Memory in Beloved

Since we are working on Beloved, I thought it was appropriate to discuss the meaning of ‘memory’ in the novel so far. Among Morisson’s incredibly rich choice of vocabulary and complicated path of narration, there are moments of clarity, of sanity. It takes a lot for the reader to understand what is going on in terms of context let alone figure out a hidden meaning or side concept. Memory is one of the only things throughout the novel that remains constant. The reader has a solid understanding of how memory fits in. The entire novel is based off of memory. The memory of Baby Suggs, Sethe, Paul D., Denver…Beloved, everyone has a memory. Everyone expresses emotion through memories.

The novel starts off with memories of being a slave, from being freed, from suffering loss, finding love, and it is because of all these recollections that we as readers are able to understand each character. We are able to go to the depth’s of their emotion because of memory. At one point, when Denver saw her mother praying by the side of her bed next to a ghost-like figure, the concept of ‘memory’ becomes readily apparent to the reader from Sethe’s perspective:

“What were you talking about?”

“You won’t understand, baby.”

“Yes, I will.”

“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my memory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around there outside my head. I mean, if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened” (38).

“Can other people see it?” asked Denver.

“Oh yes. Oh yes, yes, yes. Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away. Even if the whole farm – every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there – you who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over – over and done with –  it’s going to always be there waiting for you. That’s how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what.”

“If it’s still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies”

“Nothing ever does.”
There is so much that can be taken out of this passage. Sethe brings up the physicality of memory, how even if something is physically gone, it is still sort of engraved in our minds. She shows almost an extreme emotional maturity, when she brings up the fact that Sweet Home still exists. Her past still exists. Probably, Sethe has images in her head of lavish plantation mansions, endless, bountiful fields. But she also has memories of shacks, whips, and pain. The pictures of the plantation and of her life as a slave will never leave her, even if that place is no longer physically existing.

“Nothing better than to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past” (77). 

Sethe also implies to Denver, that when revisiting your past, physically returning to a certain place, will cause you to remember everything about it. Everything you felt and experienced once will come back again. It’s waiting for you. That’s really just fascinating. It is an abstract way of interpreting memory, and again, it shows a lot of wisdom and emotional maturity.

Sethe ends with a bit of irony, when she says that nothing ever dies. Even though she may have lost all of her children, she is implying that none of them are dead in her memory. Physically, they are gone, but spiritually and emotionally they are within her. This is readily apparent with the presence of Beloved, and her daughter-like connection she seems to loath with Sethe.

Clearly, Morisson bases the entire novel off of memory.

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1 Comment

  1. I love that quote about beating back the past.
    I was thinking about what Devin said about our “flawed memories”, and I remembered a Radio Lab podcast that discusses the science behind what Morrison artfully crafts:
    Very interesting information in this.


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