The following analysis of "Beloved" and "Native Son" focuses on the idea of identity in society.
Critical Analysis of Beloved by Toni Morrison and Native Son by Richard Wright
In Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved, violence is often used to portray the inner conflicts raging inside the characters. This reoccurring aspect of brute, physical violence allows readers to delve deeper into the vices of Morrison’s characters and highlights the devastating impacts slavery and racism had on African Americans during the Reconstruction era. In the same respect, Richard Wright’s Native Son also uses the aesthetic quality of violence to mirror the psychological devastation imposed upon the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Taking place in the 1940’s in South Side Chicago, Wright’s novel exposes the dominating presence of racism in modern society and uses Bigger Thomas’s tendency towards extreme violence as a means of uncovering the unbearable aspects of life as an African American at that point in history. Similarly, Toni Morrison’s grotesque depictions of the past lives of Sethe and other characters serve to illustrate the violent and inhumane conditions slaves were forced to endure during the antebellum period. While both novels remain two distinctly separate works of literature, they both share a common element in that they use the unpleasing aspects of violence to both uncover the cruelties and injustices of society and provide their main characters with a sense of self worth and individuality.
The main similarity between the uses of violence in the two works is the protagonists and their search for personal identity and self worth. In both Beloved and Native Son, the main character experiences violence to such a degree that their lives are changed forever. In Beloved, Sethe is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice of killing one of her own children to ensure that they are “kept away from what is terrible” and never exposed to the horrors of life as a slave (p 196). In Wright’s novel, Bigger Thomas is forced into a life of subjectivity and racism, an existence that drives him to kill in order to gain individuality as a murderer.
In context to Native Son, the protagonist quickly finds himself immersed in a world that discriminates against his entire existence. Unable to find his own place in society, Bigger Thomas is forced to live a life full of fear and devoid of opportunity, exiled from the rest of the world around him. Believing that all white people “hate a black skin”, Bigger’s entire mentality throughout the novel centers on his role as a servant or lesser human being (p 67). Focused on this mentality, Bigger is forced to “assail the world around him in the only way he can – through violence” (Galloway). It is through these extreme acts of violence, the murder of Mary Dalton and Bessie, that Bigger is finally able to experience the sensation of individual worth and self importance.
The murder of Mary Dalton in particular speaks volumes of Bigger’s inner struggle to find self worth in society. Tormented by the fear of losing his job altogether, Bigger accidentally kills the daughter of the Dalton family in order to keep her from revealing her drunkenness. The murder of Mary can even been seen as a direct parallelism to Bigger’s fight against the oppressive white society.
However, what at first started as a terrible mistake soon develops into a red hot hatred for the guilt society has placed on Bigger’s existence. Bigger even goes as far as saying that his “violent hatred” of Jan’s innocence causes him to want to “strike him with something…because his wide, incredulous stare made him feel hot guilt to the very core of him” (p 157). Even the death of Bessie, although overlooked and shadowed by the murder of Mary, is directly tied to Bigger’s journey towards self worth. As Bigger’s tendency towards violence becomes more commonplace, so does his desire for a place in society. Some literary critics claim that Bigger’s relationship with Bessie is a transgression from his pursuit of identity, since “like Mary, Bessie Mears is never really an individual to Bigger, but merely a means of sexual escape and a tool in extorting money from the Daltons.” (George). However, Bigger’s quest for identity would not be complete if it were not for the murders of both Bessie and the Dalton’s only daughter.
Bigger’s long struggle towards finding a place in society comes to a dramatic close after his arrest in which he comes to the realization that he killed because of who he believed he really was meant to become. Bigger even goes on to confess to Max during their last meeting that he “‘wanted what he was’” and “‘killed because of who he was’”, showing his belief that the murders he committed were a part of who he was meant to be, and had to happen in order for him to gain any sort of individual recognition (pp 391 – 392). Some critics believe that such an epiphany of self worth is even “more exalted and poignant than Hamlet’s formal and high-blown phrases because Bigger’s route to discovery is direct and immediate” (Galloway). Bigger’s abrupt self-realization, although brought about by violence, symbolically mirrors the oppression experienced by African Americans at the time. Having been denied a true identity, Bigger is lowered to a servile position in society. This in turn causes Bigger to make the assumption that murder is his only option of gaining individuality in a world that denies him a human existence.
