Toni Morrison depicts the physical and psychological effects slavery has on an African American woman and her family following the civil war in her famous book, Beloved. Throughout the novel, Morrison uses various themes to capture the impact of slavery had on the various characters portrayed in Beloved. The effects on these characters were not just physical but psychological as well. The impact of slavery has left a great impression on this family even long after the civil war. Slavery has led to physical damage, the killing of ones child, families being broken up, characters going crazy, and not being able to move on from the past that haunts them.
Slavery has had a physical affect on many characters. School teacher made one open on my back, and when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still, (17) states Sethe describing the scar of a tree on her back. Sethe was whipped with cowhide for telling Mrs. Garner that the boys of the schoolteacher had taken milk from her that was for her baby. Sethe was whipped so hard that he had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth, none of which Sethe could feel because her back skin had been dead for years (18). Even though years had passed Sethe is still effected by the punishment that was dealt to her during her time as a slave. Below her bloody knees, there was no feeling at all; her chest was two cushions of pain, (34) describes Sethe of her body as she lied in the woods pregnant and in severe pain. The fear of slavery and hope of
freedom had led her to run away pregnant into the woods to try to save herself and her unborn daughter from the chains of slavery.
Slavery also affected Sethe psychologically because the threat of slavery onto her children lead to the killing of one of her own children. Sethe did not want one of her children, Beloved, to live like how she had and to suffer like how she had suffered. Sethe believed that Beloved would be better off dead then to have been a slave to someone. Sethe believed that .what she had done was right because it came from true love (251). Slavery had to have affected Sethe psychologically because no mother in their right mind would kill their own children, but the negative affects of slavery and having been through the life of a slave, Sethe strongly believed that Beloved should not have to live the life of a slave. Sethe felt rather than having to suffer, Beloved would be better of dead.
In Beloved, we see evidence of the affects of slavery on families during that time. Slavery has lead to the break up of many families. Going back to when Sethe was a slave, she did not have any parents herself, and lost her husband when she ran away to Ohio trying to free herself. Slavery also led her to kill one of her children, and the ghost of that dead child, Beloved, led to both of her sons running away. In attempts to break free from the chain of slavery, Sethe had to put her family aside to gain freedom for herself and her one daughter Denver. Baby Suggs lost all of her eight children due to slavery, four children were taken from her and four were chased away. She tells Sethe that she should be thankful that she had three children left but it was because of these conditions that many former slaves were able to grow into a closer bond with each other.
Being a slave has not put Sethe in the right state of mind. The act of slavery stills lingers in her mind, as she cannot get over the years of her living as a slave. Like a soldier who fought in war would have flashbacks, Sethe often experiences a flashback of her own kind trying to forget all of the horrible memories. Sethe charges Edward Bodwin with an ice pick in the deranged belief that he is schoolteacher come for her babies (Furman 269). Being a slave and remembering her horrible past has led Sethe to believe that a white man who was there to give her daughter Denver a job was the schoolteacher that had mistreated her when she was a slave. Seeing Edward Bodwin standing in front of her house she flashed back to how the schoolteacher forced her to kill her own child and just went after Edward Bowin to kill him. Some characters like Ella has tried to completely forget the past. The past was something to leave behind. And if it didnt stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out (256). Ella feels that the past being so terrible its not even worth remembering and is best to just forget about everything that had happened.
The affects of slavery is so great that the characters in this story have a hard time moving on with their lives even after the end of slavery. Even though Denver did not live as a slave, the fact that Sethe her mom was slave, affected Denvers life greatly. The ghost of Beloved living in the house leads Denver to say, I cant live here. I dont know where to go or what to do, but I cant live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys dont like me. Girls dont either (14). The events that occurred years ago during slavery still affects Denver who was not even born when her sister was killed. Furman
Says But without friends, neighbors, a church, without involvement in the community, she has little potential of rehabilitating her life beyond a woodshed (Furman 266). Slavery has led Sethe and Denver to live a secluded life in which they do not associate with other people. The lingering effects of slavery have slowed down the growth of Denver as a strong black woman and have prevented Sethe from moving on from the past that haunts her.
Through the novel Beloved, we can understand the physical and psychological effects that slavery had on people during that time. The harshness of slavery made people do things that they normally would not do and kept many from living the life that they would have wanted to live. We can also see that slavery not only affect those who were slaves but their children as well, as many had to grow up without parents, children, siblings, or spouses. Like the imagery of birds flying together in the story, what the African Americans wanted was just their freedom, to fly away from all the racial injustice.