At its core, Beloved is a novel about a mother and her children, centered around the relationship between Sethe and the unnamed daughter she kills, as well as the strange re-birth of that daughter in the form of Beloved. When Sethe miraculously escapes Sweet Home, it is only because of the determination she has to reach her children, nurse her baby, and deliver Denver safely. Similarly, Halle works extra time in order to buy the freedom of his own mother, Baby Suggs, before seeking his own freedom. The strength of mother-child bonds are further illustrated by the close relationship between Denver and Sethe, upon which Paul D intrudes.
But, within the novel, the strength of motherhood is constantly pitted against the horrors of slavery. In a number of ways, slavery simply does not allow for motherhood. On a basic level, the practice of slavery separates children from their mothers, as exemplified by Sethe’s faint recollections of her own mother. Since it is so likely for a slave-woman to be separated from her children, the institution of slavery discourages and prevents mothers from forming strong emotional attachments to their children. As Paul D observes of Sethe and Denver, “to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.” The scene in which Sethe is held down and robbed of her own breast milk shows, on a cruelly literal level, Sethe being robbed of her very bodily capability to be a nurturing mother. The conflict between motherhood and slavery is perhaps clearest in the central act of the novel: Sethe’s killing her own daughter. The act can be read two ways: on the one hand, it represents an act of the deepest motherly love: Sethe saving her children from having to endure slavery, believing that death is better. But on the other hand, it can also be interpreted as Sethe refusing to be a mother under slavery. Slavery would not allow her to be a real mother to her children, so she would rather not be a mother at all.
Motherhood Quotes in Beloved
[...] in all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.
She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man... Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe.
The last of [Baby Suggs’] children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own—fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked.
And if [Sethe] thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one else could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.
I can forget it all now because as soon as I got the gravestone in place you made your presence known in the house and worried us all to distraction. I didn’t understand it then. I thought you were mad with me. And now I know that if you was, you ain’t now because you came back here to me... I only need to know one thing. How bad is the scar?
Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.... She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be.... I won’t never let her go.
Yet [Denver] knew Sethe’s greatest fear was...that Beloved might leave.... Leave before Sethe could make her realize that far worse than [death]...was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.