Infanticide, just the word itself makes a person feel discomfort. To murder of an infant, a symbol of purity and goodness, something that should be loved and protected is an act so abhorrent that although it occurs often in nature, we don’t want to admit it is also not uncommon among humans. Entire cultures systematically killed female offspring for generations due to limited resources and preference for males. It is especially repulsive when the murderer is the child’s mother. People can’t understand how a mother can kill her own children unless she is inhuman or insane. It was something hard for me to understand until I read the story of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s epic novel Beloved. Sethe is a mother who commits infanticide but I will argue that she is not inhumane or insane. In the book, she attempted to kill three of her children and successfully sacrificed the fourth in order to protect them from slavery. It is an act of a desperate but loving mother.
Sethe’s story was inspired when Morrison read some articles about a fugitive slave woman named Margaret Garner. Abolitionists cited her case as an example of the true brutal nature of slavery. In a time when it was even a question about the inclusion of non-whites in the human race, Garner was an example of humanity at one of its deepest levels, a mother’s love. Mothers of all races could relate to her as they considered all the possible atrocities that awaited the children, two boys and two girls, in the brutal hands of slavery. They thought of their own children and what they would do in her shoes. By relating to Garner, these mothers began to see that she was human, slavery was not.
When I was about ten years old my dog, Cassie, had puppies. I went out to the grape arbor she chose as her birthing spot and nursery. She was crunching something. Speaking to her cheerfully, I leaned in to get a closer look. As she lifted her head, I saw a headless puppy between her front paws. I instantly realized the crunching had been the head and in horror, I ran into the house crying. It took me some time to forgive my dog. I couldn’t look at her for days and the idea of her licking me after witnessing the gruesome scene filled me with disgust. It helped that she had cute little puppies that I wanted to play with and I couldn’t see them without seeing her. Also, my parents explained to me that she killed the puppy for the benefit of the stronger, bigger puppies. She knew that she had too many puppies to feed so to ensure the survival of her other pups, she killed the smallest one. My dog wasn’t evil, she was an animal. This memory resurfaced when thinking about Sethe murdering her own children to protect them.
As hard as it was to understand what my dog had done and forgive her, it was harder to understand Sethe’s actions. After all, my dog was just an animal. Sethe is confronted by Paul D, a man that shared her past, a man that loved her, but he couldn’t accept what she did or the fact that she does not regret her actions. It is not to say that Sethe is happy about her past, she just felt she did what she had to do and that it was the only thing she could have done. To think that there was a way she could have escaped slavery and still kept her child alive would have destroyed Sethe. She needs to believe it was her only option. “I stopped him (schoolteacher) … I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (193). This is what Sethe has always had to do to keep her babies alive. She was unable to tend to her own children. She had to put them where they’d be safe – in a basket in the grape arbor, with Baby Suggs, and with death.
Paul D can’t reconcile the image of mother and image of murderess. Unlike an animal that can’t reason another way out of the situation, he argues that Sethe could have found some other means to escape. In a dramatic conclusion to the argument Paul D says the unforgivable, unsayable thing. “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet” (194). For Sethe, this was the worst kind of insult. At this point in the novel, Paul D and readers do not know the magnitude of those words, it is part of the forgetting and rememoring. It is later revealed that Sethe overheard schoolteacher instructing his pupils about her. “I heard him say, “No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up” (228). After this incident, the men steal Sethe’s milk from her breasts, the treat her like the animal they believe she is. When she attempts to complain to her owner, a woman she has worked beside and cared for, she is savagely beaten even though she is pregnant. This is the reason the words from Paul D, questioning her humanity, opened an old wound in her psyche, a hurt so large it overshadows the other atrocities Sethe endures. She couldn’t have her children have their humanity in question, experimented on by schoolteacher and his pupils, so she put them where they would be safe, away from schoolteacher and slavery.
Some slave owners, like the Garners, were not “as bad” as others. Instead of thinking of slaves as inhuman, they simply thought of them as simple minded or childlike. They believed the slaves needed the slave owners to care for them and teach them right from wrong. While not as bad as questioning one’s humanity, questioning their ability function and reason as adults was also psychologically debilitating.
Sethe’s actions were rational to her. While she couldn’t have predicted the outcome, they had their desired effect and she and her children didn’t return to slavery. She is not a child acting selfishly or without thought. As their mother, she does what she thinks is best for her children. Although she saves them from slavery, she damages all of her children. She lost Beloved to death and her two boys, Buglar and Howard, ran away as soon as they are old enough. Even the matriarch of the family, Baby Suggs, can’t endure the heavy sadness and the angry ghost of the baby and escapes into death. Denver, the only surviving child present in the book is like a child until the end of the book. She needs her mother and the ghost of her sister in a way that an infant needs care. Denver was born while Sethe was on her way to freedom. She never experiences slavery but she still suffers from its wounds. She is unable to grow until she faces the pain of the past and let it go. When her mother finally begins to waste away from the ghost of the things she tries to forget, Denver has to step out and take care of the family. Unlike her mother, she doesn’t keep trying to forget. Her childishness protects her from the secrets of the past but to progress she needs to face them and learn to seek help from others. Children have a way of seeing the world that creates resiliency unlike adults. The ability to reason as an adult and understand the complexity of life is what sets Sethe apart from not only an animal, it sets her apart from a child as well.
