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    Race and Gender in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved’

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    Beloved is a touching novel, published in 1987, and written by Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison was an American writer, book editor, and college professor, who died somewhat recently-in August 2019. Most of Morrison’s work deals with the notion of black identity, especially focusing on the status of black women in American society. Some of her most famous works include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and many more. Interestingly enough, the first book she ever published, The Bluest Eye, was not received by the public with great avidity. However, the author believed that her book’s reception corresponded to the mistreatment of the book’s heroine. Regardless of that, Morrison was granted both The Nobel Prize, in 1977 for Song of Solomon, and The Pulitzer Prize, for Beloved in 1988, thus becoming the first black Nobel laureate. Morrison won over many hearts with her dreamlike and time-shifting plots. What makes her work special, is the ability to encompass both every-day and magical motives. It is for that reason, that she became one of the most favored writers of magic realism authors. It is a group of talented, mostly Latin American, writers whose work depicts the twenty-century world while including supernatural, other-worldly elements.

    The plot of Beloved is based on a true-life story- Margaret Garner was a 19th-century slave who, along with her family, managed to flee from a plantation, based in Kentucky. Unfortunately, their freedom did not last for long, as they were soon caught. However, that is when Margaret decided to murder her daughter, as she believed that between death and slavery, the latter is the greater evil. Morrison’s story revolves around Sethe, who similarly to Margaret breaks free from slavery, and who tries to kill her children right before their recapture. She fails at this attempt, however, she does murder her older daughter. Once their former owner decides against recapturing the slaves, for the whole murder situation convinced him Sethe was not of great mental health, she is sent off to prison. Struggled by great poverty and lack of strength to give herself any further to the engraver (for each word on the gravestone meant she ought to have ten-minute intercourse with the engraver), the daughter’s gravestone had only one word written on it- Beloved. After realizing that they are not able to keep on living their lives while being tormented by their mother’s sense of guilt and a haunted house, Sethes’s two sons leave, and now Denver, the youngest daughter, is the only child she has left. Therefore, Sethe’s house, which is being haunted by the murdered daughter’s ghost, is symbolically located on the number 124. In 1873 Paul D, another slave from the plantation, and Sethe reunite after many years and start a romantic relationship. What seems to be a happy ending for Seth after a life full of sorrows, is disrupted by the arrival of Beloved- the dead daughter’s reincarnation. Due to the feeling of guilt Sethe feels compelled to please any of Beloved’s needs, which leads to her moral and final, social fall. Luckily, the only one that is granted somewhat of a happy ending is Denver, who is set free of the limitations proposed by the House 124, and who steps out of it to join the outside community. She even has high hopes of attending Oberlin College.

    Double oppression is a term proposing that black women have been, and still are, twice-oppressed, both on racial and sexual, i.e. gender, basis. While some can claim that women and males are, by nature, predetermined to serve different roles in society, no one can claim that one of the two ought to by nature be oppressed. Therefore, there is not one possible explanation for sexual and, of course, racial discrimination. Morrison’s novel explores the notion of double oppression, thus simultaneously raising awareness on the two social issues- racial and gender oppression that are both still present in society.

    Taking place in 1873, Beloved deals with a process that took place sometime after the Civil war, and that largely affected the Black Community- dehumanization. Stimulated by Paul D’s arrival and their reunion, the two characters dive into forming a collective memory of their days spent on the Sweet Home plantation, and the reader is granted a sight into those days. Now, the two are doomed to relive those days, even though both of them have managed to break free.

    The issue of race can be examined in several examples throughout the novel. Mr. and Mrs. Garner seem to treat their slaves with more respect than one would assume a slave-owner would ever do. When we compare the atmosphere in the Sweet Home under the Schoolteacher’s supervision and that of Mr. Garner’s, in the eyes of the reader the Garner family may be perceived as praiseworthy for treating their slaves somewhat decently. However, when one takes a step back, several events indicate that the Garners are not as noble as they try to portray themselves. Sethe believed it was generous of the Garners to permit her and Halle to legalize their relationship by allowing them to get married, even though black men didn’t have the legal right to have a spouse. However, Mrs. Garner’s reaction to that lovely news showed the true state of their minds, as she took the idea as a joke.

    Another example of Garner’s pious behavior is their ill-treatment of Halle. Mr. Garner did release Baby Shuggs, but only under the condition of exploiting Halle to the fullest. Halle is well aware of its owner’s sanctimoniousness. However, there is nothing he can do, for Baby Shuggs is much too old to be mistreated any more. The situation worsens when the schoolteacher arrives. At the crucial moment of their escape plan, Halle witnesses his wife being abused. The Schoolteacher’s nephews strip her naked and steal her breast milk, thus having deprived her of any dignity. This is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the novel and Halle does not have the strength to recover from it. He is paralyzed by the extent of human cruelty and by the fact that there is nothing he can do to help Sethe. He now becomes fully aware that not even escaping Sweet Home would ever make them capable of overcoming the trauma caused by the years of slavery. At that moment, as if he has succumbed to the idea that was presented to him for many years- that white people are superior to black people and that African-Americans are rightfully enslaved, he goes numb and loses his mind.

