Sethe’s Slavery in “Beloved” by Toni Morrison Essay

February 4, 2022 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 27th, 2021


Beloved is the novel by Toni Morrison that is discussed as representing the genres of gothic fiction and magical realism, and the purpose of this novel is to demonstrate how slavery can be viewed as a process of dehumanization, whose lasting effects in the form of psychological traumas are observed during a long period of time, as it is in the case of Sethe. In spite of the fact that the events depicted in Beloved take place after the end of the American Civil War, Sethe, as the main character of the novel and a former slave, continues to survive the outcomes of slavery every day of her life. Sethe was dehumanized while being a slave, and she experienced the most critical effect of slavery when she had to choose the death of her children as an act of love and humanity instead of letting them become slaves.

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In Beloved, slavery is depicted as the route for dehumanization because of such aspects as ownership, control over slaves, physical imprisonment, humiliation, tortures, and whipping. In the novel, Sethe and other slaves living at Sweet Home plantation become dehumanized because of the actions of the Schoolteacher, who is presented by Morrison (1987) as a cruel slaver and as the embodiment of white supremacy. Thus, the Schoolteacher complained that slaves “ate too much, rested too much, talked too much, which was certainly true compared to him, because schoolteacher ate little, spoke less and rested not at all” (Morrison, 1987, p. 220). This person’s violence made Sethe runoff, but moreover, Schoolteacher’s actions made the woman lose her sense of humanity when she became the victim of mammary rape. While talking with Paul D about that dramatic event, Sethe could only focus on the fact that Schoolteacher’s boys took her milk that belonged to her children: “They used cowhide on you?” “And they took my milk.” “They beat you and you was pregnant?” “And they took my milk!” (Morrison, 1987, p. 17). This situation was the moment when Sethe was most significantly affected by her status as a slave.

However, Sethe’s sense of dehumanization is influenced not only by her experiences while being a slave but also by her fear of losing the freedom for her children after she escaped Sweet Home plantation and thought she was safe in Cincinnati. When Sethe faced the threat for her children to be taken by Schoolteacher, she decided to kill them in a shed. Her two-year-old daughter died, and two boys survived. Explaining her act and referring to Beloved in her house as the ghost of her daughter, Sethe says, “How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her. When I explain it she’ll understand, because she understands everything already” (Morrison, 1987, p. 200). Thus, despite the fact that it is possible to discuss Sethe’s act as the representation of her dehumanization, it is important to note that the woman, on the one hand, sees this situation like the loss of her humanity, but on the other hand, she discusses it as the act of freeing her child because of her hatred of slavery.

Still, while explaining her choice, Sethe refers to the situation of mammary rape one more time, accentuating that the event influenced her sense of dehumanization and led to the psychological trauma. Thus, the woman states in the novel, “Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children. I never had to give it to nobody else—and the one time I did it was took from me—they held me down and took it” (Morrison, 1987, p. 200). Additionally, Sethe’s decision is also the result of her vision of her own mother’s actions.

Slavery impacted Sethe and caused the development of her sense of dehumanization from many perspectives, and her own mother’s abandonment affected Sethe significantly. When she recollects the fact that she was brought up by another woman, Sethe is “angry, but not certain at what” (Morrison, 1987, p. 62). Moreover, Sethe makes a choice, and she states, “No more running—from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth. I took one journey and I paid for the ticket” (Morrison, 1987, p. 15). Developing her story, the author tries to represent Sethe’s choice to kill her children from the perspective of the woman’s intention not to leave her children as slaves.

In spite of the fact that dehumanization associated with slavery influenced the main female character of the book in many ways, it is also possible to focus on Sethe’s efforts to restore her sense of humanity with reference to the mother-and-daughter relationships. These relationships are the key motif and the theme of this novel. One of the most provocative tries to demonstrate humanity is Sethe’s attempt to commit a murder in relation to her children because of the woman’s motive to protect them. Sethe cannot forgive herself the situation when her milk was taken because she seems to perceive it as the violation of her connection with her children. As a result, being dehumanized by slavery, she cannot let her children become the victims of mistreatment, torture, and violence (Morrison, 1987). Sethe seems to receive one more chance to restore her sense of humanity when Beloved comes to her house, and the woman wants to explain her motives, and she tries to do everything to please Beloved as the soul of her dead daughter.

The finale of the novel demonstrates that Sethe still succeeds in restoring her sense of humanity when Beloved disappears, and the woman and her daughter Denver receive opportunities to live a new life. It is possible to assume that Denver will become a hope for Sethe, and the woman’s experience with Beloved as the ghost of her daughter can seem to relieve Sethe’s feeling of guilt. In this novel, Beloved can be discussed as the symbol for Sethe’s guiltiness and the representation of slavery with its pain and sufferings. In the last chapter of the novel, Morrison (1987) states referring to Sethe’s and her daughter’s memories regarding Beloved, “So they forgot her. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep” (p. 275). Therefore, it is possible to concentrate on Sethe’s sense of humanity only when Beloved disappears as the symbol that past memories cannot affect the life of this family anymore.


Morrison’s Beloved allows readers to focus on the problem of dehumanization of a personality associated with slavery in the most provocative and controversial manner. The novel illustrates how even the most peaceful and good feelings of people, such as the love of a mother to her children, can be reversed in the context of slavery and lead to murder. From this perspective, Morrison’s Beloved seems to pose the following question: How can the sense of dehumanization and the sense of humanity be similar or reflect each other in the context of violence and brutality associated with slavery? The possible answer can be found with reference to the analysis of Sethe’s position and feelings that seem to accentuate her nature as a mother who can forget about humanity while trying to protect her children and make them safe.


Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. New York, NY: Vintage.

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