Toni Morrison's Beloved and Reconciliation to the Past

Reconciliation with a past that is ‘ours’, a past that affect shapes, transforms, and conforms us in is a central Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Although the past is always present at the edge of our consciousness, through the agency of human will we as a people or each of us as individuals have the capacity to confront it directly and or deny explicitly and thus are left with a choice. Is the past something that I will choose to acknowledge, accept, and move forward from, or is the past something to be ignored and marginalized as ‘not my own’. Morrison suggests that a failure to actively seek reconciliation to the past does more than merely limit the growth potential of those un-reconciled to it. Moreover, ignoring a past that is ‘ours’ courts compounded tragedy and the vicious continuance of a cycle of pain. The history of slavery upon which the story of Beloved is based provides one such unreconciled background which still affects the national identity of the United States at present. Beloved offers a direct warning against intentionally running from reconciliation to a past in which one is not directly responsible for the pain and atrocities. Although the novel focuses on the lack of reconciliation to specific events in the lives of a specific family of former slaves soon after emancipation, the message carries equal weight when applied to contemporary US national identity and to other conflicts around the globe.

Morrison’s novel opens with the fleeing of Sethe’s only two sons, Buglar and Howard. Although they were not responsible for the death of their sister Beloved whose ghost now haunts their home, they must constantly be faced with that “spiteful…baby’s venom”. And so they run, abandoning their mother and sister to it, leaving them without the support that they could offer as family, and taking with them the agency that they held as a sibling to the ghost. They did not kill their sister, they were not responsible for her death directly,- it was their mother, Sethe who held responsibility- and therefore they were free to run from the situation when it became too much for them to handle. Once mirrors shattered at merely looking into them and beloved’s handprints marred freshly baked cakes, in their minds the situation was too dire, and so they ran. However Sethe and Denver their other sister could not run and consequently were left to deal with the spite of the house and the venom of beloved alone. Running did removed both Buglar and Howard from the situation, however, it left the situation in as equally dire a condition as when they had allowed themselves to be directly involved in it.

In the novel, Buglar and Howard had to deal not only with the pain brought upon them by their ghost of their sister for which they held no direct personal responsibility, but also with the root source of why she died, the enslaved past. In this way, though they ran for a specific instance in which the spite of the enslaved passed was physically undeniable, they could not run from the past as they held it within themselves or as it affected others around them. As their grandmother Baby Suggs replied when Sethe suggested moving the entire family “What’s the point….not a house in the country aint packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. The pain and spite must be confronted, not run from, even if an individual is not directly personally-responsible for it.

This episode occurs within the first page of Morrison’s novel, and at first reading seems rather minor and insignificant. Yet in describing Buglar and Howard’s reaction to the ghost, Morrison creates a perfect microcosm of how people in various political situations react when faced with a past which is a part of them though they choose to refuse it. According to Sethe’s own reasoning, she murdered her daughter out of the greatest love she had, and nearly murdered Howard and Buglar in the same way. She sought to ‘protect’ them from the atrocities and degradation that where inherent to the lives of slaves in the Americas. The pain (and arguably madddness) is actualized in a very personal way for Sethe and lead to the death of her daughter and the haunting of the home. In a similar way, the flight from past atrocity can occur in personal ways for individuals in contemporary American society.

Many other characters deny the past and ‘run’ in the novel as well. These include Baby Suggs, Schoolteacher and his white nephews, and Halle Himself. Paul D also attempts to run from the past, but in the end stops running and seeks reconciliation and thus will be discussed later. Schoolteacher and his nephews ignored the fruits of their tortures on their black slaves Halle and Sethe. They drove Halle ad by abusing his wife Sethe and never apparently faced any type of reconciliation or restititution. They through the same violent act drove Sethe to a madness which later lead to her murdering her own child. When confronted with the madness of seethe, they deem her to no longer be fit as a slave and leave her to the authorities, while freely retreating to their plantation without dealing with the pain they had wrought(to schoolteacher, it was not his pain, nor his responsibility to confront and so he returns home). Baby Suggs grew used to an intolerable life and had no will to seek restitution, only the will to endure and to die and sees no point in running as previously mentioned. Though she doesn’t run in the same way as Howard and Buglar, she gives up seeking any good in life in a way retreats into herself and away from the intolerable pain of her life.

As running takes many forms in the novel, so too does running take many form in contemporary America society. In a similar way, many contemporary Americans do not view the tortured American past- whether it concerns the slavery issue (upon which Beloved is based), the Jim-crow era, the defilement of Native American culture, or United States foreign policy choices- as a part of their own history and in turn choose to run from it. This running takes many forms, both physical and ideological. Often, people who do not perceive themselves to be a part of their neighborhoods choose to run when minority individuals begin to join them (a phenomenon known as “white flight” ) In an ideological sense, American society runs from atrocities committed against the first inhabitants of this land by marginalizing their story in the public narrative and allowing poor assumptions (such as manifest destiny and the white mans burden) to remain at the core of the discourse of history that is taught to children in public schools. In this manner, this historical discourse is perpetuated from generation to generation and students are rarely challenged to stop running. Restitution is not made to the survivors of these atrocities, and common people feel the freedom to run from the responsibility by viewing themselves as holding no responsibility or stake in the situation. Thus they can run to “Indian reservations” to fulfill their desire to gamble but rarely if ever to seek restitution and healing. After September 11th 2001, many American asked the question “why do ‘they’ hate us so much?” with the premise they “I never did anything to hurt ‘them’”. This shows not only an ignorance of US foreign policy in common Americans, but also the underlying assumption that each person is somehow divorced from the actions that the nation takes in its relations to other states. Common people have the freedom to run to a movie on the weekends, to run to the bookstore for a good novel, to run to the sports multiplex downtown and watch profession athletes. In doing so, they also exercise the freedom to run from the atrocities occurring in other parts of the world as well as the freedom to run from acknowledging Americas role in perpetuating many of the atrocities. The parallels between the novel and reality are striking and significant and Morrison’s novel offers a warning against such behavior.

