sethe’s main mentor for mothering is her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. But her life has also been profoundly by slavery’s breaking of families. In all of Baby Sugg’s and as well as Sethe’s life, men and women were moved around like produce. Anybody that Baby Suggs knew, loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized. Baby Suggs calls herself and the people she knew ‘checkers’ and she was crushed by the realization that nobody stopped ‘playing checkers’ just because her children were now ‘part of the game’.

Sethe tries to resist this cycle of breaking the bond between mother and child by holding onto her family. She managed to get all of her children across the Ohio River to freedom from the slave farm Sweet Home, where they were born. But one of the most disturbing scenes, that could easily be missed, is right after their escape. When the slave-owners come to Ohio to claim them, she takes her children out to the woodshed to kill them all before he can take them. She only manages to kill one, sawing through its neck. She says ‘If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.’ (Morrison, 100)

When Sethe explains this to the Beloved that has returned to her later in life, she goes deeper into what she did and the intergenerational destruction that slavery put upon the mother line: ‘My plan was to take us all to the other side, where my own mam is. They stopped me from getting us there, but they didn’t stop you from getting here. You came right on the back like a good girl, like a daughter, which is what I wanted to be and would’ve been if my man had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one.’(Morrison, 101). Sethe had the chance of being a daughter stolen from her, but she has become a mother on her own. Her intensity is incomprehensible to everyone else – to her remaining daughter, Denver, to her lover, Paul D; to her entire community who excludes her.

Paul D tells her ‘Your love is too thick’(Morrison, 82). At another point in the novel he says that to survive in their world, they have to protect themselves and love small. He believes that she had no right to decide her children’s future, to take away from them the chance of ever having a future. He becomes afraid of her and thinks of her as being inhuman. He tells her ‘You got two feet, Sethe, not four.’(Morrison, 82) This can make the readers think of the previous comparations between women, that were not meant to be mothers and daughters, but cattle and calves. It is made very explicit early in the novel when it is said that sex with a slave woman is not, (for Halle) so different from sex with a calf. But this is one of the ways that a slave-owner would see her. Perhaps Paul D sees her like an animal he is afraid of. This could also be interpreted as her not being able to walk on two feet anymore, and out of desperation, she is crawling on four.

To achieve her safety, to have her family, to be a mother, and to have a daughter, Sethe has to escape the system itself. This means for her that she needs to escape to the north and then when that fails, it means to escape to the other side.

Sethe responds to Paul D’s accusation of her love being too thick that ‘Thin love ain’t love at all.’(Morrison, 82). This can be also observed in the Sethe-Beloved-Denver dynamic. They consume each other and their love for one another. But Beloved is the one that overgrows them. Beloved and Sethe develop a mutual obsession. Beloved says: ‘I am not separate from her, here is no place where I stop’, and ‘You are my face; I am you’ (Morrison, 105). They have lost themselves in each other. Sethe is dominated by her guilt and she tried to replace it with as much love as she can conceive.

Septhanie A. Demetrakopoulos argues that ‘maternal bonds can stunt or even obviate a woman’s individuation or sense of self’ (Demetrakopolos, 51). She claims that society, as a whole, does not want to know about the sacrifices, the costs, or the burdens of motherhood. They lose or cannot fully develop a sense of self. She considers that Sethe is consumed by her own idea of motherhood – the fact that she grew up without a mother figure is sensed in her overcompensation when she becomes a mother. She has given life and she will take life if it means that she protects it. The guilt of the infanticide consumes her just as much as her obsession with love does.

The novel changes tense from past to present, as if the past is not the real past, especially to the women in the novel. They have no possibility of moving on. The past is something that haunted them in their daily lives, keeping them from moving forward.

The novel ends in a somewhat hopeful tone. Denver is the one that has learned the most from her mother’s failures and triumphs. She acknowledges the importance of the mother line and the danger of holding on to drama. Beloved ‘moves on’ once the community has come together and forgave Sethe. 30 women from the community come together to exorcise the ghost. Paul D learns from Sethe that he too wants to ‘love thick’, and he says that he ‘wants to put his story next to hers.’ And in his love, he describes what all the characters, who all love each other, do for each other. In a resolution, we can see that once Beloved no longer had a hold on the members of 124 along with the community, begin to move forward into a different life.

Morrison’s novel can be both painful and healing, giving a body, a voice, and a name to the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The novel builds up upon pain, upon struggle, upon dehumanization, and beats itself by using consuming and destructive love. Beloved is the embodiment of pain. It is a journey into the past and into the self. The ghostly apparition of Beloved is what enables Sethe to remember, accept, and forgive. The novel portrays African-American motherhood, with all of its ranges: the work of a mother, the love of a mother, and the mother-daughter relationship – as a political situation with consequences.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022

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Motherhood in Toni Morrison's Beloved. (2020, Nov 02). Retrieved from

Motherhood in Toni Morrison's Beloved essay
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