Themes are overarching ideas and beliefs that the writers express in their texts including poetry, fiction, and plays. Though Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved contains unique themes, they remain discomforting due to its graphic violence. Some of the major themes of Beloved have been analyzed below.
Themes in Beloved
Dehumanization through Slavery
Dehumanization of the African American community in the United States before and shortly after the Civil War is one of the major themes of the novel, Beloved. Almost all the major characters have gone through dehumanization from the white community. However, the instinct to live in honor runs deep in them. Paul D flees to live an independent life and begins to feel human. Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, too, runs away and even kills her own daughter to save her from slavery. Sethe and Halle have gone through severe beatings at different plantations. For example, the Schoolteacher’s nephews give a heavy thrashing to Sethe for complaining against them. The use of different animals to describe this beating show the dehumanization process. Baby Suggs’ argument that the slaves are child producing human beings to please their masters has an unconscious sense of dehumanization as well.
Naming process or process of naming individuals for certain characteristic is another major theme of the novel, Beloved. The whites used this process to dominate and exploit the African-American community and make them work under their domination. The purpose was to identify their slaves with their personalities. That is why one of the children born to Baby Suggs is named Paul. As Paul D was an intelligent one and was aware of his true identity in his slavery. He feels that they are exchanged and sold like properties. In the same way, Baby Suggs, the mother of almost eight children, is called Whitlow because her bill-of-sale name was Jenny Whitlow.
Motherly figure in the African American culture is an important theme of this novel. Sethe does not get an opportunity to be loved by her mother. Baby Suggs, too, does not give motherly love to her children despite being a mother of eight. When Sethe gets a chance to win freedom, she becomes a true mother to her children even to the ghost of Beloved. She showers motherly love which they were denied in the past. It is because African-American mothers were not allowed to breastfeed their kids during slavery. However, after winning freedom, Sethe tries to be a good mother to show every mother carry same love towards their children.
Slavery is another overarching theme of the novel, Beloved. Most of the characters had to bear the burden of being from the African American community, a traditional community of slaves with no human rights. The novel presents the cruelty and barbarism meted out to the slaves. They were treated even worse than animals. Schoolteacher, the owner at Sweet Home, abuses them and doesn’t see the community as human beings but as currency and animals. Paul D is treated like an animal when he was chained with an iron bit. Schoolteacher physically abuses Sethe after she complains of his nephews of stealing her breastmilk.
Destruction of Identity
The novel explores how slavery was institutionalized, which broke down the personalities and identities of the individuals. The naming of individuals as Paul D, Baby Suggs and even Denver point to the fact that individuals lost their identities due to the slavery and they were also treated like animals. Because of Schoolteacher’s cruelty, Sethe suffers and loses her identity. Also, Baby Suggs and Paul D suffer at his hands. Halle and Aunt Phyllis lose the sense of their being due to the suffering. Stamp Paid thinks slavery of having changed them entirely.
Men and Masculinity
The relationship of a male with female, the masculinity between black male and white male is shown differently. For example, the relationship between Sethe and Paul D. It seems that Sethe is accepting Paul D to fill Halle’s absence. Similarly, most of the black men such as Halle, Stamp Paid and even Paul assert their masculinity through strength showing themselves as animalistic. This has been demonstrated through white males like Schoolteacher who punish them.
Memory of the Past
The memory of the past runs parallel to various other themes analyzed above. Although Sethe has safely settled at 124 in Cincinnati after winning freedom, the memory of the past constantly haunts her. The ghost of her dead daughter, Beloved appears and stays with them causing constant anxiety. Denver, too, is fond of the memories of the past in the shapes of tales told by her mother, Sethe. She constantly nudges her to re-tell stories of Amy. That is why Sethe tells her that “Some things just stay.” The memory of the past comes alive in the shape of stories told by Sethe. However, the arrival of Paul D revives another story of Sethe. When the ghost of Beloved disappears, the community settles down, and Morrison says that she could not ignore this story.
Home is another interesting theme because slavery snatched away the concept of home from the African Americans until they were freed. Though they married and produced children, they did not have a concept of home. When Sethe reaches 124, she settles down and tries to reconcile with Paul D to make a home. However, Paul D has become habitual of living even in difficult situations. Therefore he wanders away and only returns when he finds the situation convenient.
It is truly immoral to mistreat and abuse the black people because they are slaves. It is also true that it is not morally right to kill a child. Sethe kills her daughter, Beloved, on the fear that she would be enslaved. However, the novel does not resolve this moral ambiguity anywhere in its storyline to explain if Sethe’s act was punishable or justifiable.
Concept of Freedom
The concept of freedom and enjoyment of its fruits is also another theme of the novel. Sethe wins freedom by the end of the novel. Halle tries to win freedom for his mother. Paul D, too, comes to Sethe at 124 after becoming free. All of them are enjoying freedom from slavery which makes up another minor theme of the novel.