In fiction, the typical image of maternity is that of a mother doting and loving her children unconditionally. Yet, when women write about the subject of motherhood, they complicate and draw criticisms of the standard mentality of maternity. When any toxic dimensions, such as slavery, interfere with motherhood, the issue of being a mom when one’s child could be taken away complicates motherhood. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe’s love for her children causes her to attempt to kill them, though she’s only successful in killing one of them—an act outside the realm of conventional maternity. Sethe’s decision could be viewed as her becoming the master of her children’s’ fate, thereby taking on a masculine role like that of schoolteacher. Due to her traditional maternal choices being taken away from her as a slave and being dehumanized, Sethe’s love for her children became “thick” and twisted in her efforts to decide how her children would live.
From the beginning, the home of Sethe and her children—124 Bluestone Road—is depicted as being “…spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.” With 124 being “full of venom”, Sethe and her daughter Denver are left alone with the ghost of the murdered infant after grandmother Baby Suggs dies and Denver’s brothers had run away once they were old enough (Morrison 3, 5-6). When the baby ghost makes its appearances, it’s with Denver playing games, but a disruptive force when Paul D arrives. Sethe, overall, is a good mother to Denver; she’s looks after her and takes care of her. On the downside, the way Sethe treats Denver as a child afraid to leave her home contrasts with the fact that Denver is eighteen years old. Both girls avoid their pasts, which enslave the both of them in the present (Otten 83). Further supporting Otten’s theory is presented in the first part of Beloved, stating Sethe’s belief in “[her] future was a matter of keeping the past at bay.” The presence of Beloved disrupts Sethe’s insistence of forgetting her slave past; Beloved not only represents the ghost of Sethe’s murdered child, but Sethe’s past, which needs to be reclaimed and recognized, similar to the scars on her back. The whip marks represent a past Sethe represses, but cannot forget. The marks are simultaneously “history and herstory.” (Peach 95, 132).
Sethe’s first introduction into slavery was not one of cruelty; she was given a choice of whom she could pick from the Sweet Home Boys to marry and what work she could do on the plantation. She chooses Halle and has four children, all of which are Halle’s biologically—something that sets her apart from other slaves. The death of plantation owner Mr. Gardener signals the end of Sethe’s womanhood and motherhood. Upon his death, the slaves are no longer individuals. Their heads are measured—a form of pseudo-science under Darwinism to prove blacks were inferior to whites—men are forced to wear bridles and have their hunting guns taken away, and families were separated, sold off, whipped, hanged, and witnesses to the colored schools being burned (Morrison 180, 193). The effect of schoolteacher and his nephews disrupts Sethe’s security and reduced to the object of a slave. The “stealing” of milk from Sethe’s breasts and whipping she endures from schoolteacher and his nephews remove a bond between mothers and their children and create a systemized form of breeding slaves. Sethe’s chance of conventional motherhood and mothering were denied, along with her womanhood as she was regarded and reduced to “breeding stock.” (Peach 93) Sethe’s decision to murder Beloved is said to be one to “stop [schoolteacher] in his tracks.” Her action was horrific to the point where the atrocities schoolteacher’s nephews administered to the slaves in Sweet Home were viewed as “counterproductive” and “unwise” compared to the murder of the infant Beloved (Otten 86). Motherhood, described as the archetype of femininity, no longer focuses on Sethe’s desires, but that of the patriarchy’s. In turn, motherhood is not defined by women, but created by men’s fabrications (Patton 125). Ironically, schoolteacher and the nephews never allow Sethe conventional maternal instincts.
Peach further explains Sethe’s denial of femininity and forming a maternal bond with her children resulted in her distortion of woman and motherhood. In an argument with Stamp Paid about punishment and God, Sethe refers to herself as “a nigger woman” (Morrison 179). The impact of slavery on Sethe as resulted in no longer seeing herself as a person of significant value, yet she classifies herself as a woman could be a seen as positive. However, her womanhood is attached to her identity as a black slave woman. As Patton explains, slaves were not to “be troubled by family bonds.” In addition, female slaves are not expected to experience mother love. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother, discussed the domestic disruption commonplace to slaves: “men and women were moved around like checkers…. the nastiness of life was the shock…upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included [Sethe’s] children” (Morrison 29). In the lives of slaves, family and motherhood required different meanings due to they were classified first as slaves. Therefore, they are at the mercy of their masters. Although Sethe’s children are not sold—due to her actions and two of her children running away—she is separated from her own mother; she has experienced the effects of slavery and its disruption of families. In part to the disruption, Sethe cannot maintain the proper boundaries because her love is “too thick.”; that thick love which leads Sethe to kill her daughter and attempt to kill her other children before schoolteacher can capture them and return them to slavery. For Sethe, murder becomes symbolic of mother love, but her actions appear unfathomable to others. Her extreme response related to her heightened experience of loss and parallels to wanting to decide her children’s fates when she has no ownership of them, let alone herself (Patton 126). Sethe rejects Paul D’s criticism of her love stating she had no right to make the choice for her kids while citing what became of her life and Denver’s. Sethe has a quick response to Paul D; she knew what it was like to be measured, studied, and abused by schoolteacher, and she did not want that life for her children and attempts to justify her actions to Beloved by explaining that she acted out of love (Morrison 165). Her justification, though argued as noble, has been interpreted as Sethe owning her children.
