Destruction of Identity under Slavery in Beloved

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The novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, published in 1987, is a brilliant work that was inspired by a story of an African-American slave, Margaret Garner. Beloved begins with the protagonist, Sethe, living in a community post slavery with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver. At a young age, an individual develops a unique self-identity that may be destroyed by a series of traumatic events. Throughout the novel, each character has been affected by slavery whether mentally, psychologically or physically. Some may even end their lives or some repress the past memories so deeply that they lose touch with people around them and most importantly themselves. Repression occurs when the mind experiences tragic events in order to reduce anxiety and escape from the brutal past. Even years after escaping slavery, Sethe, Paul D, and Denver were trapped within their own minds.  In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the return of Beloved led to a complete loss of identities for the characters as the fragmented sense of self begins to shatter.

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        Sethe was using the method of repression to help her move on with her new life as a free slave in Cincinnati, Ohio. The narrative, Morrison has a distinct way of writing where she constantly jumps from the past to present. This style of writing is symbolic for Sethe’s deteriorating mental health, where her past becomes her present and her present becomes her past. I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there.. (Morrison 43). This depicts that Sethe is having a very hard time leaving her past at Sweet Home and unable to shake off the infanticide she committed to protect her child from slavery. The guilt of killing her baby with her own two very hands and then years later escaping from slavery keeps haunting her. No matter how far she gets, that picture of killing her baby will be there following her every step of the way, even in 124. The ghost of the dead Beloved is symbolized for the repressed memories of guilt and slavery. In the past, Sethe was treated as a subhuman where she was examined, raped, and beaten by the school-teachers. When Sethe decided to tell the master about the assault, she was beaten to dead almost. In order to protect her child from the cruel world, she decided to end her life so she can be in a better place.

        After Sethe’s husbands departure, she never had the male figure in her life to emotionally and physically support her until Paul D suddenly returned to 124 and sparked up an intimate relationship with Sethe. After exposure to the chokecherry tree, the repressed memories went rushing free and reopening the wounds. Even though it was supposed to be a special moment, Sethe remembered all the times when the schoolteacher’s nephew stole her milk. ‘They used cowhide on you?’ ?They took my milk.’ ?They beat you and you was pregnant?’ ?And they took my milk!’ (Morrison 20). Paul D was more worried that she was raped when she was pregnant, but Sethe was devastated because they took something that was meant for her baby and cutting off the baby from sustenance which was the worst crime.

        Apart from Sethe being treated like a subhuman, the school teachers verbally and physically abused Paul D. He was told to have a tobacco tin heart. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut. He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him. (Morrison 86). The constant taunts of not being a real man sacred Paul D from having any confidence in his manhood and frequently wonders about his value as a person. 

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Destruction of Identity Under Slavery in Beloved. (2019, Jul 11). Retrieved February 8, 2023 , from

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