Beloved by Toni Morrison is written to expose the culture of African Americans after the Civil War era as well as the drawing attention to the impact of slavery in the African American community. The novel stars the protagonist, Sethe, who is haunted by the ghost of her dead baby daughter murdered by Sethe herself, in an attempt to avoid Beloved and the rest of her children into being sold back into slavery. One of the former slaves from the plantation that Sethe escaped reunites with Sethe and subsequently drives the ghost away with his presence. A mysterious woman then arrives at the home, and is later confirmed to be Beloved, the killed child of Sethe back from the dead with an overwhelming desire to obtain her mother’s attention and identity. The narration of the book switches from the different perspectives of Beloved, Sethe and Denver, as the past of their enslavement and horrendous memories are uncovered. Toni Morrison uses a bountiful amount of symbols and address many themes throughout the book to reveal the consequences of slavery and
Symbolism is used in Beloved to create a deeper meaning and expose the realities of oppressions ever-lasting affect on African Americans. Morrison uses symbolism in trees, such as the “cherrychoke tree” on her back, that symbolizes the permanent scars of slavery on Sethe physically and emotionally as well as a reminder of a past that she can never escape. Compared to Denver, trees symbolizes freedom and a place to escape from the past that haunts her mother and has given her family a stigma, isolating her from the rest of the community. The different perspectives on the symbols reveal the different personalities of both Denver and Sethe, and shows the effects of slavery from the viewpoint of a former slave when compared to an African American who has not been enslaved. Sethe’s troubling past tainted every aspect of her life, forcing her to lose hope and desire in even the simplest objects.
Denver has not endured any kind of oppression and therefore is able to view objects in an optimistic scope. Another symbol found in Beloved is water. Water is symbolized as rebirth or renewal and is described vividly from any character’s perspective. Denver is born in a river which symbolizes her rebirth and protection from her mother’s killings and slavery. Sethe’s mimicking of her water breaking once the mysterious woman appears to her also symbolizes the rebirth of Beloved, and how this revival lead her to be live again pure. The author uses water symbolism discreetly to emphasize the impure from the pure, a common theme in Beloved in which morality is often debated and ignored in slavery. Lastly, colors are used to symbolize different emotions and perspectives of life. Red was commonly used to symbolize love, death and hope. Morrison used red imagery to describe Sethe’s killing of Beloved, symbolizing the blood and death of the infant. Paul D, after committing an affair with Beloved repeats “red heart” to symbolize the combining of both death and love intertwined in the sexual encounter.
Toni Morrison also addresses different themes in Beloved all intertwined with the impacts of slavery. She uses Sethe to reveal the common problems associated with the effects of slavery in the African American community. Because of slavery, Sethe was scarred mentally and physically to the extent of murdering her child to avoid the cycle of abuse. Slavery dehumanized every character in the book at one point, whether it be from rape like Sethe or being physically abused like Paul D and his brothers. Identity was also a theme that was risen in the book. Many characters struggle with their identity due to slavery dehumanizing them and from abuse. Baby Suggs, formerly called Jenny, did not have a name while being enslaved, but once freed was able to claim her identity and name herself. Names were powerful in Beloved, and the taking of a name symbolized the taking of their own identity. Stamp Paid’s change of name symbolized his freedom of being able to choose and decide his own life.
Paul D and his brothers whose names were all changed by a single letter, represented the total enslavement and disregard of human life slavery maintained. Mothers were also victims of slavery’s identity crisis as many mothers were not able to claim their children, like Sethe’s mother, which could be the main force of Sethe’s sense of overprotection towards her own children. Lastly, religion was used as a theme in the book as a sense of union and the Christ-like components of Beloved. The community was united under Baby Suggs holy after she begins preaching and reviving hope in formers slaves. The life of Beloved also mirrored religion as she lived Christ-like. Beloved was portrayed by the person closest to her, and died innocently or without sin like Jesus Christ. Beloved was also resurrected like Jesus Christ and baptized in water to reveal her purity. Overall, religion was used to show the innocence of Beloved’s death and importance of her reliving.