Surviving the Past

In the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, Sethe is confronted by Beloved, a representation of the horrific and damaging past, which Sethe has failed to accept. However, in order to fully live her life in the present, Sethe must acknowledge her past and move on from it with the help of the community.
When Beloved comes back as a young woman, all Sethe desires to do is please Beloved and beg for her forgiveness for killing her by giving Beloved all that she can give. However, Beloved “never got enough of anything: lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, and the top of the milk” (282). Beloved symbolizes Sethe’s unresolved past, a past which torments Sethe constantly. Sethe tries everything she can to appease her guilt for killing her daughter, which shows just how much Sethe wants to resolve her past. Although Sethe tries to make peace with her past through Beloved, it was as if “Beloved ate up [Sethe’s] life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur” (295). It is quite clear that Sethe has no control over her past anymore, and she allows it to engulf and swallow her entire life, nearly killing her.
Sethe clearly cannot overcome her past alone, but even though she was an outcast, it was the community that helps heal Sethe. Thirty woman from the community came to 124 and began to pray by “building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash” (308). Sethe’s trembling is a physical manifestation of the cleansing of her body and soul of her past sins, as would be done with a baptism. The fact that Sethe alone could not wash her own soul clean shows just how badly she needed the community as a whole to help her conquer her past.
As the women were praying, Mr. Bodwin, a white man from the community, was coming up the road. Sethe mistakes Mr. Bodwin for schoolteacher, and thinks that he is “coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing” (309), her children. She worries that the past will be repeated and rather than running away to go and protect her children, she attacks Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick (309). This is an exceptional leap for Sethe in her fight against her past; Sethe does not succumb to schoolteacher’s will, but instead, she does what she has wished she had done before; she fights back. With the community’s help, Sethe has not only been able to accept her past, but she has also been able to proceed forward without fear of what has happened.
Although the past for Sethe was traumatizing and has haunted her for most of her life, Sethe is not able to conquer her past alone. With help from the people around her, Sethe is finally able to acknowledge and overcome her past, allowing her to live her life free of the guilt and sorrow that was holding her back.