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Beloved, a confronting yet beautiful novel by renowned author Toni Morrison, is a fascinating study regarding repressed memory, its inability to heal pain, and the danger of uncovering buried trauma. The novel’s title refers to the name of a ghost taking the bodily form of a young African-American woman, symbolising memory, the fissuring of self, and the subsequent creation of a double identity. Repressed memory is shown as familiar but unfamiliar, present but not present, and necessary to individual growth. Through thoughtful, provoking, and sensitive storytelling, Morrison paints a world where the periphery of pain takes physical shape, and healing can come only through acceptance.
During the process of repression, the protagonist, Sethe, has psychologically split herself after murdering her eldest daughter as protection from re-enslavement. The Sethe of the past thus became external, trapped in her act of infanticide, suspended outside of time and existing only in an endless, repetitive loop. She is inseparable from the context that generated her. In the space of this separation, the present Sethe, now a freed slave, continues existing at the haunted house on 124 Bluestone Road, an event common throughout Morrison’s 1860s setting: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” 124 is one of many houses filled to bursting – in this instance, with the incorporeal grief of the dead – and there is a certain familiarity felt by the African-American “women in the house” who have lived alongside 124’s ghost for years.
This coexistence foreshadows the inability of repression to heal or nullify trauma. It is possible for a familiarity of grief to exist alongside repression, acknowledging fragments of a painful past without unveiling the whole. In this way, Sethe can survive in the present as a functional member of society. However, her repression is temporary and subject to “rememory” – a term regarding the recollection of deliberately concealed events, triggered by a place, image, or sound. The personification of rememory as a being that one can “bump into… waiting for you… even though it’s all over”, is paradoxical, upsetting the familiar notion that memory is private, questioning its intangibility and presenting it as an “independently recurring entity in time and space.”
The ghost of 124 is exorcised by Sethe’s lover, Paul D. Yet it returns physically in the form of Beloved, Sethe’s uncanny double, borne out of the splitting of her psyche. This notion of the double, later elaborated upon by Jacques Lacan, was explored by Otto Rank in his text, Der Doppelgänger. It possesses strong ties to the psychology of the uncanny, a theory studied by E.T.A Hoffman and later analysed by Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche.
Rank posits that the doppelganger is closely associated with one’s mirror image and that according to tradition, “refers to death and is also considered to be the embodiment of one’s soul”. As humans become aware of their own reflection, they also become aware that this reflection is otherworldly, ethereal – a dreamlike character possibly linked with the concept of the soul due to its immateriality. Moreover, the process of recognising one’s reflection is synonymous with the splitting of the self, as expounded by Lacan. The person/subject helps generate the reflection, but it is not the reflection. It is distinct, apart. The mirror image does not have a reflection and should be dependent upon the subject. In this way, the self is dichotomous: “the imaginary and the real”. If this distinction between the imaginary and the real is tampered with, as it is in Beloved, profound anxiety occurs.
Beloved, symbolising the past, begins to coalesce with Sethe, who exists in the present. This convergence with a mirror image is an emotional one, apropos of confronting traumatic experiences. Indeed, confrontation is necessary, but the process is strenuous and may result in recovery or, depending on the mental state of the subject, inflated agony. The monologue in Chapter 23 addresses this peril: “She smiles at me and it is my own face smiling… Your face is mine”. The excerpt is vague in perspective – there is confusion as to which character is speaking. Furthermore, there is a question of whether Sethe and Beloved are still separate personas, thus acknowledging the jeopardy of becoming engulfed in history. There is further blurring in: “You are my face; you are me”, where “face” indicates individuality, and the repetition thereof distorts this – it is unclear whose face belongs to whom. Indeed, if Sethe were to completely erase or ‘kill’ Beloved who is a materialisation of her own experiences, it would result in a loss of face, a loss of self.
Due to Beloved’s invasion, Sethe faces the threat of becoming spectral, continuously attempting to repair history by lingering in its wake:
“Listless and sleepy with hunger, Denver [Sethe’s surviving child] saw the flesh between her mother’s forefinger and thumb fade. Saw Sethe’s eyes bright but dead, alert but vacant, paying attention to everything about Beloved”.
This juxtaposition between a fleshly human fading into a ghost and a ghost solidified into a fleshly human once again blurs time, but also expresses the risk of being pressured to acknowledge history at a detrimental pace. As early as Chapter 2, Sethe’s stream of consciousness regarding a casket of jewels alludes to this hazard. The jewels, representing memory, are stifled. However, instead of “smashing [the casket] with an axe head” in an aggressive exposé, memories ought to be “decently exhumed”. Unfortunately, Sethe was forced to smash her casket instead of progressing at a natural speed. Beloved disturbs this prospect, and Sethe finds herself preferring her doppelganger, who she comes to regard as her “best thing”.
By presenting an uncanny double that questions the distinction between the tangible and the intangible, Morrison poignantly addresses the nature of repressed memory in relation to self-identity. The embodied ghost explores the necessity of embracing a history replete with overwhelming anguish and the secrets it guards. Moreover, Beloved unearths the splintering of self due to repression, its inability to heal trauma, and the care which one must take when uncovering mental suffering deeply rooted in time. Yet at the tale’s close, Paul D. states that Sethe, not Beloved, is her own best thing, denoting that Sethe, past and present, is holistic – that her wholeness includes the acceptance of Beloved so that it is no longer external, but an undying, eternal portion of the fullness of her being.
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