Hands

As I’ve been reading Beloved, Morrison’s use of hands has stuck out to me the most, but unfortunately I cannot seem to find a way to smoothly add it in to our current conversation. I even looked to see if there might be an article somewhere on the use of hands in Beloved but came up… empty-handed. *Crickets*. And although we have not really looked into it and I can’t seem to find anything else that has, I still believe it is a theme worth some attention.

I began to notice how Toni Morrison makes use of hands as a descriptor when I caught how often she mentioned Amy’s “good good hands,” (95). Four times in one chapter. Hands seem to be symbolic of who a person is because so much of who they are is how their hands look or feel or what they do with them. Amy’s hands are a description of her character because although the language she uses may be a product of her time, she is overall a good person as she helps Sethe and ultimately saves her life because she honestly cares.

When we finally get a glimpse of who Baby Suggs was, in the scene where she is preaching in the Clearing she says, “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,” (103). And when Sethe is awoken from this memory by the choking, she is soothed by Beloved, who’s “fingers were so cold and knowing,” (114). This description of Beloved’s hands further adds to the mystery of who she is; her fingers are “knowing,” perhaps like a god or a spirit which knows more than any mortal. Additionally it was suggested in my small discussion group on Wednesday that maybe Denver was right when she accused Beloved of doing the choking to begin with. This description of her hands could support the claim that Beloved had done the choking, since her hands seemed to “know” when they were soothing the bruises.

When we get to know Paul D’s story, during the action of killing Brandywine, “his hands quit taking instruction,” (126). This way of talking about his hands makes Paul D seem more innocent, as though he did not want to strike, but his hands in an adrenaline filled rush would not listen.

Having control over one’s hands seems to be an important theme.

When Baby Suggs is granted her freedom, the first thing she notices were her “[…]hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling, ‘These hands belong to me. These my hands,’” (166). Then she notices her heartbeat. Then she laughs. Until that moment, she had not owned her hands. This joy she feels when she notices after 70 years that her hands belonged to her, further stresses the importance of having this freedom.

“’Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!’” (103-104).

One Reply to “Hands”

  1. Julie, I appreciate the observation you have made about the repetition of hands in Beloved because I noticed it as well. And I also did some research into the symbolism of hands in Beloved and did not find much, which led me to pursue what hands might convey in Dante’s Inferno and still came up short. However, as Morrison seems to be in conversation with religion in both Beloved and A Mercy, I decided to look up the symbolism of hands in the Bible. I found that most references to hands in the Bible convey a degree of power, which you allude to when you mention that “having control over one’s hands seems to be an important theme.”

    Toni Morrison is entering the conversation of human bondage under slavery, where slaves were deprived of their freedom and power through physical and structural ties on their hands. I have found that in my education about slavery, many documentaries and historical works often depict slaves standing in a line with rope binding their hands together, rendering them powerless against the slave masters. Our hands are integral to our independence; we need them to perform an endless array of tasks that support our survival and happiness. Additionally, how we choose to use our hands is uniquely tied to our identity. Do you use them to help or harm? create or destroy? Welcome someone in or push them away? What kinds of jobs or hobbies do you engage your hands in? Hands are deeply tied to our survival, freedom, self-expression, and identity, and when your hands are bound by another, they control all of those aspects of your being. An alternative reading of Paul D’s hands that “quit taking instruction” is that his hands quit taking the instruction of Brandywine and the system of slavery, acting out in accordance their master Paul D’s desires.

    When they are freed, Baby Suggs and Paul D celebrate their right to choose how they want to use their hands; they celebrate their right to control and to shape their own identity. While they were tied, they were viewed as vehicles of production; their masters “only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave [their hands] empty,” as you point out. When their hands are freed, they are no longer a cog in a machine; rather, they are given a chance at self-determination. And even though they still live in a society that oppresses them and strives to beat them down and restrict them, Baby Suggs and Paul D still relish in their freedom and right to choose who they want to be.

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