A Human Condition

A1 Race and Racism

“You got two feet, not four,” Paul D tells Sethe when she reveals her secret to him, and the dehumanizing effect of slavery is a primary theme of Beloved. According to the schoolteacher, slaves are just another type of animal: not only does he list their “animal characteristics,” he considers them “creatures” to be “handled,” similar to dogs or cattle. In some ways, they are not even worth as much as animals: “Unlike a snake or a bear,” he thinks while pursuing the runaways, “a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin.” Because slaves are treated no better-and sometimes worse-than animals, it leads them to question what it is that makes one human. While Mr. Garner was alive, for instance, Paul D truly believed that he was a man. But after schoolteacher arrives and puts the bit to him, he learns a different lesson: “They were trespassers among the human race.” There is another side to the dehumanizing effects of slavery, however: just as it turns slaves into animals, it turns owners into monsters. As Baby Suggs thinks of white people, “they could prowl at will, change from one mind to another, and even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did.” Stamp Paid understands this effect as well: “The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince [whites] how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, … the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them,” Stamp Paid thinks, but “the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread … until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made.”

A2 Freedom

For people treated no better than animals, freedom can be a difficult concept to grasp. When Halle buys his mother’s freedom, for instance, Baby Suggs thinks that he “gave her freedom when it didn’t mean a thing.” When she steps across the Ohio River, however, “she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew there was nothing like it in this world.” While under the schoolteacher’s bit, Paul D sees Mister, the rooster, and thinks, “Mister, he looked so … free. Better than me.” The reason for this, Paul D explains, is that “Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was.” Once he has escaped from prison and earned his first money, Paul D decides that “to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got.” Freedom is more than this, however, as Sethe has discovered. While waiting for Halle to turn up, Sethe had to learn to become her own woman. “Freeing yourself was one thing,” she thinks; “claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” This can be a difficult task, especially if one is tormented by painful memories of slavery. In the end, Paul D comes to agree with Sethe about the nature of freedom: “A place where you could love anything you chose-not to need permission for desire-well now, that was freedom.”

B Love and Passion

B1 Motherhood

One of the cruelest effects of slavery is how it severs bonds of love, particularly those between mother and child. Sethe still feels the pain of separation from her mother, while Baby Suggs has lost all but one of her eight children. One reaction to this loss of love is to deny it; as Ella says, “If anybody was to ask me I’d say ‘Don’t love nothing.’” After having her first three children sold away and a fourth fathered by the man who sold them, Baby Suggs “could not love [that child] and the rest she would not.” Sethe similarly understands that she couldn’t love her children “proper” at Sweet Home “because they wasn’t mine to love.” Paul D also knows motherlove is risky: “For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.” When he nevertheless suggests to Sethe that they have a baby together, Sethe thinks, “Lord, deliver me. Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer.” This comment is terribly ironic, of course, coming from a woman who murdered her child for such a love.

Despite the pain motherlove can bring to a woman, the maternal impulse is often too powerful to deny. As Baby Suggs says, “A man ain’t nothing but a man. But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.” Sethe similarly thinks her children are “her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing-that part of her that was clean.” A mother’s love has no time limits, either, as Sethe tells Paul D: “Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother…. I’ll protect [Denver] while I’m live and I’ll protect her when I ain’t.” It is this need to care for her children that drives Sethe on to Ohio despite her pain. When telling Paul D about the beating she received before escaping, she keeps repeating, “they took my milk!”-emphasizing how important it was to her to save her milk for her baby. Unfortunately, Sethe’s experiences with slavery have twisted her maternal protective impulses. “To keep them away from what I know is terrible,” Sethe attempts to murder her own children. This love may be “too thick,” as Paul D says, but motherless Sethe never had a chance to learn the difference: “Love is or it ain’t,” she replies. “Thin love ain’t love at all.”

B2 Memory and Reminiscence

The physical wounds of slavery heal quickly compared to the mental and emotional scars suffered by its victims. Throughout Beloved, characters struggle with their memories, trying to recall the good things without remembering the bad. Paul D has “shut down a generous portion of his head” so that he will not “dwell on Halle’s face and Sixo laughing.” Of her first seven children, Baby Suggs can only remember that the oldest liked the burned bottom of bread. “That’s all you let yourself remember,” Sethe says, and for her “the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay.” For Sethe, “rememories” are so powerful that they exist for her as physical objects: “if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again,” she tells Denver. In contrast, Ella seems to have a healthy attitude towards the past: “The past [was] something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out.” But Sethe has a “rebellious brain” which does not allow her to forget: “there is still more that Paul D could tell me and my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don’t want to know or have to remember that.” Beloved seems to have “disremembered” almost all of her past, and when Sethe comes to believe the girl is her lost daughter she “was excited to giddiness by the things she no longer had to remember.” Her words seem to imply that Sethe tortures herself with memories as a sort of punishment. Now that her daughter is returned, however, “I don’t have to remember nothing. I don’t even have to explain. She understands it all.” The conclusion of the novel seems to imply that finally putting the past behind her will enable Sethe to survive. “We got more yesterday than anybody,” Paul D tells Sethe. “We need some kind of tomorrow.” “Remembering seemed unwise,” the narrator similarly notes, and so Beloved is “disremembered”-deliberately forgotten: “This is not a story to pass on.”

B3 Creativity and Imagination

Despite the statement that “this is not a story to pass on,” stories and the imagination play an important role in the novel. Denver’s imagination is her only weapon against loneliness and it “produced its own hunger and its own food.” Sethe’s “deprivation had been not having any dreams of her own at all.” Her brain has been “loaded with the past and [is] hungry for more,” leaving her “no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.” For Beloved, listening to Sethe’s stories “became a way to feed her,” and the “profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling” allows Sethe to share things that had been too painful to speak about before. When the lonely Denver tells stories to Beloved, she gives her subjects “more life than life had.” Denver uses these stories to keep Beloved with her, trying to “construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved.” Stories have the effect of bringing listener and teller together, for in the telling “the monologue became, in fact, a duet.” It is this kind of sharing that allows Sethe to begin to heal, and eventually brings her to the brink of a new life with Paul D. Planning on making “some kind of tomorrow” with Sethe, Paul D thinks that “he wants to put his story next to hers.”

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