An iron-willed, iron-eyed woman, Sethe is haunted not only by the ghost of her dead daughter but also by the memories of her life as a slave. While she has been scarred by the physical brutality of schoolteacher's nephews, she seems even more deeply disturbed by her discovery that most white people view her as nothing more than an animal. She asserts her humanity through her determination to reach freedom and to give her children a free life. Her escape from Sweet Home demonstrates the force of her will to overcome impossible circumstances and foreshadows the desperate measures that she'll take to keep her children from becoming slaves.
Much of Sethe's internal struggle also derives from her ambiguous relationship with her mother. Because of the long hours her mother worked, Sethe barely knew her. However, through Nan she knows that she was the product of a loving union. Of all her mother's children, Sethe was the only one given a name and allowed to live. The comfort she may derive from this knowledge is tempered, though, by the suspicion that her mother was trying to run away when she was caught and hanged. If her mother was indeed trying to escape, she was abandoning Sethe in the process. This abandonment was twofold, because her mother not only left Sethe without her only living relative, but she also forced Sethe to face the horrors of slavery on her own.
Her mother's abandonment affected Sethe deeply and helps explain the choices she makes as a mother. Notice Sethe's resolve not to do the same thing to her children. She refuses to leave them without a mother when they've gone ahead to Ohio, and she risks her own life to reach them. When faced with the reality that her children may be sent back into slavery, Sethe chooses to free them through death rather than allow them to encounter even a portion of her past experiences. In Sethe's mind, killing her children to save them from slavery is the ultimate expression of a mother's love.