w w w . b r e n t o n p r i e s t l e y . c o m

The return of the dead and the repressed in
Toni Morrison’s
Beloved. (2002)
Brenton Priestley

‘...A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage.’
(Faulkner 69)

‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts.’
(Morrison 35)



In Gothic texts, the twin concepts the return of the dead and the return of the repressed are perpetually recurring. Poe, the Grand Master of the Gothic tale, frequently presented a return of the repressed, often through the image of the exhumation of something that should not have been buried in the first place; Berenice, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado. The dead Pluto in The Black Cat even returns to life in order to menace the narrator. Even texts that are only informed by the Gothic mode often present the return of the dead or repressed: Blood Simple provides a potent image of this when the presumed-dead Julian Marty suddenly and shockingly comes back to life. With its Gothic literary antecedents, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is no exception, as a synopsis reveals; Sethe, a former slave, is visited by a young woman, Beloved, who appears to her murdered daughter returned to life. However, the significance of the return of the dead and repressed in Beloved extends far beyond the basic narrative level. This discussion will therefore identify and examine the different ways in which the novel analyses the return of the dead and repressed; the effect that Beloved’s return to life has on those around her and Morrison’s intention in resurrecting a forgotten, repressed people.

Almost any conceivable discussion of Beloved needs to confront the novel’s central ambiguity, that of the nature and significance of the character, Beloved. Although there are many clues that she is the physical reincarnation of Sethe’s murdered daughter (the most obvious being that she shares her name with that which is inscribed on the dead daughter’s tombstone), House makes a persuasive argument that Beloved is ‘...nothing more than a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery and has no blood relation to the family she enters (17)’. Neither interpretation is entirely satisfactory, however, and the interpretation of Beloved that offers the most (especially for our purposes, in discussing the return of the repressed) is perhaps Morrison’s own:

[Beloved] is spirit on one hand, literally she is what Sethe thinks she is, her child returned to her from the dead. And she must function like that in the text. She is also another kind of dead which is not spiritual but flesh, which is, a survivor from the true, factual slave ship... both things are possible, and there’s evidence in the text that both things could be approached, because the language of both experiences – death and the Middle Passage – is the same. (Darling 247)

This dual characterisation of Beloved, ‘As the physical embodiment of Sethe’s murdered daughter, as well as those thousands who died during the middle passage’ (Corey 37) therefore offers greater scope for interpretation, and it will be this first aspect that will be analysed.

Beloved’s return from the dead has the strongest effect on Sethe and Paul D. She ‘...awakens their emotions and memories, but she also arouses their fears’ (Corey 39). Upon Beloved’s arrival, Sethe suddenly feels an uncontrollable urge to urinate, and proceeds to do so, copiously. She enters her house to find her daughter, Denver, and lover, Paul D, watching as Beloved drinks cup after cup of water (51). As well as suggesting birth through the image of Sethe’s breaking waters, this incident establishes a supernatural relationship between Sethe and Beloved. In her repeated demands to hear about her mother’s past, Beloved awakens Sethe’s forgotten, painful memories (in itself a ‘return of the repressed’) of her own mother, of her life at Sweet Home and, ultimately, the reasons why she killed Beloved. This activation of Sethe’s ‘rememory’ is naturally traumatic for her, and creates feelings of guilt. Ultimately, the power that Beloved has, created from equal parts of guilt and love, leads Sethe into virtual thraldom to her. The relationship between Sethe and the dead echoes the quotation from Faulkner’s Light in August: ‘...A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage.’ Sethe is not only haunted by the dead Beloved, but the memories of all of her dead loved ones.

Paul D’s reaction to Beloved’s return is also interesting. Right from the very beginning, there is conflict between the two of them; when Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone Road, he sees the effects of the baby poltergeist first-hand and forcibly exorcises her from the house (18). It seems that this in fact prompts Beloved’s return, for soon after, upon their return from the carnival, Paul D, Sethe and Denver discover her on the front yard (51). Beloved’s response to Paul D’s presence in the house mirrors that of Denver in that she resents him taking away attention from her mother. She eventually is able to drive him away by seducing him, which drives a wedge between himself and Sethe. However, Beloved’s return does have a positive influence on Paul D. As Corey points out,

The arousal of his bodily responses is accompanied by an awakening his emotion and memories: the lid of the ‘tobacco tin’ protecting his heard gives way, leaving him vulnerable to the repressed emotions from his past... Although confronting these memories is exceedingly painful... Through his contact with [Beloved], Paul D has begun to reconnect to his body, his emotions, and his unconscious memories. (39)

Beloved’s influence stretches far beyond Sethe and Paul D. When the wider community of black women hear about Beloved’s presence and her power over Sethe, gossip and exaggerated rumours quickly spread about the nature of their relationship, as the following quotation from the novel illustrates:

"Ella. What’s all this I’m hearing about Sethe?"
"Tell me it’s in there with her. That’s all I know."
"The daughter? The killed one?"
"That’s what they tell me."
"How they know that’s her?"
"It’s sitting there. Sleeps, eats and raises hell. Whipping Sethe every day."
"I’ll be. A baby?"
"No. Grown. The age it would have been had it lived."
"You talking about flesh?"
"Whipping her?"
"Like she was batter."
"Guess she had it coming."
"Nobody got that coming."
"But, Ella-"
"But nothing. What’s fair ain’t necessarily right."
"You can’t just up and kill your children."
"No, and the children can’t just up and kill the mama." (255)

It was Sethe’s murder of the baby Beloved that caused her to be shunned by the wider community in the first place, so the effect of Beloved’s return resonates strongly. This is most strongly seen through the character of Ella, who muses about Beloved’s return: ‘Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present... she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving on in the house, unleashed and sassy’ (256). Deciding to resist Beloved’s return, Ella gathers up thirty women to go to Sethe’s house to remove Beloved. Jan Furman notes however that ‘Despite its coldness... the community does not entirely expel Sethe, and in the end, when she is haunted by the ghost of her daughter and is no longer self-supporting, it reclaims her as its own’ (73). The return of the dead, or repressed, is therefore shown to be something that the community cannot, or does not want to have to face.

