Archive for October, 2013


Slavery and History: The Symbolism of Memory in Beloved

Toni Morrison, within the pages of her novel Beloved, has created not only memorable characters – but also a historical perspective on the powerful cruelty of slavery. Through the “rememories” of her protagonist Sethe, readers see the destructiveness this oppression caused. The challenge of this essay is to deliver a careful analysis of Morrison’s use of memory in the narrative and also to explain how it delineates the overall theme. The author skillfully uses Sethe’s recollections – especially as they regard her husband Halle – as a metaphor not only for the ruin of a man, but also by showing how certain events relate to the historical reality of the slave experience. Morrison then supplements this view of memory with several references to mother’s milk, blood, and body. By combining all of these elements and presenting them through the historical lens of perspective, she reveals how completely broken these characters ultimately become. It is within this context that we find the textual examples that will illustrate these points and give direction to our analysis.

One of the most compelling elements in Morrison’s work is her continued reference to Sethe’s husband Halle, a character present only in memories but very much symbolic of the trauma associated with slavery. When Paul D tells Sethe that Halle witnessed the brutal attack on her, and that he later sees Halle at the churn with “butter all over his face,” the disturbing image has an equally disturbing effect on Sethe. For one, “she could not picture what Paul D had said. Nothing came to mind.” This is representative of her inability to see her husband in such a state of insanity and brokenness, brought on by his realization of the futility of his situation as a slave. It is referenced in the text that Halle “was too good for the world” and we know that he worked “years of Saturdays, Sundays and nighttime extra” without ever breaking from the weight of this burden. This plainly suggests that Halle was strong, resilient, shatterproof. As Sethe’s memory begins to form a picture of “Halle’s face between the butter press and the churn swelled larger and larger,” it makes her head hurt and the reality begins to set in. Halle isn’t coming to Ohio. This man who “had never drawn one free breath” had succumbed to exactly what slavery represented – the taking of an individual’s self. It is fair to say that Paul D makes a very valid point when he reminds us that he “hoped” Halle was now dead; that “butter and clabber was no life or reason to live it.”
Perhaps one of the most ironic elements of Halle and his situation comes from his daughter Denver, who thinks that “my daddy…never went crazy.” She still thinks of him in her memory as that which Sethe once did – the hard worker, the family man, the rescuer. Unfortunately, the broken image of a man “smearing the butter as well as its clabber all over his face” is the insane vision we attribute to Halle in the end. Helplessly watching his wife have her identity stolen and realizing his was being taken at the same time: that is the dominant symbolism that comes to represent the slave condition. When he was last seen, “squatting in butter,” the man Halle simply disappears, replaced only by recollection and ghosts. Stirred by Sethe’s memory, this lives as a vivid reminder of the damaging power of captivity.

There is a distinct connection between the image of Halle, broken “like a twig,” smeared with butter, and the references to Sethe’s milk. The text suggests that the butter-smearing – tied to his breakdown – is caused “because the milk they took is on his mind.” Obviously, this reference links the theft of a “person” to the breakdown of a man. The milk symbolizes not only motherhood in Sethe’s case, but also the physical body. In her own words, it represented “all I ever had,” which is to say that her milk – the source of life for her children – was the only thing nobody could steal from her. It was not only a part of her, it was her, and when the white men with the “mossy teeth” literally steal it out of her body, what they have effectively done is take her one true possession. This fact, more than anything else, reasonably represents the slave experience as the “unlivable life” Sethe refers to in the beginning of Part Two. It supports why she feels as if she’s been “junkheaped” by life and why her inability to “decide what to do with the day” unfairly defines her existence.

Another interesting parallel to the idea of mother’s milk representing self is the introduction of blood – another life-giving fluid that has profound significance in the story. Blood clearly symbolizes life. The fact that the baby Denver “took her mother’s milk right along with the blood of her sister” is a powerful representation of how connected Beloved, Denver, and Sethe really are. It represents an unbreakable bond of life and family – something that is uniquely “theirs” and untouchable to men like Schoolteacher. Morrison mentions this several times in the narrative, speaking through Denver when she later says, “I swallowed her blood right along with my mother’s milk…ever since I was little she was my company.” This suggests that nourishment, physical and psychological, emotional, and spiritual not only came from Sethe’s milk, but also from the literal blood her sister gave up in death. It establishes a highly symbolic connection between the siblings and their relationship with their mother. All three women belong to each other, this bond suggesting that what happens to one, happens to all.

