The 'monstrous potential of love'. Moral ambiguity in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jazz

by Liz Lewis

sometimes good looks like evil
and evil looks like good


Much literature concerning the lives of African Americans during and after slavery explores horrific acts of violence. Toni Morrison (1931 - ), however, takes a step further by dealing with another kind of violence - a violence that is paradoxically an act of love. In her exploration of the moral ambiguity of horrific love she breaks down the polarities of right and wrong and explores the 'grey' areas of human love, 'when love slips through.' (Morrison).

In this essay I will deal chiefly with two examples of murder which could be said to epitomise this 'monstrous potential of love': Sethe's murder of her daughter in Beloved and Joe Trace's murder of his lover Dorcas in Jazz. Beloved deals exclusively with the distorted love of a mother for her child under the oppression of slavery, while Jazz deals with the love between man and woman and explores how racial oppression can distort it. However, in Jazz too the theme of mother-love is of major significance.

Morrison began to explore the theme of violent mothers early in her work, and in her novel Sula (1974) she touched upon the theme of horrific acts of love through the character of Eva Peace. This element of the novel Sula can be seen as a pre-cursor to Beloved, the later novel in which the theme of the monstrous potential of love is central.

Eva Peace first demonstrates 'tough love' when she mutilates herself in order to acquire economic security for her children and end their privation. Later, her killing of Plum - although terrible - is equally an act of love. Plum returns from the First World War shattered - 'helpless and thinking baby thoughts' - and Eva takes his life to save him from a prolonged and emasculated suffering. The ending of life for Plum is for him a welcome escape, euthanasia rather than murder. In his confused state he perceives the kerosene Eva spreads over him as 'Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing'. Eva's act although extraordinarily destructive is an act of kindness and self-sacrifice of the profoundest kind, for Plum is 'her beloved baby boy' and losing him is intensely painful. Morrison illustrates this ambiguous area of human love in which it is quite acceptable that 'parents who simply adore their children and really and truly do want the best for them may, in fact destroy them'.

In Beloved, the remarkable novel for which Morrison won the 1993 Nobel prize for literature, this theme is explored in great depth. The novel is based on the real life case of a slave girl - Margaret Garner - who in order to protect her children from slavery, attempted to murder them and succeeded in killing her baby girl. Through the use of her unique and remarkable style Morrison presents us with glimpses of the past which creep through both the cracks in Sethe's memory and the plot of the novel, revealing a desperate act of love more haunting than any baby ghost. Due to the horror of slavery Sethe's murder of Beloved is transformed into what Morrison controversially deems 'the ultimate gesture of a loving mother', whose action proclaims, 'to kill my children is preferable to having them die'.

This idea, of the terrible brutalisation of slavery as being a death of the profoundest kind - a death of one's humanity - is epitomised in Schoolteacher's 'project', in which he measures Sethe's body for anthropological reasons. The absolute horror of such a system is chillingly illustrated in the scene when Schoolteacher scolds his pupil for not putting Sethe's 'human characteristics on the right; her animal ones on the left' as he has been instructed to do. The ultimate violation of Sethe's body and also her motherhood is captured in the scene in which Schoolteacher's white pupils hold Sethe down and 'steal her milk'. Sethe is simply viewed as a commodity, an animal with no human rights whatsoever. When Schoolteacher chastises his nephew for over-beating her it is on the grounds of her inhumanity, not her humanity. He asks him, 'what would his own horse do if he beat it beyond the point of education' and insists that he is accountable for such 'creatures God had given [him] the responsibility of'.

Morrison clearly illustrates through such scenes why Sethe feels compelled in desperation, and as an instinctive act of protective love, to push her children 'through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them'. Killing her children under such circumstances, where the prospect of life seems bleaker than the finality of death, seems merciful rather than cruel. It is not an innate 'badness' which leads her to such a desperate measure but a society which has denied and distorted her ability to love and to choose: 'it wasn't the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (liveable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them'. Of course in a system of compete human denial it would be ludicrous to expect the individual's idea of love not to be distorted.

Beloved reflects how in such a society allowing oneself to love is a dangerous practice doomed to heartache. Paul D, witnessing the strength of Sethe's love for Denver, thinks her intensity is 'very risky'. His solution is to repress love, to damp the fire of emotions to protect oneself from loss:

the best thing he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well maybe you'd have a little left over for the next one.

Sethe's murder of Beloved is a denial of the dissolution of love, an attempt to claim the right to love. She makes an active attempt to retain the maternal bond between herself and her child. Her act of desperate violence is contrasted with Baby Suggs who suffered over and over from the dreadfulness of a system stealing away a mother's children from her, and obliterating the right to love: 'my first born. All I can remember is how she loved the bottom of bread. Can you beat that eight children that's all I remember'. Like Paul D she adopts the practice of 'loving only a little', accepting that she has no control over her children's lives.

