The Role of the Color Red in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison

Born in 1831, Toni Morrison is a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their detailed African American central characters and intricate storylines. Morrison has published several works, but perhaps her most critically acclaimed and famous is Beloved. Color imagery was used generously throughout the work, particularly, the color red. In Beloved, the color red came to symbolize violence, masculinity, mortality, love, hope, and strength. It's Morrison's meticulous use of color imagery that aids in telling the story and describing the emotions and sensations experienced by the characters.

Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved follows the life of a young woman named Sethe throughout her life. With the use of flashbacks, we are privy to Sethe's childhood as a slave and how she came to bear four children. We also learn that Sethe's life was filled with tragedy. After she fled her life as a slave on a farm with her three children while pregnant with the fourth, she gave birth to a baby girl in the woods with the help of a runaway white indentured servant.

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Even though Sethe manages to escape to freedom, slave catchers hunted Sethe and her children down to bring them back. Confronted with having to return with her children to the farm where they would likely be sold off, she slit the throat of her daughter and tried to attack her two sons. Sethe was deemed insane and taken to jail. Granted leniency, Sethe returned home to live with her daughter, Denver, and partner, Paul D.

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One afternoon, a girl who bears the same name as the slain baby's tombstone, Beloved, arrives at the house and begins a parasitic relationship with Sethe who is ridden with repressed memories and guilt. Beloved is, in most interpretations, the ghost of Sethe's dead child. Once Sethe descends into a desperate state of isolation as a result of the relationship, the community comes together to perform an exorcism and rid Sethe of the presence of Beloved. After Beloved disappears, Sethe could begin to move on with her life.

Sethe often experiences 're-memories,' which is what she calls "remembering something she had forgotten she knew," and it is through these re-memories that we see several instances of the red color imagery (Morrison 36). According to Saumitra Chakravarty, “a savage past and an intolerable present in the Black consciousness, lies its horror of the color red” (Chakravarty 167). In the very beginning of the book, we are presented with the image of red undulating light "which indicates the presence of the murdered baby's ghost” (Chakravarty 167). Sethe's memories of murdering her daughter and the other past traumas infuse themselves into her life and lead her to believe that past traumas continue to exist in the present. Sethe is haunted by her baby's spirit and relives the murder in one of the first few pages of the book when she thinks, "Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut... but her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil” (Morrison 2). This red imagery symbolizes the horror and violence of having to slit the throat of your own child. Sethe was so distraught by the prospect of having to return with her children to a life of slavery that she thought it best to commit infanticide. Even though Sethe's act was one out of maternal instinct and love, the red baby's blood symbolizes the violence and desperate nature of the murder.

Red was used again in the aspect of the baby's death when Sethe says, “the last color she remembered was the pink chips in the headstone of her baby girl” (Morrison 23). Even though pink is a variation of red, its symbolic meaning remains the same. The pink in the headstone is reminiscent of the baby's miserable death. After Sethe remembers this, she “became as color conscious as a hen” (Morrison 23). She refused to acknowledge any other colors, even remarking that “every dawn she saw the dawn, but never acknowledged or remarked its color” (Morrison 23). Even in Sethe's eyes there was something wrong with that. “It was as though one day she saw red baby blood, another day the pink gravestone chips, and that was the last of it” (Morrison 23). The color red haunts Sethe as she is consumed by her grief and guilt.

Another instance of red symbolizing violence is while Beloved is engaged in her destructive relationship with Sethe. Beloved is emotionally unstable and co-dependent on Sethe; the two are locked in an aggressively passionate bond. Beloved ruled Sethe with her manic outbursts and violent actions. In one instance, Beloved “clawed her throat until rubies of blood opened there, made brighter by her midnight skin" (Morrison 141). The rubies of blood around her throat mimic the violent murder of Sethe's child. Sethe would become distraught when Beloved would do things such as this to herself and rush to her aid. Sethe would try to "wipe the jewels away,” symbolic of trying to undo the murder of years before. Beloved was the embodiment of her guilt and sorrow and also the product of her violent action.

By far, red is most commonly associated with violence or death, but it is also used as a tool for foreshadowing. As Chakravarty brings up a few other examples, “red is the color of the hickory fire that burns Six-o, the slave caught trying to escape, of roasting Negro blood, [and] of the branded flesh on their bodies" (Chakravarty 167). Even Paul D., Sethe's later life partner, knows as soon as he "stepped through the red light" of 124, that this was “not a normal woman in a normal house" (Morrison 24). The color red is used often for Morrison's foreshadowing techniques and results in a great, ominous effect. In this example, it may have alluded to Beloved's arrival and subsequent havoc she wreaked on the family.

Red comes to symbolize many other things throughout the work: in one case, masculinity. Paul D. struggled with his masculinity throughout his life in the novel. It deeply troubled Paul D. that “concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point (Morrison 125). He and the other men on the plantation struggled early in life with a shortage of women and sex. Paul D. and the others were, “All in their twenties, minus women, fucking cows, dreaming of rape, thrashing on pallets, rubbing their thighs and waiting for the new girl” (Morrison 6). Their situation was dire. Paul D. discusses the rooster that lived on the plantation with them named Mister. The rooster, red in color, symbolized the masculinity Paul D. sought after. The rooster was sort of an overseer of the plantation as well. Paul D. described him as "Better than me. Stronger, tougher" (Morrison 43). He was especially envious of how Mister "looked so... free” (Morrison 43). Here was a bad-tempered, arrogant rooster that was allowed to be more free than he was. Paul D. had been demoted to an animal status that he could not overcome on the farm. Paul D. reflects that “I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.” The red rooster symbolized the masculinity and independence that he was denied.

