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.