Concept of the "Home" in Beloved by Toni Morrison

How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

- Bob Dylan

Feminists have discussed the concept of the home as the earliest school of social justice, a place where people foment their egalitarian values. Communitarians, on the other hand, have envisaged the home as the realm of personal solace where people equip themselves with the skills to belong as prosperous members of a society. Both understandings emphasize the role of the home as a repository for the hopes and dreams and fears of its inhabitants. The home is less a physical edifice than it is a spiritual one. It is constructed not with wood and tools and concrete, but with the sum of the emotional strength of its indwellers; it is not a geographical location, but a “space” for the mind and body to gather strength, rest and formulate strategy. In this way, “home” is not a utopian or dystopian “destination,” but a very literal extension of the self – a personal history that catalogues the triumphs and follies and hate and love of the past. Without a home, one is stranded without a past, and – with no history – without an identity.

Unlike the thousands of immigrants who have traveled to America to forge for themselves a new home, imported Africans were forced into America as property. They were stripped from a livable past and shackled into a foreign, unlivable future. The story of the American slave is thus the story of the African’s search for a home in a hateful land. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, each generation hopes to find a better home despite a malignant world: Sethe’s mother traveled from the slave ship to the plantation, Sethe from the plantation to Cincinnati, Beloved from Cincinnati to death, and Denver from a strange, haunted land of ghosts and despair to her community at large. To Morrison, the various “spaces” of the Sethe’s life constitute a broader understanding of her “self.” Each of the three understandings of what a home might be, as developed in Beloved – the Sweet Home plantation, the Clearing and 124 Bluestone Cincinnati – fails because it prevents the dynamic interaction of all the elements of life: one’s spaces of interaction, one’s past, present and hopeful future. Through the concept of the home, Morrison shows that if we estrange one element of our lives, then we have estranged our identity from ourselves.

Life is not a state, but a process. Beloved’s role in Morrison’s book, as a manifestation of a slave history and a personal history, underscores the fluidity of life: she transitions from a corporal child, to a ghost child and then to a resurrected spirit. The narrative structure of the book, too, emphasizes the seamless transitions each character must make to create a life: mentally hurdling from present, to a scarring past and then to a prospective future. Morrison concludes, at a fundamental level, that lives are not sustainable in isolation from these elements: past, present and future.

The home, likewise, is not self-sufficient. It depends on the lively interface between all the “spaces” of one’s existence – the past, present, the future, but also race, violence, trauma, the surrounding community, and love. Just as the characters and narrative transition from one state to another, the homes in Beloved too phase-shift. And these shifts happen with moments of apocalypse. When Sethe kills her own child, she destroys the open, boisterous role 124 Bluestone played in facilitating the interaction between all the elements of her life. The walls of the house literally stymie her interaction with the community, and thus metaphorically serve as boundary between her and her diverse, multifarious life. Three models of the home were developed in Beloved: the Sweet Home slave plantation, the Clearing and 124 Bluestone.

§ Sweet Home. The devastation wrought by slavery is the destruction of the human identity. As a slave, Paul D was stripped of his manhood: the Schoolteacher put a bit in his mouth, preventing him from engaging in the most human process of spoken word. The chickens on the farm retained more identity than he did, with a bit in his mouth, domesticated and emasculated, “‘Mister [the chicken], he looked so…free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher” (72). Sweet Home – whose name rings with dark irony – serves to demonstrate the impossibility of creating a home within institutionalized slavery. The home concept is the intersection of one’s life with one’s identity. Without an identity, slaves cannot have a home. When Sethe asked the dying Mrs. Garner what the word “characteristics” mean she answered, “A characteristic is a feature. A thing that’s natural to a thing” (195). Sweet Home robbed slaves of their identities because it shifted the process of determining what is “natural” from the individual to the institution. It destroyed the dynamic of discovering oneself. Schoolteacher imposes a definition of self onto Sethe: “‘No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right’” (191). When the students abused Sethe they alternatively defined her as an animal – “And they took my milk” (17) – and an object of human sexuality. Her identity was theirs to determine.

These insidious tendencies of Schoolteacher’s “hard” slavery were latent in Mr. Garner’s “soft” slavery; for all slavery robs the man of the his home because all slavery dynamics destroy his identity, making him a stranger to his past and future and outside community. Halle said about slavery that “It don’t matter Sethe. What they say is the same. Loud or Soft” (195). Sethe tried to “love the work she did, to take the ugly out of it” (22), but ultimately she could not create a home because she could not own her surroundings in a meaningful sense. Though they were treated with a level of kindness under Garner’s authority, the slaves were entirely unable to design their own future or community: “One step off that ground and [the slaves] were trespassers among the human race” (125). Morrison’s point about the interconnectedness of the home – interweaving all elements of one’s life – is violated by an institution that depends on the systematic isolation of the individual from his “self” and from others. “Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyways to show him that definitions belong to the definers – not the defined” (190). On a plantation, the human identity is up for grab; and the home is sold to the highest bidder.

