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Fear can be defined in many different ways, whether it is through supernatural experiences, haunting or literal fear experienced by characters in a text. The theme of fear is portrayed by the authors in both Beloved and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Fear in each of the texts can be stimulated by the reader’s personal interpretation or through the author’s intentions to create the sense of fear for the reader to feel.
The main signs of fear in Beloved are portrayed through the idea that Beloved (the person) is a physical reincarnation of Sethe’s eponymous daughter, Beloved. The character we meet comes across as a supernatural being in the novel, which could be the cause of fear themes beginning to unravel. Whether or not the reader feels these fear themes is dependent on whether the reader believes that Beloved is a ghost or not. There are many reasons that could prove that Beloved is a ghost and a reincarnation of Sethe’s dead baby daughter. Firstly, when Beloved is found, she is clearly weak and unwell. However, she is seen to have great strength. ‘I seen her pick up the rocker with one arm.’ The imagery created here conveys that Beloved has strength beyond her realistic capabilities, regardless of the idea that she ‘acts sick, sounds sick.’
The repetition of the word ‘sick’ allows Morrison to emphasise the idea of Beloved being ‘sick’ and thus she should be weak too. Morrison allows it to become an important point to focus upon, so that the reader is able to see the juxtaposition in Beloved being ‘sick’ and weak, but still being capable of lifting ‘a rocker with one arm.’ This shows Beloved to be somewhat supernatural and these themes being created could spark a great sense of fear for the reader with regard to the wellbeing of the other characters, since they are living with Beloved, who may not necessarily be human at all. Similarly, Mae G. Henderson states her opinion on Beloved as “Her [Beloved’s] ‘rebirth’ represents, as it were, the uncanny return of the dead to haunt the living, the return of the past to the present.”
Henderson’s statement on the matter reinforces the point that Beloved, is in fact a reincarnation of Sethe’s late daughter; there to ‘haunt’ or cause fear to the other characters. These supernatural themes are similar to that of those casted by Oscar Wilde in his text, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this novel, the supernatural themes are conducted through the painting that Lord Henry produces as a present for Dorian. The reliance that Dorian has on the painting is what causes the themes of fear to begin and the idea that he thinks ‘[don’t] we all want to paint ourselves into something better than we are?’
This is where it begins to be clear that Dorian fears losing his youthful looks and that he doesn’t want to face the reality of him ever potentially lacking perfection. It becomes clear that Dorian, Lord Henry and the company they keep mainly care for whether a man is handsome and attractive to look at, regardless of whether he has a good heart or not. The painting allows Dorian to stay youthful and attractive, causing him to abandon his morals and experience the freedom that a man with such an attractive, never fading appearance can have. The ‘purity of his face’ allows him to stay within his social circle above all else and it begins to show that there is little distinction between his appearance and his ethics.
A lot of fear caused in Beloved is through Sethe and Paul D coming to terms with their painful memories. Sethe and Paul D have ‘more yesterday than anybody,’ and Paul D believes that ‘we [they] need some kind of tomorrow.’ The significance of the past is crucial to the text, with most of the themes of fear being produced through the memories that the characters remember. The tone helps to inforce this through the continuous flittering between character’s perspective, as well as the narrator’s tone, with different and explicit attitudes towards events shown by the different character’s sides to the specific stories. Morrison often makes it clear that the characters have not come to terms with their traumatic pasts. This is shown in the way that the memories are often eluded to but never obviously stated or spoken about, much like in Dorian Gray, in which again, issues are eluded to but never specifically spoken about. Dorian’s fears of lacking perfection are always hinted by the narrator, and rarely stated by Dorian himself.
An example of this in Beloved is that although we know that Sethe killed her own child, and roughly what happened, it is never actually stated in the text: Sethe killed Beloved. The killing of Beloved is foreshadowed from the very beginning of the novel, however the clearest version of events unfolds during chapter 18. The idea of sin is apparent through both texts, as Sethe sins by killing her own daughter, and Dorian sins by chasing a life of pleasure and forgetting any of his morals to do so.
