The effects of slavery on the female characters in Toni Morrison´s Beloved

Seminar Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction
1.2. Toni Morrison
1.3. Strong Black Women

2. Sethe
2.1. Effects on the body
2.2. Effects on the mind

3. Baby Suggs
3.1. Effects on the body
3.2. Effects on the mind
3.3. Baby Suggs’ name

4. Naming in general
4.1. Sweet Home
4.2. Schoolteacher
4.3. The Pauls

5. Comparison between Sethe and Baby Suggs

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Being white has always been considered as a privilege but also as a standard. Black people therefore are somehow seen as ‘The Other’ and are often discriminated against. African Americans have had to experience horrific acts of violence during and after the time of slavery. Even though slavery is over, black people still have to cope with prejudices and with the history of slavery.

In Toni Morrison´s Beloved the relationship between history and memory is dramatized. She uses memory to explore and represent the various dimensions of slave life. By doing so, she seeks to make slavery accessible to readers for whom slavery is not a memory but a remote historical fact to be ignored, repressed and forgotten.1

Slavery is a system of dehumanization. Its characteristics are ownership and possession, which involve both physical and psychological control.2 According to Harris, ownership refers to the practice of masters having legal rights to the bodies and labor of their slaves. Possession, on the other hand refers to the psychological dimension of the relationship, in which masters were able to convince some slaves to believe in the institution of slavery (331).

As Harris states, ‘In Beloved, Morrison makes clear where ownership leaves off and possession begins in the psychologically warping system called slavery’ (Harris, Escaping Slavery, 331). I will look at the effects slavery had on the female characters of Sethe and Baby Suggs. Therefore, I will concentrate on the traces slavery has left on their bodies as well as on their minds. I will also try to find out how the meaning of their names is connected to slavery.

1.2 Toni Morrison – A biographical Sketch

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to George and Ramah Wofford. She attended Howard University and was awarded her BA. in 1953. Morrison continued her academic education with graduate studies at Cornell University and concluded it in 1955 with an MA. In 1965 she became a senior editor at Random House, a position that enabled her to further the publications of African American and Caribbean authors, introducing their texts to a wide reading public. In 1989 Toni Morrison became Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University where she has remained a member of the program in Afro-American studies and of the creative writing department.

Morrison grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s in a poor family who had a long history of migration. Both grandparents as well as her parents had migrated from the deep rural South to escape racism and find more opportunities in the more industrialized, urban North. At home, Chloe heard many songs and tales of Southern black folklore. The Woffords were proud of their heritage.

Morrison´s works deal with the black experience and celebrate the black community. Beloved is regarded by many as Morrison´s most successful novel. It was influenced by a published story about a slave, Margaret Garner, who in 1851 escaped with her children to Ohio from her master in Kentucky. When she was about to be re-captured, she tried to kill her children rather than return to life of slavery. Only one of her children died and Margaret was imprisoned for her deed. She refused to show remorse, saying she was “unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done“. Beloved was published in 1987 and was a bestseller. In 1988 it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1993, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the eighth woman and first black woman to do so.3

1.3. Strong Black Women

The novel Beloved explores many themes such as slavery, the black community and motherhood. The novel's main protagonist is Sethe, an escaped slave and mother of four children. She succeeds in fleeing from the plantation ‘Sweet Home’ where she gave birth to three of her children. On her flight to Baby Suggs´ house she gives birth to a baby girl, her fourth child whom she names Denver. Baby Suggs is her mother-in-law, a freed slave woman, who is overjoyed to welcome Sethe and the baby at her house. The two women celebrate the union of the family even though Halle, Baby Suggs´ son and Sethe´s husband has not managed to get to the house. After 28 days of happiness, the plantation owner of ‘Sweet Home’, schoolteacher, shows up to recapture Sethe and her children. In an act of desperation, Sethe tries to kill her children and succeeds with the third one. Sethe explains that she killed the baby because ‘if I hadn´t killed her she would have died’. The story is built up around the infanticide and also illustrates how Baby Suggs and Sethe cope with their horrible experiences of slavery. The reader is confronted with the horrors of slavery and thereby learns that Grandma Suggs and Sethe are incredibly strong characters.

2. Sethe

Sethe´s life consists of her daughter Denver and of memories - memories of her children dead and alive, her presumably dead husband, Baby Suggs and mostly of the horrors of slavery. She has been a slave from childhood on until her escape to freedom but hardly remembers anything before she comes to the plantation Sweet Home. Unusual tolerable conditions are found on Sweet Home but only until schoolteacher, the new master, arrives. Then everything changes. ‘Then schoolteacher arrived to put things in order. [ ] He broke three more Sweet Home men and punched the glittering iron out of Sethe´s eyes, leaving two open wells that did not reflect the firelight.’ (9)


1 cf. Harris, Escaping Slavery, 331.

2 cf. Harris , Escaping Slavery, 331.

3 Cf.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The effects of slavery on the female characters in Toni Morrison´s Beloved
University of Vienna
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ISBN (eBook)
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Toni, Morrison´s, Beloved
Quote paper
Mag. Sabine Maschler (Author), 2003, The effects of slavery on the female characters in Toni Morrison´s Beloved, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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