The Enslaved Mother in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison

Topics: Beloved

“When Beloved comes back to haunt Sethe for murdering her, Beloved becomes the incarnated memory of Sethe’s guilt. Moreover, she [Beloved] is nothing but guilt…”

(Ashraf Rushdy 578).

Freed by Law, Enslaved by the Past

A slave who gains her freedom from prison finds herself in a situation that holds her prisoner emotionally. Sethe may have been freed by law, but her past holds her captive. One way Sethe’s past incarcerates her comes from murdering her child. Because Sethe kills her child, she has immense guilt from it; and Sethe murders because of her motherly bond to Beloved.

Afterward, Beloved comes back to haunt Sethe; seen as Sethe’s guilt, Beloved takes Denver and Paul D away from her. Sethe in a way kills herself and her bonds with other people because of that murder. Furthermore, motherhood makes Sethe feel the most guilt because her situation with Beloved brings back memories of her mother, the fact she couldn’t protect her child, and the breastfeeding that plays a major role in her past.

Lastly, Sethe could never forget Sweet Home.

The boys who took her milk t leave a burning image in her mind of her motherhood being stolen, Halle for not showing up to escape and later learning that Halle saw it happen, and the fact that Sethe received a whipping while pregnant for telling Ms. Garner what happened in the barn. Freed by law, the past still holds Sethe captive because of the murder of their they beingown child, the motherhood that became broken and stolen, and the traumatic memories from Sweet Home.

Get quality help now

Proficient in: Beloved

4.9 (247)

“ Rhizman is absolutely amazing at what he does . I highly recommend him if you need an assignment done ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Sethe’s guilt starts when she murdered her child, Beloved, in the barn. Sethe “…expressed her love murderously” toward Beloved (Rushdy, 580). Sethe killed Beloved out of love, to protect Beloved from a life of slavery that “many slave mothers who either wanted to or did kill their young [did it] to deliver them from slavery” (Rodrigues, 301). Because of Sethe’s motherly bond to Beloved, she killed her to save her. However, Sethe gains a great amount of guilt for killing her child. This guilt later forms as Beloved because “Beloved embodies the suffering and guilt of the past” (Krumholz, 401). Because Sethe murdered her child, the motherly bond breaks between Sethe and Beloved. This cripples Sethe in her later years by having Beloved as a constant reminder of what she did, and in turn, almost kills Sethe by having to take care of Beloved.

The arrival of Beloved triggers the guilt that begins to enslave Sethe emotionally. Firstly, Beloved drove Denver and Paul D away. Paul D left because while “Paul D…found it necessary to lock away [his) memories and emotions as a means of surviving the extreme pains of [his] past,” those memories came back with Beloved (Krumholz, 400). After Paul left, “Denver tries to stay inside the intense circle of possession Sethe and Beloved have created” but ultimately “must leave the house to save her mother from madness” (Krumholz, 404). This isolates Sethe with Beloved as her only companion, to which extent Sethe could never satisfy Beloved. While Sethe tries to care for Beloved, “Beloved demands more and more from Sethe while accusing her of desertion, [and] Slowly she begins to grow bigger, while Sethe diminishes…” (Rody, 111). From that, Beloved, or Sethe’s ‘guilt, tries to kill Sethe like Sethe did her and keeps Sethe enslaved by a constant reminder of how Sethe “deserted” Beloved. This, in turn, reminds Sethe of her mother.

At one point, Nan tells Sethe a story about her mother and how she killed all her “children fathered by whites” (Rushdy, 590). Sethe tries to forget and “lock away [her] memories…as a means of surviving the extreme pain of [her] past,” but “[t]he story is remembered when beloved returns and asks about Sethe’s mother” (Krumholz 404, Rushdy 590).

That story then reminds Sethe that like her own mother, she had killed her child to rebel against her masters. Sethe’s memory of her mother, however, brings about a lot of emotional pain because [w]hen her mother was hanged, Sethe did not know why. Probably Ma’am was caught trying to escape from the plantation, but the daughter born in bondage refuses to believe her mother could have run. It would mean that she left Sethe behind, emphasizing in this generation the continuous pattern of severed mother-daughter relationships (Horvitz, 267).

The thought of Sethe’s mother abandoning her proves too painful for Sethe and so, Sethe never understands the role of a mother which shows why she killed her child. Since Sethe reveals ignorance in being a mother, she accepts everything that Beloved tells her and gathers immense guilt from it. From that guilt, Sethe becomes enslaved to her emotions.

As Sethe had murdered her child, she acquired a burden that would haunt her later. Even though she had killed Beloved out of love, and as a duty; Beloved would still come back, isolate her and drive Sethe to near death. Beloved comes as Sethe’s guilt and Sethe’s guilt can never be satisfied until Sethe dies. Sethe’s guilt manifests itself not only from killing her child but also that Sethe’s mother killed all her children too, except Sethe. Lastly, Sethe refuses to believe that her mother would abandon her and tries to find a reason to replace the guilt that enslaves her.