Sethe, however, as she undertakes an active escape into freedom, also adopts emotional freedom. She rejects the survival technique of making the best of things and loving oneself despite a lack of control over one's life, and allows herself to love and to take possession of her children. She says after escaping from Sweet Home, 'there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to'. It is this active insistence on self-freedom of which Paul D is so terrified. For him, 'more important than what Sethe had done is what she claimed'. Such claims, he knew, could lead to terrible destruction.

Sethe's act of violence is in some ways, then, a refusal to compromise her right to love her own children. When Paul D criticises her for her large claims, saying her love is 'too thick. She responds that 'Love is or ain't. Thin love ain't love at all'. For Sethe love has no limit. Hence the boundaries between right and wrong are blurred.

Jennifer Fitzgerald, taking a psychoanalytic approach to the reading of the text, claims that Sethe's 'sense of self and the boundaries to that self [are] dangerously weak'. Fitzgerald avers that this is due to Sethe's separation from her own mother at an early age. She suggests that like Beloved, Sethe is suspended in a pre-oedipal state (a state, in psychoanalytic theory, in which a child does not yet recognise its separateness from the world). Certainly some evidence for this view can be found in the text. Paul D, for example, accuses Sethe of not knowing 'where the world stopped and she began'. Sethe's idea of her selfhood merges with Beloved and the boundaries between them are dissolved - so that eventually in a sense Beloved becomes Sethe and Sethe becomes Beloved - Sethe diminishing in size as Beloved grows.

The relationship between Sethe, Denver, and Beloved is, it has been pointed out by many critics, like a trinity - of the mother, the daughter and the ghost. This triangle of love is an inversion of the religious trinity of the father, the son and the holy ghost, the symbol of perfect love. What we have is a distorted version of love - mother, daughter, and unholy ghost, and the novel clarifies that it is a depraved society which has caused this irreligious, unholy distortion of human love, and which has led Sethe to her desperate act of love and violence.

In Jazz, Morrison's sixth novel, published in 1992, the effect of racial oppression on the individual's ability to love healthily is explored once more. In Harlem in the nineteen-twenties it is still necessary for Joe or anyone else 'colored' to 'be new and stay the same every day the sun rose and every night it dropped'. It was still necessary for black people to 'wear the mask'. It is this lack of freedom and the ability to choose which compels Joe towards Dorcas, and to the desperate act of murder that he is later to commit. Joe's fate is in a sense controlled by a force beyond him. As Morrison herself puts it in an interview with Salman Rushdie, his problem is 'how to exert individual agency under this huge umbrella of determined historical life'.

On a deeper level this search for freedom and a love related to historical past can be traced back to Joe's rejection by his mother Wild, the naked woman who lives in the woods, and who is, (in Joe's embittered words), 'too brain-blasted . . . to do what the meanest sow managed: nurse what she birthed'. She leaves Joe motherless, her presence torturingly just out of reach. What causes her 'wildness' and insanity is never explained in the text, but her terror and madness can be understood to represent the abused oppressed black woman of a racially-oppressed society. Morrison averred that although Jazz is set in a different time and place 'Beloved will be there also'. Just as Beloved becomes a metaphor for racial oppression (as Stamp Paid said 'the people of the broken neck, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons'), Wild is a product of it. As a result of the effect of oppression on Wild, Joe develops a distorted idea of love which leads ultimately to his horrific act - his murder of Dorcas, which is as Mbalia puts it, 'the culmination of Joe's struggle to touch his mother's hand'.

Cut deeply by his mother's silent rejection of him, Joe marries Violet in an attempt to 'escape all the redwings [a symbol of Wild's mysterious presence] in the country and all the silence that accompanied them'. However, his literal escape from Wild's presence has not removed the 'inside nothing' which paradoxically has an actual existence inside Joe. His loss is internalised so that when Violet later becomes silent his mother's silence and failure to return his love are re-enacted for him, and the search for Dorcas - or more specifically the search for Wild in Dorcas - is an actual need for him - 'I need to be there', he says, 'where it was all mixed up together just right, and where that was was Dorcas'. In Dorcas he can bury the inside nothing - 'she fills it for him, just as he filled it for her because she had it too'.

Dorcas not only fills his terrible void of loneliness and need for mother-love, but as a young girl like the remembered vision of a mother Dorcas actually symbolises Wild for him. He sees the 'little hoofmarks on her face' as part of the trail he symbolically and literally followed to find his mother. He thinks that Dorcas is what he has found at the end of the trail, what he has been searching for. When he later fears her rejection of him he searches again for the trail with a compelling urge: 'I wasn't looking for the trail. It was looking for me'. In this utter confusion there is a sense that he has no control over his act of violence:

But if the trail speaks, no matter what's in the way, you can find yourself in a crowded room aiming a bullet at her heart never mind it's the heart you can't live without.

