The theme of Motherhood and ways of loving in Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrisons

The novel Beloved by Toni Morrison presents the theme of psychological consequences of slavery. In the novel, Toni Morison provides an understanding of how slavery in the outside world impacted on the individuals’ internal world. Slavery revealed the characters of individuals in the novel. For instance, the psychological effect of love is reflected in the mother-daughter relationship between Sethe and her daughter Denver (Peach 2000). There are various forms of love between Sethe and Denver presented in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Love refers to a situation which someone unites with another with such a strong feeling that he/she loses his/her self-integrity to be in union with the integrity of the other.

The aspect of motherly love for her children is clearly shown in Morrison’s Beloved through the loving character of Sethe. There is a strong bond of love between Sethe and her daughters which inhibits her from developing herself (Benjamin 1988). Her passion drives her to the extent of killing her own daughter. She also estranges the other daughter, Denver, from the black community in order to save her from slavery. Her love leads Beloved to death and Denver to estrangement to the community. Beloved appears as a ghost while Denver fails to interact with the community as she desired. This kind of love is extreme; it is so strong that the mother does not realize the negative consequences of demonstrating it on her own children.

One way of loving is fighting for the freedom of the people you love. Speaking to Paul D, Sethe says that she loved her children in her new home after escaping from her slavery masters. She claims that she could not love her children in Sweet Home at Kentucky, her master’s home, because they were not hers to love. Her new home signified a freedom to love. Sethe wanted “to get a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire” (Morrison 310). This illustrates that Sethe’s escape from her master’s Sweet Home in Kentucky was mainly intended to provide a free environment for her to love her children freely and truely.

The novel narrates a story that is centered on women during slavery. The effects of slavery were so harsh on them that they lost hope. However, Sethe still loved her children. Morrison tells of a story in which the sons of the main character Sethe had gone away from home, leaving Sethe and her daughter Denver. This brings a theme of mother-daughter relationship which is bonded with love. Despite the harsh realities of slavery, the mother loved her daughters. The love of Sethe for her children is clearly shown by her desire to keep them safe. She says, “I took and put my babies where they would be safe.” (Morrison 163). She would endure the suffering of slavery, but she wanted her children to remain safe. Therefore, another way of loving in the novel is by providing safety for children who do not have the power to choose safe havens for themselves.

Another aspect of a mother’s love for her daughter is Sethe’s love for Beloved, which she demonstrates by killing her. Beloved was the eldest daughter of Sethe. When Sethe escaped from her slave master, the master traces and finds her. She then decides to kill her in order to protect her from slavery. This also demonstrated a mother’s love for her daughter. She could do anything to protect her child from slavery, even if it meant killing her.

During slavery, African-American women demonstrated their love for their children by killing them (Jennings 2008). Sethe demonstrated her love for her daughters by trying to kill them. She wanted to kill both daughters, but she managed to kill only the eldest daughter by running a seesaw through her throat. Sethe suggested that by killing her daughter, she wanted to put her baby where they would be safe. Beloved was killed when Sethe’s master came to pick them. She knew that they would be going back to the slavery house, so it was better for her children to die than to be mistreated in the hands of the white slave masters. Indeed, the mother was desperate to save her from slavery (Waytt, 1993).

Another way in which mother-daughter relationship is manifested is through the relationship between Sethe and her Beloved when she reappears again as if she had risen from death. In form of a ghost, Beloved gains a voice. She comes from the dead as a nineteen-year-old teen, and demands the attention of her mother. As if paying for the mistakes of her murder, Sethe defines herself as a maternal body to the ghost (Waytt, 1993). Sethe starts to spend carelessly and spoil her Beloved when she reappears as though out of guilt. Beloved demonstrates anger and becomes too demanding. Whenever she does not get her way, she throws tantrums. She consumes her mother’s life until the mother wears herself out and sacrifices her appetite while can grow bigger and bigger.

This indicates that Sethe loved her daughter despite being in form of a ghost. She loved her when she killed her; and she loves her even more as a ghost. She endures all the tantrums and the drama demonstrated by her daughter’s ghost out of love. She provides Beloved with whatever she needs. This shows that a mother demonstrates love for her children by providing them with their needs.

During the entire period when Beloved was at home as a ghost, Sethe did nothing to show her love for herself. Everything she did was intended to save her children from slavery. The experiences she had during slavery were so immense that she never wanted the people she loved to go through. During slavery, women were the most affected. That is why Sethe protected her daughters, and little was mentioned by Morrison about the sons of Sethe. The novel is exclusively about the sacrifices that the women of slavery make for their daughters (Giroux and Narins 1995). Sethe even sacrificed her love for Paul D in order to provide full attention to her children. She only accepted a relationship with Paul D after the exorcism of Beloved. Therefore, mother-daughter relationship in Beloved was characterised by sacrificial kind of love whereby a mother sacrifices everything she can for her daughters.

