As I have mentioned numerous times in my previous posts, insanity can be caused by a variety of factors, but they can always be classified into one of two groups: genetic or environmental factors. Sethe, the main protagonist from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, is an excellent example of the impact environment can have on one’s sanity.
Normal, comfortable, stable, and happy are but a few words that would do absolutely nothing to describe Sethe’s life (words such as slavery, rape, broken home and ghost-of-my-murdered-baby-haunting-my-house would do much more justice). The life of a slave, especially a female one, is an experience unmatched in torment and misery. The physical and mental scarring Sethe had faced left its mark on her, and as a result caused her to make irrational decisions when she was faced with problems involving her past. Sometimes, such behaviors were minor. While a long-lost friend of hers, Sethe had a hard time being around Paul D. (at times), as he reminded her of a past life. Here, nobody was harmed, Sethe was just trying to forget the past and avoid her inner pain (completely normal). However, the damage done to Sethe’s mind ran much deeper than her awkward social graces around Paul D.
Remember that baby haunting Sethe’s house? Well, spoiler alert, she killed it, in addition to nearly beating her two sons to death, and making her way to Denver. Now, (maternal) filicide can usually be traced to some sort of mental disturbance. The key factor here is that we know about what had happened to Sethe in her past. She was a slave, and saw an old “friend” of hers attempting to halt her escape her, and her children’s, escape. In Sethe’s mind, slavery was worse than anything, even death. At the same time, the basic function of all species is to reproduce, and so to kill her own children would be to go against a basic human impulse, making the decision irrational. This decision was based off of the impact left on her by her environment, and how the majority of people (even slaves at the time) would not have made such a brash decision.
While one decision in life is hardly enough to classify somebody as insane, it does show what that person is capable of, and where their so called “spark of insanity” lies. In Sethe’s case, it was all in her past. While the event itself is a horrible one, showing the grief she must have suffered in addition to bringing the life of a child to an end, what is interesting to note is how is goes against basic human impulses, leaving a small chance that her problems may lie (though not likely) within her genes. Seldom does anyone, slave or free man of the time, have such an awful experience that they can turn away from humanity.