As we discussed in class, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is in conversation with many different texts, including John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Dr. Beth pointed out Locke’s preoccupation with the protection and regulation of property, and also his law of nature which mentions that people own a property in themselves. This makes it a crime to harm, not only others, but also oneself.
Ever since I took Dr. Beth’s African American Literature course, I have been rolling over in my mind the ideas of both property and possession. The object and the action. Beloved, in a complicated web-like fashion, engages in this conversation, especially in the last several chapters.
Our class ended up discussing the reasons why 124 was so isolated from the community: Baby Suggs baking multiple pies and offending by the excess, that her celebration was both boastful and a danger to the community because of its consequent visibility (another complex concept, but I will not be addressing it here). Dr. Beth brought to our attention the connection to Bernice Johnson Reagon’s description of going to church in order to exercise your being. It took us a while, but we finally got to the pun on exorcise. It was here that I began to ponder possession and property again.
After Baby Suggs’ death, 124 becomes Sethe’s property. This is the material kind of possession that we tend to think of when the word is mentioned. Once Beloved reenters her mother’s life, though, there is a shift, a churning. Sethe seems to lose possession of herself as she cares for Beloved and, as a result of her guilt, attempts to make up for the past. In having taken Beloved’s life as a child in an attempt to spare her from the horrors of slavery, did Sethe act against the laws of nature? In doing so, did she also harm herself? As Sethe cares for Beloved, there seems to be a transference of matter. While Beloved grows stronger and bigger, Sethe becomes fragile and smaller. Both Denver and the women who come to save Sethe note that Beloved appears to be pregnant; this seems to be a reflection of Sethe when she killed the baby Beloved while pregnant with Denver. In this way, does Beloved come to take possession of Sethe?
Not only does Beloved basically become the head of the household (what with the power she wields over Sethe) but she also, somehow, copies Sethe’s pregnant body for her own.
When we pinpointed the pun of exercise and exorcise, the first way the latter was described was, first and foremost, of a demon. As can be seen in the Bible, demons have the capability of taking a more innocent shape in order to accomplish their subversive evil (the snake in the garden of Eden). Like a demon, Beloved shows herself to be fragile and weak and in need of a mother, but then harms Sethe in order to better herself. I wonder, though, if she is possessing her own body or that of her mother? Then, is she harming herself, as well? Is this stream of thought convoluted? Definitely.
The reason I have thought this train of thought important, engaged it, and pursued it is because of the repetition of “mine” in the last several chapters. In all of these cases, “mine” is spoken in reference to a person. When I was pondering possessiveness last year in African American Literature, my concluding opinion was that a person is not anyone else’s property. Here, though, we have Sethe, Denver, and Beloved all claiming other human beings as their own possessions. It circles back to the example I tend to use when I have this discussion; we, in our society, refer to other people as “my mother” or “my friends” as though they are nothing else, nor can they be that to anyone else. It is a possessiveness rooted in our current manifestation of the English language. Does the way we speak, then, permeate the way we think?
Locke’s natural law, however, claims that we, as human beings, possess ourselves. That is what makes Paul D’s statement in the penultimate chapter stand out to me. His words to Sethe are “You your best thing, Sethe. You are” (322). Once Beloved is gone, Sethe retakes her ownership of self. She is free from the slavers of Sweet Home and from the possession of and by her ghost child.
People often say that having a child enriches the mother’s life. (Note the use of the word “have,” often used in relation to obtaining or possessing something.) In this case, I’m not certain I can say that this was true for Sethe.