Beloved: Facing and Conquering the Past

[(Essay dated June 10, 2010) In the following criticism, J.G. discusses the importance of healing from painful memories, extensively exemplified in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.Morrison conveys the horrific history of slavery and the middle passage in an effort to help both the characters and the reader face reality and heal.]

“Can’t nothing heal without pain,” (Morrison 92) a simple statement with a powerful meaning which embodies the premise of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved.Morrison modeled her novel after the actual case of Margaret Garner, a slave who murdered her child in hopes of protecting it from the horrific life of slavery.In writing this novel, Morrison seeks to explore and expose just how cruel slavery was that it could drive a mother to commit the most horrendous act imaginable, and force not only the characters and her readers to face it.Morrison uses the ghost of the baby murdered named Beloved to represent the past, and by coming back to life she makes the other characters of the novel face the issue in order to heal. The novel follows the experiences of Paul D. and Sethe, two former slaves trying to live their lives after being subjected to awful treatment at Sweet Home Plantation.When Beloved returns, the characters are tormented and physically affected by her, until eventually the characters face the issues and the community joins together to make her disappear. In order to heal and prosper as an individual, as well as a community, the past must be remembered and dealt with properly, for if it is not it will haunt and eventually destroy the victim.In this case, it is the slave and the black community as a whole who must face the terrible memories of slavery and the middle passage.

Paul D. is a former slave who keeps his memories of slavery locked in his “tobacco tin” heart where the dreadful past remains untouched and raw.The memories of the painful and inhuman treatment kept in his tobacco tin cause him to stay secluded and his pain to linger.He cannot move forward because his past is still unresolved.Beloved is introduced and makes her presence known immediately when Paul D. first comes to live in 124.During their first encounter, Paul D. fights Beloved, forcing her to retreat.The house stays quiet for only a short period of time, as she soon returns as a person and causes Paul D. discomfort with her troubled energy.Paul D. is forced to sleep in the shed, as he is not comfortable in the house where the spirit dwells.This quite clearly parallels Paul D.’s emotional coming to terms with his memories, for at first he tries to fight them back and lock them away in his tobacco tin, only to find the memories refuse to staydormant and must be recognized.Eventually, Beloved asks Paul D. to have sex with her and through this Paul D. faces his horrific past.Paul D., as a member of a chain gang, was forced to perform oral sex on the guards, an experience that stripped him of his masculinity.When he sleeps with Beloved, who is the past embodied, he is thereby forced to deal with the pain of the past, and is healed of his humiliation and pain.Beloved returns Paul D.’s masculinity, making him whole again.Beloved was the past that needed to be recognized in order to move on and through sex, Paul D. regained what was stolen from him.

Although Sethe, the character modeled after Margaret Garner, tries to beat back the past like many of the characters in the novel, she holds on to it differently; she carries her pain in a scar shaped like a tree on her back.The Biblical reference to the tree of life serves as a sign of life and reproduction.Sethe’s tree came from a horrific whipping, after telling the Lady of the House about the incident in which two boys held her down and took that which was most precious to her, the milk for her babies.In her life, her children mean most, and having her milk stolen was absolute torture, mostly because it was meant for her children, and they stole not just from Sethe, them also. Her tree is representative of her love for the child she lost, and the sorrow she carries with her always.The tree she carries with her is a small reminder of her horrific memories that rest heavily on her.

When Beloved comes alive, Sethe feels a deep love and connection with the mysterious girl and begins to care for her.“The fingers left off and Sethe had to swallow huge draughts of air before she recognized her daughter’s face in front of her own and Beloved’s hovering above” (Morrison 113).The energy of Beloved and the anger she feels toward her mother are represented in this scene where Sethe is choked.It is the past that Sethe has not faced that is in essence choking and destroying her, which only continues until she is almost completely drained of life.Sethe holds on to the past, on to her Beloved, and does not try to remember and cope with the terrible memories, which is the real source of the draining.The memories lie heavily on Sethe’s back and do not allow her to move on from the unpleasant history.In an attempt to make up for murdering Beloved, Sethe gives everything to her, and tries to please only her.It is her own form of self-mutilation, stemming from her guilt.Ironically, Sethe took Beloved’s life in order to save it, to spare it from a life of sorrow and grief.Sethe is in Beloved’s hands until Denver enlists the help of the community, and Sethe can be saved.