§ The Clearing. For Sethe, the most important freedom enjoyed in the world beyond Sweet Home was that “you could love anything you choose – not to need permission for desire” (162). In the Clearing, described as a “wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to the deer,” (87) Baby Suggs, full of vigor and emotional strength, taught the black residents to exercise their freedom to love what they chose. She preached to them, first and most importantly, to love themselves. “‘[I]n this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard…Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them” (88). In the Clearing, the ex-slaves were told to renounce their past in order to salvage their futures: “She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more…She told them that the only grace the could have was the grace they could imagine.” Because, “if they could not see it, they could not have it” (88). This is the message of owning the future, and of owning the self. If the plantation functioned as a machine to erode the slave’s identity, the Clearing functioned to erect once more that identity.

However, the Clearing failed because it did not account for the world “yonder”; it isolated the individual within his own heart, denying him the interconnected world he lived within. Because of this, when Sethe visits to contemplate her newfound life with the mysterious girl and Paul D, she is blinded by her own future, and so caught up with herself that she mistakes the strangling hands of Beloved for the healing hands of Baby Suggs: “Sethe was actually more surprised than frightened to find that she was being strangled” (96). If Sweet Home estranges the individual from himself, then Clearing estranges the individual within himself. Its message is narcissistic. The townspeople begin to resent it: “Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy? Why is she and hers always the center of things?” (137). Baby Suggs too realizes that imagining love alone cannot create it. “Baby Suggs, holy, believed she had lied. There was no grace – imaginary or real – and no sunlit dance in the Clearing could change that” (89).

§ 124 Bluestone Road. Unlike Sweet Home and the Clearing, the present home of Sethe, 124 Bluestone Road, changes dynamically, and is personified at various points in the book as “spiteful” (3), “loud” (169) and “quiet” (239). The shifting state of the home underlines the shifting emotional identities of its inhabitants. At first, for twenty eight days after she first moved there, 124 played a lively, boisterous role in the community. In the “cheerful, buzzing house” Baby Suggs, holy, had “loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed.” It was a place to relay messages from one person to another, “for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon” (87). Then, however, ironically, the openness of the home became what allowed the Four Horsemen of the past to stomp so ruthlessly through the yard gate and into Sethe’s life. It was at that moment of claiming her ultimate freedom, when she professed her love for her child with a jagged handsaw, that she elected to end the future of her child and that 124 became haunted by the specter of the past. At the definitive, apocalyptic moment when the slave catchers arrived, the spaces of Sethe’s life intersected: the repression of Sweet Home with the freedom of the Clearing. Those two homes – one that forced her to renounce her identity and other that forced her to be absorbed by it – collided, and she choose to kill both of them, with one fitful stroke of her arms, and blood everywhere.

Because of this decision – to kill the other spaces that constitute her self – Sethe’s home was hurled out of time. She no longer lived in the chronology of past, present and future. Instead, she became trapped in the visitation and revisitation of the deeds of her past. She chose to murder the two homes she knew, closing 124, literally and metaphorically, from the lively interaction of many elements of the life so vital for survival. Literally, the house gate, as a boundary between the community and the individual, that once was “always latching and unlatching in the time when 124 was busy as a way station” was “smashed” leaving “124 desolate and exposed at the very hour when everybody stopped dropping by” (163). Metaphorically, she became dominated – haunted – by her past, and the autonomous ghost that tyrannized her surroundings. When Paul D arrived, he tried to destroy the past in order to salvage the home: “[H]e bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house” (18). But then the haunt returned as corporal existence that, like a parasite, ultimately destroyed Sethe’s spirit.

They say that no word is spoken in America outside the context of race, that as a nation, we shall never be liberated from the tragedy of our slavery past. In the words of Baby Suggs, “[n]ot a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief” (5). Just as a nation inherits as a part of its character the entirety of its history, a home too exists as an embodiment of the whole of its emotional and spiritual past. Morrison believes that the home can only exist as nexus between all the aspects of an individual’s life: his past, his emotional fortitude, and his hopes. In the Clearing, the ex-slaves heard a version of themselves very different than the one constructed by their white overlords. However, submerging their past into oblivion does not in-and-of-itself liberate the slave from oppression. Instead, he – as we all – must synthesize his past with present, and all the trauma and violence and love and tears associated, before he can forge a future. When Denver walks out of 124, she carries with her the entirety of her past as she faces her future unknown, hopeful and fearful and different.



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