When I was a child, I enjoyed the story Hansel and Gretel. I still love the story and read it to my own children but I am a bit taken aback by the content as I read it as an adult. The story is about a couple that abandons their children in the woods because they are unable to feed them. In an attempt to lessen the awfulness of the act, the mother is replaced by a stepmother. Readers found it hard to accept a mother abandoning her children. Children especially can’t reason complicated, adult scenarios like famine so it is easier to craft an evil stepmother to carry out evil deeds. With Sethe, it is hard to find another way out but these parents gave up hope too easily. The horror of abandonment is overshadowed in the story by the later attempted cannibalism of the children by a witch in the forest. Cashdan makes the argument that the witch and the stepmother magnify the inner flaws of the reader and embodies the “unwholesome aspects of the self that all children struggle against” (17). Adults that read this story are often shocked by its content but children do not have the same reaction. Children enjoy the story because they can relate to the children of the story who in the end, triumph over one of their biggest fears. Bettelheim, while explaining this phenomenon in Hansel and Gretel also indirectly explains why Sethe’s actions fill us with such horror. For a child, the fear of abandonment is real because they could not survive without the parent to feed and care for them. This realization and our own memories of dependence on our caretakers makes that anxiety all the more intense. A mother is the giver of life, both through birth and later through nourishment (159). By seeing the slaves as children instead of animals, these slave owners saw themselves as better than the cruel, inhumane owners. They saw themselves in the role of parent but they did not give life. Sethe and the other slaves did not view the whites as parental, even when they were their own fathers. They certainly didn’t fear abandonment from them or look to them for nurturing. When considering the story again after reading Beloved, I realized how much the parents from Hansel and Gretel have with these “kinder” slave owners.
Through the act of infanticide, these three stories share a tragic thread. Through slavery, Sethe was made to feel like a child and later treated like an animal. Sethe was not a child or animal, she was a sane, loving mother that saw no other escape than death. What is it that separates Sethe’s actions from the act of an animal without the ability to reason and the child’s view from reading Hansel and Gretel? There are three main differences in these similar events: the first is what is being protected, the second is why, and last is hope.
Sethe, Cassie, and the evil stepmother all feel the need to kill their children for protection. The difference is what it is that is being protected. Sethe and my dog were protecting their offspring but the parents in Hansel and Gretel were concerned only with their own survival. Sethe felt her children were safer in the hands of death than at the hands of slavery and Cassie did what she did to protect the rest of her litter. The stepmother however, cares only for her own survival and not that of her children. The act is selfish just like the “kinder” slave owners that only treated the slaves as child-like adults instead of animals. Even though many of them felt that they had a parental duty to feed and teach their slaves as one needs to care for a child, their motivations were not as pure as they liked to believe. They still owned their slaves and whether they mistreated them or not, they still kept them as slaves and profited from their suffering. At least Sethe and Cassie did what they did for their children and not for themselves. The stepmother’s actions are seen as evil and in traditional child-like fashion, the evil stepmother must die in order to have closure for the story. She can’t be forgiven because her motivation was evil. The mother, the ultimate caretaker must pay for her actions but the father that followed her into abandoning his children is left to live happily ever after. The child’s fear of abandonment would still exist if they had no parents to return to but their sense of justice could not allow the stepmother that chooses herself over the children to survive. In this context, Sethe’s actions are loving. Unlike a child, Sethe’s concern is for others. Children are self-centered, like the stepmother, not like Sethe.
Even though the stepmother was motivated to kill her children to protect herself, all three mothers were driven by a need to protect against death. In Hansel and Gretel and the instance with my dog, the motivation stems from a need to protect others from a physical death. Cassie’s sacrifice of one puppy was for the survival of the rest of her litter. In nature, a mother that spreads herself too thin risks death or illness which would also mean death of her offspring. In order for any to survive, a sacrifice must be made. This is not a selfish act but it is the logical conclusion to a difficult situation. In contrast, Sethe gave her child a physical death to protect her from a psychological death. To her slavery was dying but death was an escape. Sethe felt that her actions were logical and in a way they were. While I don’t condone her actions, I understand them and would hate to ever feel I had to make such a choice. Whether she made the right choice or not all has to do with the final element that runs through these stories, hope.