A final point regarding how all this very suggestive symbolism forms the overall theme is found near the end of the story when we once again enter Sethe’s consciousness. It is this chilling concept of a stolen identity – vivid in its power to conjure up memories of her husband’s defiled face, her milk, her daughter’s blood – that is so clearly evident in her statement: “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind…dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” Ultimately, this is the one factor that describes the theme of Morrison’s work: complete loss of self, of identity, and in some cases – purpose – that leads to an overwhelming psychological detachment. It clearly happened to Halle in the barn, and this break is equally evident in Sethe’s psyche as she struggles with the idea of sending her children back into slavery. She simply wouldn’t allow the same fate that befell Halle happen to her children – her “best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing.” It is powerful testimony to the identification of self and holding on to what one knows as true. In this case, the harsh realization serves theme well and establishes a very moving narrative.

While this is only one interpretation of a very complex work of literature, the symbolism used effectively reminds us that “human life is holy, all of it,” and that the cruelty of slavery must never be repeated. What Morrison has done, then, is present the story of Sethe and her family as a potent example of how deeply this trauma can affect the individual as well as the collective. While no character in the story remains unaffected by the reality of slavery, the work speaks to the human condition and the haunting memories that surround it. More than anything, this spiritual and emotional death provides readers with an understanding that life must be valued, cherished, and protected. In this, we find the heart of Morrison’s theme and the true meaning of the word Beloved.


Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Memory and Motivation

In her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved, Toni Morrison introduces readers to Sethe, an escaped slave living in Ohio in the 1870s. This essay’s focus is to show that Morrison’s use of memory flashback discloses much more than simple plot or character development. This technique fairly reveals Sethe’s reasoning, her stimulus, her motivation, for trying to kill her children in an attempt to “put my babies where they’d be safe.” Using Sethe’s memory as the lens through which the reader views this narrative, serves a unique and two-fold purpose. For one, it centers perspective squarely in the mind of Morrison’s protagonist and frames our understanding of motivation through her “rememory.” Sethe’s recollection of a motherless, “iron-eyed” childhood, her indentured time at Sweet Home, and her frightening run for the freedom Ohio provided certainly gives us a keen look into what her thought process was for her actions. Contextually, when you analyze the fact that she is a post-traumatic mother of four doing everything possible to protect and “save” her kids from what has damaged her, Sethe’s stimulus becomes even clearer. This subjective angle must not and cannot be ignored.

Secondly, memory is arguably what creates our present self. Whether that is a positive or negative force depends on the context. In the case of Beloved, extreme and traumatic memories have resulted in extreme and traumatic acts. The memories, and the suggestion that Sethe cannot allow them to re-form within the framework of her childrens’ lives, is what ultimately defines her.

To support this argument, we must look at several examples from the text which involve memory and show how these experiences translate into determined rationale. Initially, there is the flashback memory Sethe has of her own mother, someone Sethe admits she only saw “a few times out in the field.” We learn through the text that Sethe’s mother killed children of her own at one point, but saved the young girl. Morrison writes, “She threw them all away but you.” This idea of destroying lives in order to somehow “save” a child from the atrocities of slavery, then, is not unique only to Sethe-as-mother. It would have been an idea clearly present in the psyche of Sethe-as-daughter as well. As this memory is resurrected, it is referred to as “something privately shameful [that] seeped into a slit in her mind.” Private memories, shameful memories, all memories in fact, have the ability to control future behaviors. As Sethe would (seemingly) be un-resistant to this secret of her mother’s, it follows that the same “secret” would resurface later in regards to her own sense of motherhood.

Another memory that we must examine comes in the ironic form of what I argue is Sethe’s “non-remembrance” of her attack in the Sweet Home barn, of which she can only recall the detail “And they took my milk!” Although she was beaten, whipped, abused, degraded, at the hands of Schoolteacher’s nephew, she is unable to relate the specifics of this experience to Paul D simply because she has repressed them so permanently. Interestingly, what her memory holds onto is what was taken from her in a maternal sense. By taking her milk – that which symbolizes her motherhood – the attackers robbed her of her “self.” And since “milk was all I had,” this argument seems valid: the attackers took everything, and she would never allow that to happen again.

Since the text reminds us that “every mention of her past life hurt,” this is especially relevant considering her experience in the barn. Even though readers can’t know exactly what happened, they understand the suggestion that it was bad. Emotionally bad. It was bad enough to leave permanent, telling, scars that leave an ugly picture of that trauma stamped on Sethe’s body.

Sethe’s experience of being a scared, very pregnant runaway slave in the woods of Kentucky is another memory that must be included in our analysis. As she scrambled not only for her own survival, but that of her unborn baby, Sethe’s character is presented with a set of unique circumstances. In her memory, she recalls being “tired…scared…lost,” and that pursuing her were things like “dogs, perhaps; guns, probably” and the “mossy teeth” of men who would do anything to anybody. She was flatly told by Amy – the white girl who eventually delivered her baby – that “You gonna die in here, you know. Ain’t no way out of it.” The fact that Sethe did find a way out suggests that she found power in her responsibilities as a mother for the safety of her children. This concept of safety, introduced earlier in the essay, is paramount to understanding why she tried to kill them as Schoolteacher closed in.

