Toni Morrison's Novel, Beloved: the Book's Psychoanalytic and Deconstructionism

Published: 2021-09-22 22:20:09
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Tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ is a Pulitzer Prize winning work that deals with the American Civil War. It chronicles the fictional story of an escaped African American slaveSethe who is forced to kill her daughter in order to prevent her daughter from ending like her, chained forever to a life of abuse and torture. The daughter, Beloved, returns first as a spirit and then as a young woman to haunt and exact revenge on the inhabitants of the house. In addition to the Pulitzer, the book has won numerous awards including the National Book Award in 1987. The novel was also adapted into a screenplay for a feature length picture starring Oprah Winfrey.
Here, we will analyze this famous work from a psychoanalytic and deconstructionist point of view.Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism of the work
In the beginning, Beloved throws temper tantrums around the house frequently. Also, she only speaks in monologues of two to seven words. Child psychology highlights the fact that during the first two years, the child begins to learn to communicate with the people in his/her surroundings. His language develops during this time as tries to get his/her point across to the family members. Most of the first sentences of a child consist of two to six word phrases which may seem incomplete and illogical to some but hold deep meaning for the child(iVillage). The child tries extremely hard to make himself/herself understood and when he/she is unable to do so, the child may get frustrated. This frustration manifests itself as an outburst of emotion in which a child may cry, may throw things across the room or may become extremely agitated.
This psychological analysis can be applied to the early behavior of Beloved. She, being a spirit, has limited ways of communication with her family members. Being a spirit, she cannot communicate with them directly. So she expresses her emotions by moving household objects and even throwing objects across the floor. With time, it is seen that her tantrums become more severe and she is able to throw objects of greater size and weight across the room. At one point, she even throws the family dog named ‘Here Boy’ to a wall, severely disfiguring the dog. The dog’s eye, legs and tongue are damaged as a result. As time passes, Beloved is even able to shake the house vigorously during her tantrums. Although, Beloved, being a spirit, has more strength than a real child, the increase in strength of child with passing age and increase in the vigorousness of tantrums is a fact rooted in child psychology. The increase in tantrums is proportional to the frustration of the child when he/she is unable to do something he/she wishes.
Throughout the novel. Beloved displays various degrees of separation anxiety on several occasions. This is a normal phenomenon in young children and is primarily the result of their complete dependence on a caregiver. It shows that the children identify their caregivers among other adults and are fearful that their caregivers may not come back. It is also due to their strong bond with the caregiver who is the source of all their love and safety(Huberty). Since Beloved was torn from her mother at the age of two in the most horrific of ways, she departed while still in the process of cognitive development and the formulation of personal autonomy. Therefore, she behaves like a child on several occasions.
Even after returning in the body of an adult, Beloved still has the mind of a 2 year old. Each day, when the time would come for her mother to come back, Beloved would doubt whether she would ever return. As time passes, Beloved clings to her mother and begins to follow her everywhere. She lost her in the beginning and is never going to lose her again. In fact, Beloved points out that she lost her mother three times during her early years (Morrison, 253) and she vividly and clearly remembers each detail as the mind of a child is extremely sensitive in times of distress. She would always remain in the same room as her mother and would get up before her mother in the morning to greet her when she left for work. Also, with time, Beloved went farther and farther to walk her mother back when she came back from work(Koolish).
This results in Beloved slowly and gradually developing the need to bond with her mother. She wants to take over her mother’s body and on several occasions, states so explicitly (Morrison 248; Morrison 249). Another behavior visible in children is their volatility. They go from laughing to wailing in no more than three seconds. This is the result of their ‘wobbly’ mind and is a normal occurrence until they grow cognitively and psychologically older.Beloved displays similar behavior when interacting with her mother; she changed from a high spirited nature into one that squabbles consistently with her mother. This causes her mother great pain but Beloved doesn’t seem to care(Nweke).
The absence of a father figure in Beloved’s life also takes a high emotional toll. Beloved’s real father is not present and the only other father like figure, her mother’s lover Paul D, is forced out of 124 by the spirit. Sigmund Freud states that sexual urges of a female develop during the oedipal period of young girls and this development is helped by the female’s relationship with her father. During the oedipal period, girls begin to view their father more favorably than their mother and try to take the father’s side in several aspects of life.This increase in bonding between father-daughter is an important aspect of a young woman’s cognitive development. Since her real father is nowhere to be found, Beloved then focuses her attention on the next best thing. But Paul D distances her completely.
Several psychologists point out that fathers do indulge in some flirting with their daughters. This helps the development of female from a pre-oedipal to the oedipal stage where the physical development of the female takes priority (Chorodow). The failure to find a father in Paul D results in a severe deficiency in the oedipal development of Beloved which she then tries to fill through her mother. She attempts to find the warmth of a father’s care in her mother which results in the unforeseen consequence of the urge to take over her mother completely. Freud explains this dynamic as an ‘attachment’ to the mother as a result of lack of options due to the absence of the father. This results in Beloved regressing back to pre-oedipal phase which is the source of all her erratic behavior and tantrums. A complete lack of father figure in her life is an important factor in the childlike behavior of Beloved.
