Toni Morrison is one of the most legendary novelists of all time. Not only did her literary works spark essential conversations about the experiences of African-Americans during the sixties and seventies, but she also revolutionized the black narrative during the Civil Rights movement. Morrison’s novels transformed my perception of being an African-American woman. The Bluest Eye taught me how to appreciate my luscious, dark skin and Beloved taught me how to overcome the most treacherous experiences in life. In honor of her recent passing, I’d like to share an essay that I wrote in my senior year of high school. In writing this essay, I’ve learned the importance of vulnerability and how suppressing painful emotions can lead to detrimental effects on the soul.
Warning: The following essay contains spoilers for Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Also, this essay was written by a high school senior, so excuse some of the run-on sentences. Thank you!
Prompt: Determine whether healing of any sort is a tangible or feasible progression to normalcy after one has endured the atrocities of slavery? What are some examples of healing in Beloved? How are people healed physically? Spiritually?
When one is forced to endure the suffering and anguish that is acquainted with years of slavery, they sometimes tend to shield themselves from every painful moment that they ever had to experience. This shield serves as a protective barrier from the iniquities and perils of the outside world. This healing may come in the form of vulnerability, tangibility, spirituality, or finding their own identity. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, there are six different ways to heal from the atrocities of slavery. Such techniques that help to subside the pain are companionship, suppression, denial, disconnect, confiding, and confronting the problem. Two of these healing techniques are tangible. The others have to deal with the internal and spiritual connection between the characters and their past. Toni Morrison also presents mysticism as a way of clinging to a spirit in order to cope with the painful experiences of the past.
In Beloved, there are two characters that deal with their anguish in a physical and spiritual way. One of these characters is the protagonist, Sethe. Sethe is the head of the household on 124 Bluestone Road. It is said that once the head of the house is damaged, the whole house is in trouble. Sethe’s agony can be compared to a bucket with many holes. The more that Sethe holds onto her past, the more her grief overflows and hurts the people in her life. Sethe attempts to cope with her pain through mysticism. Mysticism is the belief that union with a Deity or the absolute, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. In the house on 124 Bluestone Road, there is a spirit that haunts Sethe and her daughter Denver.
According to the text, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims” (Beloved, chapter 1). This quotation proves that Sethe did not experience healing. She continues to suppress her emotional turmoil which makes the spirit of her dead child stronger. Since Sethe refuses to let go of her pain, her daughter Denver now suffers emotionally as well.
Due to her mother’s bitterness, Denver now struggles to find her own identity. In this, her healing happens physically. In the text, Denver explains that she has no one who loves her and no one who wants to spend time with her. Even as Paul D comes to visit Sethe, Denver becomes jealous because Paul D stole her mother’s attention. This stolen attention leaves Denver lonely and bitter. She expresses her longing for acceptance when she states, “I can’t live here. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I can’t live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don’t like me. Girls don’t either” (Beloved, chapter 1). This shows that Denver’s way of healing is through companionship. She is unable to fully cope with the suffering that she had to endure because of her mother’s unwillingness to let go of her past.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one may conclude that healing is not evident as a result of the characters’ unwillingness to revisit their past. The author uses flashbacks as a literary technique to show that the characters in Beloved relive their past in the present time (whether they like it or not). In Beloved, Sethe and her family had to endure a vigorous and harsh time during slavery. Slavery is like cancer; it destroys every fiber of a person’s being. Slavery causes mortal and spiritual wounds to develop, and scars that carry on for many generations to come. This is made evident in Sethe’s life on 124 Bluestone road. Sethe can’t experience true healing until she lets go of her past. Beloved still haunts the house because Beloved is the weight on Sethe’s shoulders that she can’t let go of. The more we hold on to those overpowering spirits, the more they gain power and tend to stay in our lives. Since Sethe cannot let go of her past, Denver is forced to live with that insatiable and buried desire to have an identity of her own.