Critical Essays Motifs in Beloved


Water images abound, such as Nan pointing out to Sethe her mother wading in the flooded indigo field, the convicts' escape during the flood, and the flow of amniotic fluid from Sethe's womb as the infant Denver forces her way into the light. The shape of the canoe, an oversized replica of the female vulva, emphasizes the importance of the birth of the one child that Sethe intends to hang on to. After Beloved's water-soaked wade from the Ohio River shore, Sethe experiences a recurrence of flooding waters, this time from an incontinent bladder inordinately full of urine. Beloved, croupy and thirsting, gulps four cups of water, and then sleeps for four days and wets the sheets, which Denver rinses in secret. Upon Paul D's arrival at 124 Bluestone Road, he detects the female "shining" on Sethe's bare legs, the same symbolic seminal fluid she wiped from her skin the day that she accepted Halle from among the five lustful brothers at Sweet Home.

Temporarily, water freezes into ice firm enough to hold the three women, sliding on one whole pair of skates and one shared pair. Like their tenuous family triad, the happy scene results in slips and mishaps, and then crumbles into unforeseen tears from Sethe. Her solution is the liquid of life, the warm milk that they drink to warm themselves, just as they did in babyhood when Sethe held her breast to their thirsting lips.

Breast and milk images are frequent as well. The first is a reminder of the maternal role of Ma'am, Sethe's mother, who discards unnamed offspring resulting from inappropriate matings and then burns the tender flesh under her breast with circle and cross, as though embracing with the circle and delineating with the cross the child she intended to nurture. This image prefigures the viciousness of Sethe's assault in the barn. Rather than the tearing of her flesh, Sethe recalls the deprivation of nourishment for her infant.

After Paul D reveals to Sethe that Halle witnessed her attack and smeared butter from the churn onto his face, Sethe interprets his act as a desperate response to his wife's bizarre deprivation of breast milk. For Sethe, the scene fills a gap in the story of her flight; it explains, in part, why Halle could not rescue her or reunite with his family. For Baby Suggs, Halle no longer exists, gone with her other seven offspring. But he is replaced by her daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, whom she welcomes with a sumptuous feast for 90, a food offering as rich as the butter that smeared Halle's face when he realized his powerlessness to stop the assault on the barn floor beneath his hiding place in the loft. These feedings symbolize a generosity denied by slavery, a hunger not soon to be alleviated, even after nationwide emancipation.

Colors are the single rays of hope that brighten Baby Suggs's last days. She particularly craves lavender and the orange squares that lessen the forbidding neutrality of the keeping room both for her and for its subsequent inhabitant, Beloved, who also gravitates toward a rich, fiery hue. Touches of red signify Beloved — she is bathed in red blood, gravitating toward a flitting cardinal, and wrenching open the cloistered red heart within Paul D. The black community, designated as Bluestone Road, is like a sapphire, a jewel that forms in nature. Like a pearl evolving around grit or a diamond forced into sparkling life from dispirited carbon, Bluestone (a way station) colors black freedom with a reassuring luster.

Metal images appear, such as the knife that Paul D grips like a harpoon as he skewers Beloved with personal questions about where she came from and where she is headed. The iron in Sethe's eyes and the iron bit in Paul D's mouth that stops him from talking with Halle about his trauma represent the dichotomy of female strength versus male impotence. The cruelties of Sweet Home stiffen Sethe against all buffetings, even loss of respect for her much-loved husband; these same indignities harness Paul D like a dray animal and stop his mouth from communicating his loss of manhood.

Without imagery, Beloved would be a sterile ghost story, fit only for titillating audiences into a shiver and nervous giggle. Details, richly evocative and endlessly interconnected, support the framework of Beloved's plot. The multiple levels of communication perform multiple tasks:

  • They tell the story.
  • They describe the historic underpinnings of slavery.
  • They reveal the dehumanizing effect of bondage and torture.
  • They investigate the difference between male and female responses to powerlessness.
  • They delineate the necessity for self-love.
  • They crown the story with its ritualistic laying on of hands, the healing touch that restores wholeness.