In comparison to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Bigger’s treatment as an inferior human being mirrors the harsh realities of life as a slave. Although not a completely equalized comparison, Bigger’s up close encounters with both violence and racism are but mere glimpses of the cruelties of slavery. After being sent to jail, Bigger proclaims that he has “lived outside the lives of men” and murdered only to fight against the dominating presence of white society (p 386). It is only through Jan’s “detachment from that looming mountain of white hate” that Bigger is able to connect with the world around him in a non-hostile manner (George). Nonetheless, Bigger goes on to reflect on his role in society while sitting in jail. Only after mulling over the murders of Mary and Bessie does Bigger have an epiphany in regards to his self identity as an acclaimed murderer. After this realization, Bigger instead digresses on his recent apathy towards a death sentence. Claiming his newfound desire to live, Bigger eventually opens up to his lawyer, Max, and explains that he is now “free” and had been “scared his whole life, but after he killed that first woman, he wasn’t scared no more.” (p 328). Literary critics have even described this event in Bigger’s path to self realization to be a milestone in that he becomes “a tragic figure, even an archetypical one, as he represents the African American experience of oppression in America” (Galloway). Sadly, Bigger is only able to find self worth and personal identity through murder, an act that is justified by his attempts to break away from a lower existence and gain individuality.
Toni Morrison also uses violence in her novel Beloved to construct the framework of the main character’s path towards self identity. The protagonist, Sethe, is revealed to the reader as a former slave and independent mother who killed her daughter, Beloved, so that she could spare her of a life of servitude. Labeled as a lunatic living in a condemned residence, Sethe is psychologically cut off from the rest of society. Even after Paul D “rids 124 of its claim to local fame” by warding off the spirit of Beloved, Sethe is still confined to a life in which the past is her constant enemy (p 45). Although rarely discussed by the novel’s characters, the violence experienced by Sethe and other former slaves remains a dominating presence throughout Sethe’s journey towards self realization. The depictions of Sethe’s experiences as an animalistic servant under schoolteacher drive her to make the ultimate sacrifice of killing her daughter; only to ensure that she is “kept away from what is terrible” (p 196). Sethe’s mentality, which is paraphrased by one literary critic as “let me destroy you before the white man does,” causes Sethe’s entire life after the event to be weighed down with the reputation of being a murderer and reckless parent figure (Tapia). Even Sethe’s only living daughter, Denver, is scarred by her mother’s reputation. Confined to the small shred of family she has at 124, Denver never leaves the yard, and even describes the front porch steps as the “edge of the world” (p 286). The infectious quality of Sethe’s lack of true individuality and identification embodies itself in Denver, who Sethe tried to “keep away from the past that was still waiting for her” (p 51). Sethe, who is caught up in her unbearable memories of Sweet Home, is since stripped of personality and is viewed by society as a chaotic murderer. Ultimately, it is through this violence associated with her past that Sethe’s journey towards personal identity becomes clouded.
While Sethe’s path towards personal identity is obstructed by violence, it is only through an absence of violence that she is able to gain self worth as a mother. Upon Paul D’s arrival at 124, the spirit of Beloved which haunts the residence is removed, thereby symbolically cleansing the residence and Sethe of the violent memories of the past. After Paul D’s return, all seems well with Sethe and Denver, until Beloved makes her faithful return back to 124 and ultimately back into the lives of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. Beloved’s return signals an opportunity for Sethe to reconcile with her past and rid herself of her identity as a crazed mother. However, since neither Paul D nor Sethe “have reckoned with the dead or their own deadness,” Beloved’s return to 124 can only bode a collapse of what little family Sethe and Denver have left (Jesser).
