The Mother-Daughter-Relationsship in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Changes in the Perception of Motherhood during the Twentieth Century

2. The Mother-Daughter-Relationship in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
2.1 The Motives for the Telling
2.2 Maternal Love in Beloved
2.2.1 Sethe’s Childhood and Socialisation
2.2.2 Sethe’s Escape from Sweet Home
2.2.3 The Hierarchy of Motherhood and Selfhood
2.3 Who is Beloved?
2.4 Sethe and Denver
2.5 Sethe and Beloved
2.6 Beloved’s Exorcism from 124

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Changes in the Perception of Motherhood during the Twentieth Century

In the course of the twentieth century, the perception of motherhood, both as a cultural concept and a literary theme, has been subjected to considerable changes.[1] Due particularly to psychoanalytical discoveries emphasising the formative influence of early childhood upon the mental growth and health of the individual, the nineteenth-century notion of motherhood as solely based on devotion, self-sacrifice and restriction to the domestic sphere was further strengthened during the first half of the twentieth century (Würzbach 370-374). What was for a long time assumed the natural and consequently most satisfying task for a woman, has increasingly been called into question under the influence of the feminist movement after 1968. Influential and frequently quoted studies like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1977) or Marianne Hirsch’s The Mother/Daughter Plot (1989)[2] reveal how the perception of motherhood, commonly interpreted as a mere cultural reality construct, has been shaped and altered in accordance with the changing needs of a patriarchal society, and its questionable ideas of economic progress and sociological as well as cultural advancement (Krimphove 11-68).

Although these theories have proven substantial and inspiring for not only female authors, the universal validity of the assumptions made by these predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon feminists has been challenged by women belonging to ethnic minorities. Accompanied by the questioning of the premises and possibilities of the literary canon, doubts also arouse whether the specific experiences and the unarguably incomparable historical backgrounds of previously marginalized groups of women are compatible to eurocentric “white” feminist theories, especially those that deal with psychoanalytical concerns (Krimphove 11-68).

In its function as an “interdiscourse” (Würzbach 389), literature, and in particular the novel, provides an appropriate ground for challenging established and seemingly unassailable social norms and collective beliefs. In her discussion of the mother image in nineteenth-century English literature, Natascha Würzbach points out how the image of the perfect mother, for instance, is subversively undermined through the use of various narrative strategies in numerous of these texts (389). In twentieth-century American fiction, especially since the 1960s, it is now in particular the previously marginalized group of female authors of color who draws a somewhat different picture of maternity as opposed to the prevailing “white” notions of ideal motherhood. They frequently emphasize the strong emotional attachment of black mothers to their daughters, depicted repeatedly as resulting from shared experiences of oppression. In her intercultural study of the mother-daughter-relationship in American literature, Petra Krimphove explains how black mothers are recurrently presented in their will to impart the crucial amount of self-confidence and inner strength to their daughters which is necessary in order to survive in a sexist and racist environment (18). The emergence and appreciation of this ingenious presentation of black motherhood was very often severely hampered by pervasive stereotypes like the image of the Southern “black mammy”, a powerful caricature that the South inflicted on Afro-American women, which “must have made it difficult for an Afro-American writer to create a really penetrating view of black motherhood” (Christian 225).

Toni Morrison is undoubtedly one contemporary black female author who admirably succeeds in creating such a “penetrating view of black motherhood”. The inevitable difficulties and enormous obstacles black mothers have been confronted with in the upbringing of their children are certainly a key theme in her novels. Task and aim of this paper will therefore be an in-depth examination of the mother-daughter-relationship depicted in Toni Morrison’s fifth novel Beloved. Although it seems tempting to apply one of the numerous extensive psychoanalytical surveys on the mother-daughter-relationship to the novel, from Freud’s questionable observations on the mother-daughter-dyad to contemporary French and Italian feminist psychoanalytic theory, the interpretation this paper suggests centers on the extent to which Morrison evokes a perception of motherhood in Beloved which not only questions but all the more rejects the often simplifying views on maternity proposed not only by psychoanalytical studies but by contemporary society as well. As will be further argued, it is by means of a specific maternal discourse and way of acting that not only female characters in Beloved provide other individuals with relief from their particular kinds of pain and anxiety.

