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?