Another supporting basis of Sethe’s guilt reveals itself to be motherhood. Slaves have never actually had a mother because of “…the tragic experience of African-American children and women (of which) under slavery, [they were] systematically denied mothers and denied the mother-right by the pitiless traffic in human labor and…enforced wet-nursing” (Rody, 106).

Because slaves never received a mother, Sethe feels guilty for not understanding motherhood. Sethe does finally understand motherhood when Denver’s white employer comes for her, Sethe believes him to be a slaver and she could have “act[ed) on her motherlove as she would have chosen to originally, [but] Instead of turning on her children to save them from slavery, she turns on the white man who threatens them” (Krumholz, 403). Even though Sethe understands ataboutin the end what it takes to be a mother, she would still live with the guilt of murdering her child.

In another instance, slaves never understood motherhood because like Sethe’s own mother, she “kills all the children fathered by whites who raped her” (Rushdy, 577). Slaves had men consistently forced upon them to make children and did not perceive those children to be their own. Therefore, motherhood for those children did not exist and neither did the bond between a mother and a child. Because Sethe did not understand motherhood, she killed her child and has lived with the guilt ever since.

One of many acts committed by slaves against slavers shows itself to be infanticide. In slavery, “the infanticide and Sethe’s attempt to kill her other children are simply ‘testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom….” (Sale, 47). In other words, slaves committed infanticide to rebel against their slavers and to show that even though they must be slaves, they still have a mental and a certain physical freedom. Slaves also kill their children “so that no white man will ever ‘dirty’ (them), so that no young man with ‘mossy teeth’ will ever hold the child down and suck her breasts” (Barnett, 418). When Barnett states “so that no white man will ever ‘dirty [them],” she states that they kill their children so they will not be raped and violated like their parents. A slave’s motherhood becomes stolen when that slave endures rape and violation of her body, and from that, a slave can only feel guilt.

The milk and the breast also play an important aspect in slavery and how it enslaves people even after they no longer assume the role of slaves. A slave’s breasts, when violated, come as “… sites of violation and instruments through which to deprive her children of sustenance; they also epitomize how “private’ body parts become commodified, public, and un–own’-ed by the self” (Lee, 578). When a slave encounters rape, their own body no longer belongs to them anymore.

This also shows that rape came as a tool used by slavers to destroy motherhood and mother-child bonds in slaves. Sethe’s bond becomes broken “…through a violent sexuality that reproduces while it denies her maternal connection…”, which means that because of the forced violent sexual experience, Sethe’s maternal connection to her child becomes obsolete (Moglen, 27). Acts like these also happened in male groups “…that disavows (the slaves through degradation [and] occur[red] when chained male slaves—Paul D among them—are forced as a group to perform fellatio on their guards” (Moglen, 27). While ironically this “… [was] a ritual of white male bonding,” it also served as a purpose “…intended to humiliate its victims by feminizing them, parodying while rehearsing the primal act of nurturance” (Moglen, 27). The breast and milk symbolize being nurtured and that slaves had it taken away from them daily, this gave the slaves memories that hold them captive in their later years.

To take a note, Motherhood in slavery shows a way of life that slaves get stripped of. In a way, the slave masters providemotherhoodd for slaves and because of that, the slaves live with those haunting memories for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, the slave mothers choose to kill their children so that their bond becomes the only bond that that child would have. They would have a child dead and show resistance rather than allowing their masters to become the mothers of their children. In response, the slavers adopt a way of life that strips a slave of their motherhood and any possible bonds that that slave would otherwise have. This keeps the slaves isolated and prevents them from forming any bonds with their children. Because of these events that the slavers cause, the slaves will forever live in a state that holds them, prisoners, in an emotional state.

Finally, slaves would continue to be slaves emotionally because of their plantation memories. Sethe’s memories come from Sweet Home and this also applies to Paul D along with Halle. While on Sweet Home, Halle … suffers trauma and exhibits hysterical symptoms. Hiding on the roof of the barn where the schoolteacher’s nephews steal Sethe’s breast milk, Halle is forced to witness what happens but is unable to stop it. This harrowing incident produces a hysterical response.

Afterward, unable to think of anything but Seth’s milk, he sits by the milk shed and smears butter over his face (Parker 14).

Halle now suffers from PTSD and “…is reduced to utter madness…” when he “…smears butter over his face” (Barnett 424, Parker 14). Memories of Sweet Home will now always stick with Halle in the future and haunt him like Beloved haunts Sethe; this enslaves him to his emotions and to his guilt of the fact that he “…is unable to stop it” (Parker 14). Because Halle cannot stop what happened in the barn, he lives with the guilt of it from that day forward; and the guilt has gotten so strong for Halle that he never spoke with Sethe again, nor did Sethe ever see him again.