In Sethe’s eyes, her escaping slavery authorized her to love and to be a mother in a nonconventional way. As Patton states, Beloved celebrates Sethe’s escape from slavery, but focuses on her mothering. Motherhood becomes Sethe’s means of claiming her identity and gender, but it suffocates her. Upon discovering Beloved’s identity, Denver fears Beloved leaving her, but Beloved explains how she come back to remove the “circle of iron” from Sethe’s past (Morrison 101). Despite her claims, Beloved is a vengeful spirit. Her resurrection forces Sethe to remember and return to her past, an act with devours her with guilt as she begs for sympathy by recounting how she suffered after Beloved’s murder. As a result, the mother/daughter relationship paralyzes Sethe when her love for Beloved becomes consuming and parasitic. Instead of forgiveness, Beloved seeks revenge; she already suffered through separation from her mother and thus, desires reunion. However, Beloved seeks reunion through death. (Peach 127-128). With this, Sethe is trapped within motherhood physically and psychologically. Often, Sethe states how no one will love her children the way she does, but her love is selfish. Her doting on Beloved at the expense of her health and neglecting Denver is beneficial to no one; both Sethe and Beloved continue fighting as Beloved “demanded the best of everything.” Though 124 Bluestone is described as quiet, the anger and tension in the home isolates Sethe, Beloved, and Denver from their community (Morrison 239-241). However, it’s O’Reilly who brings up how Sethe’s over identification to Beloved disallows either of them to be individualized. Psychologically, Sethe’s association with Beloved as her and her mother, derives from a “passionate desire to be mothered, to be a mother and a daughter” equal to her commitment to motherhood.
Part of being a mother comes with learning from one’s own mother. Sethe’s own mother, whom Sethe remembers her only by her mark of ownership, was denied the right to bond with her; Sethe was breastfed by someone whose “job it was to do so.” In her innocence, she asks to marked the same way her mother only to be slapped (Morrison 76-77). Her mother’s mark was one of ownership, the equivalent of writing ‘property’ under her breast. Sethe loves her children enough to not only bring them milk her mother couldn’t do for her, but to kill them before allowing them to be remanded to slavery. Without a maternal figure, Sethe grew to love her children without understanding how they could be taken away from her. By trying to kill her children, Sethe asserts her right to her children beyond her control as a black slave woman. In the face of her inability to be a traditional mother, Sethe believes killing her children is the only way that she can protect them from the atrocities of schoolteacher (Patton 13, 130). As a mother, Sethe made the choice to keep her children away from the horrors of slavery. By doing so, she makes the choice for her children. Nonetheless, Sethe was unable escape and ignore her consequences.
As a tragic hero, Sethe defies her fate, as heart breaking as it is. Due to this, Sethe’s consequences are passed on to her daughter and must find a way to redeem and confront the choices she made for her children. Upon confessing her deeds to Paul D, Sethe is proud of what she did and shows no remorse. As a mother, Sethe was doing what she believed was the right thing—protecting her children as if she had a lawful claim over them. Her actions tore apart her family, caused her to be shunned by the Sweet Home community, and established a co-dependence with her surviving daughter Denver. Denver is, as a result, marked by her own mother’s history of infanticide (Patton 131); she drank Beloved’s blood along with her mother’s milk, her only friend was Beloved in her ghost-like form whom she played with as she “waited for daddy”, she loves while fears her mother because she knows Sethe would have killed her if she hadn’t been stopped, and is isolated to a point where she “won’t leave the yard” (Morrison 165, 205). Sethe, in the end, is able to find redemption through Denver’s actions. She brought awareness to their community about Beloved, causing those in Sweet Home to go to 124 Bluestone to exorcise Beloved. Sethe, seeing this, takes out her fear of what she believes is her losing her children once again on the crowd—a contrast to making decisions for her children previously. When Sethe protects her children in a more conventional way, she redeems herself and it’s only then when Beloved disappears and remembered as a story no one wants to be repeated (Morrison 275).
Sethe, as a female slave, was not aware of the traditional devotion of motherhood along with the importance placed on motherhood in American society. As a result, she turned to the role of the mother as a means to affirm their personhood and womanhood. Unfortunately, the foundation of slavery destroyed any possibility of Sethe fitting the definition of true womanhood (Patton 16, 20). She was not taught traditional maternal conventions as her own mother never got the chance to be a parent to her. To correct the mistakes of her mother, Sethe’s “too thick” love for her children unintentionally created mistakes in which Denver had to correct as she attempted to gain the control over her life she once had. Under the literal chains of slavery, Sethe couldn’t be a mother. As a result, she resorted to taking a masculine role of being the master and protector of her children’s fates as her femininity was denied. As a relatively fortunate slave mother, she was given the chance of being a mother to Beloved, Denver, and her sons without them being taken away. When her motherhood was taken away, Sethe felt as if attempting to murder her children would be her last act of protecting her children; something her own mother did not do.