This is an updated version of my essay on Toni Morrison's Beloved, originally submitted as a school assignment.
From Outside of the Slave Plantation
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is centered on experiences of a former fugitive slave Sethe. Two of its key episodes are her experiences of killing her own child with a handsaw in an impulsive attempt of family suicide (as a last resort to protect her children from the chains of slavery), and having a “return visit” of a 19-to-20-year-old woman named Beloved, who is believed to be the embodiment of the grown-up spirit of the murdered baby. That said, in order to understand the meaning of Beloved, I believe the third character of Denver should be focused on rather than Sethe or Beloved. A good understanding of the coming-of-age story of Denver, who was born and raised outside the slave plantation, is essential to see the whole picture of the main theme of the book: slavery, and the stigma put on people of color.
Beloved is partially based on a true tragic incident of a fugitive slave mother happened in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1856, however; the ghost character assures the story being detached from reality. It takes place between a slave state of Kentucky and a free state of Ohio, and before and after the Civil War. Episodes in Kentucky are mostly consisted of memories of Sethe and her slave associates at a slave-owning plantation Sweet Home in the pre-Civil War period, including those of escaping from Sweet Home in 1855. In the free state Ohio, there are two main time settings, the past in 1855 and the present in 1873. In the “past,” Sethe gets away from the slave state and kills her child while in the “present,” she receives a return visit of the spirit of her dead baby. Beloved is composed of such a complicated mixture of location, generation, and narration, which comes and goes over the border of the world of slavery and post-slavery over and over again. From this structural point of view, the role of Denver seem to become highly important in the story. One of the character’s attributes of being born after Sethe left the plantation and therefore not directly belonging to the world of slavery stands out.
Denver is the last of Sethe’s four children. By the beginning of the story, Denver had become the only housemate of Sethe, if not counting the baby ghost, due to the back-to-back getaways of her brothers and the death of her grandmother Baby Suggs. From little before the passing of Grandma Baby, Denver had shut herself away within the grounds of their (haunted) house addressed 124 Bluestone Road and avoided contacts of outside people. She liked spending her time at a secret space hidden by bushes located far back in the backyard of 124. In the secret emerald box, she indulged herself in smelling the fragrance of collected cologne. In that moment, her soul got freed. “Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out.” (Morrison, 35).
However, her situation was forced to change by a visit by Paul D, one of Sethe’s slave associates at Sweet Home. While Sethe got excited and immediately started a romance with her old friend, Denver was not happy to have him at 124. It was not just because she lost attentions from her mother, who was also her only human company. In the chapter of Denver’s monologue, it was revealed that “I heard his voice downstairs, and Ma’am laughing, so I thought it was him, my daddy. […] But when I got downstairs it was Paul D and he didn’t come for me; he wanted my mother” (Morrison, 245). In addition, shortly after his arrival, Paul D somehow succeeded to expel the spiteful baby ghost from 124 in an effort of protecting Sethe and his new love. This incident did not help Denver’s disturbed feelings. Denver monologized that “Ever since I was little she was my company and she helped me wait for my daddy” (Morrison, 242).
However, this bitter medicine worked well on Denver. Using the break of her ordinary world created by Paul D, Denver stepped out from the grounds of 124 for the first time in eight years and had fun at the carnival with Sethe and Paul D. Nonetheless, Paul D’s triumph did not last long. When they returned from the carnival, they found a drained woman lying on a stump in front of their house. It was the embodiment of the expelled ghost named Beloved. Only Denver could see such unrealistic truth. Based on her affection for Beloved, she decided to protect her returned sister at any cost. Denver later expressed her special fondness as “She played with me and always came to be with me whenever I needed her. She’s mine, Beloved. She’s mine” (Morrison, 247).
