Color in Beloved: A Threshold

In my reading of Beloved by Toni Morrison so far, I noticed that colors seem to have a lot of importance. From what has shown so far, colors are very important in cluing the reader into mood and linking events across the narrative. The concept of color itself is as important, with color being very infrequently mentioned and only are mentioned in narratively and thematically important moments, for the most part. This is in addition to specific colors. The important colors I’ve seen so far in the narrative are pink, red, blue, and green. I want to make a note that I have not been tracking the colors white, gray, or black throughout the novel because most of the time that white or black is being used, they are referring to people or skin tones, and because these colors, in addition to grey, seem to be indicative of a lack of color through the lens I’m looking through – as in the white and gray exterior of the house at 124. I am also aware that other colors, such as yellow, purple, and orange, are mentioned, but their rarity and irregularity made them very difficult to connect across the narrative. This tracking and analysis is also not accounting for the change in Sethe’s view of color after she realizes that Beloved is her lost daughter, but this essay is working from the outer edge of the threshold that Sethe crosses in the second part of this novel.

The very first mention of pink was when Baby Suggs was dying, and asked for color in the Ohio winter. “Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t” (Morrison, 4). When dying, people often want comfort, which is what color seems to bring Baby Suggs. Another very important mention of the color pink is in the dead baby’s gravestone – “Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips” (Morrison, 5). Pink is used once again in the blossoms, the flowers, that Paul D. follows North to freedom after escaping the prison camp. “When he lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink of white in the leaf world that surrounded him” (Morrison, 133). Pink also appeared in the form of ‘rose’ in the fabric that Mrs. Garner gave to Sethe, which she wanted to make into a ‘shift’ for her daughter, the one who she killed, since she decided to do it before she left Sweet Home. She forgot this fabric, and then had to make her daughter clothes from a different fabric, with no color mentioned, once she got to 124. In all the instances of the color pink appearing in the text, it seems to indicate something to do with home, kinship, or comfort.

As for the color red, the most recurring mention of the color red comes when discussing the death of Sethe’s daughter. This happens may times throughout the book, including during the recounting of the actual event. Sethe’s “wet red hands” (Morrison, 178) are mentioned when the sheriff was going to bind them, and again when Baby Suggs tried to get Sethe to clean the blood off of herself before nursing Denver, she “slipped in a red puddle and fell” (Morrison, 179). Another important moment in which the color red is mentioned is when Paul D enters 124 for the first time, into the back room, where he had to walk through a “pool of red and undulating light” (Morrison, 10), which was attributed to the baby’s ghost. So far, it seems that the color red is attached to conflict in the narrative, though I think it goes farther than just physical conflict and includes personal, internal conflicts. One could argue that the attempted murder of her children was an internal conflict, because that can’t be an easy decision to make, but there are more explicit examples of inner conflict coinciding with the color red. One point in which the color red indicates inner conflict is when Paul D talks or thinks about the stories he will never tell, he says or thinks of it as “that tobacco tin in his chest where a red heart used to be” (Morrison, 86). And then, when he was deciding whether or not to have sex with Beloved, and does, “he was saying, ‘Red heart. Red heart. Red heart,’ over and over again.” This conflict within Paul D applies to his thinking about Mister, the rooster, as well. He mentions that Mister had a “comb as big as [his] hand and some kind of red,” and then goes on to contemplate the freedom and autonomy that even the rooster had that he wasn’t allowed to. This shows the common thread that the color red ties together so far in Beloved, which is conflict, both physical and internal. Another interpretation of this I can see well is the fear within love – Sethe’s love for her daughter and vice versa, and Paul D’s love (or something close to it) for Sethe.

The color blue shows up in the text a lot less frequently than pink or red. The first place I noticed blue in the text is in the setting of their house, 124: “on Bluestone road” (Morrison, 4). There’s also a mention of blue in the color of the wallpaper of the second floor of 124. Another place where the color blue is used several times in a short section of text is when Sethe is recounting the birth of Denver, with the ‘whitegirl’ Amy helping. After Denver was born in the boat, the surroundings are described in this sentence: “Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines” (Morrison, 99), in which the repetition of the word ‘blue’ stands out because of the mostly-colorless descriptions elsewhere in the novel. On the same page, ‘bluefern’ and ‘silvery-blue’ are repeated once more, further reinforcing the linking of the color to this scene. Blue is also mentioned by Baby Suggs, when she’s contemplating color talking with Stamp Paid, and she says “Blue. That don’t hurt nobody” (Morrison, 211). I think this statement really encapsulates the mood that the color blue is supposed to indicate in this novel. Another important place where blue is mentioned is the chapter where Beloved is talking or thinking in broken sentences, and the blue seems to be referring to the ocean, in which the bodies of those who didn’t survive the passage, presumably from Africa to the Americas, were thrown. This seems to be repeating the logic that Sethe uses to justify her actions when the schoolteacher came to take her and her children back to Sweet Home, that it’s better and safer to be dead than to be enslaved. If blue’s line snaking through the novel is one of safety, than it seems like the symbolism is working toward 124 being a place of safety, at least from the kinds of danger that come with enslavement. Even though the characters weren’t physically safe at 124 – the children from their mother and the inhabitants from the ghost of the murdered daughter – they were safe from enslavement, as even though they were found, none of them ended up going back to Sweet Home or enslaved anywhere else. In that same vein, blue could also mean something like freedom, as (even though Amy Denver was speaking to Sethe with harmful, racist words, tones, and phrases) without Amy Denver’s help, the reader is left wondering whether Sethe and Denver would have made it to freedom, to 124, at all.

The last important colors that I saw throughout the novel, though fairly sporadically, was green. One place where the color green seems to have a lot of importance is that it is used to describe Denver’s ‘emerald closet’. Made of bushes that had grown high and together, it was a big, closed-off room where ”bent low, Denver could crawl into this room, and once there she could stand all the way up in emerald light” (Morrison, 34). The novel states that Denver was “veiled and protected by the live green walls” (Morrison, 35). This color seems to evoke at once protection and nature. Another place in the novel in which ‘green’ was mentioned many times was when Sethe, Denver, and Beloved went to the Clearing where Baby Suggs used to ‘call.’ It’s first described as “the green blessed place” (Morrison 105), and then the path they take to get there is referred to as “a bright green corridor of oak and horse chestnut” (Morrison, 105). The clearing was holy to Baby Suggs and everyone who went to hear her speak, and the greenness of it is definitely asserted. As the three are leaving the clearing, the path is referred to as “the green corridor” once again. Interestingly, in both cases of green being used as the major descriptor of the scene, though they both take place in nature, words for manmade structures were used to describe them. It might be alluding to the kind of fortitude one can find in building, or it may be that the importance and protection that is found in these places is manmade by those who inhabit or inhabited it.

Color is a luxury. On Baby Sugg’s deathbed, all she asks for is color. Color is a luxury that Sethe seems to have lost when she lost her daughter, except for in very significant moments. Sethe, standing at the threshold of belief versus skepticism, starts seeing colors again in regularity when she begins to cross that threshold. Before she crossed, the moments color was mentioned are especially important, if only because of their rarity.

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