Water and Liquid in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the motifs that stood out to me is that of liquid. In numerous instances, bodies of water, such as streams and rivers, not only serve as the primary locations in which characters undergo significant experiences, but also function as entities whose attributes are used to describe and convey the characters themselves. While this theme of liquidity is pervasive throughout the text, its symbolism shifts between light and darkness, life and death. It is through recognizing the differing uses of water and liquid within Beloved that one is able to better understand the novel’s various characters and the ways in which components of their lives are as seemingly uncontrollable as the water used to describe them.

For Sethe and Beloved, water represents the concepts of birth, renewal, and clarity. Upon being first introduced in the novel, Beloved is directly connected to the water. She does not possess a personal history or familial relations, but is a woman with aquatic origins whose existence is predicated on having merely “walked out of the water” (60). Although Beloved is a young adult and makes it clear that she has undertaken a journey, she is described as having “emerged” from the water with “new skin, lineless and smooth,” as if her true birthplace is the water instead of the womb (60, 61). Similarly, water also serves as a symbol of birth and new life for Sethe because it is in a flooding canoe that she delivers her daughter, Denver. Although Denver is not described as a water-nymph like Beloved, her birth is made synonymous with the water because it appears as though Sethe’s “own water broke loose to join it [the river]” (98). In this way, not only do the water and Sethe’s womb collectively encourage the birth of Denver, but Denver’s birth and the river are eternally ‘joined.’ Furthermore, even though the water serves as the birthplace of both Beloved and Denver, it also exists as a place of renewed life for Sethe. When experiencing mental anguish, Sethe relies on an imagined riverside to ease her suffering. Referring to her mental defense against painful, resurfacing memories as “heavy knives” that protect her from “misery, regret, gall, and hurt,” Sethe determines that the only way to find peace and achieve a renewed sense of self is to place these ‘knives’ “one by one on a bank where clear water rushed” (102). In this way, water and liquid are not only emblematic of birth, but also serve as sources of renewal that help to wash away the cruelties of reality.

Conversely, for Denver and Paul D, liquid is synonymous with loneliness and death. When walking through Sethe’s house for the first time, Paul is consumed by the sadness and evil of Sethe’s dead child and experiences a “wave of grief [that] soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry” (11). In this instance, grief and sadness are emotions that act like water; They wash over one’s entire body like a ‘wave,’ leaving them overwhelmed by negative feelings as if the emotions have ‘soaked’ through their clothes and left their body cold and heavy. Similarly, when Denver fears that Beloved has permanently abandoned her, her experience and emotions are connected to water. For Denver, the thought of being left alone makes her feel “breakable, meltable, and cold,” as if she is an “ice cake torn away from the solid surface of the stream, floating on darkness” (145). In this instance, water signifies human fragility and the ways in which one’s loneliness is as destructive and uncontrollable as being a ‘breakable’ piece of ice floating in ‘darkness.’ In this way, for Denver and Paul D, negative emotions are directly connected to the characteristics of moving water because they limit one’s sense of control, emit a sense of coldness or darkness, and have the ability to make one feel submerged.

Although the motif of liquid varies in its relation to different characters, its overall usage seems to symbolize the larger theme of movement. For all four characters, the concept of liquid is utilized to express a swift, uncontrollable change that takes place in their lives or emotional states. This seems to emphasize the notion that the lives of the characters are fluid, causing change and movement to often be involuntary and inevitable.

4 thoughts on “Water and Liquid in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”

  1. I also wonder if the “liquid” in Beloved represents characters’ responses to the anguish slavery and injustice has inflicted on their lives. For instance, Sethe and Beloved are two of the most resilient characters in the novel and often feature in passages where they mentally fight to keep themselves sane and buoyant when confronted with traumatic memories. Sethe and Beloved are also conveyed as harmonious with and welcoming to water. Conversely, Denver and especially Paul D do not favor the introspective intelligence that Sethe and Beloved exhibit, and therefore Denver and Paul D resist water.

  2. Water defintely has a large number of uses in the novel. The concepts of birth and rebirth are definitely some of the most significant. However, I would have also included the Ohio River. The Ohio River was a prominent part of the birth of Denver, and discussing it as the backdrop for the birth gives evidence that water is the focal point symbol. I also thought it was great how you discussed Paul D’s experiences with water. In addition to your points, waters comes to mind for me when I think of the mud caving-in the chain-gang quarters. Since the book uses biblical allusions plentifully, it might help to think of water’s importance in biblical stories. Two that come to mind are Noah’s Ark (water as apocalypse and rebirth) and the crossing of the Red Sea (water parting the sea, leading to freedom from slavery). In fact, the fact that Sethe crosses the Ohio river to freedom makes a good allusion parallel to the later biblical allusion of the Red Sea.

  3. Great analysis of the function of water/liquid in Beloved, Megan! I really appreciate your thoughts on how we can trace ideas of life and death through the thread of water throughout the novel. When you write “as if her true birthplace is the water instead of the womb” it reminded me of how wombs themselves are filled with water. Especially if we might think of the womb as symbolic of safety, a question that comes up for me is: if the womb is a place where (typically) any mother can ensure her children’s safety, how does this thread of water continue to symbolize safety or work as a means of safety? I also read a lot of the references to water as references to freedom and return to origin — later in the novel, one of my favorite Morrison quotes of all-time is “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. ”I hope you’ll continue tracing this thread of water especially as the novel continues to describe it further!

  4. Wow! Great blog post! I love how you talk about the affect that water has on Sethe in comparison to Paul. Overall, while there are negative and positive elements that water adds to this novel, do you think that water is a positive or negative factor in Beloved? Or could water also be a neutral factor and based on the characters, they will determine how the water impacts them based on previous events? I think you bring up some great points because while water is associated with the birth of Denver, water is also associated with the death of Beloved.

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