The differences between the situations are that Sethe sinned because she thought it was for the best interest of her child. She really felt that the child would be better dead than living the unfortunate, horrible life she had. Dorian on the other hand, had felt no suffering throughout his life, and had no excuse for sinning other than for his own, selfish, personal gain and pleasure. The little we find out about Beloved’s death, shows that Sethe has not come to terms with her traumatic memories of killing her daughter. Morrison allows for the whole memory to be as faded and washed out to the reader as it seems to be for Sethe. It is clear that Sethe’s past is sensitive to her, she’s known to ‘beat back the past,’ every day at work, showing that her past is a battle that she has to face often, and come to a reality to.
The importance and power of the past is shown through the occasional transitions to the present tense. The memories being conveyed in the present tense allows for everything to be consumed as much more vivid and immediate for the reader. They are able to live Sethe’s unfortunate memories as she does, allowing the reader to feel fearful, affected and included in Sethe’s life. This allows for a much deeper connection between character and reader, causing Sethe’s pains to become much more realistic and current. Often, a character’s past can be disregarded because the reader views the issue as over now and old news. Morrison’s present tense technique allows for the reader to have to live through Sethe’s past, just as she relives it to tell her story.
Just as fear is made a clear theme for Sethe’s past, Dorian Gray shows clear themes of fear towards the thought of his future. Wilde allows for the reader to see Dorian’s clear fear of aging and not being beautiful anymore. He allows for Dorian to become mischievous and go against his otherwise usual morals by continuously allowing Lord Henry’s painting to get older and less attractive every time he sins. The painting is referred to as ‘the most magical of mirrors.’ For a while, Dorian allows the painting to take the backlash of the physical burdens of sin that he would have otherwise taken the effects of himself.
The painting helps Dorian to disregard any doubts or conscience he may have about sinning, and set out on his goal of finding pleasure. In Beloved, Sethe is seen to run away from her past in the same way that Dorian runs away from his future, allowing the dough that she ‘beats’ every morning to take the backlash of her painful, difficult past. Much like the dough that takes away the effects of Sethe’s pains, the painting takes away Dorian’s future pains that he will most definitely experience in the future. The difference between the two symbols is that the painting has an obvious supernatural power to be able to physically take away Dorian’s fears, getting older and physically changing with time, whereas the beating of the dough is merely Sethe’s attempt to take away her fears from the past.
Dorian’s inevitability to be accepted amongst society regardless of his lack of moral code is highlighted in chapter 11. This is where we see Wilde shining through his text and the only lapse to first person narration throughout the novel occurs. Wilde here seems to be commenting on the matter of insincerity himself, ‘Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not.’ Wilde comments that he thinks that it is not and he goes on to state that he believes that ‘It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.’ This shows Wilde’s real personality being conveyed through the passage. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society at the time, it is likely that Wilde’s belief is that insincerity isn’t such a bad thing. He himself would have had to have conducted himself through different personalities, due to the intolerant society that he would have been living in around the time he wrote the novel.
Similarly to Wilde, Morrison had experiences in the topic of her writing. Morrison specialised in black fiction, allowing her to be very knowledgeable when it came to writing such a novel. Although Morrison’s own personal believes do not shine through as blatantly in any parts of her novel as Wilde’s do, it is clear to detect her passion for her subject throughout Beloved and she is able to distinguish themes such as fear throughout the novel because of her beliefs that accurate history had been lost due to forced silence upon the subject. Morrison incorporates the ‘ghost’ idea into her novel and the imagery of haunting, perhaps to suggest that the subject of slavery will haunt us if we do not face up to it, much like Beloved haunts Sethe until she faces up to her reality.
Fear is a theme that is apparent in both novels and both authors use similar techniques to attach the fear ideology to their texts. Their works allow for the harsh reality of their subjects to become apparent and themes of supernaturalism and sinning shine through in both texts. The novels are based upon two very different subjects, however, the messages intended by the authors are not all that different.