Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, reveals the effects of human emotion and its power to cast an individual into a struggle against him or herself. In the beginning of the novel, the reader sees the main character, Sethe, as a woman who is resigned to her desolate life and isolates herself from all those around her. Yet, she was once a woman full of feeling: she had loved her husband Halle, loved her four young children, and loved the days of the Clearing. And thus, Sethe was jaded when she began her life at 124 Bluestone Road– she had loved too much. After failing to ‘ save' her children from the schoolteacher, Sethe suffered forever with guilt and regret. Guilt for having killed her "crawling already?' baby daughter, and then regret for not having succeeded in her task.
It later becomes apparent that Sethe's tragic past, her chokecherry tree, was the reason why she lived a life of isolation. Beloved, who shares with Sethe that one fatal moment, reacts to it in a completely different way; because of her obsessive and vengeful love, she haunts Sethe's house and fights the forces of death, only to come back in an attempt to take her mother's life. Through her usage of symbolism, Morrison exposes the internal conflicts that encumber her characters. By contrasting those individuals, she shows tragedy in the human condition. Both Sethe and Beloved suffer the devastating emotional effects of that one fateful event: while the guilty mother who lived refuses to passionately love again, the daughter who was betrayed fights heaven and hell- in the name of love- just to live again.
Sethe was a woman who knew how to love, and ultimately fell to ruin because of her "too-thick love' (164). Within Sethe was the power of unconditional love for her children– she had "milk enough for all' (201). Morrison uses breast milk to symbolize how strong Sethe's maternal desires were. She could never forget the terror of the schoolteacher robbing her of her nurturing juices, she crawled on bleeding limbs to fill her baby's mouth with her milk, and finally, she immortalized that grim summer day when she fed Denver her breast milk– mingled with blood. The bestial image of milk and blood further fortifies the eminence of maternal instinct by portraying the value of a mother's milk as equal to that of her blood. And the great depth of Sethe's maternal love is expressed through the course of all events: she loved her children so much she was willing to die with them, so much she would rather kill them than have them suffer, and so much that after that one fateful afternoon, her entire life's happiness dwindled away to near-nothingness.
When the schoolteacher came for them, Sethe "just flew. [She] collected every bit of the life she made? [to] a place where no one could hurt them' (163). It was Sethe's overpowering love for her children that drove her towards a desperate attempt to kill them. Tragically, she would live in guilt for the rest of her life, forever distrusting love, and finally giving up everything for a chance to make right what she'd done wrong. Beloved, on the other hand, was a sad and angry spirit who fought death in order to return to life so that she could assuage her vengeful, obsessive love for Sethe. Never quite sure what had happened, the two year-old spirit believed that Sethe had left her behind and came back "to the one [she had] to have' (76).
In the beginning, Beloved longed to receive Sethe's attention. She seemed tranquil sitting near Sethe, as the older woman prepared breakfast in the morning. It wasn't until the day in the Clearing, when Beloved's fingers "had a grip on [Sethe] that would not let her breath' (96), that the reader could see how conflicted she was between love and hatred for her mother. Most importantly, Beloved's true intention is revealed: to utterly and completely take possession of Sethe. Although Beloved wanted and needed her mother, albeit to a disturbing degree, her bitterness quickly turned into revenge when Sethe began to indulge her; and by slowly draining the life out of her mother, Beloved could truly possess Sethe, both body and soul. Both mother and daughter seemed to have loved too much; while Sethe wanted to save her child from pain, Beloved wanted to satiate her own ravenous love.
At first overjoyed that her daughter had "come back like a good girl' (223) and that she would get a chance to make up for her sins, Sethe soon realizes that Beloved would not be understanding. Beloved's demands grew increasingly urgent and destructive, as Sethe grew weaker from having her guilt further incensed. Much like the symbolism of breastfeeding, Beloved slowly suckled away all of Sethe's life, all of her natural juices. Trying to make amends, Sethe would cry "that Beloved? meant more to her than her own life? [and] Beloved would deny it' (242). One woman was killing herself trying to make the other understand, while the other was selfishly destroying everything in her way of happiness. In this way Morrison captures the tragedy of human emotion: one love so powerful it always loses, and one love so powerful it consumes everything.
Sethe lost in the game of love by killing her daughter out of instinct; she lost again in the game of live by forever suffering for it. Beloved fought to live again and took the life of the woman who loved her enough to die for her. Towards the closing of the novel, Sethe's eyes "[were] bright but dead, alert but vacant, paying attention to everything about Beloved' (242-243). Beloved characterizes the tragedy of love: so strong it can kill, so strong it can become hate. Penguin Books, Plume Publications: NY, 1988. All references are taken from this edition..