It is the outrageous claimof a slave”(Morrison 1987). These are the words that Toni Morrison used todescribe the actions of the central character within the novel, Beloved. Thatcharacter, Sethe, is presented as a former slave woman who chooses to kill herbaby girl rather than allowing her to be exposed to the physically, emotionally,and spiritually oppressive horrors of a life spent in slavery. Sethe’s action isindisputable: She has killed her child. Sethe’s motivation is not so clearlydefined. By killing her “Beloved” child, has Sethe acted out of truelove or selfish pride? The fact that Sethe’s act is irrational can easily bedecided upon.
Does Sethe kill her baby girl because she wants to save the babyfrom slavery or does Sethe end her daughter’s life because of a selfish refusalto reenter a life of slavery? By examining the complexities of Sethe’s characterit can be said that she is a woman who chooses to love her children but notherself. Sethe kills her baby because, in Sethe’s mind, her children are theonly good and pure part of who she is and must be protected from the cruelty andthe “dirtiness” of slavery(Morrison 251). In this respect, her act isthat of love for her children. The selfishness of Sethe’s act lies in herrefusal to accept personal responsibility for her baby’s death.
Sethe’smotivation is dichotomous in that she displays her love by mercifully sparingher daughter from a horrific life, yet Sethe refuses to acknowledge that hershow of mercy is also murder. Throughout Beloved, Sethe’s character consistentlydisplays the duplistic nature of her actions. Not long after Sethe’s reunionwith Paul D. she describes her reaction to School Teacher’s arrival: “Oh,no.
I wasn’t going back there. I went to jail instead”(Morrison42). Sethe’s words suggest that she has made a moral stand by her refusal toallow herself and her children to be dragged back into the evil of slavery. Fromthe beginning, it is clear that Sethe believes that her actions were morallyjustified.
The peculiarity of her statement lies in her omission of thehorrifying fact that her moral stand was based upon the murder of her child. Bynot even approaching the subject of her daughter’s death, it is also made clearthat Sethe has detached herself from the act. Even when Paul D. learns of whatSethe has done and confronts her with it, Sethe still skirts the reality of herpast.
Sethe describes her reasoning to Paul D. , “. . . So when I got here,even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something from apiece of cloth Baby Suggs had.
Well, all I’m saying is that’s a selfish pleasureI never had before. I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was, and Icouldn’t let her or any of em live under School Teacher. That wasout”(163). Sethe’s love for her children is apparent, yet she still shiftsthe burden of responsibility away from herself. She acknowledges that it was a”selfish pleasure” to make something for her daughter, yet Setherefuses to admit any selfishness in her act of murder. She is indignant andfrustrated with Paul D.
confronting her: Sethe knew that the circle she wasmaking around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could neverclose in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn’t get it rightoff– she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not along-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropesand wells.
Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them comingand recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stucktheir needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat theirwings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono.
Simple. Shejust flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her thatwere precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them thoughtthe veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them”(163). Sethe’sfrustration is a product of her contradictory reasoning. She views her childrenas an extension of her life that needed to be protected, at any cost. Sethe’sconcept of loving and protecting her children becomes synonymous with herkilling Beloved and attempting to kill the rest.
Sethe can see no wrong here. Placing her children outside the horror of slavery, even if it meant takingtheir lives, was in her mind a justified act of love, nothing more. Ironically,it is Paul D. who reveals the contradictions that Sethe refuses to see in herown logic: “This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talkedabout baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave thebone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here Sethe didn’tknow where the world stopped and she began.
Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paidwanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she hadclaimed. It scared him”(164). Paul D. ‘s character suggests that althoughthe killing act might have been committed out of a irrational, hysterical,loving mother’s need to “protect” her children, Sethe’s”claim” that she was and is justified in those actions can not beaccepted. Paul D.
recognizes what Sethe can not; her act of supreme love is alsoan act of insurmountable selfishness. When Paul D. calls into question herthinking, Sethe still refuses to see her own role in what has come to pass:’What you did was wrong, Sethe. ‘ ‘I should have gone on back there? Taken mybabies back there?’ ‘There could have been a way. Some other way.
‘ ‘What way?”You got two feet, Sethe, not four. . . ‘ (165) Sethe’s problem is rooted in herinability to recognize the boundaries between herself and her children. Paul D.
stabs at the heart of this problem by suggesting that Sethe had overstepped herboundaries by killing her child. The concept that Sethe equates her life andself-worth with her connection to her children is most graphically illustratedin her mad ravings to the reincarnation of “Beloved”. Sethe details adefense for killing her baby to the woman she believes is her reincarnated,murdered daughter. Within this defense, Sethe explains in the greatest detailher reasoning for cutting her child’s throat. Sethe pronounces that the worstthing in life was: That anybody white could take your whole self for anythingthat came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you.
Dirty you sobad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you wereand couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got overit, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was herchildren.
Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, herbeautiful, magical best thing– the part of her that was clean. (251) Sethe’swords suggest that the only part of herself that she cares for is her children. Indeed, the only reason that she killed her daughter is because Sethe refused tolet School Teacher or any other white person “dirty” her children asSethe herself had been dirtied. Sethe’s nobility, however irrationallypredicated, is apparent.
She loves her children to much to let them be tarnishedby slavery. Unfortunately, Sethe’s nobility is tainted by the fact that she cannot recognize absurdity of the murderous act she has committed. Even in hershameful defense, Sethe is proud. Sethe’s undaunted pride is illustrated by herwords, “And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’scharacteristics on the animal side of the paper. No.
Oh no. Maybe Baby Suggscould worry about it, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe refused- and refusedstill”(251). Toni Morrison, in an effort to describe the motivation andpride of Sethe’s character, made the statement, “To kill my children ispreferable to having them die”(Morrison 1987). Saving her children fromslavery and the promise of spiritual and emotional death that such aninstitution imposes is the rational of love that Sethe’s character clings to.
The truth that Sethe’s character selfishly avoids is the actual physical deaththat she has inflicted upon her child. Understanding why a woman would kill anychild, let alone her own baby, is at best an enigma. Sethe’s character is noexception. Sethe’s motivation does not fit into a simple schematic. Sethe ispresented as a woman who loves her children so much that she is willing to killthem rather than allow them to be broken by an evil institution.
Love is, then,Sethe’s primary motivation for killing her baby. However, Sethe’s love for herchildren does not preclude her responsibility for Beloved’s death. Indeed,Sethe’s selfish fault lies in the fact that she has shifted the locus ofresponsibility from herself to the institution that has spawned her. Ultimately,it is Sethe who is responsible for her child’s death, not slavery. Sethe killsher daughter to demonstrate her love. Sethe exhibits her selfish pride byrepudiating her own guilt.
Does Sethe realize her fault? Perhaps. When presentedthe notion that Sethe, and not her children, is her own “best thing”,her reply takes the form of a question, “Me? Me?”(273). Morrisonleaves the reader with the sense that Sethe might realize that she has loved herchildren too much, and herself not enough.