Themes and Imagery in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Beloved by Noble laureate Toni Morrison contains many themes regarding the conditions of black slaves before the civil war and after it. The most striking themes and imagery of the novel are dehumanizing of slaves, the way of naming, the motherly figure, community and family, the affliction of the past, water and eating and hunger.

Toni Morrison (Born in1931)

Dehumanizing of Slaves:  Degrading of the nonwhite slaves is one prime theme of the novel Beloved. The slaves have a dependency upon their owners for all their existence. Their existence is not more appreciable than the existence of some farm animals. When Paul D runs away from his owner, he stole food from the pigs and fought with owls for the sake of food. He is not aware that he is a human being. Because of the animal like treatment of the white master, he thinks himself an animal. He meets one mindless black woman who thinks that the ducks were her children. Sethe, the central character of the novel, feels herself as a milking goat whose swollen breasts were sucked by the nephews of the schoolteacher. The schoolteacher describes that the slaves were his animal property under his care. He especially takes Sethe as a creature that the God has given to him for the maintenance. When Sethe kills her daughter in the woods, the nephews beat her and the excessive beating is referred to as the beating similar to the horse or dog. The word 'Horse' is mainly used to describe the slaves. Sethe's youngest daughter is called 'foul' by Amy Denver, a white lady who helped Sethe in the delivery of her youngest daughter. The nonwhite slaves were taken merely as the machine to reproduce other breeds in free of cost to the white masters. Once, Baby Suggs tells Denver that the slaves are not supposed to have pleasurable feeling rather they have to bear as many children as they can do to please their owners. All these instances in the novel prove that the inhuman treatment of the whites has caused the loss of self-identity of the nonwhite slaves.

The Process of Naming: Naming oneself is a depiction of self-love and it is one's solo freedom. If a name is imposed, it vividly shows that there are some domination and oppression. Whites are illustrated as having the power to define the slaves in any way they like, the nonwhites are always defined according to the moods of masters, according to the situation, and according to the behaviors that they show to the existing situation. In the novel, Paul's half-brothers are named after the English alphabet only like, Paul D, Paul A, and Paul F, whereas one rooster is named as 'Mister'. Paul D feels that he has lost his identity and even his manhood when he is denied to use guns by his master. Garner and schoolteacher think that the slaves, they own can be made, tamed, called and even changed as these slaves are their own property and possessions. Baby Suggs is called by the bill of her sale: Whitlow, the surname of her former owner. If the white master does any inhuman treatment to the slaves then, their treatment is justified in saying that the slaves are like their children or animals who need guidance and training.

The Mother Figure: This is another important theme in the novel. The African take mother as a replica of the marvelous creation of the earth. But, ironically, the African slave women rarely get the chance to be treated as mother. When Sethe was a child, she was suckled by another woman. She did not get the opportunity to sleep on the lap of her mother. Her mother was identified by the hat and the mark that her mother had on the ribs. Baby Suggs gave birth to eight children, though from different fathers, but she could not exercise her any of mother rights. Sethe too has to bear the same fate. She wants to feed her own baby her breast milk but is prevented from it, and moreover, her milk is suckled by the nephews of the schoolteacher. Many slave mothers have to breastfeed to the white kids, keeping away their own kids in starvation and away from their fundamental rights. Because of the prevailing system of slavery and sexual assault, she has to kill her daughter to prevent her from slavery. This is her act of protection and safety. The physical, sexual and mental domination of the slave mother deteriorates the motherly love.

The Affliction of the Past: The mental and emotional wound takes a long time to be healed compared to the physical scars. Throughout the novel, it is depicted that most of the characters suffer from the painful past and they try hard to recover from it. They attempt to forget bitter part of the past and want to cherish only some bits of sweet memories. Beloved is Sethe's past which haunts her now, and she cannot deny her past. She had killed her daughter as an act of protection and now Sethe has to justify her dreadful deed to her ghost daughter. Even if she wants to keep herself away from the bitter past, her past appears in front of her.  It is her past crime because of which she is boycotted from the society, she is fired from the job, and she has to afford herself in the service of the ghost child. Her past trauma comes to the surface. She feels that she can get rid of the past responsibility of a mother by feeding her ghost child, Beloved. In the novel, the past has a central role, excavating the turbulent slavery in America. Sethe's inability of avoiding the past indicates the powerful impression of the past in the lives of the slaves.  At the end of the novel, her painful past, Beloved is forgotten which symbolically stands for the end of the torturous past and the beginning of the hopeful future.

Water: The image of water is found throughout the novel. The river Ohio is the boundary line between herself and her freedom. She has to cross the water to gain her freedom. She drinks water from the river, stating strongly that she does not want to die on the wrong side of the Ohio River. When she arrives at Baby Suggs, she washes Sethe indicating cleaning and purifying her from her past. At the end of the novel too, Paul D asks her to wash suggesting her the possibility of the birth of a new life ahead. The ghost character Beloved comes from the water and after reaching at Sethe's home, she drinks four glasses of water. With the appearance of Beloved, Sethe's bladder swells and she literally feels a delivery. These images of water are very powerful in the novel, suggesting some crucial moments in the novel.

Sexuality and Power: Sexuality is another theme that runs through the novel. The sexual relations generally indicate the mutual love of the partners, but in the case of slavery, especially in case of black slave women, it is related to power and domination. Sethe and Halle have their first sex in the corn and they begin the relationship of husband and wife.  When Paul D comes to Sethe they sleep together and this is their love. But Beloved does not like the relationship between Paul D and Sethe. She strongly seduces Paul D which he cannot deny. But the sexual harassment of the slave women by the white masters is a matter of condemnation. Sethe's mother was used as a sex toy by many white men, Stamp Paid's wife was enforced to be wife of her master. Some women are forced to be used both by father and son. Sethe was also used by the schoolteacher and his two nephews. The white men have absolute power over the slave women and capable of using them in any way they like.