Sure, the whole book is named after Beloved. But hey, just because you have something named after you doesn't mean you're the (only) star. Is Grey's Anatomy only about Meredith Grey? Our point exactly.
And after all, Sethe's the one who birthed, named, and killed Beloved. In other words, she lives by the time-honored parental credo: "I brought you into this world and I can take you out." Plus, the book does begin with her perspective.
So what's Sethe's story, besides the whole baby-killer shtick?
Okay, fine. We can't avoid the question. But let us rephrase: how could she not kill her baby?
Don't get us wrong—we don't condone baby killing (duh). It's not even something we can joke about. It's just that if you were to rethink things from Sethe's perspective and what her situation was like (a fugitive slave running from abusive white people), you might change your tune. You might just get to the point where you seriously reevaluate what maternal love means and who gets to define the limits of maternal love.
Is there a fate worse than death? To Sethe, that's not even the question to ask. The question to ask is what immediate danger is there? And, on that day in the shed, there was no way that she was going to subject her children to what she had gone through at Sweet Home.
But don't just take it from us. Here's how she explains herself to Paul D:
"It ain't my job to know what's worse. It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that" (18.194).
And Toni Morrison seems to side with Sethe:
"It was absolutely the right thing to do […] but [Sethe] had no right to do it. I think if I had seen what she had seen, and knew what was in store, and I felt that there was an afterlife—or even if I felt that there wasn't—I think I would have done the same thing. But it's also the thing you have no right to do." (Source)
To Sethe, maternal love isn't something that has ethical limits or something to philosophize about (especially if you're a man). It's immediate, raw, and urgent. It's action. And it definitely isn't for lightweights.
In fact, maternal love is something a man just can't understand, according to Sethe. You can practically hear the sneer in Sethe's voice when Paul D claims that her love is "'too thick.'" She responds, "'Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all'" (18.194). Ouch, right? She's basically saying Paul D isn't man (or woman) enough to do the things mothers have to do in the name of love. If Sethe were a movie character, she could probably give Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup a run for his money. Her love sure isn't all about the warm fuzzies.
Which leads us to this point: isn't the kind of maternal love we're used to—you know, the love that showers stuffed animals, moonbeams, and rainbows onto a baby—a bit of a luxury? So how do we arrive at a vision of "proper" mothering in Beloved when mothering, at its most basic level, wasn't even allowed during, and sometimes after, slavery for African-American women?
Sethe, for one, isn't a character who's about to let go of her chance to mother her own kids, hell or highwater. No way is she going to allow her kids to get taken away from her and sold into slavery. No way is she going to be like her mother, totally absent and dead.
Bottom line: it's not easy being a mom.
Which brings us back—way back—to Sethe's childhood. If you want the nitty-gritty on why Sethe is the way she is, then you've got to consider her relationship with her mother, which was pretty much non-existent.
In fact, the only clear memory Sethe has of her mother alive is when her mother—a field slave—pulls her behind a shed to show Sethe a mark branded near her breast. Why? So that Sethe will be able to distinguish her body from that of all the other slaves. Couple that memory with the fact that another slave (Nan) nursed Sethe as a baby, and you have a mother-daughter relationship that's beyond dysfunctional.
That's why Sethe's so obsessed about nursing her own kids. As she points out, "Nan had to nurse whitebabies and me too because Ma'am was in the rice. The little whitebabies got it first and I got what was left. Or none. There was no nursing milk to call my own" (20.200).
In other words, Sethe never got the chance to bond with her mother. Which means she never had the chance to be a real daughter to anyone. And how can you be a (good, loving, caring) mother to a daughter (any daughter, Denver included) if you never had the experience of having a mother or being a daughter? Sethe never consciously asks herself that question, but it's a question that hovers over the whole novel just like Beloved hovers over 124.
Even though Sethe never gets to experience the whole mother-daughter thing, she still ends up a lot more like her mother than she means to. Her mother only kept one child—Sethe—because Sethe's father was a black man whom her mother chose. The other kids her mother had? They were thrown away because their dads, we're left to assume, were either white men or men who raped her mother—or both (check out Chapter 6 for the whole story). So they may have had different reasons, but both Sethe and her mother end up as baby-killers. And that's a scary bond to have.
And that brings us to Sethe's super-obsessive relationship with Beloved. When Sethe gets the chance to love Beloved, she's not just trying to undo her murder of Beloved. She's also taking the opportunity to become a different kind of mother to Beloved.
But does it work?
We're not so sure. Sethe's so far gone on Beloved, she can't even work at her job anymore. Instead, she does things like go ice-skating with the girls or cater to Beloved's every whim. Indulgent and permissive? Yes. Responsible and authoritative? Definitely not.