The Mother-Daughter Relationship and its Psychological Effects

The mother daughter relationship is a complicated form of love, in which it’s a relationship full of nurturing, mentoring, and gentle guiding. It’s a relationship that is treasured both by the daughter and the mother, and is carried throughout their lifetimes, and eventually passed on from the daughter to their own. However, throughout Toni Morrison’s Beloved, we see this relationship shift from one created out of love and instinct, to that of fear, confusion, and even desperation. It is through this relationship that we can see the change in dynamic of the connection that Sethe and Beloved share, through Sethe’s mercy killing of her daughter, to the reappearance of Beloved nearly twenty years later, to her eventual re-disappearance. Beloved was violently separated by her mother, by her mother, much too soon before she was ready, resulting in a strain in their relationship.

In Beloved, the story itself is a narrative on slavery and its impact on those who have been victims of slavery. It brings in much of the real-life issues that black slaves encountered, one of which is the focus of much of the narrative that we see in the story, and one that was not uncommon to the time: a mother kills her own child to keep her from experiencing the physical, emotional, and mental horrors she may experience in enslavement. However, we read about how the child actually returns. First, she is only read as “Beloved”, seen as a ghost or spirit haunting the house that Sethe and her daughter, Denver, reside. Then, after being forcefully exorcised from her home, she returns in a physical, material form in the age she would have been if she hadn’t been killed by her mother. In the beginning of the novel, the two-year-old’s presence is referred to as “spiteful” (Morrison 3), “sad” and even “evil” (10). Later in the novel, although Beloved is in the physical body of a twenty-year-old female, her mind is still that of a young girl barely two years old. However, her mind is quickly evolving to catch up with her physical age. At the same time, Beloved is attempting to develop in other ways, such as sexually and emotionally.

Beloved is separated from her mother through death, but also by the barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds. She haunts the house as a toddler would throw a tantrum. A two-year-old begins to express themselves clearly and developing their communication skills that allow them to interact with other individuals. While a child may know what they’re trying to say, others do not. A two-year-old begins with two words and moves on to six words. Throughout the novel, Beloved’s words are a jumble of two to five-word phrases and sentences, with occasional longer dialogue. When the child cannot effectively communicate, they begin to grow angry and frustrated, and will often lash out in a tantrum (“2 year old”).

In the beginning of the novel, she has very few ways of communicating her feelings to the physical. The easiest way she finds herself “talking” is moving items found throughout the house, such as throwing objects. As an ethereal being, she has strength, but this is not unusual for a child. Because she was growing from that of a baby to a child, the “child is also stronger, which means their outbursts will be more violent” (“2 year old”). Beloved’s actions are that of a larger scale but follow a typical idea of a two-year-old’s response to anger. “…the baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall… break[ing] two of his legs… so hard he went into convulsions…” (Morrison 14). Sethe then wonders, “Who would have thought that little old baby could harbor so much rage?” (5), but Beloved did not want to hurt the dog; Here Boy was the closes object she could reach and used him to express how she was feeling after being separated from her mother and being unable to communicate with the other people in the house. The larger her anger, the larger her tantrums: “It took him a while to realize that his legs were not shaking because of worry, but because the floorboards were… the house itself was pitching” (Morrison 21). Later in the book, it is revealed that what she did was a result of wanting her mother’s attention, something she wanted. It is the result of “their struggle to control their actions, impulses, and feelings” (“2-year-old”).

After Beloved’s house-shaking outburst, Paul D exorcises Beloved from the house. The next time she shows up, she is in a physical form outside of the home. With her “new skin, lineless and smooth” (Morrison 61) and “her soft new feet” that are “barely capable of their job” (65), Beloved evolves from birth to an adult. Beloved still has the ideas and conceptions of an infant, and the same ideas of existence as “every afternoon she doubted anew the older woman’s return” (68). This doubt could be an indication of separation anxiety, which she has been suffering with since her murder. Toddlers with separation anxiety “become upset when parents leave for a short time… the child may cry, prevent their departure… this normal behavior is a cue that the child is able to distinguish their parents from other adults and is aware that they may not return” (Huberty). Later in the novel, Beloved hangs off of Sethe to the point she keeps the woman from leaving the house, as “she cannot lose her again” (Morrison 250), because every separation has been too much to bear. The separations were more traumatizing, despite her age at the time of her murder: “Three times I lost her: once with the flowers; once when she went into the sea; once under the bridge when I went to join her” (Morrison 253). The fear of losing her mother is the reason Beloved wanted to join Sethe, so they wouldn’t separate again.

Some of Beloved’s toddler-like attributes never truly leave her, such as the fact that when a child is two, the “world is still primarily ‘me’ centered” (“2-year-old”). While Beloved doesn’t copy her mother, she does watch her and furthers her symptoms of separation anxiety: “Like a familiar, she hovered, never leaving the room Sethe was in unless required and told to. She rose early in the dark to be there, waiting, in the kitchen when Sethe came down… She was in the window at two when Sethe returned, or the doorway; then the porch, its steps, the path, the road, till finally, surrendering to the habit, Beloved began inching down Bluestone further and further each day to meet Sethe and walk her back [to home]” (Morrison 69). This process slowly leads to Beloved’s need to be with Sethe, a want she has had since the beginning, but is not revealed until later, when she says, “I am Beloved, and she is mine” (248), and also says “the woman is there with the face I want” (249). It is here that we see that Beloved attempts to develop mentally in multiple parts at one time, which is why “Beloved is repeatedly described at fragmented, split off, shattered” (Koolish); but, “Beloved has knowledge of the splitting self” (Koolish). Beloved is aware of this fact, that she begins to feel physical effects of the stress: “When her tooth came out—an odd fragment, last in the row—she thought it was starting” (Morrison 157).

One reason for Beloved’s advancing problems is that her only father figure is driven out of the house. According to Freudian ideology: “There is no question that heterosexual orientation is a major outcome of the oedipal period for most girls, and that the traditional psychoanalytical account of the development of female sexuality, and growth of the girl’s relationship to her father describes this” (Chodorow). Psychologists Maccoby and Jacklin concluded from the study that father’s like some flirting from their daughters (Chodorow). Since Beloved’s father isn’t present when she appears in her physical form, Beloved seeks out the attention of Sethe’s current lover, Paul D. She gives him the title of “father” and tries to use him to complete the preoedipal stage to the oedipal period she desires mentally. However, Paul D rejects her and ignores whatever desires he may feel for her. While “a girl does not give up this preoedipal relationship completely, but rather builds whatever happens later upon this preoedipal base” (Chodorow), Paul D’s rejection of her stops Beloved’s development. Paul D rejects her in all ideas and forms and Beloved cannot fully develop.

Beloved then goes to focus all of her effort and attention onto Sethe. In doing so, she goes back to the preoedipal stage of development. “Freud’s characterization of the girl’s preoedipal connection to her mother as ‘attachment,’ emphasizes this persistence, by pointing to the dual nature of attachment: a girl actively attaches herself, and chooses her attachment, to her mother, and at the same time is passively, and not as a matter of choice, attached—an appendage or extension” (Chodorow). Beloved believes, “I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop” (Morrison 248). Beloved has attached herself to her mother, so much so that she wants to be together with her as one unit, or “hot thing” as Morrison writes (248). Beloved focuses on her oedipal ideals, ignoring the real-life idea that Sethe is a separate person from Beloved.