Red also came to symbolize vitality and mortality in the novel. There was one particular instance where red symbolized life, yet also death. When Denver, Paul D., and Sethe are on their way to the carnival as a newly established trio, they encounter "doomed roses” (Morrison 28). The red flowers were alive, yet dying. The Sawyer who planted them remembers “how rapidly they crawled all over the stake-and-post fence that separated the lumberyard from the open field next to it,” but nevertheless “the closer the roses got to death, the louder their scent” (Morrison 28-29). Even though the roses were planted to create a “friendly feel,” the reeking corpses induced a foreboding feeling in the carnival goers (Morrison 28). It is interesting to see that while the presence of red flowers marks a new beginning for Sethe, Denver, and Paul D., they also are on their way to their end.

The morbid symbols are not the only themes embodied by the color red. It also symbolizes love in a few places in the novel. This most notable occasion where red symbolizes love and emotion is when Paul D. describes his heart. While recollecting about Mister with Sethe, he becomes emotional when reliving the pain and loss of identity he endured while under schoolteacher's rule. He thought to himself that saying more about the matter, "might push them both to a place they couldn't get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” (Morrison 43). Paul D., like Sethe, found it hard to confront the painful memories of the past. It was too much to bear. Morrison used some more descriptive imagery when Paul D. describes the tin as being “rusted shut” (Morrison 43). Paul D. leaves us with the thought that "it would hurt (Sethe to know that there was no red heart bright as Mister's comb beating in him.” He locked his heart away, so he would not have to confront his own vulnerability and pain from the past.

Paul D.'s red heart is brought up again later in the novel when he is seduced by Beloved. Even though his affair with Beloved is a terrible thing to do to Sethe, it manages to free up his heart. Somehow, it is her touch that made the “flakes of rust... fall away from the seams of his tobacco tin” (Morrison 68). During his sexual encounter with Beloved, "when the lid gave he didn't know it. What he knew was that when he reached the inside part he was saying, "Red heart. Red heart," over and over again” (Morrison 68). Here, Paul D. was finally confronted with his red heart; the emotion he had been keeping locked away for years. He was introduced to a vulnerability he had never felt and reminded of human emotion. The encounter with Beloved created a feeling inside Paul D. that stirred his heart, "woke Denver, then Paul D himself” (Morrison 68). Even if it was not Beloved's intention, her affair with Paul D. inadvertently leads him back into the arms of Sethe; this time a changed man.

Another character influenced by the color red is Stamp Paid, a member of the community. Though also afflicted with a traumatic past, Stamp Paid is one of the only members of the community brave enough to approach 124 and help Sethe; everyone else was too intimidated. However, he does not simply walk up to the haunted house with nothing. In his pocket, “He clutched the red ribbon...for strength. Softly at first, then harder” (Morrison 103). Stamp Paid fingers this ribbon several times throughout the work; always when he is anxious or nervous.

The history of the red ribbon is also significant. Stamp Paid came across the ribbon “knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp” (Morrison 101). Stamp Paid was haunted by the “the people of the broken necks, of fire cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons,” and yet the ribbon still gave him strength in the face of adversity or fear (Morrison 101). I believe that the red ribbon gives him the strength of these voices. Red is symbolic of perseverance and strength.

Red also was the color of hope and the optimism for a new beginning. This time, it takes the form of Amy's dream of red velvet. Amy Denver was a white woman on the run after escaping indentured servitude. She dreamt of a life where she could buy carnitine (red) velvet; the reason was that “velvet is like the world was just born. Clean and new and so smooth” (Morrison 19). Amy, like Sethe, had never known a life where she could be privy to such an item as new carnitine velvet. Amy had seen brown velvet before, but “in Boston they [had] all colors” (Morrison 19). The color red is brighter than the color brown, symbolizing a brighter future. For Amy, looking forward to the velvet was like looking forward in life. It embodied the hope of a young girl who had been forced to pay off her mother's debts in indentured servitude. A life in which she could buy velvet was one where she could also start over--maybe in Boston. Even for Sethe, the future had to be better than the past.  Morrison's use of color allowed her to not only create concrete images throughout the work, but also help impart a deeper, more symbolic meaning to words that resulted in the written content becoming a more powerful instrument of communication. This analysis of the color red altered my perspective of the piece in the way that I was able to better understand the emotions and feelings of the characters. From Janie's re-memories of murder to Paul. D's red beating heart, the imagery of the color red helped me to connect with the characters on a deeper level. I believe that in any discussion of Beloved, the topic of color imagery should not be left out. The implementation of color imagery is too important to be ignored. This essay should be included in any further discussion of the color red in Beloved because it is very nearly comprehensive. Beloved was a fascinating read as it used elements of the supernatural and true stories in order to tell a unique story about slavery and its effects on the human spirit. I would most definitely recommend this work for further study and critique because not only can we learn from the masterful way it was written, but also the lessons it teaches us.

Works Cited

  1. Chakravarty, Saumitra. "The Use of Color Imagery in the Novels of Toni Morrison." Athens Journal of Philology (September 2015): 163-70. Web. 26 July 2017.
  2. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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The Role of the Color Red in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from

The Role of the Color Red in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison essay
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