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Dylan Rivera

Mrs. Balka

IB HL English

18 April 2019

Beloved - Supervised Essay

Toni Morrison’s chilling novel Beloved struck a chord in public American consciousness

as a horrifically real reminder of the past. Recalling the infamous legacy of slavery in America

and how it affected not only its victims but also people of the present day, it is also a deeply

human story that touches on the experiences that make up our existence: love, loss, parenthood,

and relationships. The focus on human interaction is especially notable in terms of mother-

daughter, spouse to spouse, and slave-owner to slave relationships. In the grand scheme of

things, Morrison gives life to these three particular troubled relationships as a medium of

enhancing the brutality of slavery and reaffirming the importance of self-love.

The primary relationship that is followed in the novel is Sethe to her daughters, a

relationship that inspires both the conflict and resolution to the plot. In terms of how these

mother-daughter interactions relate to slavery, one must look to Beloved and Sethe, going all the

way back to the moment Sethe killed Beloved as an infant. It is unthinkable that a mother would

kill her own infant baby - precisely the reason why Schoolteacher and his murderous posse left

Sethe alone after witnessing the scene firsthand. The wounds of this unimaginable moment

return when Beloved returns, who proceeds to wreak havoc on life at 124 as Sethe becomes

subservient to her daughter as an attempt to reaffirm her motherhood to a daughter she had once

killed. The relationship between Sethe and Beloved, who nobody can discern whether is real or

not, is one that is rooted in trauma. As slavery strips one of everything the slave as ever known,
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motherhood was one thing that slave owners could not rob from Sethe. This pride in being a

mother to Beloved is what causes Sethe’s downfall as she becomes weaker and weaker trying to

be a “good” mother to Beloved (by listening to everything she says). This relationship that is

defined by its pain and grievances serves as an insight to how slavery truly devastated families

and took everything away from them. It is a scenario unfathomable to contemporary society,

which regards slavery as merely a thing of the past. But by bringing this fact to life, it sends a

chilling reminder down the reader’s spine to pay homage to slavery’s victims and set the ground

for Sethe’s struggle throughout the novel. In yet another example of a mother-daughter

relationship, it is visible how Denver and Sethe reaffirm the need for individuality and a strong

sense of self. While Beloved is a symbol of the past, Denver becomes a symbol of the future in

the end of the novel as she asserts her independence and begins to care for her mother after

Beloved drains Sethe of life. Denver, who had lost her entire childhood due to slavery, was

surprisingly the one who made the stand to accept herself as a unique and important individual to

save her mom from self-destruction. In an assertive command to Paul D, she even declares, “be

careful how you talk to my ma’am, hear?” (314). The structure of this statement as a command,

and the empowering diction at the end of the sentence (the addition of the word “hear?”) serves

as the final stage of evolution in Denver’s character as a young, strong woman who is ready to

look out for her mother - an ironic twist in the traditional mother-daughter relationship in which

the daughter is expected to be dependent on the mother. Denver’s actions turn her into an

individual who reminds the audience of the importance of accepting oneself even in spite of the

past, and using our individuality as a tool to move forward to the future.

Furthermore, romantic partnership and slave masters to their slave were more

relationships Morrison crafted in order to depict the brutality of slavery. There is a notable
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absence of marriages among former slaves in the novel, due to the fact that slavery often just

ripped spouses apart, but one compelling one is the relationship between Halle and Sethe. Sethe

and Halle’s marriage ended after Sethe’s rape, when Halle could no longer handle the pain of the

lingering effects of slavery - much to Sethe’s dismay, as she solemnly says, “There is also my

husband squatting by the churn smearing the butter as well as its clabber all over his face

because the milk they took is on his mind,” (83). Milk as a motif and symbol of motherhood is

once again portrayed here as one of the victims of slavery, but the real trauma here is Halle’s

devolution into madness. Halle was seen as a particularly strong man by Paul D, as Halle stood

up for his mother when they were slaves and took care of her despite his tremendous suffering at

Sweet Home. However, his breaking point is reached when he sees his own wife being sexually

assaulted, which Sethe interprets as Halle’s lack of commitment to their marriage since he did

not stand up for her. Romantic partnerships are expected to be “until death do us part”, but

slavery’s demons in this case killed Halle and Sethe’s marriage. It broke Halle’s mind and

prompted Sethe to continue her life solely as a mother responsible for her children, Halle only

being a painful reminder of the past. As for slave to slave master relationships, one important one

is Paul D. to Mr. Gardner, as Paul questions himself at the end of the novel wondering if there

was any real difference between Mr. Gardner and Schoolteacher in the first place. While Paul D.

was a slave, he always had thought that Mr. Gardner was a better slave master than

Schoolteacher simply because he was more compassionate and treated slaves as if they were

men. But long after Paul D. is free and he has a clear state of mind, the fact that he does not see

any difference between Mr. Gardner and Schoolteacher is the point when Paul D. has

rediscovered his individuality and recognizes it as a potent force in his life. Mr. Gardner and

Schoolteacher act as character foils every time they are mentioned, so it is a dramatic conclusion
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to what was previously thought to be a stark difference between the two men. Now that Paul D is

his own man, he sees the two men for who they really were: slave masters. As a slave, he was

always subservient to them - the fact that he was not a free individual was what the two men

shared and defined his relationship towards them. This is Morrison’s message that asks readers

to love themselves for who they are and recognize their importance as unique individuals. Paul D

lacked this for most of his life, so reaching this point was a big moment for him.

Using various relationships, Morrison reminds readers of the brutality of slavery and the

need to assert one’s individuality. It is a novel that rings true for generations to come.

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