The Emotional Dissociation in ‘Beloved’


By Dr Omila Thounaojam


Sethe “could not feel” the skin on her back around the tree of scars “because her skin had been dead for years” (21) and such an absence of physical sensation also suggest on the possibility of the emotional dissociation Sethe experiences.  In a way, Morrison signals that Sethe’s trauma is in the body (Henderson) and her commitment to warding off the feeling and choosing not to tell or to “tell things halfway” only about the traumatic past are ways to cope with the sense of emotional dissociation she lives in. When Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone, she wonders whether she can “feel the hurt her back ought to. Trust things and remember things because the last of the Sweet Home men was there to catch her if she sank?” (21)  Sethe’s memory of her mother’s mouth, misshapen from the bit comes back to her when Paul D describes her of the chain-gang. The body’s traumatic responses to torture and pain is distinctly underscored in the novel by another emphatic choric account by Beloved highlighting the image of the destruction of slave bodies on a slave ship. Through Beloved’s fractured monologue, the reader gains fleeting access to the “untold stories” of those slaves who were killed and abused by the “men without skin” (249). Rachel Lister states: “Multiple voices overlap clamoring to tell their stories. Horrifying images of drowning, abandonment, rape, and murder struggle to assert themselves”. Most significantly, Baby Suggs’s preaching in the clearing offers us an antidotal belief emphasizing on love of one’s own flesh for a much needed healing and self-possession: Here … in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. …. You got to love it, you! (104) We observe other sensual and sensory deprivations through which the novelist highlights Sethe’s response to the trauma of motherhood under slavery, in particular, Beloved’s death.

One of the most explicit instances of such an aspect will be Sethe’s failure to apprehend color and unlike Baby Suggs, who dies “starved for color,” (46) she does not see its absence in her life: Sethe looked at her hands, her bottle-green sleeves, and thought how little color there was in the house and how strange that she had not missed it the way Baby did. Deliberate she thought, it must be deliberate, because the last color she remembered was the pink chip in the headstone of her baby girl …. Every dawn she saw the dawn, but never acknowledged or remarked its color. There was something wrong with that. It was as though one day she saw red baby blood, another day the pink gravestone chips, and that was the last of it (46). Jill Matus claims that Sethe’s refusal to see colour is a “traumatic commemoration – as the blood drains from Sethe’s subsequent world”. Such a claim makes sense when in the text, perceptions of the world are forcefully marked by the central traumatic event. The past is made more vivid to the reader by allowing Sethe overwhelmingly recall of the past and at the same time, revealing that she feels haunted by the sense of profound sensory deprivations. By considering here Elizabeth A. Waites’s take on trauma and survival, one could say in Sethe’s case that her body memorializes trauma in specific somatic symptoms and it functions to emphasize her dissociation from feeling and affect. One also observes that the traumatic consequence of Beloved’s death to her sister, Denver is her temporary deafness.