Halle’s guilt had created an emotional prison from which he cannot communicate and he does not want to communicate.

Another slave who has been affected deeply by slavers reveals himself to be Paul D. Jail held Paul D “…in Alfred, Georgia, where prisoners are forced to fellate white guards every morning” (Barnett, 419). Paul D has these experiences as a constant reminder that even dirt shows more worth than himself. Paul D also had to endure “…the horror of being forced to suck an iron bit” after “an aborted escape attempt…” (Barnett, 423). Because this proves too traumatic for Paul D, “[t]hese experiences are two of the horrible contents sealed in the tobacco tin Paul D substitutes for his heart. He does not want anyone to get a ‘whiff of the tin’s contents’ because such a disclosure would shame him’”; because of that, Paul D’s memories will now be furthonerthey beingfurther kept in an emotional prison in which he tries to put it in the tobacco tin to ease the burden, but cannot (Barnett, 423).

Lastly, Sethe receives one of the more brutal punishments from Sweet home and from her time as a slave. One of Sethe’s memories comes from that “Sethe has ‘a chokecherry tree’ on her back, the scar of a brutal whipping. Schoolteacher’s nephews whip Sethe for reporting their first act of violence against her—the one which looms much larger in her memory: forcibly ‘nursing’ her breast milk” (Rody, 107). Therefore, Sethe has the memory implanted deep within her brain that the school teacher’s nephews can take her motherhood, her milk, and not only get away with it but also beat her for it ‘brutally’. Every time Sethe will take off her shirt, she will remember that her milk had been stolen and that her “…stolen milk signals such inexpressible emotions…” that she will have to live by and be emotionally enslaved (Lee, 581).

In another sense, during a person’s time in slavery, many things, such as stolen motherhood, being forced to perform fellatio on your masters, and watching your wife being raped and being able to do nothing about it comes at a price of having a mental prison in the future. Sethe had to endure the schoolteacher and his nephews because she at the time had the status of being a slave.

Watching his wife being raped and not having the ability to do anything at all comes at the price of being a slave for Halle. The guards that received oral sex from Paul D stem from the fact that slaves had been forced into situations over which they had no control. These situations created a mindset from which these slaves could not escape, a mindset that held them captive to their experiences long after they became free.

While slaves might have been freed by the law, they continue to be enslaved by their past and their guilt. Because of all the instances of abuse that occurred during slavery on their master’s property, slaves live forever on with those memories. Some try and hide them away in tin tobacco cans, while some have a constant reminder from the “chokecherry tree” on their back (Rody, 107). Furthermore, since slaves have their motherhood taken away from them, be it ttheybeing a child or a mother, they have painful recollections whenever something triggers it. Some triggers come as a person in the form of guilt, another comes as a tobacco tin can and some triggers show themselves as the physical changes to one’s body. Because slaves had been denied motherhood in various ways, infanticide came as a normal procedure among them. However, infanticide did n  come an easy toll on the mental state of a slave; and because slaves committed infanticide, they became mentally imprisoned when they gained their freedom. The physical situation of where a person endures the rank of a slave becomes eradicated in the U.S, however, people received a mental mindset from slavery that, even though they had their freedom, kept them convicted of their past.

Works Cited

  1. PMLA, vol. 112, no. 3, 1997, pp. 418-427. JSTOR,
  2. Horvitz, Deborah. “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Christopher Giroux, and Brigham Narins Ed., vol. 87, Gale, 1995, pp. 261-311. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online,
  3. Krumholz, Linda. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 26, no. 3, 1992, pp. 395–408. JSTOR,
  4. Lee, Rachel. “Missing Peace in Toni Morrison’s Sula and Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 28, no. 4, 1994, pp. 571-583. JSTOR,
  5. Moglen, Helene. “Redeeming History: Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.” Cultural Critique, no. 24, 1993, pp. 17–40. JSTOR,
  6. Parker, Emma. “A NewHistoryy: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 47, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1–19. JSTOR,
  7. Rodrigues, Eusebio. “The Telling of Beloved.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Christopher Giroux and Brigham Narins Ed, vol. 87, Gale, 1995, pp. 261-311. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, XAKLDB575898790&it=r&asid=d7cc3b0b4ccb2f88e1359c5d73491ac7.
  8. Rody, Caroline. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History, ‘Rememory,” and a ‘Clamor for a Kiss.” American Literary History, vol. 7, no. 1, 1995, pp. 92–119. JSTOR,
  9. Rushdy, Ashraf. “Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” American Literature, vol. 64, no. 3, 1992, pp. 567-597. JSTOR,
  10. Sale, Maggie. “Call and Response as Critical Method: African-American Oral Traditions and Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 1992, pp. 41–50. JSTOR,

Cite this page

The Enslaved Mother in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison. (2022, Jun 14). Retrieved from

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7