Critical Theory Analysis of Morrison’s Beloved

In a modern world constructed of equality, democracy, and freedoms, history is lost unless the authors remind the world of it. Toni Morrison’s Beloved serves such a purpose as it captures the most realistic moments in slave history and tells a tale of racial powers that bind people and societies to their wills. For Morrison, the story goes far deeper as it is a tale for and about African Americans who would dare to forget bondage. In Conversations With Toni Morrison, the author once said, “Black people who are writing must concentrate on political plights of Black people” (3).

For contemporary audiences, enslavement may not be so clearly conceived, nor the losses so easily measured which is why it is necessary to use critical theories to analyze the intertwining narratives using Freud’s Psychoanalysis and Derrida’s Deconstructionism. A critical analysis will help readers analyze deeper into Beloved as the characterization and language emotionally capture the attention of readers because of the realities of ‘others’ who were oppressed and forced into submissive roles. Wallace and Armbruster write of Beloved, “African American characters are especially likely to understand how nature is interpreted, mediated, and used because they themselves have so often been dominated and oppressed” (211). Analyzing Toni Morrison’s Beloved using Freud’s Psychoanalysis of Eros and Thanatos will show Morrison’s characters exhibit mental and physical scars of enslavement while also using Derrida’s Deconstructionism to theorize that the language used by the author was to help readers navigate the pre and post-Civil War societies that enslaved citizens because of racial oppression.

Sethe embodies love for others, yet she is mentally broken from her loss of family and motherhood. Her physical scars also tell the story of her beatings as a slave. Fitzgerald writes, “How appropriate is such a model to African Americans, whose family history, as Beloved shows, has been (forcibly) shaped along nonhegemonic lines. At which time, how not to draw on psychoanalysis is discussing a novel which explores the aftermath of appalling hurts, the psychic as well as material damage inflicted by slavery” (670).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death instinct) define Sethe’s experiences as an unnatural progression because of disrupted normalcy in her life as a former slave and mother.  Freud writes in Psychosexual Stages Of Development, “Psychoanalysis teaches that there are two paths of object-finding: the first is the one discussed in the text, which is anaclitic, i.e., it follows the early infantile prototypes” (Freud). Morrison includes a lot of flashbacks for Sethe’s childhood, who was born into slavery, knew a mother only by a mark, and was raised to breed her children as property.

Sethe’s unnatural relationship with her mother also shows she was not allowed to develop such a bond because her position as a slave did not afford her such rights which led to many of the decisions she made for herself and her enslaved children. It also helps to build the argument that she struggles with depression because of such decisions. Morrison first focuses on Sethe’s mother whom she did not know. Sethe remembers her mother once saying, “Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, ‘This is your ma’am. This,’ and she pointed. ‘I am the only one got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark” (Morrison 30).

Sethe replies when asked about her mother, “Hung. By the time they cut her down nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or not, least of all me and I did look.” (31). Sethe suffers so greatly as a child that in time she represses many of these memories. The introduction of Beloved’s character disrupts Sethe’s belief that a family and happiness are possible, “It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt.

Everything in it was painful or lost.” (Morrison 29). Her repressed memories like the smell of burning hair speak of her fragility, “She had to do something with her hands because she was remembering something she had forgotten she knew. Something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross” (31). It is lines like this that show she struggles with her will to live for her daughter and die so she can be with the ones who are dead.

Freud’s symbolism also teaches that the representation of a house symbolizes the human body (Freud and Bonaparte 2). Morrison creates many of her scenes at the haunted home known only as 124 which represent Freud’s psychoanalysis of symbolism. The ghosts in Sethe’s home dictate her anxiety because they haunt her and give her no peace of mind. It also is the place where the lives and deaths of her loved ones occur which represents the psychoanalytic theories of Eros and Thanatos.

Morrison writes, Before 124 and everybody in it had closed down, veiled over and shut away; before it had become the plaything of spirits and the home of the chafed, 124 had been a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed” (Beloved 43). It was once a home where love and life lived. When Baby Suggs and Beloved die, it causes Sethe to become a person who remembers and feels nothing as a mechanism for dealing with her pain. Morrison writes, “Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it” (1). To understand her suspension between life and death, one must analyze her life as a slave.

Morrison wants readers to imagine living in such a society where “Negroes” were property which was known only as assets to be sold or bartered which requires a psychoanalytic analysis of Seth’s identity. Wright defines the scope of psychoanalytic criticism in Beloved with, “…the constitution of the self in social systems at given moments in history” (6).  Many of the narrator’s thoughts capture the pre-Civil War mentality that this group of people had their identities defined by their existence as slaves which did not give them but two choices: live as a slave or die trying to escape it.

Much of Seth’s identity is aligned with Baby Sugg’s experiences. Morrison writes, “Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized” (11). Sethe’s mental state when taking Beloved’s life at two years also relates to how Baby Sugg dealt with the loss of her children which defines how she, too, saw her loss of motherhood. Morrison writes, “What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children” (Beloved 11).

The symbolism of children as checkers whom someone else owns is a vivid reference, but an all too familiar one that readers will take notice. It helps establish Sethe’s mental state when killing Beloved, a child she truly loved, to avoid the nastiness of slave life. It is a primary reason why Sethe’s role as a grieving mother is a constant theme. Morrison writes, “Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl” (2).

While it is easy to define her mental psyche, one must also deconstruct the events in society that would drive her to kill her child to avoid the same hardships. Balkin writes, “deconstructive analyses can be of no use to the pursuit of justice unless deconstructive arguments assume the existence of an alternative which is more just than the one being deconstructed” (393). It is helpful for readers to apply a second literary theory that focuses not on the mind’s psyche but on society to find an alternative meaning in Beloved.

