Memories create meaning in our lives, and allow us to remember what we’ve been through. Not all memories are good ones however, and In Beloved by Toni Morrison, memory is debilitating in the lives of Sethe and other characters. Sethe is imprisoned in her mind, and can’t escape the memories of when she was enslaved. Sethe’s daughter, Beloved, represents the past, and personifies Sethe’s memories. In Beloved, Sethe and other characters attempt to escape and suppress their past. In the process of this, they illustrate and prove how memory and rememory of the past has power over people.
Sethe’s memories of her slave days never seem to fade, and she is constantly reminded of her days at Sweet Home, when schoolteacher would torture her and the other slaves. For example, one slave by the name of Sixo “is hunted like a dangerous animal…hit in the head with [a] rifle… [and] a hickory fire is [lit] in front of him while he is tied at the waist to a tree” (Morrison 266). Despite being past these terrible times, Sethe experiences psychological pain that is nearly equally as harmful. This pain however, is self inflicted by Sethe and her mind, and demonstrates the life long scarring effects that slavery has on people. Traumatic memories from the past psychologically damage people, and it is very difficult to take power over the past because it has so much power over our minds. Sethe demonstrates the “historical trauma [and] continuing apocalypse of racism” (Berger 115) and the effects it has on her present day self, despite being past the worst of times. Sethe is obsessed with the past. It always haunts her, so she can never really live in the present.
The dehumanizing effects of slavery leave Sethe stuck in the past and unable to escape the “continuing apocalypse of racism” (Berger 115). Sethe reminisces on days where her and the other slaves were treated like animals, locked in boxes, bits put in their mouths, chained, beaten, killed, and even sexually harassed and raped. These disturbing experiences never leave Sethe’s mind, and it is safe to say they have a similar effect on the other slaves. Walking by a school for whites, Sethe overhears schoolteacher teaching the kids to put the animals and slaves in one category. He says “Which one are you doing? One of the[m] said ‘Sethe’…No. That is not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up” (Morrison 228). This affected the way Sethe saw herself and the rest of the slaves. While they initially think they are a part of the community at Sweet Home, the arrival of schoolteacher demonstrates to them that they are seen just like any animal on the farm, and their only value is their labor production, and physical reproduction. Slavery destorys humanity, and slavery and racism’s message is that white people are superior to black people. This is one of racism and slavery’s worst affects becuase it will affect how former slaves and even those who have experinced racism for the rest of their lives. Even after her slave days, Sethe continues to believe she is inferior to the white man because that is all she has ever been told. Sethe and the rest of the freed or escaped slaves are “still haunted by slavery, [and] confront an overhwelming legacy of physociological scars” (Mathieson 1). While Sethe is now physically free, mentally she is still enslaved.
The physologicial affects of slavery are so harsh, even those who never experinced slavery are affected by them. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, is affected by Sethe’s past despite never being a slave. She hears so much from Sethe about her past that she almost wishes she experienced the same things in order to connect with her mother. At the start of the story, Denver is rather immature and only wants to hear stories about herself. However her innocence is lost when she learns that her mother killed Beloved, and planned to kill her and her brothers. She says, “I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I’m scared of her because of it” (Morrison 243). Instead of running away from 124 like her brothers, Denver does the opposite and never leaves or goes beyond the yard. She is stuck as a child, dependent on her mother, 124, and the ghost of her dead sister. Denver knows that something from her mother’s past drove her mother to kill her sister, and she knows that thing is still out there. Denver says, “Whatever it is, it comes from outside this house, outside the yard. So I never leave this house and watch over the yard, so it can’t happen again and my mother won’t have to kill me too “ (Morisson 242). Despite her growing up and becoming older Denver’s