Some critics have argued that the arrival of the mysterious stranger known as “Beloved” has no symbolic resemblance to Sethe’s daughter. Because Sethe and Paul D “heard the voice first – later the name,” some have argued that Beloved was bestowed spiritual qualities by the imaginations of those living at 124 (p 63). Nonetheless, it is the return of Beloved, either through imagination or a spiritual embodiment from the afterlife, that prompts Sethe to make an attempt as sewing together the fabric of her past, thereby clearing her reputation in society as an animalistic murderer.
As time passes, Paul D leaves 124 after learning about Sethe’s past. Although Sethe still feels that the murder of Beloved was justified, neither Paul D nor the spiritual embodiment of her daughter can bring themselves to forgive Sethe for what she did years ago. Paul D even goes as far as to tell Sethe that she has “two feet, not four,” thereby labeling Sethe’s protective act as an animalistic form of violence (p 194). Paralleled with schoolteacher’s experimentations, Sethe is given the role as an animal and servile underling, even by a man who had to live through the cruelties of Sweet Home.
After Paul D’s departure, Sethe becomes distraught over her past, and begins to devote her entire life towards pleasing Beloved. Beloved later rebukes her mother’s attempts at reconciling the past and begins to suck the very life out of 124 and its residents. Sethe and Beloved, who become “busy rationing their strength to fight each other,” are found in constant deadlock over Sethe’s past use of violence. However, after being confronted by the community, Sethe finally revitalizes her journey towards personal identity when she sees the image of schoolteacher’s arrival at 124 for the second time. As Sethe stands on her porch, she sees who she thinks is schoolteacher “coming into her yard…coming for her best thing” (p 308). It is at this point in which Sethe must make the ultimate decision: either exclude herself from the violence of her past or transgress back to the animalistic instinct she felt so many years ago when she took her daughter’s life. As Sethe “leaves Beloved behind” for the last time, she is able to finally make an escape from her past as Beloved leaves 124 for good (p 309). By abstaining from her internal instincts, Sethe is able to resist the temptation of resorting to violence. By making the decision to let her daughter go, Sethe finds herself back at 124 with Paul D by her side. Sethe, now weak from her devastating encounter with her past, is referred to by Paul D as “a best thing” (p 322). Toni Morrison goes on to conclude her novel as Sethe despondently replies “Me? Me?” to her loving companion (p 322). This act signifies Sethe’s final acceptance of a personal identity, and illustrates how Sethe’s refusal to relive the violence of the past leads to her final reconciliation with Beloved.
It is only through this absence of violence that Sethe is able to find forgiveness both within herself and with her daughter. In direct contrast to Native Son, Sethe is able to find her own sense of individuality through a refrain from violence, while Bigger must use violence to gain any sort of interpersonal recognition. Unlike Bigger, Sethe finds a way to escape the past by disproving the reputation given to her by both schoolteacher and society altogether. By doing so, Sethe both comes to terms with her past and settles a long overdue conflict with her daughter. By ignoring the temptation to utilize violence to protect Beloved for the second time, Sethe is finally able to gain self worth and personal identity as both a mother and loving companion to Paul D.
It is clear from both Richard Wright and Toni Morrison’s use of violence that the two novels have more in common than meets the eye. While Native Son focuses around an acquisition of identity through physical violence, Toni Morrison’s Beloved focuses on Sethe’s journey towards individuality through an absence of violence. While Sethe hopes to escape the painful past that has haunted her for years to come, Bigger Thomas is able to find his own place in society as a morally justified murderer. Both characters are ultimately devoid of opportunity, and are forced down a path wrought with violence in hopes of gaining personal identity in society. It is only through this close up encounter with violence that both characters are finally able to gain a sense of self worth and individual identity in the societies in which they live.