Toni Morrison’s novels consistently raise critical moral questions via their intricate plots, complex character development, and the use of narrative devices such as flashback and/or limited perspectives. Beloved, in particular, deals with the moral binary of good versus evil, or otherwise ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ by complicating the way readers consider the extent of the role of ‘evil’ and also what may be deemed as ‘good.’ The main force of evil in the novel is the institution of slavery, and Beloved actively works to unpack the intricacies of this ‘evil’ by considering how it shapes the way we understand ‘goodness’ relative to its oppositionary force.
Beloved responds to the personal and interpersonal traumas created by the institution of slavery by highlighting how these traumas manifest in the characters’ lives, and drawing specific attention to relevant historic detail. On the most basic, fundamental level, one might reduce such a novel to an anti-slavery text with the main argument that “slavery is bad”; this kind of text typically sets up a binary that suggests slave-owners are guilty while enslaved people are innocent. But Morrison does not give this to us straight—in fact, she hardly gives us the opportunity to even think we’re off the hook so easily.
The book is loaded with examples of slavery and racism’s pervasiveness. For example, the detailing of Paul D’s horrific experience with the iron bit exposes the cruel, torturous elements of slavery: “He wants me to ask him about what it was like for him—about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it. She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back,” (71). Decades later, Paul D continues to face the repercussions of having had the iron bit forced upon him. There is no ambiguity here; the iron bit is a clear, representative symbol of the evil of slavery.
Sethe’s description in the above quote reveals another binary that Beloved addresses within the institution of slavery—“the place before Sweet Home” versus Sweet Home itself. The novel hardly describes the place before Sweet Home except for in passing—in brief memories of traumas that the characters experienced. Yet, by grounding most of the novel’s story in Sweet Home, Morrison further complicates and criticizes the notion of a more “benevolent” form of slavery. Sethe’s understanding of Sweet Home is informed by her past experience: “The Garners, it seemed to her, ran a special kind of slavery, treating them like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known. And he didn’t stud his boys. Never brought them to her cabin with directions to ‘lay down with her,’” (140). The ‘goodness’ of Sweet Home—here indicated not by a moral judgment but merely by the word ‘special’—is defined by Garners’ treatment of her being better than her previous situation i.e. not being subjected to sexual abuse or extensive degrading. Other points in the narrative storyline continue to challenge the notion of a ‘good’ kind of slavery, as when Sister Brodwin says: “We don’t hold with slavery, even Garner’s kind,” (145).
While Sweet Home might be considered “good” relative to the place before it, it is also specifically Sethe’s trauma associated with Schoolteacher that drives her to kill her own daughter. Sethe is the novel’s “heroine” and thus we are made to empathize with her, but yet, this does not mean that she is free from moral judgment based on her actions. Morrison complicates the binary which suggests Sethe’s “goodness” by depicting a complex character who is deeply impacted by the role of the ‘evil’ (slavery) in her life: a character who cannot be easily dismissed as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ specifically because we understand the wider moral injustice of slavery when we consider the moral injustice of her act as a mother.
Beloved calls for a complex understanding of morality, rather than considering it something that could be so easily clear-cut. Both sides of judgment—both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are informed by the contexts in which that very moral judgment is made.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Plume: 1988.