Stephen Conway

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Stephen Conway


Memory in Beloved
Memories are works of fiction, selective representations of experiences actual or imagined. They provide a framework for creating meaning in one's own life as well as in the lives of others. In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, memory is a dangerous and debilitating faculty of human consciousness. Sethe endures the tyranny of the self imposed prison of memory. She expresses an insatiable obsession with her memories, with the past. Sethe is compelled to explore and explain an overwhelming sense of yearning, longing, thirst for something beyond herself, her daughter, her Beloved. Though Beloved becomes a physical manifestation of these memories, her will is essentially defined by and tied to the thoughts, experiences and emotions of Sethe. Sethe's struggle is an intensely personal process of self negation; her identity is complicated, convoluted, and nearly consumed by her memory. Morrison suggests at least implicitly that Sethe's crisis is by no means unique. Rather than a positive or negative trait, memory (and the self destructive powers contained within it) may be an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Like Mr. Bodwin who hid his childhood treasures in the yard at 124, Sethe attempts to bury her most precious possessions in order to protect them literally and metaphorically. "Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing...the part of her that was clean" (251). Sethe cannot bear for her children to possible suffer the pain and humiliations she has endured. She would rather live with the memories of her crimes, the memories of how her children might have been, than surrender her future and theirs to school teacher. Her decision to kill her children and herself is simultaneously an act of self affirmation and self destruction, paradoxically selfish and selfless.

Memories, however, persist. They remain, lurking in places like 124 and Sweet Home to remind Sethe that the punishment she suffers is self inflicted and self perpetuating. First as a poltergeist and later as a mysterious young woman, the memory of Beloved remains unrequited. Beloved's appetite is insatiable. She "never got enough of anything... the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain.." (240-1). No effort, no amount, no explanation is adequate. Sethe gives her face to Beloved and still she demands more. Beloved eventually becomes bloated with Sethe's loving excesses, but her thirst remains unquenched. Paul D. understands the dangers inherent in this kind of love when he warns Sethe, "Your love is too thick" (164). Beloved has no distinct identity separate from Sethe. Without Sethe, Beloved is ultimately left "crouching in a dark, dark place, forgetting to smile" (252). Likewise, Sethe's own identity is nearly lost or completely surrendered in her fusion with Beloved.

Though short of ultimate union or reunion with Beloved in death, Sethe is unable and unwilling to challenge Beloved's place in her mind and in her home. Only help from others can save her. Denver makes the first humble appeals for help on behalf of her mother. In doing so, she begins to understand and appreciate the vital necessity of a concept of self, influenced by but not completely dependent upon memory. Though Denver does not directly impart this discovery to her mother Paul D. does when he tells her, "You your best thing, Sethe. You are" (273). Ella provides the most vocal and coherent opposition to a life dominated by the past. Her ideas seem to be built upon the foundation of Baby Suggs wisdom which said, "We flesh..Love it. Love it hard", advocating a sensual existence grounded firmly in the present (88). "Ella didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present...Daily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind...every day was a test and a trial" (256). In some ways, her thoughts seem to echo Nietzsche's metaphor of the Eternal Return of the Same. As an ethical endeavor, he challenges every individual to live each moment, each hour, each day, as though he or she was doomed to repeat it for eternity. Memory represents an obstacle to such an existence;

it is both barrier and bridge between individuals. By the conclusion of the novel, memories dissipate and dissolve. They do not linger. The reader is left with a sense that some things should be forgotten or at least ignored. "Remembering seemed unwise"(274).

Perhaps, as in Housekeeping, memory houses a great paradox: the ability to create a false sense of completeness, the ability to provoke the most profound sense of loss. It is the paradox woven into the nature of memory which moves time forward. "The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted" (Housekeeping, 192).

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Signet, 1991.

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Bantam Books,


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