Literature Spotlight: Intentional Ambiguity

Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a beautiful, poetic, and haunting work about love, motherhood and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. The runaway slave woman Sethe kills one of her children (and attempts to kill the others) in order to save its life, and in doing so destroys the beautiful world she’s tried so hard to create for the rest of her family. The baby’s ghost haunts Sethe’s world through the enigmatic character of Beloved, a character with at least three distinct possible interpretations. Is Beloved the ghost of the “already-crawling? baby,” or a simple runaway slave who just happens to call herself “Beloved,” or perhaps not even there at all? The novel is intentionally written to keep our interpretations vague, and each interpretation comes with its own commentary on the relationships in the novel.

On the one hand, Beloved could be a real, physical girl, not related to the family, who ran away from an abusive slave owner and found her way to Sethe’s house. Perhaps she saw the headstone in the little grave out back and took its one word for her new name. There is certainly evidence to corroborate this theory, particularly in the way she interacts with Paul D and the other non-family members. She certainly seems to be physically present and interacting with the objects in the house, and she reacts to situations in the way you might expect from a trauma survivor. Sethe and Denver immediately accept that Beloved is the ghost of the baby, so if she is actually just another runaway slave, then this interpretation speaks to how readily we as humans are to place our own context on unfamiliar situations. It would also highlight Sethe’s desperate need to feel understood, to explain herself to a victim too young to understand what was happening at the time. She convinces herself of their relationship so that she can beg forgiveness.

Then again, Sethe could be right – Beloved could actually be the ghost of the baby girl, made corporeal and aged to match the passing years. This would explain the supernatural experiences from the early part of the novel by acknowledging the existence of ghosts and spirits. Paul D’s desire to leave the house, the handprints in the cake, all these things would be conveniently explained away by Beloved’s presence as the ghost of the baby. It would also give credit to Sethe’s desperation, since Beloved does in fact become very angry with her in the second part of the novel. Sethe desperately wants her to understand, and well she should, since Beloved is becoming vengeful and over-bearing in her rage at what she sees as a betrayal of her love.

One final interpretation I’d like to cover, though there are undoubtedly many more, is this: what if Beloved never existed at all? It’s quite possible to read Beloved’s character as existing entirely in Sethe’s head; her guilt over the act made manifest in her eyes. In this case, Sethe begins to feel reminiscent of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, as her desperate brain searches for a narrative to rationalize her horrific act. She didn’t get a chance to explain to Beloved why she did it, and we see that even Denver worries sometimes that she might snap and kill again, so Sethe is tormented by a need to explain herself to someone, anyone. That need manifests itself as Sethe believing Beloved is present, devoting more and more of her time to the poor girl’s needs, and wasting away herself in the process.

Whatever your personal inclination, I’d argue that it’s important to keep the many possible interpretations in mind. Rather than taking sides and sticking with one interpretation, the more interesting experience comes from recognizing that there are many different things that could be happening here. The ambiguity is part of Beloved‘s beauty, and is particularly powerful near the end of chapter 2. The narrative lapses into poetry, told first from each of the three girls’ perspectives in turn, and then finally mixing and mingling them into one:

“You are my face; I am you. Why did you leave me who am you?
I will never leave you again
Don’t ever leave me again
You will never leave me again
You went in the water
I drank your blood
I brought your milk
You forgot to smile
I loved you
You hurt me
You came back to me
You left me

I waited for you
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine” (P. 326)

By the end of the poetry, it’s impossible to tell which woman is speaking. Metaphor, plot, and symbolism are intertwining, holding up these women as one and the same character, turning them like a prism to catch the light in a kaleidoscope of ways.