Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's Beloved: Portrayal of Slavery and its Effects

Toni Morrison's Beloved is a novel set in the 1800s that addresses the issue of slavery. The book depicts characters who are haunted by slavery and refuse to address their memories of it. Morrison demonstrates how slavery weakens slaves because slave owners see them as less than human. Slavery is an important issue in the story because it demonstrates how it affects the lives and experiences of the people. The theme of slavery is explored in Beloved through the emotional, physical, and spiritual ramifications that former slaves experience even in their life of freedom. In Beloved, Toni Morrison explores how slavery has detrimental effects on the human soul and identity through the lives and experiences of the characters in the story.


Beloved is a novel that presents the adverse effects of slavery through the lives of the characters. According to the novel, the existence of the slaves is not appreciated because they are just treated like animals. A good example is Sethe who struggled as a slave and with the effects of slavery after her freedom. As the protagonist of the story, Sethe felt more of an animal than a human being because her motherhood was abused as the nephews of the schoolteacher sucked them until they were swollen and no one cared about her. Sethe says "the one I managed to have milk for and to get it to her even after they stole it; after they handled me like I was the cow, no the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses" (236-237). This quote explains how Sethe was mistreated and even raped by the schoolteacher and in turn put in place with animals. According to the schoolteacher, Sethe and other slaves were a property that could be used by anyone and in any way, and so there was no way she could have prevented what was happening to her at that moment as a slave.

The Lasting Effects of Slavery

The effects of slavery led Sethe into killing her daughter, and she was just about to murder the rest of them just to protect them from slavery. Sethe was not only willing to sacrifice not only to gain her freedom but also the freedom of her children from the forceful servitude of slavery. After gaining her freedom, Sethe fought with her memories and this is evident when Morrison writes "But her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day" (70). Even though she tried her best and she was free from enslavement, Sethe still suffered from the nightmares of her past life as a slave, and this shows how slavery has last effects on the characters in Beloved.

Paul D's Experience with Slavery

Apart from Sethe, Toni Morrison uses Paul D's experience to explore the theme of slavery. Just like Sethe, Paul D was a former slave at Sweet Home where he also experienced the terrors of slavery. Paul D dreaded the life of a slave, and since his white master treated him as a less human being, he had taken himself like a lesser person, and this affected his future life as he tried to lead a normal life. In the novel, we see him being mistreated when in prison. Morrison notes that "by the time they unhitched him from the wagon, and he saw nothing but dogs and two shacks in the world of sizzling grass" (126). This scene shows the horrors of slavery through the life of Paul in prison. Nonetheless, despite undergoing dehumanizing experiences as a slave, he toughened himself and evolved into a capable man. However, as he tried to live a life of freedom, Paul D was unable to obliterate from the painful memories of enslavement. This is evident when he is talking to Sethe and trying to hide that he is suffering from her and keeps his story in "that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be" (72). Paul D says that he has a tobacco tin in his chest instead of a heart where he keeps hi painful memories of the past that he does not wish to remember. Paul D was struggling with his memories as a slave, but he tries to hide it from Sethe that he is losing his sense of self. In his life as a free person, Paul D was alienated from himself because of the disastrous slavery effect of the alienation of self. Since as a slave he was considered as subhuman, Paul D is not even sure about himself whether he is a "man" or not a real person.

The Slave-Owners' Perspective

In addition to the slaves, Toni Morrison also uses the slave-owners to present the theme of slavery in her novel Beloved. A good example is Mrs. Garner and the schoolteacher who are depicted as slave-owners who treated their slaves as lesser beings. After the death of her husband, she abused their slaves without caring about their well-being. Moreover, there is the schoolteacher who treated slaves as animals as he stripped them of their free will and demoted them below the human status. A good example is when he beats Sixo and Morrison explains it by saying the "Schoolteacher beat him anyways to show him that definitions belong to the definers – not the defined" (225). This quote explains how the schoolteacher viewed the slaves as nobodies and him as an individual of high status who could treat them the way he wished.

The Lasting Effects of Slavery

An important aspect of slavery seen in the novel Beloved is how the former slaves are affected even after finding their freedom. Sethe and her family used to work at Sweet Home as slaves where they were treated with brutality. Nonetheless, even after they flee and are free from slavery, the horrors of slavery still haunt them in several ways. This is evident when Sethe notes that "Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another" (95). This quote shows that even though they were free, the characters were not free from the pain and suffering of slavery. Paul D and Sethe try to live a normal life after slavery, but other slaves could not stand the horrible realities of slavery, and they go insane, for instance, Hale and the others in the story.

Slavery's Lasting Psychological and Societal Impact

Toni Morrison's novel Beloved shows how the institution of slavery is awful and how it can have lasting adverse psychological, physical, and societal effects on former slaves even after it ends. According to Krumholz, the emotional and mental wounds that the former slaves got during their time as slaves were not healed even during their freedom (220). Throughout Beloved, the characters suffered from their painful past experiences and as much as they attempt to forget the bitter past and embrace their freedom, they could not because it always haunts their memories. In the novel, the white people never saw the blacks as human. This is evident when Morrison writes that the "White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle" (198). The characters were treated like animals, and no matter how hard they tried to forget their past, it was always haunting them with the bitter memories. The characters' inability to avoid their experiences indicates that slavery is an awful and torturous institution with lasting harmful effects on the former slaves.


Throughout the book Beloved, Toni Morrison presents the theme of slavery and its effects on the lives of the characters as former slaves. The characters in the novel endured relentless dehumanization, degradation, suffering, indignities, and brutality in the hands of their slave-owners. As a result, the characters are entangled in their memories as slaves because they are unable to forget the brutalities. Sethe cannot overcome her outage nor forget what she faced as a slave. On the other hand, Paul D has also faced the inhumanity, and this is affecting his life as a free man. In essence, Beloved is a novel that presents slavery and its terrible effects on the characters even after living a life of freedom from the institution of slavery.

The Importance of Beloved

Toni Morrison's novel Beloved is important because it explores the atrocities of slavery and its effects on the lives of people. According to Morrison, slavery reduced the African American characters in the story as objects as they were not considered as human beings. In addition, it is important to understand this book from this perspective because it is apparent that slavery if a predominant theme throughout the story and how its consequences can be long lasting.

Works Cited

Krumholz, Linda. "Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination by Valerie Smith(review)." African American Review, vol. 47, no.1, 2014, pp. 219-221

Morrison Toni. Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

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