Symbolism of Colours in “Beloved” By Toni Morrison
In the novel “Beloved” Toni Morrison tells the tumultuous story of a freed slave after the civil war. The effects of post-slavery in Beloved is encapsulated by the words of William E. Cross Jr. when depicting treatment for this trauma, “ …makes it a scientific nightmare to design a strategy capable of disentangling transcendent racial anxiety from racial anxiety grounded in post-slavery or contemporary encounters with discrimination and injustice.”. After her escape from her plantation, the protagonist Sethe perseveres through the abandonment of her sons and the haunting of her deceased child that she shamelessly murdered in the name of abolishment from slavery. Throughout the novel, Toni Morrison utilizes symbolism to demonstrate the psychological and social damage slavery has.
The color red seen throughout the book is very apparent and has clear meanings alluding to how slavery has shaped the way characters think and act. The first relation to red is when Amy, an indentured servant, talks about red velvet to Sethe who has never been given the opportunity as a slave to even hear about it, “Well, Lu, velvet is like the world was just born. Clean and new and so smooth. The velvet I saw was brown, but in Boston, they got all colors. Carmine. That means red but when you talk about velvet you got to say ‘carmine.’”(16). Red in this part of the story represents the new life that has not been tampered with and tainted. The newness and smoothness of the velvet represents a child and is ironically talked about to Sethe after her murderous act on her own child. The mentioning of Boston is symbolism for a free city that has many different colors of “velvet” and people (16). Amy speaks highly of it saying that it has “good things to eat” while Sethe, a person who has never been to a bustling slave-free city, crawls next to her (17). Boston, although it may be a free state, still treats freed slaves inferior at that time, “Freed slaves in Massachusetts continued in an inferior social position, legally free but with fewer civil rights than whites.” (MassHist.Org, 1).
This shows a hierarchical sense between the two, Amy having experienced things Sethe could never imagine while she crawls in the dirt. Amy continues with the theme of condescending diction towards a slave that will never feel the luxurious materials with “I’m a get to Boston and get myself some velvet. Carmine. You don’t even know about that, do you? Know you never will.” (40). This is said by Amy in spite that although they may be different ethnicities, they both live without basic freedoms. Amy may be condescending to Sethe but through both of their experiences with the symbol of red velvet, Morrison is able to show how a mere piece of cloth can be impactful on a person when they have such little access to it.
Paul D’s red heart is mentioned multiple times throughout the story, especially when it comes to showing emotions. His red heart is full of emotion and ready to burst when Sethe is making intimate contact with him, “What he was telling her was only the beginning when her fingers on his knee, soft and reassuring, stopped him. Just as well. Just as well. Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be.” (36). Paul D’s emotions have been trapped within a tobacco box from a previous plantation he worked on. Instead of having the ability to express what he truly feels to Sethe, he feels a need to lock it within the box where his heart would usually be. Paul Ds tin tobacco box is a symbol of the traumatic past of slavery held all within a single rusted over the metal top (36). If it were to open up then the past memories that Paul D has would pour out and leave him spirally into the cataclysmic memories he has been suppressing for his own wellbeing, “ He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him.” (36). the smell of the tobacco Sethe and Paul D would have would both bring up their experiences on their plantations. Paul D is trying his very best to make sure that does not happen. Thankfully, they both do not have to go through the opening of the box and they leave each other. After the interaction has ended Morrison leads the reader again towards showing how simple conversing can bring up traumatic experiences with “Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” (36).
Through all of the hardship that the color red and the tobacco tin brings, the characters find reparations in “Beloved” whenever there is nature involved. When they are met with hardships or need an escape, they allow nature to empower and console themselves. Morrison uses her characters' own experiences to refer to trees tranquility as a sign that in solitude away from typical public life, could they achieve peace from undesirable memories. Even after Sethe's horrific sights, she only chooses to recollect the sight of sycamore trees that lynched boys were hanging on, revealing her alignment with the comfortability of the trees: 'Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her- remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that' (2). Sethe wishes her first thought would have been the boys instead of the calming image of the trees, but in turn, she probably replaced this thought to distract her from the choking body of Halle: ''I wouldn't have to ask about him would I? You'd tell me if there was anything to tell, wouldn't you?' Sethe looked down at her feet and saw again the sycamores' (3).
Sethe clearly has a positive emotional attachment to trees merely in part from traumatic experiences from slavery. But, Paul D views them in a more physical sense from escape from slavery: '... trees were inviting; things you could trust and be near; talk to if you wanted to as he frequently did since way back when he took the midday meal in the fields of Sweet Home' (10). From this feeling Paul D forms an attraction to one certain tree. He named this tree Brother and he consoles it from time to time because it gives him a sense of escape from slavery, 'His choice he called Brother, and sat under it, alone sometimes. Sometimes with Halle or the other Pauls...' (10). After a tiresome day of slave labor, Paul D would frequently relax under the ominous presence of Brother with Halle, the Paul’s and Six: 'He, Sixo and both of the Pauls sat under Brother pouring water from a gourd over their heads...' (13). The trees not only represent comfort for Paul D and his fellow slave companions, but they also give a sense of security for all, a place for escape from slave life. Nature in this novel is clearly indicative of the character's identity and empowers them to break from the mental chains of slavery.
Throughout the novel, Toni Morrison compellingly tells the terrible events that a typical American slave would experience. The traumatic events clearly shape the ways character’s personalities and how they interact with each other after they are freed. But in the end, they all use nature to escape from the control of their owners and express free thought and will. Through the use of symbols in “Beloved” the reader is given an inside look to the psychological and social effects of slavery.
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