2. The Mother-Daughter-Relationship in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

2.1 The Motives for the Telling

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. (Morrison 88)

When asked about the reasons for writing a novel about a black mother’s struggle to a merely allusive remaining sort of self-determination and self-sufficiency, beyond the trauma of a seemingly unspeakable past, Morrison remarked that while writing Beloved, she was not concerned with what history has recorded but with what it has omitted. She wanted to expose the truth about “the interior life of people who didn’t write it (which doesn’t mean that they didn’t have it)”; to “fill in the blanks that the slave narrative left”; and to “part the veil that was frequently drawn” (qtd. in Samuels/ Hudson-Weems 97). In doing so, however, Morrison is not only well aware of the fact that the past is only available to succeeding generations in its imperfect and fragmentary nature, and that we will therefore never be able to re-create past thoughts or reconstruct sometimes unexplainable behaviour satisfactoryly, but Morrison furthermore insists that those who have “made” history, as well as those who “make” it today, i.e. historians, journalists, etc., have been and to a certain extent still are inevitably limited by the prevailing ideas of what history means to the society they live in, and what events are considered worth preserving. Consequently, what Morrison is concerned with in Beloved is not necessarily the effort “to expose the wrong and rectify the full story” (97, emphasis mine) as Samuels/ Hudson-Weems argue, but rather to imaging a past life beyond the limitations of historical enquiries. In an interview Morrison, affirmed that she “did not do much research [...] because [she] wanted to invent her [Sethe’s] life [...]. Recording her life as lived would not [have made her] available to anything that might be pertinent” (qtd. in Samuels /Hudson-Weems 95).

What will be further made clear throughout the analysis of the mother-daughter-relationship depicted in Beloved, is, that the process of rendering one’s past experiences in a creative, and in essence female way, provides the possibility of “becoming coherent in the world” (qtd. in Powell 143) also for the characters in the novel, a way “through which the fractures brought about by enslavement and alienation from community might be fused” (Powell 143). This idea is not only already indicated by the very term “rememory”, an indicative invention by Morrison, suggesting the subjective and imaginative quality of memories, but also rooted in the fact that “motherhood is for most African peoples symbolic of creativity” (Christian 214).

2.2 Maternal Love in Beloved

What is underlying all discussions of maternity in slavery is, of course, the notion that enslavement makes impossible the experience of ideal motherhood in both pregnancy and its aftermath. In discussing mothering in slavery, Barbara Christian recounts that “some slave women were so disturbed by the prospect of bearing children who could only be slaves that they did whatever they could to remain childless” (220). All female characters presented in Beloved have been subjected to a more or less defective relationship to their mothers, and perhaps consequently to their children. The reasons and consequences of such a troubled but none the less intense almost excessive bond are mirrored in the novel’s main character Sethe.

2.2.1 Sethe’s Childhood and Socialisation

When trying to remember events from her life before Sweet Home for the first time in the novel, the only details Sethe seems to be able to recall are “song and dance” (30). In particular it is the peculiar spelling of her name “Seth-thuh” and the distinct moves her mother performs while she “danced the antelope” (31): “They [the group of dancing slaves] shifted shapes and became something other. Some unchained, demanding other whose feet knew her pulse better than she did” (31). The seemingly boundless, unrestrained quality of the presumably African dances are in Sethe’s mind connected with a pre-linguistic kind of control which she is unable to withdraw from. The paradoxical autonomy and self-reliance which these moves performed in bondage seem to expose, create a sense of pre-conscious identity in Sethe, they represent along with the remains of a language she later forgets the African heritage she involuntarily leaves behind, but which unconsciously functions as a reminder of a life before slavery, and as a source of enormous strength and a tremendous will to survive. When escaping pregnant from Sweet Home she associates the baby in her womb with an antelope: “...the little antelope rammed her with horns and pawed the ground of her womb with impatient hooves” (30). The subconscious connection between the free, boundless moves her African ancestors performed, proves, if not a healing, then a stimulating force for Sethe. Her will to survive is thus strengthened by the figurative link of ancestral durability and momentary pain: “...the thought of herself stretched out dead while the little antelope lived on [...] in her lifeless body grieved her so she made the groan that made the person walking on a path [...] stand right still” (31).


[1] See Würzbach for an insightful analysis of the mother image in nineteenth- and twentieth-century English novels.

[2] For a detailed discussion and bibliography of feminist psychoanalytical studies, see Krimphove pp. 11-68.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The Mother-Daughter-Relationsship in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
College  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
HpS: Landmarks of 20th Century African American Novel Writing
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
526 KB
Mother-Daughter-Relationsship, Toni, Morrison, Beloved, Landmarks, Century, African, American, Novel, Writing
Quote paper
Kathleen Niebl (Author), 2004, The Mother-Daughter-Relationsship in Toni Morrison's "Beloved", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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