Deconstructionist Literary Criticism of Beloved
In a work as complex as Tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, dichotomy is found abundantly in various important aspects of the novel. Characters are set up in a polarizing way and sometimes their behavior and mannerisms are in stark contrast.Monologues and certain words can be interpreted in different contrasting ways and the past and present aspirations of the characters collide to result in a highly intricate and seemingly ‘convoluted’ narrative. The whole purpose for such a tangled story is for the author to represent the highly complicated dynamics of life of the African American diaspora under the crushing rule of slavery.
This polarization is most evident when analyzing the character, Beloved. Beloved is developed by the author in stark contrast to all of the other characters. Analyzing the relationship between Beloved and her mother, Sethe, we find fundamental contradictions. Although both Sethe and Beloved desire emotional closure considering the highly traumatic nature of their parting, they could not be further apart. Sethe, troubled by the horrors of the past which include rape and the killing of her daughter by her own hands, seeks to forget the past. For her, the wounds are too deep to reminisce and although she seeks peace with her daughter, Beloved reminds her of that horrific past. Beloved’s horrible demise is a product of that past andSethe does not want to confront it. This leads to a conundrum as Beloved is all about inquiring about her past and what led her mother to submit her to such a death. Beloved’s unyielding thirst to know more about what happened is evident when her mother notes that Beloved got an almost unparalleled gratification while listening to stories (Morrison 58).Sethe fears the past; each and every memory reminds her of the horrific ordeals that she had to go through. She believes that the past would catch up to the present and this is where she is absolutely correct. The reincarnated Beloved, in all her glory, is a representation of that tormented past right before her eyes.
The writer has also developed Beloved’s sister, Denver, quite opposite to her. Both the sisters crave attention, as all children do in their early years. But the roles of Sethe and Beloved are reversed here. It is Denver that asks all the questions here as she attempts to make sense of her sister’s reincarnation. Denver asks her sister about her death, how the other side is and where is this place located where one goes after death (Morrison 75). These questions serve as a catalyst for the development of their relationship. Denver seeks genuinely to get to know her sister better but Beloved has another entirely different agenda at hand. She seeks and later does use Denver in her quest to take over the mind and soul of her mother.
Another thread completely conflicting to this is the mutual fear of Denver and Beloved towards her mother. After the death of Beloved by the hands of her mother, Denver too becomes afraid of her mother. On page 205 of the book, she states that she loves her mother but she killed her sister and despite her mother’s continued love towards her, she is afraid of her. Like Beloved, Denver too seeks to know what would prompt her mother to commit such a heinous act and remains oblivious to the moral dilemma of the act. The fact that Denver and Beloved each vie for attention while having similar aspirations is another conflicting nature of the story. This contrast, coupled with the fact that Beloved later uses Denver to exact revenge on her mother, makes the story more complex and thus, is in line with the society reflective complex narrative of the story.
The relationship between Beloved and Paul D is also evident of the dichotomy of the text. From the beginning, Beloved’s impression on Paul D was negative. As Paul D had been responsible for driving Beloved’s spirit in the beginning, there was bound to be some tension between the two. After the banishment of the spirit, Paul D had come to live Sethe and had become the man of the house. But upon the arrival of Beloved in flesh, his position as the leader of the house was threatened. His problems were compounded when Sethe accepted the young woman as her daughter in hopes of finding emotional closure to the life that she took years ago. Paul’s relation with Sethe and Denver is also strained. This is because of the past-present duality between the relations. Sethe finds it hard to maintain both of these relations as Paul reminds her of the past while Denver is established firmly in the present. Sethe wants to live in the present and seeks to forget every minute detail about her harrowing ordeals. This is exemplified by the line of the book ‘To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay” (Morrison 42).Consequently, struggles arise between Denver and Paul as they both strive to live with Sethe.
Finally, the dual nature of the characters is evident perfectly in none but Beloved who, despite being an individual character, is a commentary on the plight of African American slaves in the US. Several times during the novel, Beloved’s monologues directly speak about the treatment of her fellow slaves and how she feel connected to the pain and horrors of all the African American slave women that came before her (Morrison 149, Morrison 214). As it is not physically possible for Beloved to feel the pain of her predecessors, she might be able to do in spirit form. Even then, it is highly unlikely that she transforms herself into a vessel that houses and manifests the pain of her forerunners. The fact that author makes a point that she does so, illustrates the duality of the topic which may be interpreted as the relation between past and present.
Past and present are not separate entities. Rather, they co-exist on a continuous spectrum with the past affecting the present in a variety of ways. Perhaps this can be taken as the meaning behind Morrison’s duality in the deeply personal yet generation spanning role of Beloved. Elsewhere in the novel, the struggles of the characters as they juggle the pains of the past with the life in present can also be interpreted to illustrate man’s continuing battles with the demons of his past.

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