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.


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