"To Be Loved and Cry Shame": A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved

By Koolish, Lynda | MELUS, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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"To Be Loved and Cry Shame": A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved


Koolish, Lynda, MELUS


The struggle for psychic wholeness is a continuous one in Toni Morrison's Beloved, a novel situated in slavery and its aftermath. It is a process which requires access to painful memories; the characters in the novel reintegrate, achieve "the join" so desperately wished for in Beloved's soliloquy chapter, re-fuse, when they no longer refuse the deepest knowledge of the meanings of their individual and historical pasts. But much of the novel explores the extraordinarily anguishing interlude of time during which virtually all the protagonists, not just Sethe, exist almost as dreamwalkers in a state of dissociation and denial as they remain determined to expend their psychic resources keeping the past at bay. No longer able to endure the endless succession of losses, faced with the death or disappearance of all eight of her children (including Sethe's husband Halle), retaining as her sole and astonishingly poignant memory of her first-born child, Ardelia, the solitary knowledge of how much she loved the burned bottom of bread, Sethe's mother-in-law, the great unchurched preacher, Baby Suggs has a "sadness ... at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home" (140). Eventually, she gives up preaching and dies of grief, while Sethe's daughter Denver lives psychically paralyzed inside her own mind. After Sethe acknowledges to Denver the veracity of Nelson Lord's grisly re-telling of the story of Sethe's murder of Denver's sister, Beloved, to keep her from being returned to slavery, Denver takes on a synesthesiac version of hysterical blindness: she becomes deaf, musing in her soliloquy chapter: "Made me have to read faces and learn how to figure out what people were thinking, so I didn't need to hear what they said" (206).

While maternal love is certainly one focus of the novel, the male protagonists in this novel also struggle towards a definition of appropriate loving within which they can survive. In the absence of that stipulation, namely, survivability, Halle loves too much, and ends up with his face in the butter; Sethe's companion and lover Paul D, haunted by the consequences of what he sees as Halle's, and later, Sethe's, "too thick love," is determined to love small and suffers enormously for the consequences of his decision.

Sethe's consciousness, and the consciousness of Denver, Paul D, and the twenty-year-old Beloved (the spectral and apparently embodied adult presence of her murdered two-year-old daughter) are suffused with a truncated, relentless, disrupted chronology common to persons so severely abused that they suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or disassociative states. Despite the fact that she was not captured in Africa but rather born in America and therefore could have no rational explanation for remembering in vivid detail her own ordeal on a slave ship during Middle Passage, Beloved repeatedly returns to memories of Middle Passage, the primal scene for sixty million Africans, the slave ships on which captives suffered and died. (1) Throughout the novel, Denver and Paul D frequently do not know if they are dreaming or awake. Sleep and the comfort of Baby Suggs' nearness protects Denver at night in 124, but during her waking hours, during consciousness, she is almost unsure if she is alive, breathing, in her own body. In Denver's soliloquy chapter, she muses, "I was safe at night in there with [Baby Suggs]. All I could hear was me breathing but sometimes in the day I couldn't tell whether it was me breathing or somebody next to me" (207). And in an understated echo of the normal response to profound deprivation, Paul D doesn't know if it is mud or his own tears that are the moisture on his face: "Paul D thought he was screaming; his mouth was open and there was this loud throat-splitting sound--but it may have been somebody else" (110).

All four of these characters, and, to some extent, every black character in the novel who believes he or she has seen Beloved (as well as Bodwin, the one white character who also sees Beloved), experiences Beloved either as a fractured aspect of Sethe's psyche or as a kind of doppleganger for his or her own feelings of loss, grief, confusion, and rage, and, in the case of Bodwin, feelings of accountability, culpability, and guilt.

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