What kind of mother would cut her child’s head off with a hacksaw? This is a question Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison explores in Beloved, a novel with a chilling metaphor about the legacy of slavery and which finds echoes in another current question, Why is the leading cause of death among young African American men murder by another black?
Sethe, the novel’s main protagonist, is an escaped slave and mother of four a few years after the end of the Civil War. Her apparent good fortune at successfully escaping while pregnant and giving birth in flight and finding refuge at her mother-in-law’s spiritually nourishing home vanishes twenty-eight days later. The sight of a hat belonging to a cruel white owner who has tracked her down sends her and her four children into a woodshed where rather than let them suffer the torments of slavery proceeds to kill them. After killing Beloved, her third child, she is stopped by a friend who has rushed in as she is swinging the infant by her heels to smash her head.
After some time in jail for murder Sethe returns to a home haunted for years by the child’s ghost and after an exorcism attempt the child appears in the flesh as the teenager she would’ve been, intent on making her mother pay for having taken her life. Without knowing who she is Sethe takes the girl in, but once she realizes it is Beloved she sees it a divine opportunity to seek forgiveness from her daughter and understanding for her deed.
In a story impossible to predict Morrison, with a breathtaking mastery of the language, weaves in and brings to life other complex characters such as Paul D, another slave who had escaped from the same plantation but who had not seen Sethe for over a decade. After unexpectantly finding her in a small Ohio town he moves in with the hope that a bright new beginning is in store for both of them. Denver is Sethe’s other daughter who not only almost lost her life in the woodshed but also at birth if it hadn’t been for an uneducated white girl who helped Sethe deliver the baby in the tall grases on a river bank. The troubled, isolated teenage girl has rarely ventured from her home and since her two brothers ran away from home her only playmate is her dead sister’s ghost.
Communicating Through Numbers in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Communicating Through Numbers in Beloved
Humanity uses numbers as a way to communicate beyond words, evoking ideas more readily than words alone are able to. All religions and cultures have significant numbers that communicate an essence or idea more quickly and completely than words can. It is in this manner that Toni Morrison uses numbers in Beloved. Significant numbers occur starting with the first symbols of the text and the words on the pages before the body of the text starts.
124. The first thing to appear, and we already have a significant number. Sethe has four children. The third one is dead. Numbers 1, 2, and 4 remain. Another number that stands alone in its significance is twenty-eight. Twenty-eight is the length of the menstrual cycle, the lunar month, and the duration of Sethe’s happiness: “Sethe had had twenty-eight days – the travel of one whole moon – of unslaved life. From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days” (95). Sethe has lived twenty years of sorrow, for twenty-eight days of pleasure, and spends another eighteen suffering before Paul D and Beloved brighten her life again. “Those twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life….Was that the pattern? she wondered. Every eighteen or twenty years her unbelievable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory?” (173). This symbol is significant, and twenty-eight appears only within this context.
Many numbers occur that are significant even though they are not recurring themes throughout the book. Howard and Buglar “[ran] away by the time they were thirteen years old” (3), the traditional age of manhood …
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…tion” (695). This seems precisely what is happening when Sixo dies.
As we see, numbers play an enormous role in Beloved. They communicate concepts in a sort of psychic shorthand, adding a deeper subtext to many events. The way in which the numbers are used is universal, using symbols common to all of humanity. It is universal comprehension like that which gives Beloved the power it has, its genius, and its beauty.
Gaskell, G. A. Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths. (New York: The Julian Press, 1960) p. 695
Herder Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Boris Matthews. (Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications, 1993)
Mackey, Cameron. Interviews with. Haverford College, December 1995.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. (New York: Plume, 1988)
Schimmel, Annemarie. The Mystery of Numbers. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)