Halle was more like a brother than a husband. His care suggested a family relationship rather than a man's laying claim. (2.16)
Does Sethe seem a little spoiled to you? After all, having an intact family was rare for slaves. Or is she allowed to wish for more?
"I don't care what she is. Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that supposed to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing." (4.38)
How's this for a rare moment? Sethe is defending Denver from Paul D's criticism. Relish it, because the rest of the book will be all about Sethe ignoring Denver for Beloved's sake.
Paul D made a few acquaintances; spoke to them about what work he might find. Sethe returned the smiles she got. Denver was swaying with delight. And on the way home, although leading them now, the shadows of three people still held hands. (4.64)
The tone of this passage may seem detached, even a little nonchalant, but don't let that fool you—it's huge. First, Sethe and Denver are finally out of the house and—we assume—mixing with the townspeople; something they haven't done in years. Second, it's like they're becoming a real family, and that makes Beloved's arrival right after this passage even more of an intrusion and a disruption.
"I didn't see her but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo. By the time I woke up in the morning, she was in line. If the moon was bright they worked by its light. Sunday she slept like a stick. She must of nursed me two or three weeks—that's the way the others did. Then she went back in rice and I sucked from another woman whose job it was […] One thing she did do. She picked me up and carried me behind the smokehouse. Back there she opened up her dress front and lifted her breast and pointed under it. Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, 'This is your ma'am. This,' and she pointed. 'I am the only one who got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can't tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark.' Scared me so. All I could think of was how important this was and how I needed to have something important to say back, but I couldn't think of anything so I just said what I thought. 'Yes, Ma'am,' I said. 'But how will you know me? How will you know me? Mark me, too,' I said. 'Mark the mark on me too.'" Sethe chuckled.
"Did she?" asked Denver.
"She slapped my face." (6.26-28)
For all you psychology nerds, here's a possible explanation for Sethe's form of extreme mothering: Sethe never got a chance to know or have her mother, and what she does know of her mother is a slave brand and a slap in the face. So it's no wonder she's so into nursing Denver (even when there's blood on her breast) and, before Denver, baby Beloved. Or why she so forcefully does not want to send her kids back into slavery.
She told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea. Both were taken up many times by the crew. "She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe. (6.36)
Feel like weeping right now? We sure do. This is Old Nan, the nursing slave, telling Sethe how special Sethe was to her mother. Morrison emphasizes the power of the scene by letting Nan speak in her own style of broken English. How else does speech style affect the novel?
The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn't worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own—fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn't know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What color did Famous' skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny's chin or just a dimple that would disappear soon's his jawbone changed? Four girls, and the last time she saw them there was no hair under their arms. Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All sever were gone or dead. What would be the point of looking too hard at the youngest one? But for some reason they let her keep him. He was with her—everywhere. (15.17)
Remember how Sethe reflects a daughter who never knew her mother? Well Baby Suggs has a truncated recollection of her own children. If you haven't noticed by now, mothering is a huge issue in Beloved. So here's a question for you: In the absence of parenting, can you still have a family?
When I put that headstone up I wanted to lay in there with you, put your head on my shoulder and keep you warm, and I would have if Buglar and Howard and Denver didn't need me, because my mind was homeless then. I couldn't lay down with you then. No matter how much I wanted to. I couldn't lay down nowhere in peace, back then. Now I can. I can sleep like the drowned, have mercy. She come back to me, my daughter, and she is mine. (20.3)
Sethe was "homeless then." Does that mean she isn't homeless now because she has Beloved back? Just wait until she finds out what kind of home Beloved offers. Are home and family related in Beloved?
Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother's milk. The first thing I heard after not hearing anything was the sound of her crawling up the stairs. She was my secret company until Paul D came. He threw her out. Ever since I was little she was my company and she helped me wait for my daddy. Me and her waited for him. I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I'm scared of her because of it. She missed killing my brothers and they knew it. They told me die-witch! stories to show me the way to do it, if ever I needed to. (21.1)
Halle who? Oh, right. You know, we don't get the missing-father angle often in a book that's all about missed mothering opportunities. This is just a reminder of how the father is an even more absent figure in the book.
Three times I lost her: once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke; once when she went into the sea instead of smiling at me; once under the bridge when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile. She whispered to me, chewed me, and swam away. Now I have found her in this house. She smiles at me and it is my own face smiling. I will not lose her again. She is mine. (23.1)
Here's our take on this somewhat baffling passage. Beloved is thinking about how she's lost her mother three times. But wait. The three times she lists couldn't have all occurred in hers or Sethe's lifetime (if we consider these "memories" as actual events and not something dreamed up by Beloved).
How do we know this? Well, that part about the sea is a reference to the Middle Passage, which most likely occurred at least a good 50 years before the time of Sethe and Beloved.
So how about this? What if Beloved's mother isn't just Sethe, but other mothers "Beloved" has had? We're not talking about reincarnation here; we're thinking that Morrison wants us to think about why history seems to repeat itself over and over again.
Mother. Father. Didn't remember the one. Never saw the other. He was the youngest of three half-brothers (same mother—different fathers) sold to Garner and kept there, forbidden to leave the farm, for twenty years. Once, in Maryland, he met four families of slaves who had all been together for a hundred years: great-grands, grands, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, children. Half white, part white, all black, mixed with Indian. He watched them with awe and envy, and each time he discovered large families of black people he made them identify over and over who each was, what relation, who, in fact, belonged to who.
"That there's my auntie. This here's her boy. Yonder is my pap's cousin. My ma'am was married twice—this my half-sister and these her two children. Now my wife…" (24.2-3)
Think of this passage—of Paul D recollecting his "family" life—in relation to Sethe's take on family. The two characters seem so different to us when it comes to the whole family thing, don't you think?