To do so, Morrison uses Sethe’s breasts as a representation of her motherhood which is a critical point that readers should analyze deeply. Eros and Thanatos do signify Sethe’s life and death impulses of her reproduction, but there is an underlying message about ancestry that could very well be missed if only using a psychoanalytic analysis. Most notably, her breasts are a source of her nurturing, yet they also connect to her sexual assault. It is what happens next that readers should deconstruct to analyze further Morrison’s description of the beating that left more than just mental scars.

Sethe says, “those boys came in there and took my milk. Held me down and took it. Them boys found out I told on em. Schoolteacher made one open up my back, and when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still.” (Morrison 8). The tree’s significance is a message that the roots of slavery still grow, and the scars that many slaves bared gave modern readers the right to the freedom they were never able to grasp.  A deeper meaning of the roots reminds readers that slavery is a roadmap to the rise of African American identities.

Morrison further creates a paradigm shift with her use of language to create a sub-narrative for the African American identity that was stuck between enslavement and freedom, but if readers only focus on the psyche of the characters, they will not delve deeper into this theme. Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction critical theory is defined as a, “form of philosophical and literary analysis…that questions the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or ‘oppositions,’ in Western philosophy through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

It is necessary to shift the focus from Sethe’s familial existence to reflect on how the mental and physical scars of slavery build a storyline that diverges with the experiences of others as they transcend slavery for freedom. Morrison’s use of inferences of the war keeps the reader’s focus on the theme of slavery, The War had been over four or five years then, but nobody white or black seemed to know it” (Beloved 26). There is a clear struggle between times of war and what was suppose to be their freedom.

Morrison also uses language to define the underlying post-Civil War dangers for ex-slaves, “It was one thing to beat up a ghost, quite another to throw a helpless coloredgirl out in territory infected by the Klan” (33). The language that refers to a territory infected by Klan will resonate with what others had to do to live during times of social strife.

Morrison hits home her point, “Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merrymakers (Morrison 33).

It captures the darkest side of society about the others because it shows what desperate measures they had to take to avoid death. It sets a standard that the practices were normal occurrences. There is also great significance added by Morrison about the chaos and uncertainties during this period, “Some of them were running from a family that could not support them, some to family; some were running from dead crops, dead kin, life threats, and took-over land” (26).  Slavery, and what came with freedom, was not easy for this group because of continued oppression.

Morrison’s word choice for the narrator also further defines the realities after the end of the Civil War. The character of Paul D often intersects with the plight of others, “…he slept underground and crawled into sunlight for the sole purpose of breaking rock, walking off when he got ready was the only way he could convince himself that he would no longer have to sleep, pee, eat or swing a sledge hammer in chains” (20). The reference to being able to walk away shows it was his way of identifying as a free man; yet his inability to find work afterward shows it was a costly choice as few jobs were available for ex-slaves that again connects to the underlying story of the oppression of the others because of racism and oppression.

Literature, for many centuries, has portrayed the existence of slavery through White literary versions of it that often did not capture the truth until the emergence of multicultural literature in the 20th-century.  Morrison, and other multi-cultural authors like her, wrote the alternative which led to many scholars debating history with innovative critical theory analyses. Davis writes of Beloved, “The novel exhibits a postmodern skepticism of sweeping historical narratives, of ‘truth,” (Post Modern Blackness 242). Beloved is the epitome of cultural and historical memory.

The interwoven narratives of Sethe and Paul D reminds readers of the mental and physical damage that occurs when a group of others is oppressed because of a social system that divides the powerful and powerless. Morrison wrote Beloved to offer a multicultural perspective on the reality of enslavement, the voice of the forgotten, the narrative of the ‘others’ caught between individual loss of freedom and newfound identities. While Freud’s psychoanalytical perspective establishes the mentality of people who suffer through enslavement, it is necessary to use Derrida’s Deconstruction theory to shift from the psyche to the language used by the author to build a greater narrative about oppressive behaviors.

Derrida once said, “This heritage is the heritage of a model…that self-deconstructs itself, as so not to uproot, to become independent of its own grounds” (Deconstruction In A Nutshell 10). It is literary narratives like Morrison’s that deconstructs the African American identity, their beliefs, and their ideologies so that readers will gain a new understanding of multicultural history in that it often does not accurately tell the realities that oppressed people endure.


Works Cited
Adamson, Christopher R.; Punishment After Slavery: Southern State Penal Systems, 1865-1890, Social Problems, Vol 30, Issue 5, 1 Jun 1983, Pages 555–569.
Balkin, Jack M. “Being just with deconstruction.” Social & Legal Studies 3.3.1994. 393-404.
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Deconstruction.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2018 Jul 12. britannica.com/topic/deconstruction. Acc 15 Sep 2018.
Davis, Kimberly Chabot. “Postmodern Blackness”: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the End of History.” Twentieth Century Literature 44.2 (1998): 242-260.
Derrida, Jacques. Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida. No. 1. Fordham Univ Press, 1997.
FitzGerald, Jennifer. “Selfhood and Community: Psychoanalysis and Discourse in Beloved”.” Modern Fiction Studies 39.3/4 (1993): 669-687.
Freud, Sigmund. The basic writings of Sigmund Freud. Modern library, 2012.
Freud, Sigmund, and Princess Marie Bonaparte. The origins of psychoanalysis. Vol. 216. London: Imago, 1954.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, Knopf. 1987.
Morrison, Toni. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Wallace, Kathleen R., and Karla Armbruster. “The Novels of Toni Morrison:‘Wild Wilderness Where There Was None.’.” Armbruster and Wallace (2001): 211-30.
Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic criticism. Routledge, 2013.

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