behavior could still be classified as immature. It isn’t until much later in the story do we see Denver develop. She, too, is stuck in the past and can’t get past what Sethe did. Sethe’s inability to escape her past also traps her daughters in the past. Beloved remains a baby, roaming the house as a ghost, and Denver acts as a kid, never venturing out of the house. Sethe’s past and past actions directly affect Denver because she is scared of her mother. She says, “I’ve seen my mother in a dark place, with scratching noises. A smell coming from her dress… She cut my head off every night. Buglar and Howard told me she would and she did” (Morrison 243). Despite loving her mother, she is also scared of her because she knows what she did in the past and can never get over it. Later, Denver becomes dependent on Beloved, saying “ I am Beloved and she is mine” (Morrison 253). Because Beloved represents the past, Denver has become one with the past. Her and Sethe both become extremely attached to Beloved and she becomes part of their identity, demonstrating how memories and the past control our minds. In The Parturition of Memory, the author states:
The legacies of these past experiences cannot be eradicated by Sethe, Paul D and Denver, however hard they try; for each of them, in both interconnected and seperate ways, such seeds have taken root in the hidden places of self and inevitably grow until such time as they can be ignored no longer but must be delivered up by memory into the harsh light of present day. (Lucas 39)
The past affects Sethe, Denver, and others, in the present. Memories are ingrained in their minds and affect how they live currently despite having already taken place. They are possessed by their memories, and Beloved serves as a physical manifestation of these memories. While physically big enough to be a young women, when Beloved returns she has the mind, skin, and behavior of a baby, demonstrating she is the same as she was in the past when she was killed. Beloved arriving at 124 marks the beginning of Denver maturing. Denver devotes and loves Beloved entirely, even saying “her face is my own” (Morrisson 248). Beloved takes over 124, and Sethe’s role in the house weakens. Denver recognizes this, and knows the family is depending on her. She finally steps outside of her comfort zone, outside of the yard of 124, into the real world. Denver took control of the past, learned from it, and used it for good. By the end of the novel, she has her own life, and a future ahead of her; something she, and Sethe, lacked. In Sethe’s case, Beloved weakens her almost as if she wants her to feel the remorse she wants to forget. It is essential that Sethe feels this pain and remorse to finally move on with her life. Sethe, too feels a deep connection to Beloved, and therefore becomes blind to the power Beloved has over her. Like Denver, she also says, “I am Beloved and she is mine” (Morrison 248). Again, Beloved represents the past, and her taking control over multiple characters in the novel demonstrates how the past dictates our current decisions and has a heavy influence on us, controlling us.
Denver sees it her duty to protect Beloved, therefore protecting the past. She says, “She… always came to me whenever I needed her. She’s mine, Beloved, She’s mine” (247). Denver’s connection to Beloved shows her connection to the past. Like her mother, Denver is also stuck in the past. Despite never meeting her dad, she is obsessed with the thought of him and his return. She constantly reminisces on stories her grandma, Baby Suggs, has told her about her father. She is convinced he will one day arrive at 124, and is always waiting for him. She idolizes him, repeating her grandma’s statement, “He was too good for the world” (245). Denver, too, is stuck in rememory and loves her father more than her mother, describing him as “an angel man” (246). While Denver has only heard great things about her father from Baby Suggs, idolizing her dad is partially a coping mechanism. She cannot fully love and feel comfortable with Sethe because of her past actions, and her dad is a safe space, an angel who has done and could do no harm. Paul D’s arrival at 124 ruins the family dynamic in the eyes of Denver, “While Denver has longed for the return of her father to provide a buffer between her and Sethe, the presence of Paul D, as father-figure and lover of her mother, provokes extreme jealousy and rage on Denver’s part” (Lucas 41). For Sethe, Paul D arriving at 124 evokes a lot of memories. However, his compassionate presence works as a promising bridge between the present and horrific past.