However, as alluded to previously, Morrison’s novel does not only address the dangers of running from a past that one does not see as part of ones-self. It also offers some hope. The book tells the tale of the past which lead to the death of Beloved and the aftermath, which included a return of Beloved in bodily form but ultimately a banishment of her. Paul D, a character intimately involved with Sethe throughout the story as a former slave from her plantation and then as a lover says at the end of the novel “Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some tomorrow” Paul D’s history was equally horrendous, but it is together that she “can hand him back the pieces of who he is” and so they do. However this ending point does not magically occur but comes only after much confrontation of the past. Paul D does what Howard and Buglar cannot do, - he recognizes the pain in Sethe and though he does it for lustful reasons, he does help her heal by sharing in it. He directly confronts beloved in ghost form in the beginning of the novel, and drives her away and hopes to begin a new life with Sethe and Denver. He confronts pain in their lives and tries to heal it.

An example of a wound that Paul helps to heal is a personal violation against Sethe. Around the time Sethe is pregnant with her other daughter Denver and is in the midst of escape plans from the plantation where she is held as a slave, she is violated by young white men who drink the milk from her breast that is being produced for her coming child. This is tantamount to rape. A physical wound that directly resulted was the ‘tree’ of scars on her back (as described by Amy Denver, the white girl who helps deliver her 2nd daughter Denver) for reporting the sexual violation to the mistress of the home. Upon his arrival at 124, Paul D soothes, in his own way, both of these wounds. He kisses her scars and massages her breasts. “..he would tolerate no peace until he had touched every ridge and leaf of it [her scarred back] with his mouth….What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last[emphasis added)was in somebody elses hands. Although Paul D was not a woman, and cannot fully empathize with her pain, he has pain of his own which allows him to walk the path with her and seek healing. He does not simple take her breasts physically into his hands, but takes the pain associated with tem into himself as well at this point in the novel. This action is an intentional dash towards history and the pain associate with it rather than a flight from the past. He runs to the past and claims it as his own and thus reaches levels of healing that would be impossible to reach otherwise.

Beloved returns in physical form after Paul drives her ghost from the house, and eventually seduces Paul D. This is a seduction he does not wish for and that he sees and a weakness for a man to succumb to (ie in sixo). However, this seduction blows open the “tobacco tin” of his heart and the spilled contents float freely and he is their prey. These “spilled contents” are the pains of his past. He is tortured by the past and eventually asks “Tell me one this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me. How much?” to which Stamp paid his companion replies “All he can”. However Paul D wonders Why? Why? Why?…” and instead decides to run away from seethe and beloved and leave them to their fates.

Paul D’s life taught him an important lesson that the other characters who ran from the past never learned. “In five tries, he had not had one permanent success. Every one of his escapes (from sweet home, from Brandywine, from Alfred, Georgia, from Wilmington, from Northpoint) had been frustrated. Alone……he never stayed uncaught. And so Paul D stops running from the haunting past and returns to Sethe and Denver. At the very end of the story, he comes to the realization that “He wants to put his story next to hers(Sethe’s)” even though he thought he had lost his own manhood. The two together, through recognizing mutual pain which neither was directly responsible for, eventually end the novel together with a hope of moving forward from the past. Though Sethe doesn’t yet feel the freedom to move on that Paul D has recognized in his own life and is saddened by the loss of beloved, Paul D’s return and decision to recognize the past and move on seems to be enough to carry her forward. In this, Paul D completes his own healing by standing by another (Sethe) and taking on her own pain and stopping the vicious cycle that they as former slaves had been caught in.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved offers a warning against running from reconciliation to a past in which one is not directly responsible for the pain and atrocities. Her novel opens with minor characters running, and we see throughout the novel that running from reconciliation and being afraid to claim as ones a communal past leads to further tragedy. As previously mentioned, the members of Baby Sugg’s community shun her as unworthy in suffering. Baby Suggs herself is used to an intolerable life and has no will to seek restitution, only the will to endure and to die. The sons of Sethe run from a ghost they cannot control and see themselves as unconnected to. Halle goes mad. Amy Denver does offer aid to the running seethe, but idealizes her wounds as appearing like a tree. It is only through the tortured process of confronting their pasts together that Paul D and Sethe are able to come to a place where they see they even though they have a lot of “yesterday”, there is still hope for tomorrow. In contemporary society, the same rule should be applied. Though the process is painful and never truly ends, in order for ‘tomorrow’ to come, Americans as individuals must be willing to look at their communal, tortured past, and see how it is in relationship with the tortured pasts of others and then together attempt to seek healing and move into ‘tomorrow’.


Morrison, Toni Beloved Alfred A knopf Inc, New York 1998 ISBN0-375-40273-x


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