It's not over - Rememories of a haunting past in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

18 Pages, Grade: sehr gut



1. Introduction

2. The Infanticide in Beloved
2.1. Sethe’s Reasons to Kill Her Child
2.2. The Second Rescue of Beloved in Comparison to the First Rescue
2.2.1. The Necessity of the Rescue’s Repetition for Sethe’s Healing
2.2.2. The Paradoxes in the Second Rescue - A Different Interpretation -

3. Beating Back the Past

4. Judgement of the Infanticide by Different Characters
4.1. The Point of View of Schoolteacher and White People
4.2. Stamp Paid, Ella, and the Community of Women
4.3. Paul D’s Reaction to Sethe’s Dark Secret

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The horrors of slavery are commonly dismissed with comments such as “it’s over; it’s done”. However, with Beloved Toni Morrison demonstrates how history is not over and done with. Morrison allows the reader to re-vision and understand African-American history through non-western eyes by re-telling history through the lives of former African slaves, because the “violence within the African American community can only be understood in a context in which […] [the white power] continue[s] to violate African American lives.”[1]

The novel reconceptualizes American history and is concerned with historical transmission which continues into the present. Beloved places historical trauma at the center of American race relations and reveals two denials of historical trauma through unveiling the two types of violence; the interracial and ‘intraracial. The racist institutional power denied the violation of African American lives, and the black society refused to admit the truth of African American familial self-destruction and self-hatred. And so “American racial trauma became submerged.”[2] Morrison’ s Beloved is a revelation of this trauma portrayed by apocalyptic events, such as infanticide.

It is a real historical event of infanticide that serves as inspiration and source for this novel of Morrison, who found a documented story about a fugitive slave, called Margaret Garner, who had been forced to kill her own children.

Infanticide is a motif that occurred already before Christ. Children were seen as properties of their parents who thought to have the ‘right’ to kill them for example because of poverty[3]. In the 18. century literature worked with motifs of infanticides caused by shame or pity or by fear and despair, a motif Toni Morrison uses in Beloved.

In course of this paper I will try to interpret and explain the infanticide, which Sethe commits, from different points of view. It shall be analysed how Sethe ‘legitimates’ or explains her act. This is followed by a section with a closer focus on the phenomenon trauma and healing. The last chapter then is supposed to discuss weather the people surrounding her have the right to judge her or not.

2. The Infanticide in Beloved

2.1. Sethe’s Reasons to Kill Her Child

The central question in the novel if Sethe as a mother has the right to decide about her children’s existence cannot be answered objectively. Sethe has good reasons for her action. Afro-American slave families usually got split and slaves had the status of cattle or even lower. As Samuels and Hudson-Weems say: “in slavery the value of humanity is nonexistent”[4].

Separation of family and being treated like animals are also some of Sethe’s own experiences. In killing her child Sethe believes she saves her daughter “unspeakable” experiences, which most slave women including herself had to pass through. Sethe is traumatized by what happened to her at Sweet Home. Being punished by schoolteacher, who had beaten her in such a way that her entire back is covered by scars, does not seem to have hurt her as much as the immoral act of schoolteacher’s nephews, who “stole her milk” that belongs to her children by sucking her breasts. In this way they harrased her and humiliated her and her rights as a mother. She is also “bearing a psychological scar of childhood”[5]. When Sethe a child she found “her mother hanged, along with many other women”[6].

The strong maternal love Sethe feels for her children makes it impossible for her to let her children go back to slavery and live under schoolteacher. “Her children, now free, would not become slaves again” (163). This determination shows her conviction that anything, even death, would provide a better life than Sweet Home. For Sethe there is no alternative, so her brutal act, trying to kill all her children, is “not perceived as a senseless crime but as a necessity”[7]. When schoolteacher comes with the slave catcher Sethe acts instinctively. All she wants is to protect her children and to “put [her] babies where they’d be safe” (164) without wasting time, because in her situation immediate decisions are required. She succeeds in saving her baby from an oppressive live and brings her to sanctuary, which is death, by cutting her throat. That way she reclaims her maternal rights. Her behaviour is an act of protection out of love, as Sethe herself admits “motherlove [is] a killer” (132). Sethe panics when she sees that she and her children are about to loose their newly gained freedom, which made her love her children as never before. Sethe thinks that she maybe “couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t […] [her’s] to love” (162). If schoolteacher takes her back she will again have the status of property and loose her maternal right to claim her children as her own.


[1] Berger. “Ghosts of Liberalism”. p. 191.

[2] Berger. “Ghosts of Liberalism. p. 192.

[3] See Frenzel. Motive der Weltliteratur. pp. 720-737.

[4] Samuels, and Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. p. 110.

[5] Samuels, and Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. p. 106.

[6] Gray. Beloved. p. 52.

[7] Samuels, and Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. p. 106.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


It's not over - Rememories of a haunting past in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
University of Cologne  (Anglistik)
(Re)writing History in the Novel
sehr gut
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
508 KB
Rememories, Toni, Morrison, Beloved, History, Novel
Quote paper
Kader Aki (Author), 2003, It's not over - Rememories of a haunting past in Toni Morrison's "Beloved", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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