We Shouldn’t Look Away from Stories like Beloved

When 12 Years a Slave came out in 2013, people were shocked at the violence and atrocities they witnessed on screen. They sat in disturbance as they watched Solomon Northup be forced back in to slavery and endure the cruelty of a vile slave owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Looking back, the oscar-worthy buzz surrounding it reminds me of the controversy surrounding Joker. It’s brutal and far from comfortable, but it boasts fantastic acting, seamless transitions, and  necessary origin stories. But, in both cases people were saying that they had to look away during especially violent scenes. It’s no surprise as in 12 Years a Slave you saw the cruelty upfront with lynching, brazen whippings, and painful sexual encounters. It was a landmark movie because for one of the first times in Hollywood, the story was told from a slave’s first-hand perspective . Unlike Gone with the Wind or even The Help, slavery is not whitewashed or romanticized in any way. The same holds true for Morrison’s Beloved. Since they are from the perspective of former slaves, it can be hard to watch and read at times, but it’s important that we do.


When someone told Morrison at a book reading that they couldn’t read parts of novel because its was so terrible, she responded, “People had these things done to them, they experienced them and they survived them. The least we can do is to write them, and read them, and talk about them.” Beloved, though in the 3rd person for most of the novel, is largely from Sethe’s perspective as we are taken through her intense flashbacks of Sweethome and her journey to 124. Morrison’s language captures the trauma that Sethe went through decades after escaping. As readers, we get the sense that the kind of trauma Sethe experienced is inescapable. Beloved was definitely hard to read at times.  12 Years a Slave was hard to watch. But it’s important to see the full story and actually read from the perspectives of people who went through such horrific things. Morrison was able to recover a story from the past that is often overlooked in Hollywood and even history classes I’ve taken.

Every Breath You Take: Sting and Beloved

It’s been commonly inferred by the public that The Police’s 1983 smash hit ‘Every Breath You Take’ is about a man a stalking a woman, in this case the band’s front-man Sting and his recently divorced wife Frances Tomelty.

While Sting has even backed the claim that the song is about a mans’ obsession with a lost lover, it’s possible that when he finished reading the book Beloved by Toni Morrison, he wanted to write a song from the perspective of one of the book’s most important figures: Beloved.

Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, killed Beloved, her child, when she was a baby to save her from going into slavery. Since her death, Beloved has haunted her family’s house, throwing dogs and having temper tantrums.

However, one day Beloved comes back to life, showing up at the house, tired and confused. Although some initial confusion, Sethe, her other daughter Denver, and her boyfriend Paul D let Beloved stay at the house for as long as she would like.

Although it is not discovered until later in the book that Beloved is in fact Sethe’s late daughter, Beloved gives major hints when talking about Sethe to Denver and Paul D.

In one instance, Beloved tells Denver that Sethe ” is the one. She is the one I need. You can go but she is the one I have to have.”

Later telling Paul D that Sethe “don’t love me like I love her. I don’t love nobody but her.”

These quotes alone resemble the lyrics of ‘Every Breath You Take.’

“Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you
Every single day and every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you.”

“Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace
I dream at night, I can only see your face
I look around but it’s you I can’t replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying, “Baby, baby, please”.”

After her death Beloved shows her love by haunting Sethe and her family, watching every move they make and every breath they take.

When Beloved comes to life she is obsessed with Sethe and says she can love nothing else.

While it’s still likely that the song is about Sting’s dangerous stalking habit, there is still a chance that he had just finished reading Beloved and wanted to write a song about 124’s ghost, Beloved.

Passion of a Mother

In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, the character that is focused on the most throughout the whole text is Sethe. Sethe is a strong, independent women and mother. Her strong motherly instincts are perhaps the most distinct characteristic of her, even leading her to great extremes.

Part I of Beloved ends with Sethe saying, “It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that” (194). At this point in the novel, the reader is beginning to get hints at the big secret of the novel, until it is finally revealed.

Sethe truly believes that when “the four horsemen” came to 124, she did the right thing for her children. She believes that killing her baby and trying to kill the rest of her children would have been better for them than a life of slavery. Her quote on page 194 reveals that she truly believed that this was right.

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The brutality, cruelty, and horrors of slavery pushed a mother, who loved her children more than anything, to do the unspeakable. Sethe believed that dying would be better for her beloved children more than slavery. This scary and astonishing truth, reveals the true and absolute horror of slavery and what knowing the truth about being a slave can push someone to do.

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Why are Eyes so Prevalent in Beloved?

“Halle’s girl-the one with iron eyes” 

“It must have been her eyes that kept him both guarded and stirred up”

“Sethe’s eyes bright but dead”

“The man without skin, looking. He is looking at her.” 