A chain of repressed memories in Sethe’s life gets unleashed after Beloved’s arrival and her presence in the house brings back Sethe’s painful memories about material loss. It could be said that Morrison’s indictment of slavery as an institution that distorted and truncated maternal subjectivity develops by Sethe’s confrontation with her feelings of “mother-lack” and abandonment. One observes that, Beloved’s question “Your mother she never fix up your hair?” (72,) stirs up Sethe’s memories of her mother and she explains how she rarely saw her mother. While recalling her mother, Sethe revisits sites of memory and says when they “cut her down nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or nor, least of all me and I did look” (73). Frantically, she begins to fold laundry: “She had to do something with her hands because she was remembering something she had forgotten she knew. Something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross” (73). The reader initially finds it hard to understand Sethe’s anger about the memory she recovers and it is only later that we realize that her anger stems at her memory of an account of her origins. The one-armed woman, Nan, who nurses her, tells her that she was the only child her mother conceived in love. Sethe, as a small girl was “unimpressed” by this account and as a grown-up woman “she was angry, but not certain at what” (74). Sethe recalls Nan’s words and at first, is experienced as something “shameful” and then it provoked inexplicable anger in her. In Section Three of the novel, in Sethe’s “monologue,” the reader understands Sethe’s shame and anger on remembering her mother. She explains that her plan was to take herself and her children to the other side where her mother is: “You came right on back like a good girl, like a daughter which is what I wanted to be and would have been if my ma’am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one” (240). Further, she continues: “I wonder what they was doing when they was caught. Running, you think? No. Not that. Because she was my ma’am and nobody’s ma’am would run off and leave her daughter, would she? Would she, now?” (240) Denver’s earlier question “Why they hang your ma’am?” (73), receives an answer now when it is revealed that Sethe’s mother was running away , and somehow this is something that Sethe wants to avoid recognizing, but such an act of abandonment makes her feel angry and shamed.  Even though Sethe fails to feel any better, Nan tells her that she did mean more to her mother than any child she had borne:
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. she put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe (74). Nan’s words confirm that Sethe was conceived and named willingly, but it also emphasizes the fact that she was left behind and was deprived of her mother when her mother attempted to escape. In a moving way, she says “mark the mark on me too” (72) clearly expressing her desire for her mother and her identification with her. One can infer that Sethe regards her children as extensions of herself and sees that their protection as the best part of herself. Abandoned by her mother and raised up by one-armed Nan, who has never quite enough milk for her, she is determined that she will bring her milk to her hungry babies. Sethe replays her longing for a mother who would protect and stay with her children through her memories of her mother. Therefore, it is evident that a genealogy of mothering under slavery that would rationally produce the extreme forms of Sethe’s maternal subjectivity is highlighted convincingly by the author. The narrative itself in the first half of the novel, through its fragmentation and discontinuity conveys the nature of the traumatic past. It is built up of memories, and as a result, the process disrupts linear time and blurs the boundaries between the present experience and the past. If trauma is considered a “disease of time”, the narrative texture in the novel represents it through “chronological disruption and the visitation of the past as a concrete, material reality” (Matus). Sethe lives in the past as if it is her present and she finds it outpouring in her daily life as if it is happening again and the narrator states part of the “serious work” of her day entails “beating back the past” (86). One could claim that the trauma of slavery has disrupted linearity and chronology so much so that, time itself is haunted thereby making the narrative denies history which is a systematic  ordering of time. It is only through a second reading that the reader could assimilate the details of the text in the light of the various incidents revealed only later. The reader finds an enhanced sense of continuity and coherence when the narrative is replayed and such a second reading offers the reader to share more fully the testimony to the trauma that the account offers. One sees that the phrase “passed on” is repeatedly used in the novel hinting at the way the notion of repetition and transmission through revisiting sites of trauma is emphasized in the text in order to understand the presentness of the past. Iyunolu Osagie feels Beloved as the materialized ghost is a repetition of the past, so that Sethe can confront her pain and guilt and interestingly, one observes that the novel itself is a repetition of Margaret Garner’s story.

The narrative enacts a circling around the traumatic unspeakable event and this aspect allows us to look at the ways in which we could bring in psychoanalytical accounts of traumatic repetitions “unavailable to the consciousness but intruding repeatedly on sight”. Two main aspects of trauma namely, “belatedness and incomprehensibility” (Caruth) could be used to describe the reader’s initial experiences of the novel and this feature fulfills the author’s intention to let her reader be pitched into the narrative without warning, in a similar manner in which the slaves found themselves confused aboard ships during the first great migration called as the transatlantic passage. Many felt that Morrison allows Sethe to remember too much and too well, but one should not forget that Sethe suffers from a repression of memory evident in the manner in which the narrative performs in a discontinuous and fragmented manner. Sethe represents the figure of the traumatized subject and is in a position in which she remembers and yet is numb to the effect of the experience. Just like parts of her body is numb and her memory is represented as bodily in order that the arrest of effect is outlined as sensory deprivation.

It could be argued that until Paul D arrives, Sethe seems to be living feeling enslaved as it were by her memories and the narrator states: “Her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day” (83). In an exchange between Paul D and Sethe, one observes that there is a possibility that he could be the catalyst that could facilitate Sethe with an exploration and confrontation of what is “inside”.

The narrator suggests of the possibility of a joint future when he, Denver and Sethe return from the carnival “on the way home, although leading them now, the shadows of three people still held hands” (59). Sethe, all the while muses over his invitation that they make a life together and it is at this point when she begins to desire, imagine a future that the ghost materializes. Most often, victims of trauma are possessed by their history and in Sethe’s case, her possession is made real and literal in the form of Beloved.

Elsewhere it is observed that “victims of trauma may experience not only ‘guilt’ about surviving, but intense anxiety about rebuilding a life and beginning again. One basis of anxiety is the feeling that building a new life is a betrayal of loved ones who died or were overwhelmed in a past that will not pass away” (LaCapra).  Considering this, it can be said that it is not only the possessiveness of the past that Beloved’s materialization is suggestive of but also Sethe’s need to confront her own guilt at having survived and also to work through that past if she is to move forward.


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