    I believe that Paul D, Paul F, and Paul A’s life stories are a raw, realistic depiction of most of the African-American slaves’ destinies. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary name is: “a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or a thing.” Having this definition in mind, we can conclude that name is a crucial part of our individuality and that it is one of our distinctive features. The fact that the first owner of these brothers decided to name them with the same name with slight variations, witnesses that their individuality and a sense of self was of no worth to him. They were regarded as having no more value than an object and were treated accordingly, being sold away or brutally tortured through various means.

    I would also like to highlight that both Paul D and Sethe are struggling to find their identities, or who they are, for they have been stripped of any decent human treatment since the day that they were born. Having been cruelly treated, based on their skin color, the two are now faced with struggles of building a sense of self. For example, Paul D seems to be very unsure about his manhood and his self-worth. Sethe has gone through a trauma herself- having been treated no better than an animal The hardest blow that the slavery-trauma has brought for Sethe is certainly the guilt she has to live with, having constantly in mind that she has lost one way or another, three out of four of her children. The bare fact that Sethe decided that murdering her children is a better solution, than ever sending them back to slavery, speaks for itself.

    According to the World Health Organization, the definition of gender is: “Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.” In other words, gender is quite a culturally bound term. What one culture considers as traditionally masculine or feminine may not be the same in some other cultures. Besides the notion of double oppression, Beloved explores the notion of gender-blurring. Gender-blurring is a term frequently employed in the analysis of African-American fiction. It refers to the removal of the boundaries between the female and the masculine role, i.e. a man can take on a role usually regarded as a feminine role and vice versa. There are several characteristics predominately attributed to men. In this work, two of them will be examined: bravery and willingness to fight. The female gender is usually regarded as more sensitive, as fragile and gentle. Also, men stereotypically take on the role of the protector of the family, while women are in that sense the more passive gender. Besides that, throughout human history, it was quite common to consider men as the ‘providers’ of the family, while women were solely assigned the role of mothers and wives. There are phrases, frequently used in everyday conversations, that confirm this theory, such as ‘the head of the house’ or ‘the one wearing the pants in the relationship’ both referring to the masculine gender. However, we can from Toni Morrison’s novel, as well as other historical sources, notice that there was no such thing as stereotypical gender role division in slavery. Women were not treated any better than men. If anything, they were treated even worse, for they were their owner’s means of acquiring more slaves, while not being charged a penny. Besides having to give birth to the children and taking care of them, there were other mandatory tasks they need to complete.

    From the aspect of gender blurring, the most interesting character in the novel is Sethe. There are several examples in the novel that demonstrate the concept of gender blurring, where Sethe takes on masculine characteristics, being extremely courageous and even mentally strong. Despite her ‘good’ intentions, the killing of her child does not deserve any praise. However, I do feel like it is also a demonstration of her fearlessness. It is an act so immoral that most women, as well as men, would never dare to do. Hence, I consider it an example of the blurring of gender lines, as it is a demonstration of both Sethe’s bravery, which is usually considered a male character trait and sadly mental instability brought on by years of slavery. Also, there is a sharp contrast between Sethe and her sons, Howard and Buglar. Sethe does not even think of moving out of the haunted house, while the two boys simply disappear, having no strength or patience left to live in 124. I also believe that Denver presents a stark contrast to her brothers. Her character evolves tremendously and she turns out to be the moral winner of the story. At the beginning of the story, she is constantly baffled by the feeling of loneliness as the brothers left her all alone in the house and her family is, due to her mother’s crime, not welcomed in the society. Nevertheless, she manages to get the best out of the situation; she seeks for help when her mother and sister need it the most and thus starts the process of her integration into society.

    As much as Sethe’s bravery is highlighted when she is compared to her sons, it is only when we put her in contrast to the other slaves from The Sweet Home when the full extent of her fearlessness is shown. As mentioned before, Sethe was brutally assaulted by Schoolteacher’s nephews. Upon seeing his wife’s breast milk being violently taken away, Halle, probably realizing that they can never be free from trauma caused by years of slavery, goes insane. Then, there is Sixo. Sixo is quite a peculiar character who gets caught while trying to escape. To punish him, Schoolteacher burns him alive. It could be argued that he is granted some sort of a happy ending, as a woman, carrying his child, is successful in escaping. Then there are Paul A, Paul F, and Paul D, but both Paul A and Paul F never got their happy ending, and Paul D’s attempt in breaking free also results in failure. Therefore, the only one that somewhat successfully carries out her escape plan is Sethe. This shows that Sethe’s survival, motherly instincts can beat masculine physical strength at any time.

    There is another trait that is linked to masculinity. It is a sort of inborn instinct that creates a willingness to fight. Usually, men are regarded as the ones who are prone to fighting. However, Sethe is in the novel the one is fighting against an enemy. She is fighting against any possible recollection of the life of slavery she has. Besides that, she is determined to suppress memories linked to the murder of Beloved, as well as to make sure Denver never finds out the truth about her past, which is an attempt of hers that, as we witness, fails.

    To conclude, Toni Morrison’s novel can be analyzed through various perspectives. It is a noel dealing with the complex issues of gender and racial discrimination. It was Toni Morrison’s goal to create characters so emotionally scarred by slavery, to show how badly they were treated. She has also managed to illustrate how the trauma is carried onto from generation to generation, and how the former slaves never actually succeeded in losing the mentality of the enslaved.

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    Race and Gender in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved’. (2022, Jun 06). Retrieved from

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