Paul D suffers from emotional damage from his past experiences as a slave, and doesn’t express emotion, or tell others about his past. When sharing some painful memories with Sethe, he doesn’t open too much, “Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut” (Morrison 305). He fears opening up and reminiscing too much will take both him and Sethe back to a dark place. Both he and Sethe run from the pain of their pasts as much as possible, and develop unhealthy ways to cope. Paul D’s heart is described as a “tobacco tin” (Morrison 305), where his memories are locked away, and Sethe tries to forget her memories to avoid them all together. Describing Paul D’s tobacco tin heart as rusty also depicts how corrosive his memories are, and how infrequently he accesses them. He’s separated from his emotions, and therefore alienated from his true identity, self, and personality. Later, Paul D is forced by Beloved, during a sexual encounter, to face and come to terms with his past; therefore opening up the rusted tin that is his heart. After the opening of his heart, he takes a risk and opens himself up to love Sethe. As mentioned earlier, Paul D serves as a symbol of the past, and his arrival at 124 is a major turning point in the novel. He initiates rememory in Sethe, and scares away the ghost of Beloved; “by clearing the house of the destructive and manipulative cobwebs of the baby ghost, Paul D causes a direct and much more unavoidable confrontation with the past” (Lucas 42). When Paul D kisses the scar tissue on her back, he brings her tree back to life, bringing the past back to life as well. Paul D takes a weight of responsibility off of Sethe’s shoulder’s, and helps Sethe reclaim her past and own it. When Paul D cradles Sethe’s breasts, “she is relieved of their weight”. Sethe’s breasts represent the responsibility she has because of her children, and momentarily that responsibility became his, allowing her to be herself, without being defined and weighed down by motherhood. He also allows her to take ownership of her own body, which used to belong not only to rapist slave owners but also her own children.
In order to take power over the past, one can’t suppress it like Sethe tries to. Taking power over the past, and not letting it dictate the present and future is done by contronting and coming to terms with it. Sethe and Paul D are still enslaved by their memories, and are always haunted by them. Beloved is a physical symbol of the past and constantly evokes memories from Sethe and Paul D. With Beloved and Paul D around, Sethe begins to come to terms with her past because she is surrounded by it. She begins to understand her past, and understand herself. While ignoring the past temporarily resolves the issue, it also keeps Sethe and Paul D captive. By ignoring her sense that Beloved is her daughter, Sethe once again displays her unwillingness to face her past, and the fact that she killed her daughter. Beloved represents the inescapable past that the slaves experienced, and comes back to haunt the present, and Sethe. Ultimately, Beloved helps develop emotional growth in everyone in 124, by forcing them to face the past. Sethe and others work to repress their memories, but ulimtalety have to confront a past they cannot forget… confrontation requires a direct attempt at remembering” (Levy), and it isn’t until they face their past and come to terms with it can they physically heal. As Denver says “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Morrison 59). This is a foreshadowing of Beloved’s return, and sums up the effects of rememory. Sethe uses the term “rememory” because she can’t help but remember her past experiences, she says
Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened. (Morrison 113)
Her memories are always replayed, reimagined, and recalled, making it impossible for her to escape her past. Despite attempting to run from her past, Sethe is completely immersed in, and almost obsessed with it, “her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day” (Morrison 284). She is always haunted by the past, and can never develop herself and her identity because she is never present. Beloved also struggles with a lack of identity, because she was killed when she was only a baby. She enjoys jumping into Sethe’s past and hearing stories. These stories provide her with understanding and bring her closer to her mother. This helps Sethe come to terms with her past and accept it because she is forced to think and talk about it.
While Beloved represents the past, Sethe represents the present, and Denver the future. It isn’t until Denver and Sethe overcome Beloved and the past that they are able to have a future and new life. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Each character’s struggles with the mental repression of their pasts, pasts that are filled with suffering and abuse. Because of the trauma they’ve faced, they can’t move past the physiological damage that they have faced and become stuck in their past. While Paul D and Sethe are both freed slaves, they are still mentally enslaved and scarred. Morrison wants readers to understand the struggle of confronting the memories her characters worked long to forget, in order to move past them and take control of the past. It isn’t until Morrison’s characters stop suppressing their memories that they come to terms with their pasts. While slavery ended in the late 1800’s, Beloved takes present day readers through the pain of slavery, and the devastating affects it had on those affected by it. Beloved forces readers, like Morrison’s characters, to look into the past with remorse. In the novel, Morrison’s characters attempt to escape and suppress their past. In the process of this, they illustrate and prove how memory and rememory of the past has power over people, and readers learn that you can’t come to an acceptance of the past until you face it directly by reflecting on it.