Beloved

"It is the ultimate gesture of a loving mother. It is the outrageous claim of a slave"(Morrison 1987). These are the words that Toni Morrison used to describe the actions of the central character within the novel, Beloved. That character, Sethe, is presented as a former slave woman who chooses to kill her baby girl rather than allowing her to be exposed to the physically, emotionally, and spiritually oppressive horrors of a life spent in slavery. Sethe's action is indisputable: She has killed her child. Sethe's motivation is not so clearly defined. By killing her "Beloved" child, has Sethe acted out of true love or selfish pride? The fact that Sethe's act is irrational can easily be decided upon. Does Sethe kill her baby girl because she wants to save the baby from slavery or does Sethe end her daughter's life because of a selfish refusal to reenter a life of slavery? By examining the complexities of Sethe's character it can be said that she is a woman who chooses to love her children but not herself. Sethe kills her baby because, in Sethe's mind, her children are the only good and pure part of who she is and must be protected from the cruelty and the "dirtiness" of slavery(Morrison 251). In this respect, her act is that of love for her children. The selfishness of Sethe's act lies in her refusal to accept personal responsibility for her baby's death. Sethe's motivation is dichotomous in that she displays her love by mercifully sparing her daughter from a horrific life, yet Sethe refuses to acknowledge that her show of mercy is also murder. Throughout Beloved, Sethe's character consistently displays the duplistic nature of her actions. Not long after Sethe's reunion with Paul D. she describes her reaction to School Teacher's arrival: "Oh, no. I wasn't going back there[Sweet Home]. I went to jail instead"(Morrison 42). Sethe's words suggest that she has made a moral stand by her refusal to allow herself and her children to be dragged back into the evil of slavery. From the beginning, it is clear that Sethe believes that her actions were morally justified. The peculiarity of her statement lies in her omission of the horrifying fact that her moral stand was based upon the murder of her child. By not even approaching the subject of her daughter's death, it is also made clear that Sethe has detached herself from the act. Even when Paul D. learns of what Sethe has done and confronts her with it, Sethe still skirts the reality of her past. Sethe describes her reasoning to Paul D., "... So when I got here, even before they let me get out of bed, I stitched her a little something from a piece of cloth Baby Suggs had. Well, all I'm saying is that's a selfish pleasure I never had before. I couldn't let all that go back to where it was, and I couldn't let her or any of em live under School Teacher. That was out"(163). Sethe's love for her children is apparent, yet she still shifts the burden of responsibility away from herself. She acknowledges that it was a "selfish pleasure" to make something for her daughter, yet Sethe refuses to admit any selfishness in her act of murder. She is indignant and frustrated with Paul D. confronting her: Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn't get it right off-- she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher's hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them thought the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them"(163). Sethe's frustration is a product of her contradictory reasoning. She views her children as an extension of