In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison writes in both the past and the present. When in the present, the characters constantly encounter the events of their past. Memories of their past are always painful, disturbing, and involve the horrors of slavery. Although the characters hope to live peacefully in the present, their past haunts them and, ultimately, it is what defines and constructs their identities. In the novel, the characters, Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs were all slaves that experienced the dehumanizing acts of slavery. In many instances, we see them trying to avoid anything involving their past because of its unsettling nature.
However, all attempt to confront it. For instance, Baby Suggs faces her past by hosting religious gatherings with the black community in order to find the love of voices and bodies. Sethe copes with the past by fighting her obsession with her past life and the sudden appearance of the ghost of her dead daughter. Paul D comes to terms with his manhood and searches for a brighter future. Even though memories of the past are overpowering and destructive to the character’s identity, by confronting the past, each character is able to move forward from the painful memories and heal.
Throughout, the main character Sethe nearly loses her identity due to her fixation on her past life in slavery. Due to the traumatizing impact of slavery, the only hope that Sethe has left is to protect her children from any encounters of slavery. To do so, Sethe brings her children to live with their grandmother, Baby Suggs. Along the way, a sadistic slave-owner, Schoolteacher discovers Sethe’s escape and gets “two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on [her] breast the other holding [her] down” (81) to steal the only milk that she can provide and nourish her children with.
Sethe is also stripped of her identity as a maternal figure. Another scarring memory is when Schoolteacher’s nephew gave Sethe a beating. “Schoolteacher made one open up my back,” “they used cowhide” (20). All of these painful memories of Schoolteacher’s nephews actions overtake and destroy Sethe’s sense of herself. It is especially destructive to Sethe because at one moment she is receiving an awful beating, but another moment she getting a part of her body stolen from her, the only part that she is left to provide for children’s nourishment.
Sethe has been scarred both physically and emotionally by the brutal acts and unsure if she can ever recover. However, by confronting the past with the help of Paul D, a slave Sethe worked with, Sethe is able to move forward and heal from her painful past. “His body an arc of kindness, he held her breasts in the palms of his hands. He rubbed his cheeks on her back… ” (20). Paul D’s touch of “kindness” cures the wounds on Sethe’s back and allows all of her awful memories to flow away, and to be forgotten.
He holds her to reassure her that he will always be there to protect her, to heal her, and to give her the warmth and love she deserves. Moreover, Sethe’s memory of her physical torment by the slaveowners nearly demolish her identity, but she is able to find help to recover from her miserable past. Sethe also nearly loses her identity through her obsession with her resurrected daughter. When her resurrected daughter, Beloved arrives, Sethe’s house becomes haunted and her relationship with Paul D. and her other daughter, Denver changes.
Due to Beloved’s attachment and desire to learn about Sethe, Sethe is forced to encounter her past and share her memories of the past. Sethe’s memories resurface as she tells the story of her mother who she saw “a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo” (72). This memory is upsetting to Sethe due to the lack of love her mother provided her. However, Sethe continues to remain in her destructive and overpowering past because she is easy to give into Beloved’s demands and allows Beloved to consume her.
As Beloved persists with her manipulations, Sethe yearns to move away from her painful memories and to find the space to heal. Sethe begins to recover through Paul D’s healing love. Paul D states, “Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322). From Paul D’s message, Sethe discovers that she has a bright and hopeful future and that she can find and love herself through a future she creates with her family. Despite the all-consuming nature of her memories, Sethe confronts her past to heal emotionally.
Similarly, Paul D’s identity is nearly destroyed and overpowered by his memories of his slave experience with Schoolteacher. Paul D remembers, “one crazy, one sold, one missing, one burnt and me licking iron with my hands crossed behind me…. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (86). Not only was Paul D. himself harmed and emotionally changed by Schoolteacher’s evil and dehumanizing acts, but several other slaves were stripped of their identities as well.
This further demonstrates that his memory of his past is destructive of his identity because he continues to question his value as a person and doubts his manhood. Despite the impact of his memory, Paul D. confronts his past and strives to move forward by keeping “the rest [of his memories] where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” (86). He locks away all his feelings, emotions, and memories in order to protect himself from anymore psychological damage. In addition, Paul D. represses his memories and heals through his sacrifices about his identity as a man.
His is able to move beyond his past because he truly wants to find a hopeful and brighter future. Overall, Paul D’s memory of his slave experience that almost stripped him of his masculinity is confronted by his desire to lock away his painful past and move on. For the character Baby Suggs, her memories of the past are overpowering and destructive to find her own identity and her identity as a mother. As a result of slavery, four of Baby Sugg’s children had been taken away from her and the rest had been chased away. She was never afforded the time to take care and love all of her children.
Baby Sugg’s sadly remembers, “My firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember” (6). In addition to not knowing and connecting enough with her children, Baby Sugg’s is also concerned about the fact that “men and women were moved around like checkers” (27). All the people Baby Sugg’s knew and loved had been hanged, stolen, and rented out. It is heartbreaking for her to live with the destructive nature of slavery in her memories, but she learns to move ahead by confronting the events of her past.
When her son Halle buys her freedom, she holds gatherings at a place called the Clearing, where she serves a vessel of emotional and spiritual cleansing to the black community. “Baby Suggs, holy, loved… chastised and soothed”… taught “that the only grace they could find was the grace they could imagine” (102-103). Her loving and inspiring nature allows her and the black community to heal as they all love, accept, and find grace in their flesh, bodies, and differences. The whole community connects with each other and are able to forget haunting memories and the struggles of slavery.
More so, Baby Sugg’s is the healing force for both herself and her community from destructive memories. In essence, by incorporating the past and the present events within the novel, Toni Morrison allows us to learn about the impact of memory on various characters and their ways to cope with their past. In Beloved, each character’s memories continue to live on in the present, almost to the point that they are unavoidable. However, Sethe, Paul D. , and Baby Suggs confront their past in order to recover from the damage caused from their painful, destructive, and overpowering memories.