Finally, the unusual combination of the memory of motherhood and of fear – more than anything else – works to rationalize Sethe’s behavior in the woodshed behind 124 Bluestone Road. This means that Sethe’s conception of motherhood – what it means to her – is that nobody knows better than she what is best for her babies. This is reinforced with her comments about Beloved, that “Nobody was going to nurse her like me…Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough…Nobody knew that but me.” Her insistence that she was the authority on what was in the best interests of her children, in many ways, foreshadows her actions in the woodshed.

Additionally, there is proof in the text that she harbors resentment towards Halle, the children’s father. When she recalls details of her escape, she says that Halle “did worse” than just abandon her; “he left his children.” The not-so-thinly veiled suggestion here is that Sethe would never do something like that. She would never abandon her kids, hurt them, wound them. This speaks to her protective, maternal nature and shows her dedication as a parent. By comparing her sense of maternal commitment to the example of parenting she believed Halle to have shown, she is staking her claim as the kids’ protector, guaranteeing that nothing will happen to them while on her watch.

Fear represents a context of memory that allows for the “unexplainable”. In other words, nobody can know exactly what they would do in a certain circumstance if fear is what framed their situation. For Sethe, I would argue that the memory of fear played an incredibly important part in what she ultimately did with Beloved – and what she tried doing to the others. Fear of going back to Sweet Home is what structures her comment, “I wasn’t going back there. I don’t care who found who. Any life but not that one.” Within this framework, we see that Sethe was adamant about providing a better “life” for her kids. It is interesting that Morrison chooses this word “life” – suggesting that death, removal from life, or the possibility of an after-life is preferable to what lies across the Ohio in the form of captivity.

Ultimately, the argument can be supported that the combination of fear and deeply affected trauma is what drove Sethe to try and kill all four of her children. Memories of this trauma, therefore, work to define her motivation in the end. A life whose conditions were “unspeakable” at best was simply not an option. Perhaps the poignancy of this rationale can best be defined by something Morrison writes early in the novel – but is attributed to Sethe ten years after the bloody event in the woodshed. Responding to the powerful “spell” Beloved’s “sad” spirit has put on their house, Sethe says, “No more powerful than the way I loved her.” And this – as a final suggestion – is what made her actions so subjectively justified. She loved them so much and feared so much for what they might endure, that she took the most extreme measure possible. In the end, can we blame her?


Braves Season Ends Amid Controversy

The Atlanta Braves, winners of the National League East, continued their history of poor post-season play Monday night with a decisive 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine.  In many ways, it was the end most long-suffering Braves fans expected but were afraid to discuss.  So many bright spots peppered the season that the Braves just couldn’t choke again.  Could they?  A division title, 96  wins, an MVP candidate, and a terrific young nucleus of pitchers proved not enough to overcome the one decision that will haunt Braves Nation into Spring Training 2014.  When the season was on the line, when there was no tomorrow, and when the chill of October started to blow, the Atlanta Braves broke our hearts again – this time with their best player standing in the cool, unfriendly shadows of the visitors’ bullpen.


Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s decision not to bring All-World closer Craig Kimbrel into the game to pitch the 8th and 9th innings for a possible 6-out save likely won’t win him any popularity contests down here in Georgia.  It also won’t endear him to a fan base that is tired of losing when it counts. All it really did was write another hard luck chapter in the book that has defined the Braves for more than two decades:  when championships are on the line, the Atlanta Braves will crumble.


Kimbrel was lights-out for the season.  He saved 50 ball games.  Very few hitters in the league could catch up to his fastball. He was Rivera-esque in the way he closed hitters down during the regular season.  Yet his manager didn’t think he was the guy to save their season.  Kimbrel averaged in the neighborhood of 15 pitches a night during the 2013 campaign, most of them coming in 9th inning save situations.  If Gonzalez was looking to take the series back to Atlanta for a possible Game Five, could he not ask his horse to maybe do the *gasp* unthinkable, and go two innings?  Make 30 pitches?  Surely the season, teammates, fans, even the game of baseball deserved that, right?  The baseball gods will agree, of course, that you still might lose.  But don’t you want to go down with your best possible option on the mound?


Second-guessing professional coaches and managers is what we as fans and writers do.  But as sports fans, we deserve to see the best vs. the best when it matters.  The beauty that is competitive sports certainly depends on that matchup.  We want the guy who saved 50 to come in and carry the team and his city to victory with his rocket right arm.  What we got this October, instead, was a bazooka loaded with Rawlings baseballs propped up in the corner.  Silent.  Your best weapon standing idle while old Vin Scully celebrates Juan Uribe’s 8th inning go-ahead and series-winning moon shot.  Obviously, there is always next year. But as fans of what used to be called America’s Team look at a 12th straight year without winning a post-season series, next year may just involve more of the same.