Moving through the course of the story, I noticed a repetitive nature when discussing the characters eyes. I pondered over the reasoning behind Morrison’s discussion of the gaze at vital moments, such as the point where Beloved pushes Sethe around and the first intimate moment between Paul D and Sethe. 

When analyzing the meaning behind Morrison’s discussion of the character’s eyes, I realized that it serves as a window into past experiences. As the story focuses on different moments of time, and the impact that slavery had on the present lives of character, the repetitive use of eyes furthers emphasizes the individualized trauma that characters experienced. It does this by giving direct insight into lives and their emotional state. In fact, the repeated mention of eyes connects to the larger theme of the novel, the idea that while trauma negatively impacts individuals, they must acknowledge it to recover rather than repress. 

At first, I found the book a little challenging to process. The constant shift in not only perspectives but also time make the novel a more abstract than most. However, both the emphasis on eyes and technical elements used in the novel ultimately made the story a powerful and unique piece of literature.

We All Have Our Tobacco Tins

In Chapter 10 of Beloved, the narrator explains, “It was some time before [Paul D] could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open” (Morrison).

Paul D grew up as a slave at Sweet Home. Although he is no longer a slave, he is burdened with the terrible memories of his past. Instead of dealing with these memories and emotions, he instead chooses to repress them and lock them deep inside of him.

In 2019, although we have not suffered through slavery, many of us have gone through traumatic experiences in our lives. Different people have different ways of coping with these experiences, but a common method is to avoid dealing with them all together. It can be easier to pretend that they don’t exist than to face the issue head on and the pain that inevitably comes with. Each of us would be lying if we said we had never once repressed a painful memory and locked it into our own personal tobacco tins. But as it is demonstrated in Beloved, there really is no escaping our pasts.

People Will Help You Get By

In the book Beloved a central theme of community is brought upon the reader when reading the book. Sethe finds a sense of self through her black community when escaping slavery. Baby Suggs comes into the equation by being such a vital part of this community, making her a main character in the book. As African Americans, Sethe and Baby Suggs feel isolated from many different communities in their lives. Creating this community allowed both of them to feel like they had a place somewhere and could not feel so isolated anymore. Even when Sethe is facing charges, her community helps her through the situation, provides her with a sense of relief. This makes me think about how the different communities in our lives can make us feel a sense of relief. Whether that be a community of playing a sport or attending some type of religious meeting, people can create communities that can help change peoples lives and perspectives. With community also comes power, which is seen when the community is rescuing Sethe. As a community builds, it gains power in some way, whether that is within that community or that power is brought outside of it, something is to be said about the things a community can create.

Aurora’s “Winter Bird” Resembles Sethe’s Journey

In Beloved, Sethe spends a good portion of the novel remembering her hazardous trek to 124 after she had escaped from Sweet Home. She recounts how she had to walk through cold and trying conditions while she was pregnant with Denver. The stunning imagery that Toni Morrison uses to describe this journey parallels the lyrics and overall tone of the song “Winter Bird” by Aurora.

When listening to this song, a few lines caught my attention in particular. The first I noticed was, “like the naked trees.” Aurora then goes on to ask if they will ever wake up again or if they have dreams. I found this line to parallel Beloved‘s motif of trees during Sethe’s journey. The trees themselves serve as a symbol for the overall mechanism of slavery, while the tree Aurora describes symbolizes her own dreams and curiosities.

Another line that struck me as similar to Morrison’s novel was the phrase “lay me by the frozen river, where the boats have passed me by.” This line stood out to me because it reminded me of when Sethe was giving birth to Denver in a boat. She has to have her baby in such horrid conditions because most of the white people do not care enough to help her, similar to how Aurora feels that the boats do not see her as important enough to stop for.

When Aurora sings the main line of the chorus “all I need is to remember, how it was to feel alive,” I couldn’t help but think of Sethe’s journey from Sweet home to 124. Specifically, this reminded me of the scene that Sethe recalls when Amy was massaging Sethe’s feet. Amy states that “anything dead coming back to life hurts.” Similar to Aurora, Sethe’s feet probably don’t remember the feeling of being alive.

Finally, the last line that stood out to me was “only wake each morning to remember that your’e gone.” I found this line to be especially powerful because it resembles Sethe’s emotional journey after she leaves Halle. She constantly wakes up every morning hoping that he will come back to her, but after a while, she knows that he is gone forever. She also looses her children later in her story and knows they will not come back to her.

Along with the lyrics themselves, the sad and heavy tone that Aurora sings this song with contributes to its similarities with the book Beloved. The book is not a happy one, so the tone of the book also has a heaviness to it. All in all, the tone and the words of this song paint a similar picture to that of Sethe’s memory.

“Winter Bird” by AURORA