Beloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Legacy of Brutality
That the cruelty and violence of American slavery is among the darkest chapters in human history is obvious. That over 60 million black Africans and their descendants suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of their white masters is well-known. The weapons of violent, cruel oppression employed by slave owners is a vast arsenal. Whippings, floggings, starvation, branding, hanging: all these and more were used to cow the meek and subjugate the defiant. Of all the tools used to terrorize slaves, however, none is more vicious, more insidious, than sexual assault. Rape leaves physical scars, to be sure, but it is even more devastating than a whipping in that the trauma is deeply psychological as well as physical. This mental damage can take a lifetime to heal, if it ever does. Toni Morrison’s novel of freed slaves in Ohio captures this horrid fact. In Beloved, the theme of sexual abuse binds the protagonists in a legacy of brutality.
We see this legacy manifest in the title character herself. Sethe speculates Beloved is unable to remember her past because she’s likely blocked out painful memories of rape. (140) Sethe has good reason to suspect Beloved has been victimized; Ella was confined and raped for over a year by a white slaver and his son. (140) Stamp Paid – himself the survivor of his wife’s rape by a slave owner – seems to acknowledge this same scenario befalling Beloved on page 277: “Was a girl locked up in the house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that’s [Beloved].” Beloved perpetuates the cycle of abuse in her supernatural rape of Paul D. He clearly does not want to have sex with Beloved, but Paul is powerless to resist her command: “You have to touch me. On the inside part. And you have to call me my name.” (137)
Paul D’s forced intercourse with Beloved is not the first time he’s been sexually victimized; at a glance it would seem Paul is saved from forced fellatio, but close reading of page 127 shows Paul D is assaulted by the slavers:
“Kneeling in the mist, [the chain gang] waited for the whim of a guard, or two, or three. Or maybe all of them wanted it. Wanted it from one prisoner in particular or none – or all… Convinced he was next, Paul D retched – vomiting up nothing at all. An observing guard smashed his shoulder with the rifle and the engaged one decided to skip the new man for the time being lest his pants and shoes got soiled…”
This passage indicates all men in the chain gang are eventually forced to service one or more guards, and that the reprieve granted by dry heaves and the Hi Man’s call is only “for the time being” for Paul. The effects of his oral rape in Georgia have a lasting effect on Paul D’s sexuality. In Wilmington, after his escape from the chain gang, Paul and his tobacco tin heart lay down with a woman in exchange for a meal and nice sheets. “He fell in [to the bed] with a groan and the woman helped him pretend he was making love to her and not her bed linen.” (154) In essence, Paul whores himself for pork sausage and a luxurious bed to sleep in.
Paul D would later take to bed Sethe, a woman no stranger to the horrors of sexual abuse. Sethe was made aware of her mother’s multiple rapes at an early age. The wet nurse, Nan, tells Sethe her mother was “taken up many times by the crew” aboard the ship they were carried on. (74) She then further describes to Sethe how her mother discarded the unwanted progeny of these rapes. The impact of these revelations on Sethe’s psyche is clear: “As small girl Sethe, she was unimpressed. As grown-up woman Sethe she was angry, but not certain at what.” (74) While uncertain about the anger surrounding her mother’s rape, Sethe’s rage at her own assault by schoolteacher’s boys is white-hot and razor-sharp. In Sethe’s telling of the forced suckling to Paul D, we see one of the few uses of the exclamation mark in Beloved (19-20). The ultimate end to the rage, the shame, the horror of her assault is Sethe’s own assault on her children and the reason for it:
“…Anybody white could… dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived though and got over it, she could never let… a gang of whites [invade] her daughter’s private parts, [soil] her daughter’s thighs…” (295 – 296)
This is the true motivation of Sethe’s murdering Beloved: not to keep her from slavery, but to keep her from rape. Sethe knew the toll sexual assault could take, and refused to let her daughter succumb to that horror.
We see in Beloved a people decimated by the horror of sexual violence. This theme ties together the main characters of the story, as well as providing a common thread to connect supporting characters in the tale. Whether it’s Paul D’s rape by Beloved or the white guards in the chain gang, Beloved’s serial rape and captivity, or Sethe’s lifelong exposure to sexual violence, everyone in Toni Morrison’s novel is touched by the legacy of brutality left behind by sexual assault.