Lone and Sharma/Horrors of Slavery in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved

Sayar Ahmad Lone

Dr Praveen Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Lovely Professional University



Slavery is an ancient and universal institution, not a distinctively new innovation. Slavery is an accepted aspect of human history from the very beginning of organised societies. Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved raises the question whether the most horrible crime can be forgiven and understood in the light of horrors of slavery and whether it is possible for the individuals to heal and recover from the trauma.

Keywords:  Enslaved, heal, motherhood, legacy, horror, servile                                       marriage, exploitation

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the main character Sethe is enslaved by the horrors of past wrongs that are embodied through Beloved.  The present paper on Beloved by Toni Morrison shows how Morrison embodies Sethe’s tormented soul. Toni Morrison’s Beloved exhibits a variety of myths concerning slavery, motherhood and social acceptance. On the concept of slavery, Morrison submits the super natural revelation of the child analogues to the destructive legacy of slavery, not only to those that have contributed to its proliferation but also to those who have been put into slavery.

The horrors of slavery in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved explores the life of the people who have been put into slavery and the horrors, they face through different means. Commenting on the suffering of slaves Henry Louis Gates says “no group of slaves anywhere, at any other period in history, has left such a large repository of testimony about the horror of becoming the legal property of another human being,” there is also a pervasive silence around as Morrison’s dedication to Beloved puts it the “Sixty Million and more “who died as slaves, many in the Middle Passage. (Teresa Heffernan, 2)

The history of slavery traces the history of slave trade from ancient times to the present. Slavery was legally considered the property or chattel of another. The term ‘horror’ is an intense anxiety or a nervous depression; this sense can be spoken or written as horrors. Thus slavery can be said as institution or a social practice of owning human beings as property, especially for use as forced labourers. Modern Slavery takes many forms, and is known by many names. Today’s slaves are trapped in fishing fleets and sweatshops, mines and brothels, and in the fields and plantations of countries across the world. It can be called human trafficking, forced labour, slavery, or it can refer to the slavery-like practices that include debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sail or exploitation of children.

No matter what it is called, victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used, controlled, exploited by another person or commercial or personal gain.

Slavery causes terrible sufferings to its victims, but it is more than just an individual crime. Ending slavery not only extinguishes an injustice, but also enables people to freely contribute to their community, creating a great prosperity. A wide range of perspectives have been adopted to study it. While working on this paper, I came across the following opinions expressed by the noted scholars:

According to Zita Rarastesa, “Toni Morrison’s beloved attempts to explain the healing process of black people in the United States from the pain of slavery. Using black feminist approach, the author discusses how the female characters deal with the past and live with it in the present, what love and motherhood mean to the female characters, and how much the past influences their lives” .This approach is considered the most effective one to analyze Beloved related to three kinds of  oppression: sexism, racism, and classism. Beloved delivers a universal message to all black people that even though they must live with the past of slavery, they should learn from it to face the future .Although the pain of slavery still remain in black people’s memories, they have to move on. Beloved also makes the readers see that not all black people are victims and not all white people are oppressors.  (Zita Rarastesa, 56)

Samual wood’s (a prolific Quaker-reformist) broadsided’ Injured Humanity; being a representation of what the unhappy children of Africa endure from those who call themselves Christian,(1805). This broadside,? Entitled ‘Injured Humanity ‘, continuous to inform twenty-first century audience of the true horrors of slavery.

Morrison takes the whole issue of slavery and turn it on it head. By writing Beloved about the period after slavery when everything ought to have been as normal, we were forced to think about other issues. Issues like what stories we chose to remember and re-tell; what stories we choose to pass on and turn it into our histories, as Morrison says, “it was not a story to pass on ”(Morrison 323).

