Gender Roles In Toni Morrison’s Beloved

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Gender is depicted in multifaceted ways throughout Toni Morrison’s Southern gothic text, Beloved. The reader is able to acknowledge the concepts of matriarchy, the maternal and female strength which are embodied within Sethe; a character that opens up a dialogue (albeit a fragmented one at times) on the question of the black female identity within a system rife with the combination of patriarchy and white supremacy. This leads to repeated gender subversion, notably through the way in which the men in the novel are depicted as either docile, weak, and unable to function or perverse in comparison to the strength some female characters in the novel demonstrate. Paul D, the only man given a significant voice in Beloved further highlights this gender subversion as he constantly grapples with what it means to be masculine in a postbellum society. In addition to this, Morrison’s placement of women who persevere despite subjugation at the hands of white, male oppressors at the center of the novel promotes the intersectional feminist idea that black women are equipped with strength despite having multiple oppressors.

Morrison also uses language to “manipulate the passage of time” by separating Sethe’s experiences of slavery as a woman from her present post-war experiences, and in doing so highlights the “fluidity of [female] pain”. However, although Morrison presents the women in a more positive light than the men, the magical realist nature of the novel, first shown through 124 and then embodied by Beloved, appears to oppose this by suggesting that perhaps the psychological constraints of the past can haunt (literally) black women, and highlight the limitations to their empowerment. This is corroborated by the view taken by Rahmani who claims that 'Beloved symbolizes the emotional, and spiritual devastation of slavery; devastation that continues to haunt those characters who are former slaves even in freedom”.

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Therefore, the aim of this essay is to explore the ways in which Morrison uses themes such as motherhood, and strong female identities to offer a narrative to the black women living in the postbellum South (when women’s slave narrative began to be explored). In addition to this, I will also be analyzing the psychological consequences of slavery for the men and women in Beloved. Fear and the lack or loss of identity have a significant part to play in the lives of the black male characters in the novel and “Howard and Burglar had run away...” (3) sets the tone for Morrison’s treatment of gender in Beloved. Fear and fragility of identity are first attached to the masculine with Howard and Burglar's escape from 124 “as soon as merely looking in the mirror shattered it...the moment the house committed what was for [them] the one insult not to be borne or witnessed the second time ”(3). This leaves the women -Denver, Sethe, and Baby Suggs- as its only occupants, and thus signals the continuation of the theme of female strength from the first page of the novel. The fact that it doesn’t take much for the boys to run away from 124’s provocations of them as opposed to Baby Suggs who “didn’t even raise her head” (4) leaves them without a voice in the novel; perhaps as a forfeit for their lack of strength.

However, Dzregah’s assertion that ‘through her male characters’ lives in Beloved, Morrison demonstrates the complexities and paradoxes inherent in the making of black masculinities and the oppression and denial of selfhood they experienced in a slave-owning era’ can be viewed through Paul D. He, unlike Harold and Burglar, is allowed by Morrison to be vocal about the fragility of his masculinity due to its definition being left to that of his white slave master;  “is that where manhood lay? In the naming done by a white man who was supposed to know?” (147). The concept of naming a person is significant due to the identity it provides as ‘an extension of its bearer, a source of his power, and a possible route to the inner being’, therefore in having his definer left in the hands of Garner, his identity as a black man becomes fragmented, resulting in inner conflict. Gender subversion comes into play when matriarchy and the maternal are presented by Morrison as the cornerstone of strength as opposed to Paul D’s fragmented sense of self.

Sethe’s character is the embodiment of this and she defines herself through the maternal rather than gleaning her identity from the actions of a schoolteacher and his nephews although, through the act of milk stealing, they make an attempt to subdue such a definition: 'They used cowhide on you?' 'And they took my milk.' 'They beat you and you were pregnant?' And they took my milk!' (20)‘With a single act, the schoolteacher’s nephews illustrate the ease with which the ostensible bodily signifier of maternal nurturance -breast milk- functions instead as a...tool for the furtherance of schoolteachers (white) family line’ rather than for her children. The repetition of “they took my milk” reinforces the painful nature of this maternal violation, thus representing the way in which the manipulation of black motherhood through the coerced wet-nursing that took place in the antebellum South. However, through “my”, Sethe shows a willingness to verbally take back ownership of her milk and her identity despite such psychological trauma whereas her husband Halle “broke... like a twig” (81) after witnessing Sethe’s defilement. Although through gender socialization, we have been led to unquestioningly believe in the idea that masculinity equals strength, bravado, the ability to be the sole provider for one’s family, etc., whilst women are portrayed as the more vulnerable, ‘the weaker sex’, Morrison blurs this view with Halle’s ‘breaking’.

His emasculation brought about first by his status as a slave and secondly by his inability to save his wife is paralleled by Sethe who manages to empower herself albeit a slave too and the violated. Sethe’s declaration that “nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children” (236) can be viewed as a sign of the way in which the placement of her identity in motherhood gives her the strength to undertake the task of escaping Sweet House and its patriarchal, pervasive and oppressive regime; schoolmaster its dictator: “I did it.I got us all out. Without Halle too. Up till then, it was the only thing I ever did on my own./Decided./ I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn’t no accident/ I had help, of course, lots of that, but still, it was me doing it; me saying, Go on, and Now..” (190)The isolated word “decided” highlights the way in which through Sethe’s rebelliousness, any decision-making power was extracted from her white male oppressors, therefore attaching motherhood and black femininity to courage. This is in direct collusion with Wyatt’s assertion that ‘in presenting Sethe's journey from slavery in Kentucky to the free state of Ohio as a maternal quest, Morrison is elaborating the figure of the heroic slave mother that in many female slave narratives replaces the figure of the heroic male fugitive’ (for example, Frederick Douglass)  while also celebrating ‘the... power of the slave mother’.Morrison further extends this with the image of Sethe as “a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest” (175); a Margaret Garner-like feat when met with the threat of having her children taken away from her by schoolmaster who seeks retribution for her escape.

Just as Margaret Garner, an American slave who, in 1856, ‘slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter to save her from being returned to slavery’, Sethe goes to the extreme of infanticide to prove the extent of her maternal love. However, despite violent the descriptions - “the two boys bled in the sawdust”, “she swung the baby toward the wall planks” (175)- Rahmani argues that ‘under slavery, a mother best expresses her love for her children by murdering them’. These ‘mercy killings’ take place in order for Sethe to give her children the quick death that slavery’s physical and mental torture wouldn’t and is she is duly rewarded when “right off, it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim” (175). She, therefore, succeeds in disempowering her oppressor.

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