Theme of Motherhood in Beloved by Toni Morrison

In many ways, Beloved is a story about motherhood and how slavery crushed the natural instincts of women. Mothers could not nurture their children properly and lived with the fear of having their children taken away from them to be sold off. The common wisdom was that a slave shouldn’t form a strong attachment to her children. As Paul D. points out to Sethe, her love is “too thick.”

Almost all the women in the novel suffer through separation. Baby Suggs had eight children and except for Halle, all of them were taken away. She barely remembers them. Sethe’s own mother was too exhausted from working in the plantation to feed her daughter and a wet nurse would do that. On the ship that brought her to America, she was repeatedly raped by the white crew and threw the children, born out of the forced unions, into the sea. Sethe and her mother could never develop a bond and nurture their relationship. Like Sethe, her mother has committed infanticide out of desperation. Ella is raped by a white father and son and gives birth to a white child who she refuses to care for, leading to the baby’s death.

Sethe doesn’t want to see her children become slaves, hence she tries to kill them. Everyone feels that Sethe has committed a sin. However, Sethe’s act has to be viewed in the broader context of her desperate decision to kill all her children and then herself. Unfortunately, she is stopped by the time she kills her infant daughter. Sethe is able to escape punishment because of the Bodwins’ efforts. After a few months in jail, she comes to live with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. For the next eighteen years, a spirit haunts their house; referred to as baby ghost. It takes a human shape with the appearance of Beloved. Sethe’s regret and guilt for having failed her children turns into an obsessive love for her daughter. It sends her to the edge of madness.

Sethe’s pain and her living with that pain forms the emotional core of the novel. The interior monologues in Part III of the novel are pure expression of her unfulfilled love. The terrible human tragedy of slavery, the emotional trauma is an important theme in the novel.

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