In this research paper on Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the main character Sethe is enslaved by the horrors of past wrongs that are embodied through Beloved’s orgin. Morrison uses the manifestation of its proliferation of its phantasmal Beloved as a persistent symbol of this legacy, however, the ghost does not haunt the slave master, who has committed  her kin to lives of bondage; but rather her mother Sethe, who ventured to protect her from it. Morrison offers no other explanation for Sethe’s haunting except to establish that the horrors of slavery were so severe that they would influence a mother to kill her child in the attempt to protect her from its atrocities. So here is what you absolutely need to know about Beloved. Jean Wyatt, in Lacian reading of Beloved argues that “the hope at the end of the novel is that Sethe, having recognized herself as subject, will be able to narrate the mother-daughter story and invent a language that can encompass the desperation of the slave mother who killed her daughter.” (Teresa Heffernan1) Further, Pamela Barnett argues that the characters in the novel are forced by Beloved to confront traumatic memories. This confrontation in turn begins the process of healing, which she describes as “conscious meaning making about what is inherently incomprehensible”. (Teresa Heffernan, 1)


Further, Freud’s essay “Uncanny” can help to understand the nature of haunting in Beloved .Freud studies the supernatural forces particularly, ghosts and their existence .It can be referred to explain baby ghost’s behaviour. It suggests that one can’t live being absent to loss, one has to mourn .Morrison’s Beloved is a testimony to this inexpressible loss. It’s a loss that is expressed in Beloved, when Sethe can’t tell her story. Further, it is a reminder that past can never be past, that it can’t be escaped, because it’s always living next to the present.  Moreover, Sethe’s extremely cruel and shocking act of love for her child is an act of “self-mutilation”. It’s not a story to pass on .Through diagrammatic representation I will show the cycle of mourning, and tie-up haunting and mourning. It needs to be mentioned were that the normal process of mourning cannot take place given that there is no new object at which the slave can be expected to redirect his or her libidinal impulses.


Toni Morrison’s Beloved  is a slave narrative of the feat not uncommon to the times: a mother killing her own child to keep her away from the horrors of slavery. So the book is about a slave woman, Sethe, who before the book even begins kills her baby girl in order to keep her away from slave catchers. The baby girl, called Beloved, ends up haunting the house  in which Sethe and her youngest girl Denver lives.

A mother slits her baby girls throat, because she has this deranged idea that she is saving her daughter from a fate worse than the death. Sounds like one of crazy mothers who ends up on the evening, right? Close. It is actually a true story: back in 1856, a runaway slave named Margarat Garner killed one of her kids- a- two year- old girl- with a butcher knife in order to keep her away from slave catchers. She would have killed her other children, too, but she was caught before she could complete the horrerful event. There you have a starting point for Beloved. So this is one of those based on a true story books. But since the author is none other than the esteemed noble prize winning Toni Morrison you better believe that the book is a way more than a story.

This is the story of a slave mother, who faced different challenges like tormention, physical  torture and horrible situation in her slave life. Sethe after facing horrors of slavery through different means remained continued through other means. Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentally and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, includes its characterization of the slave trade as a Holocaust- like genocide. Susan Bowers places Morrison in a “long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing” that looks back in time, “unveiling” the horrors of the past in order to “transform” them. Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” is of great importance for the paper. Fanon, a neurologist diagnosed the slave mind and revealed some shocking facts. He argued that the extreme torture meted out to slaves is worsened in the absence of an outlet. It accounts for their abnormal behaviour .They begin to look down upon themselves, losing self-dignity .These points are closely relevant to Beloved.