After treating sick-state Beloved in Denver’s own room, the sisters began to spend a sweet secret time together. However, one day in an unexpected turn of events, Beloved made it clear that she came back there not for Denver but for Sethe. As Sethe came to realize that Beloved was the returned child of hers, she decided to give this once-missing child everything she could. Although Beloved escalated the level of her demands, Sethe stuck to her original resolve. Due to her excessive devotion to Beloved, Sethe got fired from her long-serving restaurant work and wasted the $38 of life savings on “ribbon and dress goods” (Morrison, 282) just aimed at pleasing Beloved. According to Denver’s interpretation, “Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it” (Morrison, 295). When there is such a strong in-house logic exists apart from and disputing with the social logic, the society deems that company illogical, abnormal, and insane. As the tie between Sethe and Beloved gets strengthened, the readers find some sort of insanity taking over 124, and Sethe.
In an earlier chapter, Paul D had warned the readers as “Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love” (Morrison, 54). Also, in Denver’s monologue, she implied Sethe’s insanity by stating that “I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I’m scared of her because of it,” and that “I’m afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again” (Morrison, 242). Out of such fear, Denver had a recurring nightmare of being tenderly cut her head off by her mother, and also, longed for the protection from her daddy, whom she had never seen before. Morrison described the developing status of 124 as “The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became” (294). However, it could also be described as ‘the weaker Sethe got, the stronger Denver became.’ In fact, the third and final part of Beloved is almost fully dedicated to heroic Denver’s growing-up story.
Following the extravagant spending, the serious shortage of living necessities hit 124. When it made the family hungry, weak, and quiet, Denver realized that “So it was she who had to step off the edge of the world and die because if she didn’t, they all would” (Morrison, 281). Then Denver decided to look for some help by herself. It was a big decision for the 18-to-19 year-old woman who had been a social withdrawal for the most of her life. At first, she was scared of just passing someone on a road. However, after receiving warm help from her old teacher and the local church group, she further stepped up to start job hunting. She alone went to the center of Cincinnati and knocked on the door of the Bodwins who had a history of helping Baby Suggs and Sethe find a job, letting them live in 124, and saving Sethe from the gallows. As a result of this brave visit, Denver gained a job to serve the Bodwins on the night shift. In addition, it somehow triggered two coincidental movements which happened on a later date at 124, a visit of Mr. Bodwin to pick up a new girl for her first day of work, and a visit of a neighborhood group to check on the rumor of the undead child beating Sethe. When Sethe saw Mr. Bodwin, an old white man, approaching among the crowd of the vigilante group, what Denver had been afraid of for years became a reality. Sethe instantly assumed that “He is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing” (Morrison, 308), and to protect Beloved, attacked him with a nearby ice pick. She got very close to him, but didn’t get him. In the nick of time, the leader of the vigilante group punched her face following Denver tackling her down. Yes, Denver stopped her mother and the harm about to be caused by her to Mr. Bodwin and the world. She nullified the spell of evil, if existed. And, Beloved was gone during melee.
We don’t know much about lives of Sethe and Denver afterward, but we know that Mr. Bodwin decided not to criminalize Sethe’s act, that the Bodwins let Denver continue to serve them, that Denver smiled first when she saw Paul D on the street, and that Paul D visited Sethe who was still in shock and then told her “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison, 322). Those little tales indicate a brighter future of the 124 family.
However, if I consider Denver’s standing out characteristic of not directly belonging to the world of slavery, it becomes noticeable that with her writing consists of a complicated mixture of location, generation, and narration, Morrison plentifully exemplified how Denver was not free from the shadow of slavery. She was not forced to work as a child laborer. She grew up under the care of her mother. She could be heroic, and her life could be positive. But, she was not free. She was, in fact, fully assigned to start off with the ghost of the slavery system.
In an earlier conversation between Sethe and Denver, Sethe’s little magical way of looking at the world was revealed.
““I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”
“Can other people see it?” asked Denver.
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes. Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So Clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else“ (Morrison, 43).
Hopefully, the world is filled up with Mr. Bodwin’s type of rememories, and not the other type, for Denver and her family and for us as well.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage International, 2010.