Theme of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

There is no doubt that slavery is the main theme of the novel. Both in the dedication and epigraph to the novel, Morrison draws our attention to her theme. The institution of slavery impacts the physical and emotional well-being of slaves. Traded like commodities, it is impossible for them to sustain their familial bonds. Living with the constant fear of being separated from their children, they train themselves not to get attached to them, as Baby Suggs does. Almost all the women in the novel have been subjected to sexual abuse of some kind: Sethe, her mother, her wet nurse Nan, and Ella. Schoolteacher makes his slaves the subject of study, noting down their physical characteristics and comparing it to those of animals. More than the physical scars on her back, Sethe is disturbed by her memories of being measured and schoolteachers’ nephews noting details in notebooks.

Sethe’s infanticide, more than anything else, illustrates the extent to which slavery can hinder a person’s sense of judgement. Driven to desperation, terrorized by schoolteacher’s appearance at her doorstep, she decides to kill all her children but is stopped by Stamp Paid; but not before she kills her nine-month old infant daughter. She escapes the death penalty but lives with ghost of her baby daughter, stoically putting up with the mental agony. Her innermost thoughts, directed at Beloved, form the emotional core of the novel. Her unfulfilled longings as a mother affect her mental health.

However, there are former slaves like Stamp Paid and Baby Suggs, who have not let their personal pain kill them from the inside. Baby Suggs becomes a beacon of hope for her community; preaching self-love in the Clearing. It is only after Sethe kills her daughter that she gives up the struggle; unable to either condemn or support Sethe’s act. Finally, she is devastated when her grandsons, Howard and Buglar, run away from 124. Her last advice to her family is that “there’s no bad luck like white people.” Stamp Paid does all he can to help the runaway slaves; selflessly ferrying them across the Ohio river. Yet, a small red ribbon with the scalp of a child attached to it demoralizes him.

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