In this post- Civil War American society, the world was seen in only black and white. People’s lives were defined by the color of their skin, and nothing else. In her novel, “Beloved,” Toni Morrison compellingly disproves this monotonal mindset through the use of color.
As African Americans in this time period, Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and many others were faced with the constant abuse and hardships that accompanied the life of slaves. Near the beginning of the novel, the first examples of color are present with Baby Suggs. All her life was seen in black and white, so she had an “appetite for color.” She subtly brightened up her life with the orange patches on her blanket and “bringing in the lavender.”
Though the examples of Baby Suggs are subtle, the use of the color red is not. Generally, red is a universal symbol of love and passion, and though there is a use for those, Morrison also uses the color to symbolize death, darker emotions, and suppressed memories. The most prominent example of the darker meaning is that Sethe murdered her youngest daughter, in fear that the child would become a slave and live the same life she had experienced herself. Here, red represents the blood and death of the baby named Beloved.
When Paul D arrived at 124, Beloved felt threatened by him. She wanted Sethe all to herself and had to make her presence be known to him. When he was alone, Beloved began whispering to him and seducing him, in order to open his ‘tobacco tin.’ When it finally came open, he didn’t realize it and began repeating the phrase, ‘Red heart. Red heart. Red heart,’ loud enough to wake Denver and himself. The red heart represents all the emotion Paul D used to have but locked away what seemed to be a long time before that event.
‘The skin smell nagged him, and his weakened marrow made him dwell in Baby Suggs’ wish to consider what in the world was harmless. He hoped she stuck to blue, yellow, and maybe green, and never fixed on red.’ At this moment, Stamp Paid discovered a red ribbon with a piece of scalp still attached to it, indicating the likely lynching of a little girl. again, it is seen that red represents the vast amount of violence in the novel.
In the final book, the color red disappears altogether, as the characters overcome their traumatic pasts, and search for peace and closure within their community. “Sethe,” he says, “Me and you got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
The color orange is seen only in the two patches of Baby Suggs’ quilt, but have a significant meaning. Orange in the dark and dullness of the room represents the small glimmer of hope Sethe has for a better, happier life, and the illusion that Beloved would bring this for her. Sethe hoped for a new life with Paul D and Denver but found that her happy days were numbered.
Beloved greatly enjoyed the orange patches. “ She seemed totally taken with those faded scraps of orange, even made the effort to lean on her elbow and stroke them.’ When Sethe realized Beloved was her daughter, she was happier than she could remember being and spent many days with her, however, the happy days didn’t last long. Conflict with Beloved and her effect on Sethe quickly became problematic for her relationship with Paul D.
The other colors in the novel are green, blue, and yellow, representing the colors of the natural world and life. These three colors are mentioned when Baby Suggs is thinking of them during the last days of her life. “Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green.” In her life as a slave, she never had time to think about or experience these colors, so she spent her last days dwelling on them.
Unlike the color red, which is an inside color (representing blood and emotions), blue, green, and yellow exist in the outside world. They are not affected by any character or person. This is evident when Sethe confronted the school teacher and say Mr. Bodwin coming to her house. ‘The sky was blue and clear. Not one touch of death in the definite green of the leaves.’ The color of the outside world doesn’t change with events in a person’s life or their emotions toward the event. When Sehte lost her baby, she became insensitive to those colors and focused more red, yet they were still there. Once she realized Beloved was her daughter, she began paying more attention to the natural colors.
Throughout ‘Beloved,’ Toni Morrison incorporates colors to symbolize different meanings of the text. Each color represents different psychological standpoints, and progress with the growth and change of the characters’ personalities and experiences. By using colors, Morrison is also able to give the reader a visual aspect, which helps them to better understand the text. The choice of colors is meaningful and universal, yet specific, which makes the novel extremely compelling and powerful.
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