Morrison figured a clear scenario before the eyes of readers. While taking an attentive look over the novel, the reader itself feels the sighs of horrors. The horrors of slavery can also be taken from Solomon Northup’s ’12 years a slave’, published in 1853, shows that Northup was born a free man, but kidnapped and sold into slavery. This movie is so powerful, some critics walked out, while others left in tears, while watching this movie. AN extract from Paul’s review in which he says, Beloved is a ghost story .The real ghost of Toni Morrison’s novel is the history of slavery in America.. The book is a shocking, disturbing look at the horrific part of our history we try to forget. Beloved contains incest, rape, paedophilia, graphic sex, extreme violence, sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse, infanticide, and an extensive amount of profanity. (Paul’s Review) In this novel Beloved when there is a sigh of relief, the slave master used to come again to take them back. Sethe, the main character running into a tool shed and kills her child with a hand saw, and she was about to kill other children and herself too, but she was caught before she could complete her aim, because her wounds of centuries of slavery and racial oppression was still echoing in her mind, and her wounds were still oozing the puss of horrors of slavery, and that is why, she was trying to keep her children away from this ruthless life. The descriptions of the slave trade and treatment of slaves are brought to life by seven strikingly vivid vignettes depicting slaves being whipped, solid, tortured, and separate from their families. Probably, it goes without saying that this must be considered to be a religious allusion to God’s sacrifice of Jesus Christ to save mankind and give them everlasting life. Sethe, however, had been sentenced, and after her return to her home, the ghost of her daughter starts haunting her whole family. Sethe’s two sons left her also, because they were not expecting good from their mother or it may be perhaps by the horrors of ghosts haunting. In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved’s ghost haunting the house where her mother and sister live, is referred to as “spiteful” (Morrison 3), “sad,” and mistakenly “evil” (10). Although the life of Sethe now becomes completely disturbed with the tormention of her daughter’s ghost. “It is gonna hurt, now, ‘said Amy. ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts’ ” (33). The ghost is being exorcised, but she comes again in a corporeal form just outside the house. With her-“new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands” (61) and “her soft new feet” that are “barely capable of their job” (65), Beloved develops from birth all over again despite her adult appearance. Even after she has gone past days of lying in bed like a helpless baby, Beloved still has an infant’s conception of existence as every afternoon she doubted anew the older woman’s return (68). This doubt is a possible sign of horror of separation anxiety, which she has probably been suffering from since her murder.

Toddler with separation anxiety:

—-become upset when parents leave for a short time, such as going out to dinner. The child may carry, plead for them not to leave, and try to prevent their departure. Although distressing, this normal behaviour is a cue that the child is able to distinguish parents from other adults and is aware of the possibility they may not return. (Huberty)

At last, when Sethe, was feeding their family, the slave master used to come again, Sethe gets very much infuriating, because of her threat of enslavement, as in the novel, “having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy” (154). Sethe, at the same time fears and had this deranged idea again, that her daughters would be taken for enslavement. The horrors of slavery make her enthusiastic to defend her daughters. Sethe runs to kill the slave master, but the people of her society stops her by exorcism. The incarnated, who calls herself Beloved feels satisfied with the future life of Sethe and Denver, her sister and gets disappeared.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a slave narrative of a feat not uncommon to the times: a mother killing her own child to keep her away from the horrors of slavery. While concluding the paper, this becomes important to describe love, an important cure to heal the post-slavery racial conflicts. Sethe and Beloved are also to be regarded as symbolic representations and rescuers of the African-American from the wounds of slavery. To overcome this system of enslavement, it becomes obligatory to make people aware of the human rights, which are same for all, without cost, culture, colour, sex and language discrimination.



Fanon, Frantz .The wretched of the Earth. New York: Penguin Classic, 2001.Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia”.                                                                                http://www.slideshare.net/theokyriakidis/freud-mourning-and-melancholia /27 Nov.          2012.Web.

… “Uncanny”. http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html /26 Nov.2012

Heffernan, Teresa. “Beloved and the Problem of Mourning”.                                                           http://www.questia.com/library/1G1-54196882/beloved-and-the-problem-of-          mourning / 24 Nov.2012.Web.


Huberty, Thomas J. Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders in Children: Information for Parents.                  National Association of School Psychologists. 2007. 23 Nov. 2007

Morrison, Toni.  Beloved.  New York: Penguin Group, 1998.Print.

Parker, Emma. “A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s                                        Beloved”.http://www.jstor.org/stable/827854 /20 Nov.2012. Web.

Rarastesa ,  Zita . Love and Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. United States   of                 America: Xlibris Corporation, 2011.Print.

Wood, Samuel. Injured Humanity, New York: Gislder Lehrman Collection, 1805. Broadside.

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