Slavery has been a part of America for a very long time. Although it might not be as present or obvious as it was in the past, it still is here in the present. Many people have been affected by slavery from those in the past to some now and how they are treated differently because the color of thier skin. Through the motif of haunting memory, Tony Morrison shows that the past never really dies. Slavery leaves its victims afraid to love, form relationships, and scarring memories.
Ella’s unforgettable experience with slavery causes her to have multiple haunting memories thorughout her life. One of the major memories that forever haunts her is when she got raped by a man and his son. She describes this experience as “the lowest yet” (301) because “Her puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by a father and son” (301). This haunts her because she never gets married and has kids later on in the book. As a result of being raped throughout Ella’s puberty she begins to believe,“Nobody loved her and she wouldn’t have liked it if they had for she considered love a serious disability” (301). By being raped by the man and son it has affected Ella’s sense to love someone or something the same. She was so hurt by this she ended up killing her own baby. Unlike Sethe it wasn’t a fast painless death, Ella starved her child for five days straight. She did this because, ‘She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by “the lowest yet”’ (305). Ella couldn’t handle the fact that her baby’s father was the man who raped her and couldn’t handle raising a child that was related to him, even if it was partially hers.
As a result of the personal experiences Sethe had with slavery, it caused her to make a life changing decision which then haunted her for the rest of her life. This is first shown when Beloved arrived at 124 because everyday after Beloved’s arrival, Sethe has had to re live some of her past memories. One of the biggest memories was when she killed her baby. During Beloved’s stay at 124 she casually tries to make Sethe feel guilty about Sethe killing her and “leaving her behind”. Beloved does this because she wants an explanation of why Sethe killed her. When looking for an explanation Sethe repetitively reminds herself and tells Beloved that she did it for her own good. Sethe says she will explain to Beloved by saying, “I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to. Why I did it. How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her” (236). By saying this it shows how Sethe is going to tell Beloved why she killed her and you can see how Sethe is trying to convince herself that she killed Beloved for the right reasons. When convincing herself that she made the right decision it brought her back to the day when she actually killed Beloved. While Beloved was trying to get to know more about Sethe, including a question about her mom. This brought back sad memories for Sethe because she “…didn’t see her [Sethe’s mom] 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… She never fixed my hair nor nothing. She didn’t even sleep in the same cabin most nights I remember” (72). As a child Sethe rarely got to spend time with her mom because she was always working. In addition, Sethe didn’t know the reasoning behind her mother being hung. Even though Beloved did bring back a lot of past memories for Sethe, Paul D did as well. Paul D brought back memories such as Sethe getting whipped and getting her chokecherry tree and Sethe finding out for the first time that Halle was in the barn while she was getting her milk taken from her. Paul D first brought back the memory of Sethe getting whipped while he was comforting her with her clothes off. Sethe described how she “got a tree on my back…” (18) to Paul D, but he was confused about if there was something growing on her back. She then described how a whitegirl called her scar a chokecherry tree because of how the scar lines looked like branches on a tree. Later on in the conversation Sethe explains how she got her scar. She described how “them boys [schoolteacher’s nephews] found out I told on em. Schoolteacher made one open up my back [with a whip] and when it closed it made a tree” (19-20). When she says the nephews found out she told on them, she was referring to how she told Mrs. Garner about how they stole her milk from her in the barn. Paul D then tells her that Halle was at the barn while she was getting her milk stolen from her. She was already disturbed by the fact that her milk was taken but to add Halle along with it made her even more furious. You can see anger and distress in her reaction to Paul D telling her Halle was there, “God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on my breast and the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and writing it up. I am still full of that, God damn it, I can’t go back and add more. Add my husband to it, watching me… And not stopping them – looking and letting it happen” (83). This memory alone for Sethe was one her most haunting memories but to add Halle into the scene makes Sethe even more overwhelmed because now she knew that her husband was watching her getting her milk taken forcefully and he did nothing about it to help prevent the situation.
During Paul D’s time as a slave he was emotionally scared which affected his self confidence and his ability to love. One way this happens is when he compares himself to a rooster, Mister. When comparing himself to Mister he said the, “he looked so…free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher… Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was” (86), making Paul D feel like he had less freedom and confidence compared to a rooster. This made Paul D mad because he is jealous of how even though Mister might not be perfect, he stands and walks around like he is. Later on in the book, Paul D has no control over the urge to have sex with Beloved. He feels the need to do it but doesn’t want to or enjoy it because he likes Sethe. This is shown when Beloved and Paul D were in the cold house where Paul D is sleeping and Beloved comes in and says, ‘“I want you to touch me on the inside part. Go on back in that house and get to bed… No. Please call it. I’ll go if you call it. Beloved”… he didn’t hear the whisper that the flakes of the rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didn’t know it” (137-138). Paul D doesn’t want to have sex with Beloved but once he starts to his tincan heart starts to open up to her. This makes Paul D feel less than a man because he can’t control his needs or feelings. Just like how when he was a slave, when he watched Mister and how he portrays himself, Paul D has come to the conclusion that there, “… wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again… Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (86). The thought of Paul D being less than a man has haunted him in the present when he was a slave and still now when living with Sethe, Beloved, and Denver. Lastly, during Paul D’s time as a slave it has affected the way he loves someone or something. Paul D learned as a slave, “… to love just a little bit… so when they broke its back… maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one” (54). Paul D believes that even if it is your child, you shouldn’t put all of your love into them because if they hurt you and you’re heartbroken you won’t have anymore love to give to somebody else.
In conclusion, although you might dislike your past want to escape it, there is no way around it. This is shown through the motif haunting slavery and how the characters Ella, Sethe, and Paul D were all affected by their past as a slave. Ella was affected by slavery because she doesn’t want to form relationships, cause it reminds her of her past when she was raped by a father and his son. Paul D is afraid to give someone all of his love and then be broken and left with nothing. Lastly, Sethe is affected by slavery because it consumed her because of the scarring memories and it impacted her actions afterwards.
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