“Standing alone on the porch, Beloved is smiling. But now her hand is empty.Sethe is running away from her, running and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe has been holding.Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind.Alone.Again” (Morrison 309).Beloved is destroyed when the black community joins together to save Sethe from the past that threatens to kill her.With her story, Morrison shows that the only way for people to overcome such a harsh past is to come together and help each other.Several members of the community had told School Teacher and the three other men coming to collect Sethe and her children, where they could find them.The death of the infant was not the fault of Sethe alone, the community is also to blame.The community can only prosper and face the past together when they help one another cope with the appalling memories.The black community was necessary in helping Sethe face the past and finally heal.

(J.G. 2010)

The Bluest Eye: Society's Standards of Beauty

[(Essay dated June 10, 2010) In the following criticism, J.G. examines the effect of society's standards on beauty on a young girl and the importance of beauty discussed in Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye]

"Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time" (Morrison 46). Morrison exposes the harsh reality for a young girl named Pecola Breedlove, who is living in a time when blue eyes and whiteness meant beauty that she could never attain. The novel travels with Pecola through her experiences and mental decline after being subjected to society's cruel expectations of beauty. In the novel, beauty is whiteness, the one thing Pecola wishes to have but can never acquire, the white skin, and blue eyes.

At the beginning of the novel, Pecola is an average girl in her community who can find a lot to love in herself as well as the world around her.Pecola does not yet realize that in her society to be beautiful and in turn loved, one must fit the criteria; white and blue-eyed, both of which she does not possess.Many times throughout the novel Pecola is compared to a flower, for example page 47, “The dandelions at the base of the telephone pole. Why, she wonders, do people call them weeds?She thought they were pretty.But grown-ups say, ‘Miss Dunion keeps her yard so nice.Not a dandelion anywhere” (Morrison 47).The dandelion represents Pecola and her appreciation for her own beauty that no one else can see.Pecola has not yet seen the viciousness society has to offer her for not being born “beautiful.”

Pecola begins to experience people’s hatred for her and repulsion they have towards her, which makes her begin to dislike herself.In a candy store, the owner refused to treat her with respect or even touch her hand, this marks the moment when Pecola first learns to loathe herself, and that the whole world already does.“They are ugly. They are weeds.Preoccupied with that revelation, she trips on the sidewalk crack.Anger stirs and wakes in her; it opens its mouth, and like a hot-mouthed puppy, laps up the dredges of her shame” (Morrison 50).Pecola, after being treated inhumanly, feels shame and anger at herself which is evident through her changing opinion of the dandelions.She channels all her hurt and projects it onto the dandelions, Pecola in essence detests herself. Pecola is given no love and is only abused by everyone she comes into contact with.Her mother is a self-hating black woman who finds no beauty in Pecola, but rather gives all her nurturing affection to a white child of the family she works for, leaving Pecola feeling neglected.Strangers who pass by her find her unattractive and never treat her with kindness, making her believe she is not worthy of their respect, for she does not have anything to love.The only person in the novel who finds her decent enough to touch is her father, who rapes her.Being raped by her own father makes Pecola that much more self-loathing, for she has never been loved by anyone and is abused so violently by the person who should love and protect her.The abuse Pecola faces from everyone around her keeps her wishing for the things that make people loveable.

By the end of the novel Pecola has a mental breakdown and becomes schizophrenic.Pecola’s emotional instability can be attributed to her need to be beautiful and loved, which is impossible in her world, so she must make a place for herself to be happy.In her society she was never appreciated, but in her own mind she finally sees herself the way she wished she was, beautiful with blue eyes.The end result of her wish is only tragedy, for she loses her sense of reality and feels she is only loveable in her own mind. “So it was.A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment” (Morrison 204).
(J.G. 2010)