Infant Death and Haunting in “A Mercy” and “Beloved”

As we make the leap from Morrison’s A Mercy to Beloved this week, I can’t help but ask myself one question:

Why so many infant deaths?

In A Mercy, we learn of the numerous untimely passing of Rebekka’s babies. These deaths cause her grief that essentially serve as a driving force for her actions and relationships. For instance, Lina notes that she observes Mistress turning to God for prayer, although she previously believed her to not be much of a “Christian woman”. In Rebekka’s extreme grief, Morrison highlights the severity of impact that a broken maternal bond can produce for a mother. These dead essentially children “haunt” Rebekka, causing her shame, despair, and sadness. 

In Sorrow’s narration, it is implied that she suspects that Lina may have drowned one of Rebekka’s children. We as a class discussed what would have driven Lina to do this…did she think Rebekka unfit a mother? Living conditions to be unfit for a child?  Was it perhaps jealousy? Although we never came to a conclusive motive, due to her prior characterization I find it hard to believe that Lina’s intents were malicious. Thus, this stirs up questions of the ethicality of infanticide under certain conditions. Is infanticide moral, or rather…justifiable (I use this term lightly because we are talking about the murder of children here)… if death is viewed as the better alternative to the conditions of life?

This is never quite answered in A Mercy, which is why I was intrigued to find that in Beloved, the story began with the murder of a child by the mother. Sethe murders her baby because she believes death and a supposed afterlife to be the better alternative to a life of hardship and slavery. This time, the mother seems to not only metaphorically be haunted by the ghost of her dead child (as in Rebekka’s case), but also physically. Sethe’s baby nonetheless appears as a ghostly manifestation that haunts the home of her and her daughter.

What I’m wrestling with unpacking is why Morrison has implemented this plot similarity of infanticide in both of her novels….what could this have to do with a wider narrative?

I am tempted to make the assertion that it has to do with the feeling of complete loss of hope. A child serves as a symbol of hope for the future, and when that hope is diminished (either intentionally or unintentionally)– it well, resonates. This would coincide with the not only physical haunting, but also metaphorical haunting of the past that occurs for Sethe in Beloved. As she is consumed by her struggle to forget her past of Slavery, she is constantly haunted by it in the present; whether it be by the scars on her back, the visit by Paul D, and now the ghost of her own child whose death was arguably, at cause of that past.

As we work through Beloved, I’m interested to see how the churning between blocking out the past and yet again being physically being forced to remember it continues to play out.

One Reply to “Infant Death and Haunting in “A Mercy” and “Beloved””

  1. I really love the connection you have made here!

    I think the recurrence of infanticide certainly has to do with loss of hope for the future. I’m wondering if it also is emphasizing the lack of control slave women have over various aspects of their lives; their bodies, their relationships, and their children are all in the hands of their master. At any time, any number of these things can be taken away from them. So, I think, that the recurring death of infants emphasizes how women–under these conditions–could lose anything at any second. By rewriting the loss of a baby in different novels, I believe Morrison wanted to further display how slave women have zero control.

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