Do We Control Our Bodies or Do They Control Us?

One major pattern I’ve noticed in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is the emphasis on questions surrounding bodily autonomy.  The work questions whether the characters have control over their own bodies and also whether some seem to exert control over other characters’ bodies as well as their own.  A clear example of this emphasis appears when Baby Suggs describes being free for the first time.  She states, “‘These hands belong to me.  These are my hands’” (Morrison 166).  Morrison continues this thread saying, “Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat” (166).  When Baby Suggs truly acknowledges her own freedom, she feels in control of her own body for the very first time and can claim it.  As an enslaved person, she had little control over her body and therefore, feels a physical difference once free.

There is a complex relationship with bodily autonomy in this work.  Morrison emphasizes bodily control in passages like the one mentioned, while also highlighting how other characters seem to lack control or lose control in brief moments.  When Sethe sees Beloved for the first time, she is suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to pee and can barely control her body.  She describes this sudden problem as “unmanageable” (Morrison 62).  Again later, Sethe feels as though she is being choked.  With no one around her, she cannot seem to force her own airway to clear.  This can be attributed to ghosts or supernatural behavior, but even still, Morrison emphasizes a helplessness that characters seem to face in terms of their own body, while others have more freedom.  Perhaps, the question of bodily autonomy can be taken even further to follow the main mystery of the novel, which surrounds the death of the baby.  At the end of the reading for this week, we learn that Sethe killed her own child, Beloved, and had planned to kill the other children when the white men arrived.  Children are in a sense an extension of the parents, a piece of a mother lives inside her child.  Therefore, when Sethe kills Beloved, she is partially killing herself, or a part of her own body.  This can be extended further to question whether the act changes Sethe’s physical appearance somehow.  When Paul D looks at the newspaper, he repeatedly states, “That ain’t her mouth” (Morrison 181).  He may be in denial about Sethe’s actions, but he does claim that the mouth of the woman photographed looks different than the one he remembers.  The actions Sethe took against her child, an extension of her own self, perhaps, altered the state of her body.  The forced control Sethe enacts perhaps leads to her future feeling of helplessness and lack of bodily autonomy, such as the moment when she is strangled.  Her body seems to have agency, yet rebel against itself, and change without her control.

One thought on “Do We Control Our Bodies or Do They Control Us?”

  1. Good job on this post! This is an idea I started thinking about after you mentioned it in class one day. I always think of when Sethe was choked and Denver said to Beloved that she saw her choking Sethe but Beloved denies it. Since the mind and body are correlated, I believe that since the characters lack control of their bodies, the reader can link this to the characters lacking control of their minds.

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