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Literature: Toni Morrison

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"It is the ultimate gesture of a loving mother. It is the outrageous claim
of a slave"(Morrison 1987). These are the words that Toni Morrison used to
describe the actions of the central character within the novel, Beloved. That
character, Sethe, is presented as a former slave woman who chooses to kill her
baby girl rather than allowing her to be exposed to the physically, emotionally,
and spiritually oppressive horrors of a life spent in slavery. Sethe's action is
indisputable: She has killed her child. Sethe's motivation is not so clearly
defined. By killing her "Beloved" child, has Sethe acted out of true
love or selfish pride? The fact that Sethe's act is irrational can easily be
decided upon. Does Sethe kill her baby girl because she wants to save the baby
from slavery or does Sethe end her daughter's life because of a selfish refusal
to reenter a life of slavery? By examining the complexities of Sethe's character
it can be said that she is a woman who chooses to love her children but not
herself. Sethe kills her baby because, in Sethe's mind, her children are the
only good and pure part of who she is and must be protected from the cruelty and
the "dirtiness" of slavery(Morrison 251). In this respect, her act is
that of love for her children. The selfishness of Sethe's act lies in her
refusal to accept personal responsibility for her baby's death. Sethe's
motivation is dichotomous in that she displays her love by mercifully sparing
her daughter from a horrific life, yet Sethe refuses to acknowledge that her
show of mercy is also murder. Throughout Beloved, Sethe's character consistently
displays the duplistic nature of her actions. Not long after Sethe's reunion
with Paul D. she describes her reaction to School Teacher's arrival: "Oh,
no. I wasn't going back there[Sweet Home]. I went to jail instead"(Morrison
42). Sethe's words suggest that she has made a moral stand by her refusal to
allow herself and her children to be dragged back into the evil of slavery. From
the beginning, it is clear that Sethe believes that her actions were morally
justified. The peculiarity of her statement lies in her omission of the
horrifying fact that her moral stand was based upon the murder of her child. By
not even approaching the subject of her daughter's death, it is also made clear
that Sethe has detached herself from the act. Even when Paul D. learns of what
Sethe has done and confronts her with it, Sethe still skirts the reality of her
past. Sethe describes her reasoning to Paul D., "... So when I got here,
even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something from a
piece of cloth Baby Suggs had. Well, all I'm saying is that's a selfish pleasure
I never had before. I couldn't let all that go back to where it was, and I
couldn't let her or any of em live under School Teacher. That was
out"(163). Sethe's love for her children is apparent, yet she still shifts
the burden of responsibility away from herself. She acknowledges that it was a
"selfish pleasure" to make something for her daughter, yet Sethe
refuses to admit any selfishness in her act of murder. She is indignant and
frustrated with Paul D. confronting her: Sethe knew that the circle she was
making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never
close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn't get it right
off-- she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a
long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes
and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming
and recognized schoolteacher's hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck
their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their
wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She
just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that
were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them thought
the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them"(163). Sethe's
frustration is a product of her contradictory reasoning. She views her children
as an extension of her life that needed to be protected, at any cost. Sethe's
concept of loving and protecting her children becomes synonymous with her
killing Beloved and attempting to kill the rest. Sethe can see no wrong here.
Placing her children outside the horror of slavery, even if it meant taking
their lives, was in her mind a justified act of love, nothing more. Ironically,
it is Paul D. who reveals the contradictions that Sethe refuses to see in her
own logic: "This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked
about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the
bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here Sethe didn't
know where the world stopped and she began. Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paid
wanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she had
claimed. It scared him"(164). Paul D.'s character suggests that although
the killing act might have been committed out of a irrational, hysterical,
loving mother's need to "protect" her children, Sethe's
"claim" that she was and is justified in those actions can not be
accepted. Paul D. recognizes what Sethe can not; her act of supreme love is also
an act of insurmountable selfishness. When Paul D. calls into question her
thinking, Sethe still refuses to see her own role in what has come to pass:
'What you did was wrong, Sethe.' 'I should have gone on back there? Taken my
babies back there?' 'There could have been a way. Some other way.' 'What way?'
'You got two feet, Sethe, not four...' (165) Sethe's problem is rooted in her
inability to recognize the boundaries between herself and her children. Paul D.
stabs at the heart of this problem by suggesting that Sethe had overstepped her
boundaries by killing her child. The concept that Sethe equates her life and
self-worth with her connection to her children is most graphically illustrated
in her mad ravings to the reincarnation of "Beloved". Sethe details a
defense for killing her baby to the woman she believes is her reincarnated,
murdered daughter. Within this defense, Sethe explains in the greatest detail
her reasoning for cutting her child's throat. Sethe pronounces that the worst
thing in life was: That anybody white could take your whole self for anything
that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so
bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were
and couldn't think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over
it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her
children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her
beautiful, magical best thing-- the part of her that was clean.(251) Sethe's
words suggest that the only part of herself that she cares for is her children.
Indeed, the only reason that she killed her daughter is because Sethe refused to
let School Teacher or any other white person "dirty" her children as
Sethe herself had been dirtied. Sethe's nobility, however irrationally
predicated, is apparent. She loves her children to much to let them be tarnished
by slavery. Unfortunately, Sethe's nobility is tainted by the fact that she can
not recognize absurdity of the murderous act she has committed. Even in her
shameful defense, Sethe is proud. Sethe's undaunted pride is illustrated by her
words, "And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter's
characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no. Maybe Baby Suggs
could worry about it, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe refused- and refused
still"(251). Toni Morrison, in an effort to describe the motivation and
pride of Sethe's character, made the statement, "To kill my children is
preferable to having them die"(Morrison 1987). Saving her children from
slavery and the promise of spiritual and emotional death that such an
institution imposes is the rational of love that Sethe's character clings to.
The truth that Sethe's character selfishly avoids is the actual physical death
that she has inflicted upon her child. Understanding why a woman would kill any
child, let alone her own baby, is at best an enigma. Sethe's character is no
exception. Sethe's motivation does not fit into a simple schematic. Sethe is
presented as a woman who loves her children so much that she is willing to kill
them rather than allow them to be broken by an evil institution. Love is, then,
Sethe's primary motivation for killing her baby. However, Sethe's love for her
children does not preclude her responsibility for Beloved's death. Indeed,
Sethe's selfish fault lies in the fact that she has shifted the locus of
responsibility from herself to the institution that has spawned her. Ultimately,
it is Sethe who is responsible for her child's death, not slavery. Sethe kills
her daughter to demonstrate her love. Sethe exhibits her selfish pride by
repudiating her own guilt. Does Sethe realize her fault? Perhaps. When presented
the notion that Sethe, and not her children, is her own "best thing",
her reply takes the form of a question, "Me? Me?"(273). Morrison
leaves the reader with the sense that Sethe might realize that she has loved her
children too much, and herself not enough.
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