Morrison also suggests that slavery separates a mother from her daughter. That is why Sethe killed her daughter when her master came for her after escaping. “Beloved” and Sethe become emotionally impaired as a result of the slavery. They both feel that they had been separated from each other due to the slavery. Despite being warned against Beloved by Paul D, Sethe is charmed by Beloved. Later, Paul D is forced out of the house by the presence of a supernatural being. This indicates that the bond between the mother and her daughter was stronger than the love of Paul D.

The mother figure, Sethe, demonstrates a strong maternal body with a physical presence and connection to her children that precludes separation and substitution (Wyatt, 1993). This relationship kills the self; and arouses the love for others. Beloved has the desire to be recognized, and the mother seemingly relies on other selves. Their bond is strengthened by Sethe’s self-denial and Beloved’s desire to be loved and recognized. Despite being in the form of a ghost, Sethe does not want to be separated from her daughter.

A mother-daughter relationship is also characterised by unmanageable hunger and rage. The love hunger in Beloved is symbolized by various instances of hunger and thirsty caused by female characters in the novel. During slavery, a child drains her mother with hunger and thirst. When Beloved appeared in her mother’s home as a ghost, there was an excessive drinking of water. Immediately she saw Beloved, Sethe’s bladder was filled to capacity. Morrison says that “not since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight- year-old girl who pointed out her mother to her, had she had emergency that unmanageable. Right in front of its door she had to lift her skirts, and the water she voided was endless.” (Morrison 51).

Range and ambivalence of love hunger can also be illustrated using an incident in which Sethe experiences fingers touching her throat. This happened when Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother, was giving a sermon on love. The fingers were comforting and soothing at first, but later chocked and strangled her (Schapiro 199). The fingers that strangled her represented the fingers of Baby Suggs and Beloved, her mother and daughter. This shows a good and comforting relationship that existed between Baby Suggs and Sethe, and a disastrous love and relationship between mother and daughter that existed between Sethe and Beloved.

When Denver accused Beloved of strangling mother, Beloved said she did not choke her but instead saved her neck. “I kissed her neck, I did not choke her” (Morrison 101). This is symbolic of Sethe’s action when she killed Beloved as a way of saving her. This kind of love is over-protective and disastrous. In the same way, Denver was being over-protected by being kept away from the community. She is also being choked by maternal love of her mother. However, she is later rescued by the influence of Paul D over her mother and her sister. The chocking phenomenon also symbolized the overall situation of slavery. Schapiro (1992) suggests that the necks of black slaves were also chocked. Slavery strangled the relationship between mother and child, leading to the development of the self.

These two illustrations indicate that a child drains her mother with greedy, excessive need. The draining can also be associated to her child-self in relation to her mother (Schapiro 198). Sethe drains herself in order to avoid destroying her mother. On the other hand, Beloved almost succeeds in draining her mother. For the love of her daughter, Sethe is ready to be drained; she puts up with her daughter’s greedy needs and gives up her desire to eat and drink, as long as her daughter gets what she wants. On her part, Denver’s relationship with her sister Beloved also flourished in form of a nursing relationship. Denver nursed her sister so intently that she forgets to eat (Schapiro 199). The love of Denver for her sister also drained her.

Sethe feels entirely responsible for her daughters to the extent that she forgets completely of herself. She fails to love anyone else but her daughters. Towards the end of the novel, Paul D plays a maternal nurturing role by taking care of Sethe and Denver. He is first forced out of Sethe’s life, but he later comes back and frees Denver from the bondage of love hunger for her ghost sister and the chocking love from her mother. He leads the community to exorcize Beloved. By doing that, Paul D relieves Sethe of her responsibilities. She feels “that the responsibility of her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (Morrison 18). She started to accept a relationship with Paul D and allowed him to take care of her daughter Denver.

In conclusion, it is clear that mother-daughter relationship was characterised by a chocking kind of love. The slavery interfered with the relationship between mother and daughter. Mothers killed their children and love hunger from daughters drained the mothers until they become helpless. Self sets in and they do not consider others.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon. 1988. Print.

Giroux, Christopher and Brigham Narins. “Beloved by Toni Morrison”. Contemporary Literary Criticism, 87 (1995), 261–311.

Jennings, La Vinia Delois. Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008. Print.

Matus, Jill. Toni Morrison Contemporary World Writers. New York: Manchester University Press. 1998. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: New American Library. 1987. Print.

Peach, Linden. Toni Morrison. Macmillan Press: London. 2000. Print.

Schapiro, Barbara. “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Contemporary Literature, 32, 2 (1991), 194-210.

Wyatt, Jean. “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” PMLA, 108, 3 (1993), 474-488.

Written by 

Leave a Reply