Motherhood and Language in Beloved

      Toni Morrison 's Beloved is one of the most successful novels of all time, selling million of copies internationally and inspiring critical commentary from scholars of the highest distinction. It's influence is such that it is studied by students of literature around the world and is often cited as one of the most significant books of modern times. 

    Beloved has been seen as both modernist and postmodernist in its form and philosophy. It's disorienting narrative strategy is occasionally reminiscent of those modernist writers who stress the fragmented nature of experience, while it's subversive approach to history asserts a fictional past that is occasionally described as magic realist, the author is careful to offer a non supernatural explanation for the appearance of her otherworldly eponymous characters.

Motherhood and Language in Beloved
Motherhood and Language in Beloved


Motherhood and Language in Beloved

    Some of the most interesting critiques of Beloved focus Sethe's role as a mother and how her relationships with her children shape her thinking. 

    One of the best known and most thought provoking is Jean Wyatt's "Giving Body to the world" , published in 1993. Wyatt takes a psychoanalytical approach which draws on Jacques Lacan 's theory of language and identity. Lacan describes "a child's entry into language as a move from maternal bodily connection to a register of abstract signifies" , in other words, initially a child sees no distinction between itself and it's mother, but maturation requires entry into society and the world of language which demands a recognition of the self as a separate entity. Once socialisation occurs the ability to think in terms of differences in essential : it is only the ability to perceive symbolic differences that makes meaning possibly. 

    Wyatt argues that Sethe's ability to perceive differences is unnaturally inhabited, she 'defines herself as a maternal body ' who is unable to see a distinction between herself and her offspring, in this sense Sethe behaves like a pre - socialised infant, and her inability to perceive differences extends to her use of language ' her insistence on her own physical presence and connection to her children precludes an easy acceptance of the separations ans substitutea that govern language. Tony Morison presents Sethe in the tradition of the 'heroic slave mother' common to slave narratives such as Harriet Jecobs's Incidents in the "Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in stories of this kind and female slave's principal motivation for escaping is to ensure her children's freedom as such ; rather it stresses the sense of connection between her and her prime achievement in escaping. Thus when discussing it with Paul 'D she says - 

    "I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide                     and when I stretched out my arms all my              children could get in between. I was that                wide " .


    And she tells him of how proud she was that 'she had milk enough for all' . Wyatt makes the point that ' even after the children are weaned, her bond with them remains so strong that she continues to think of it as a nursing connection. 

    Sethe's thinking is dominated by her perceive link to her children and she exist only for their benefit. Moreover, Sethe's reluctance or inability to see a distinction between herself and her offspring underpins her decision to murder them when schoolteacher threatens to returns them to slavery. 

    It also make it impossible for Sethe to put the act of murdering Beloved into words.whe  it comes to her children Sethe will not allow separation- the acknowledgement of difference that is a prerequisite of language and so she cannot find the words to articulate the act of murdering her child ; Beloved is her and so it is impossible for her conceptualise let alone express the notion of murder . When she tries to describe the incident she cannot engage with it : 

   "Sethe knew that the circle she was making around....  

the subject would remain one . That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask"     ( Wyatt). 

    Sethe overweening sense of connection to her children makes it difficult for her to ' accept the principal of substitution ' necessary ' to invest in words ' and so she can only circle around the issue unable to speak it.


Invoking Lacan Wyatt writes - 

    "To move into a position in language and the social order, according to Lacan, am infant must sacrifice it's imaginary sense of wholeness and continuity with the mother's body ( Sethe is of course in the mother's position rather than the child 'support but her physical connection with her nursing baby resembles the infant's initial radical dependency on the mother's body)   (Wyatt) . 

    This concept of language implies that something must be lost before it can be named, the signifier takes the place of the actual thing, as Lacan says, a signifier ' manifests itself first of all in the murder of the thing ' . 

    Sethe cannot commit such a murder because ofse the sense of oneness she feels she cannot let go. Wyatt also quotes John Muller ' s contention that, ' the word destroys the immediacy of objects and gives us distance from them and argues that Sethe cannot tolerate such a distance and so cannot narrativise her murderd daughter because she cannot separate herself form her, so Beloved remains literally present, and of course gradually forces everything else from her life. 

    Indeed, Wyatt observes a general reluctance for Sethe to substitute words for things which makes it hard for her to detach herself not just from her children, but from the past too. Her notion of rememory demonstrates how the past is always present for Sethe  , her sense of connection to her absent child extends to the past, and she is reluctant to jettison that past just as she refuses to break the connection with Beloved  . 

    Sethe's world is clogged with baggage from which she cannot detach herself.