Hope or the lack of hope is particularly tricky because it all depends on the reader’s perspective. Cassie, because she is a dog is not given the benefit of rational thought. She simply followed her instincts to ensure the survival of as many puppies she felt she could nourish. Hope is not a consideration in this situation, she simply did what nature told her to do. In Hansel and Gretel there is an element of hope. The stepmother hopes that by ridding herself of the children, she and her husband will be able to survive. She does not have a hopelessness when abandoning the children because they are not her primary concern. To say she lost hope of saving the children and parents would be to assume she had that hope to begin with. In the story, the children are abandoned in the woods twice due to the lack of food. When they returned the first time, the family did not starve. If she hoped for the whole family to survive she wouldn’t have abandoned them until there really wasn’t any other options. For Sethe, the question of hope is much more complicated because as I have stated, she is an adult woman, capable of complex thoughts and emotions.
Sethe both has hope and doesn’t have hope. Her actions are driven by hope. She hopes that by killing her children, she will save them from the slow psychological death of slavery. Her hope lies in the final escape. Many would see that as a hopelessness, like suicide, but I argue that she is hopeful that in death, they will finally be safe. With this hope in mind, Sethe is justified with her actions. Hoping that through death, her family can finally belong to each other. When looking at it in this way, one could say that Sethe did the right thing. Had she not murdered her child, she and all four of her children would return to slavery and most likely be separated and sold.
The other side of this argument is that Sethe was driven by hopelessness. Paul D chastises Sethe for not having hope, for not finding another way to save her children. He sees death as worse than slavery because there is still hope of surviving and possible future freedom but for Sethe, this is only surviving physically but dying inside. When looking at the situation, there really was no other escape possible for Sethe. She could not have outrun the men with their horses even on her own but especially not with four small children. Her only options were death or slavery and she chose death. The question of hope is a driving question of the novel. Whether you agree with Paul D that Sethe gave up hope or with Sethe that her hope for escape through death is justified is a complicated matter. No matter whether she had hope or not, she did what she did out of love. This can’t be argued and this is what shows Sethe as a complex, loving, adult, human mother.
The attempts to infantilize and dehumanize the African race and all its descendants did lasting damage to the psyche of the slave and the country. “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside” (81). Morrison discussed this trauma in an interview about her book A Mercy and the main character of the book Florens, also a female slave. She has “had the first sense of self-loathing, where the people say they associate blackness with Satan, and after they’ve examined her body she feels like a different species under their gaze” (2008). After this dehumanizing experience Morrison says “something has died in her, and everything looks like it’s looking at her in that hostile way. … Now that she’s by herself, she thinks maybe they mean there’s something inside of me that really is bad and maybe they’re right? It’s the crumbling of the psyche” (Rustin).
While physical damage dies with the person. Psychological trauma is passed on and exists in the collective, waiting and growing. In his article on the book, Slattery writes that slavery is “a national and communal wound (that) marks all the characters in the story, white and black, with the taint of shame” (207). Beloved is not a story about slavery, the story occurs after the characters have escaped but it gave me more of an understanding of the damage it has done to our country from the time it began to today. Morrison weaves the story through “rememories,” bits and pieces of narrative throughout the novel. The art of forgetting is demonstrated throughout the novel with scattered images and glimpses of the scars, both seen and invisible, telling a story that has the ability to reach people at a deeper level than facts and numbers.
The book is filled with such depth and richness but interviews with the author made me realize that while it has been several generations since slavery was officially abolished, its shadow is forever lurking in the language and culture. The horrors that slaves endured were so shocking that it seems easier to avoid the subject of slavery, there is a pressure to “get over it” and forget. Avoidance causes the pain to fester and intensify until it explodes with riots and violent acts of terror like the recent burning of African American churches where the death toll for the historical scars of slavery continue to grow.
Like the ghost of Beloved needed to be brought out in the sunlight and exposed, so too do the ghosts of slavery. The ancestral guilt makes us afraid to see each other and ancestral rage makes it difficult to embrace one another. “Never has there been a time in American history when race wasn’t a troublesome matter, from the initial clash between the early settlers who achieved the “conquest of paradise” and the native population, through every aspect of affirmative action, to present frictions with and around immigrants and the border (i.e. with Mexico), all still wrapped in the warm blanket of the American covenant” (UKEssays). As uncomfortable as it may be, we need to have a collective effort to expose these wounds. Without air, the wound can’t heal. It is time to stop trying to forget and learn to dialogue these wounds together. Together we can heal because we as Americans, like Sethe and Paul D, “we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison, 322).
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.
Cashdan, Sheldon. The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Print.
Grimm, Brothers. “Hansel and Gretel.” The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 1999. 184-90. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.
Rustin, Susanna. “Predicting the Past.” The Guardian 31 Oct. 2008: US. Web. 14 July 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/nov/01/toni-morrison>.
Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “The Narrative Body and the Incarnate Word in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh. Albany: State U of New York, 2000. 207-35. Print.
“Toni Morrison’s Contribution To American Literature.” UK Essays. UKEssays.com, November 2013. Web. 14 July 2015. <http://www.ukessays.com/dissertations/english-literature/toni-morrisons-contribution-to-american-literature.php#content?cref=1>.