"To Take the Sin out of Slicing Trees ...": The Law of the Tree in 'Beloved.'

By Bonnet, Michele | African American Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

"To Take the Sin out of Slicing Trees ...": The Law of the Tree in 'Beloved.'


Bonnet, Michele, African American Review


When Baby Suggs, Beloved's ancestor figure and moral beacon, expresses her view of what seems to be the novel's central transgression, the murder of a child at the hands of her own mother, she sums up what the whole work tends to demonstrate regarding the tragic deed: "... she could not approve or condemn Sethe's rough choice" (180). Endeavoring to understand rather than judge, she acknowledges the legitimacy of some of Sethe's arguments while being aware of more questionable elements in her decision, such as her daughter, in-law's dangerously possessive conception of mother love, or the psychological damage her act has inflicted on each of her four children. Like Baby Suggs, Morrison clearly refrains, at least explicitly or in conventional terms, from either condemning or condoning Sethe's desperate deed. When the murder is overtly branded as a crime or a sin, it is by people--the community and Paul D--whose moral choices are not reliable. As a matter of fact, it is repeatedly suggested that the ultimate culprit is not the individual who committed infanticide, but the system that created the conditions for it, the "peculiar institution." As the novel unfolds, the whites increasingly come under attack, even if, adding to the moral complexity and ambiguity of the book, they are also presented as the victims of a system they have themselves set up, while the blacks in turn prove to have been contaminated by the cancer of slavery, as shown in Stamp Paid's metaphor of the jungle (198-99).(1)

Curiously enough, however, Morrison reserves the word sin for another context. It first crops up in Baby's address to her people in the Clearing when she urges them to love their abused bodies and heal the wounds inflicted by slavery:

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no

more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its

inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace

they could imagine. (88)

This statement is interesting in that it shows Baby distancing herself from established religion, overtly discarding the Christian notion of sin as an acceptable moral standard. This perception is actually confirmed by the use of the word in its second occurrence. When Paul D, shortly after his arrival at 124, takes Sethe and Denver out to the carnival, they walk past a big patch of rotting roses stretching along the lumberyard fence. The narrator then makes the following remark: "The sawyer who had planted them twelve years ago to give his workplace a friendly feel--something to take the sin out of slicing trees for a living--was amazed by their abundance ..." (47).

What this statement brings out is that the tree is a natural element that serves as a law--and a sacred one at that--unto man. In other terms, the religious referent that transgression is measured against is not Western religion or even some secular yet holy human law, but man's natural environment. This might seem to be a somewhat extravagant or incidental remark were it not for the fact that trees play such a prominent part in the novel, either in the form of the highly symbolic tree stamped upon Sethe's back by schoolteacher's whip, or as the real trees that the protagonists repeatedly turn to for spiritual support. Furthermore, one should bear in mind that trees, and in particular sacred groves, play a crucial role in African religion, where they are considered as intermediaries between God and man--they are even worshiped by some tribes as God himself in his immanent aspect (Mbiti 112-64). The pervasive presence in the book of trees, and the moral significance they are imparted with, as the above quotation suggests, seems therefore to be in keeping with Morrison's claim that she is not an American, but an Afro-American writer, intent on preserving and transmitting her community's cultural heritage, which she insists is an essential dimension of her fiction. …

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