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  • Mohineet Kaur Boparai

Toni Morrison's character Sethe: in prose and verse

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

It was in 2004 that I was first introduced to Toni Morrison. Not in person but through her fictive work. I have always preferred it that way-the writing before the writer. It was after her passing away that i realized how much i related to her in places, the place of America, but also as an overseer-if not as gods-unspooling her literary universe. I was eighteen and imagining God as a woman, questioning the patriarchy that I had already begun to feel like a roll of satin cloth (or maybe jute is one like it).

The first novel of Morrison's that I read was Sula. I was immediately stunned by her choice of words, story-telling that shook you, and the plethora of imaged inner worlds of the characters in her novel. I was particularly drawn towards theprotagonist, Sula. She came across as an anti-heronine who defied and toyed with the roles thrust upon her, particularly those of friendship and love. Morrison’s beautiful understanding of guilt seems to play with Sula's character. As a teenager, she and her friend accidentally get involved in the death of a child. Their responses to this are widely different. Sula turns what can be simplistically be labelled as evil, but if one dwells on her character, one realizes that things are complex. At several instances, it seems that her entire later life is spun around the original crime. Her actions are entwined and knotted around her guilt. She defies society's rules and it seems that her guilt makes her turn to evil even more.

To me she felt like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. She lacks the gentle strand in her personality like Heachcliff. But you tend to be drawn towards them. They are both black (and I don't mean racially) and their personalities are dark and troubled. The outer dwellings where they reside are a reflection of their souls. They are both mountaintop dwellers where the environment is harsh. This harshness brushes into them, scrapes them, wounds them till they become one with their landscape. Both die in the end. And both haunt in their individual ways. Sula, the novel was colourful in its description of life and geography of the small town, but was, simultaneously, dark. I didn't know then, what was technically beautiful about her work, but I wanted to read more of Morrison’s fiction. I read and re-read and re-re-read.

Another text Beloved, left me awestruck. It took me into a rueful state but rapture too interspersed the novel, particularly in the exploration of the mother-daughter bond. Sethe, the protagonist stood in the centre of the fictive scape of the novel. She is truly a central character in that all the other stories of the different characters are intertwined to her own. She is a character who goes through extreme forms of trauma but survives. Her traumatic memories are forked into two types: the traumas that she experienced as a slave on the farm, and the trauma that emerges from the memory of the infanticide that she inflicted on her daughter. These traumatic events seem to be linked. Her traumatic experiences as a slave unhinged her and she murders her toddler daughter to save her from a similar fate.

Her suffering is close to the kind of suffering experienced by Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. They both lose their minds due to the suffering that they experience. They go to jail and repent. Their souls are troubled by their crimes. They must reclaim their selves and exit the whirlpool of guilt. Raskolnikov, Sula, and Sethe were unruly. They created scenes. Murder was central to their lives. But why did they respond to murder and guilt so differently. Were they saved, were their souls redeemed, we will never know and that is the beauty of literature. It has no answers and does not claim to have them.

Morrison's "Beloved," was my second adventure with her. It was a novel, that I'd say was sparse in information, but loaded with theme. And I say that in a good way. It revolves around an event from the slave past and several ideas emerge through the telling. She lets the reader join in the creative work with the writer. She lets you fill in the gaps, and lets the story unfold slowly, bit by bit. She goes back and forth. She doesn't thrill through plot but through her creative handling of scene. Now I know that Morrison has a story beneath the story. Individual sentence tell you what can take pages to express if done without consideration of the subtext. Trivial scenes make up the narrative but when you consider their subtext they are not trivial scenes any more but actions and events convey something very crucial to the novel's meaning.


Response to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

She held herself as if

Keeping the oddments of

Her body from scattering

The cold that she tried to chasten,

Rose to her eyes and whirled a tornado

From their punched out wells of light

But the hammer goes

Clank, clank

This migraine beats under the

Hoofs of this colt in her head

In Morrison's words:

It is amazing listening to Morrison talk about her works and their craft. In the "Introduction" to her novel Beloved, she writes about Sethe's character:

"The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes…. The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom. The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellant landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts."

I couldn't help but go to a research paper I wrote on the motif of the African body where I examine what different meanings traumatized bodies and psyches can take on. Excerpts from a research paper:

"Several conclusions were reached during the writing of this paper. It was understood that the body can be read like a text. It is physically corroded by trauma and often tells stories through the symbols of wounds and figuratively by referring to the maimed body as an extension of something deep seated like the soul."

"It is as if Sethe’s eyes reflect the depletion of her soul by the trauma she faces. Eyes are considered to be the passage to one’s psyche. In common parlance they are the seat of truth, while words are synonymous with ambivalence and death or deferral of meaning and truth. Also eyes are our windows to the world, both literally and metaphorically. They experience the world. The dullness of Sethe’s eyes, at the most basic level reflects the thwarting of her emotional life by her traumatic past. She keeps her traumatic past in check and that in turn makes her eyes vacant, un-experiencing, and unrevealing."

"A symbolic understanding of Sethe’s wounded body can throw light on the working of trauma. Sethe’s back which carries a tree of contusions can be read as a symbol of indelible suffering. The wounded back is its physical aspect, but we also know by reading the novel that the scars that Sethe has are both physical as well as mental. Sethe calls her wounds a chokecherry tree but ironically it is not like a tree at all. Trees have a certain calm and accepting aura and are spaces where one can relax. But the tree of contusions on Sethe’s back is revolting and a reminder of all that is traumatic for her. Paul D observes: “Not a tree, as she had said. Maybe shaped like one, but nothing like any tree he knew because trees were inviting; things you could trust and be near; talk to if you wanted to” (Morrison 1987, 125). Sethe’s is a passive disciplined body which carries perpetual scars of trauma. The back is stiff, unlike limbs which can move and act flexibly. The back is a passive recipient of abuse, and hence symbolizes lack of revolt. On the other hand it is also the source of skeletal and nervous strength in anatomical parlance. Therefore, metaphorically the breaking of the back is a rupturing of the source of one’s strength. "

How can we not go back to Nikki Giovanni's poem!

The Song of the Feet

By Nikki Giovanni

"It is appropriate that I sing The song of the feet The weight of the body And what the body chooses to bear Fall on me I trampled the American wilderness Forged frontier trails Outran the mob in Tulsa Got caught in Philadelphia And am still unreparated I soldiered on in Korea Jungled through Vietman sweated out Desert Storm Caved my way through Afghanistan Tunneled the World Trade Center And on the worst day of my life Walked behind JFK Shouldered MLK Stood embracing Sister Betty I wiggle my toes In the sands of time Trusting the touch that controls my motion Basking in the warmth of the embrace Day’s end offers with warm salty water It is appropriate I sing The praise of the feet I am a Black woman"


I would just say, we tread on tough ground. We've lost and won, but we've also leave footprints.

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