Morrison juxtaposes the two searches and then mingles them, indicating that the two relationships are, for Joe, combined. The question 'what would she Dorcas want with a rooster?' is directly followed by his claim, 'I never, never would mistreat one. Never would make a woman live like a dog in a cave' which is of course directly related to Wild. His desperate question 'where is she?' applies to both Dorcas and Wild, and in the culminating act of the shooting Joe is surprised to find that 'the crowd didn't scatter like the flock of redwings they looked like'. He is mixing up location, time, and of course Wild and Dorcas.

On a symbolic level, then, Joe's murder of Dorcas was a way to prevent her from re-enacting his rejection by Wild. Joe shoots Dorcas but he says he had not meant to harm her, he had just meant to touch her: 'I had the gun but it was not the gun - it was my hand I meant to touch you with'. This distorted act bears witness to Morrison's claim that 'violence is a distortion of what perhaps we want to do'. In this sense then the murder is an act of love, a desperate attempt for Joe to link with his mother, to remove the inside nothing and to retain the bonding he had temporarily achieved with Dorcas by suspending it through death. Just like Sethe in Beloved, Joe, with a love distorted through racial oppression, believes that the only way to prevent this mother-love bond from being broken is through death.

This representation of how a monstrous act can be simultaneously an act of love explores moral ambiguity. From a moral point of view although we cannot condone murder we can understand Sethe and Joe's acts to be empowered by love rather than evil. They are acts which show 'how we can sabotage ourselves with the best intentions'. (Morrison)

The moral question of Toni Morrison's fiction is one which has caused much controversy and discussion amongst critics. Carol Lanone somewhat simplistically, for example, accused Morrison of failing to 'take a clear stand on the appalling actions she depicts'. In Beloved she claims that Morrison portrays Sethe's murder as 'misdirected' rather than wrong, and thus does not confront the moral issue.

Yet surely Morrison does confront the moral issue by allowing a principal character like Paul D to say to Sethe accusingly, 'what you did was wrong Sethe . . . There could have been a way. Some other way'. Morrison answers this question by showing through the text, that to look at the cold reality of the situation, Sethe did not have any alternative course of action left to her. Morrison shows also that Sethe herself is aware of the moral ambiguity of her action. She believes what she has done is paradoxically both right and wrong; an act of the strongest self-sacrificing love and also of terrible monstrosity. Consequently she asks Beloved over and over for forgiveness coupled with endless explanations of her actions, but all the while 'she didn't really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused'. Sethe also unconsciously enacts a kind self-privation, for example by not wanting to imbue life with any meaning or pleasure because her baby could not. When Beloved returns she says, 'Now I could look at things again because she's here to see them too'.

Through the captivating richness of the text Morrison allows us as readers to be in a position of knowledge - we are able to view Sethe from the inside and to understand her character. Morrison provides us with information that grows in direct proportion to a deeper understanding of her violent act. Unlike the society in Beloved which scorns Sethe's violence as simply wrong - endorsing the attitude that 'you can't just up and kill your children' - we are able through our reading to appreciate the grey areas of human love and to comprehend Morrison's paradoxical claim, 'sometimes good looks like evil and evil looks like good'.

Morrison does take a stand on the terrible actions she depicts, but she directs the blame against the horrific system of racial oppression which creates this ambiguity, a system so evil and terrible that even murder can be a solution. As Otten puts it, Sethe's act of violence takes place in a culture which has created 'forces so brutal that they can transform conventional signifiers of cruelty and evil into gestures of extraordinary love'.

The answer to the moral issue, then, lies in the text. In exploring the moral ambiguity of 'the monstrous potential of love', Morrison shows how an act of violence can paradoxically be, as it was for Sethe, 'the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it . . . the only thing to do but it was the wrong thing to do'. (MacNeil/Lehrer news broadcast).

Heinze, Denise. The Dilemma of 'Double Consciousness'. Toni Morrison's Novels.
Fitzgerald, Jennifer. Selfhood and Community: psychoanalysis and discourse in Beloved.
Guth, Deborah. 'A blessing and a burden; the relation of the past in Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved'.
Mbalia, Dorothea Drummond. 'Women who Run With Wild: The Need For Sisterhoods in Jazz'.
Otten, Terry. Horrific Love In Toni Morrison's Fiction.

© Liz Lewis, December 2001

See also: The Unspoken Spoken: Beloved in the context of African American slavery, and slave narratives

See also: American and Canadian Books on Film >

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