In an interview soon after the Beloved’s publication, Morrison predicted [1] that her novel was destined to be ‘...the least read of all the books [I’ve] written because it is about something the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, white people won’t want to remember. I mean, it’s national amnesia’ (Angelo 257). The subject of this repression is, of course, slavery. More specifically, it refers to those who did not survive the ravages of slavery, the ‘Sixty Million and more’ to whom Beloved is dedicated. Nobody,’ Morrison says, ‘knows their names, and nobody thinks about them. In addition to that, they never survived in the lore; there are no songs or dances or tales of these people. The people who arrived – there is lore about them. But nothing survives about [the others]’ (Darling 247).

Beloved and its eponymous character therefore present and represent a return of the repressed on an even grander and more resonant level; the rekindling of the memory of a forgotten and ignored people, the slaves, and specifically those who did not survive the middle passage between Africa and America. ‘Beloved is,’ Matus writes, ‘the novel that demonstrates most obviously Morrison’s concern to bear witness to the forgotten or erased past of African Americans’ (103).

Why, then, does the Gothic mode specifically suit a disinterment of these repressed, forgotten people? Hantke writes, ‘Gothic horror has always dealt with the return of the repressed, a theme that lends itself particularly well to the exploration of historical experience, particularly when it remains unacknowledged or disavowed.’ Hantke is discussing fictional treatment of Nazism and the Holocaust, but this equally applies to the institutionalised slavery [2] of Morrison’s novel. Both historical phenomena, slavery and the Holocaust, are so appalling in their violence and inhumanity, that Gothic, with its emphasis on the shocking and macabre, makes an ideal choice for the exploration of such topics. Beloved provides an exhaustive catalogue of the atrocities of slavery, from the obvious and physical, such as whippings and hangings, to the more subtle, but no less horrific dehumanisation that the slaves suffer at the hands of Schoolteacher. The event which is at the centre of the novel and its characters, Sethe’s murder of Beloved in order to save her from a life of slavery (164) is an apt example of this: Sethe is tried and jailed not for murder, but for the theft and destruction of Schoolteacher’s property.

Rushdy examines in some detail the significance and function of Morrison’s presentation of the return of this repressed people (142). In presenting the return of the repressed, he argues, she revives them in order to ‘...properly, artistically, [bury] them’ (142). This seeming contradiction between wanting to revive the dead and to simultaneously repress them comes to a climax in the final, two-page chapter in which Beloved’s fate is discussed:

They forgot her like a bad dream... those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realised they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said... in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise. (274)

Why, then, is Beloved ‘disremembered’? Ultimately, she is an aberration, a ghost who is ‘not evil, just sad’ (13) and in order to progress, neither Sethe nor the community want to dwell on the past. According to Latham, ‘...the Gothic has functioned as a literary mechanism for the return of the repressed, anatomizing the pathologies lurking beneath the veneer of civilized modernity.’ Beloved’s return from the dead, and her symbolisation of the return of a repressed people signify the hidden fear beneath the surface of society and the individual, that the repressed will one day return to haunt us and exact their revenge; a Gothic trope if there ever was one.


[1] Ironically, in retrospect, considering the novel’s phenomenal critical and commercial success and subsequent canonisation.

[2] In his review, Stanley Crouch explicitly links the Holocaust and the slavery in Beloved, labelling it a ‘blackface Holocaust novel.’ (38)


Angelo, Bonnie. ‘The Pain of Being Black: An Interview with Toni Morrison’. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Ed. Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1994. 255-61.

Blood Simple. Dir. Joel Coen. Circle Films, 1985.

Corey, Susan. ‘Toward the Limits of Mystery: The Grotesque in Toni Morrison’s Beloved’. The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Ed. Marc Conner. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 2000. 31-48.

Crouch, Stanley. ‘Aunt Medea’ Review of Beloved. New Republic 19 October 1987: 38-43.

Darling, Marsha. ‘In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with

Toni Morrison’. Women’s Review of Books 5 (1988): 5-6.

Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Chatto, 1968.

Furman, Jan. ‘Remembering the Disremembered’. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. Ed. David Middleton. New York: Garland, 1997. 67-89.

Hantke, Steffan. ‘German Film: Stefan Ruzowitzky's Anatomie.’ <http://www.kinoeye.org/01/01/hantke01.html>. March 2002.

House, Elizabeth. ‘Toni Morrison’s Ghost: The Beloved Who is Not Beloved’. Studies in American Fiction 18 (1990): 17-26.

Latham, Robert. ‘Literature and Culture of the Twentieth Century.’ <http://www.uiowa.edu/~c008171/robspage/litcultsyll.htm>. March 2002.

Lawrence, David. ‘Fleshly Ghosts and Ghostly Flesh: The Word and the Body in Beloved’. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. Ed. David Middleton. New York: Garland, 1997. 231-46.

Matus, Jill. Toni Morrison. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. London: Vintage, 1997.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ‘Poe’s Tales’ <http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/index.htm> March 2002.

Rushdy, Ashraf. ‘Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved’. Toni Morrison: Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. Linden Peach. London: Macmillan, 1998. 140-53.


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