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Beloved-Water Motif Essay, Research Paper


In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison writes about the life of former slaves of Sweet Home. Sethe, one of the main characters, was once a slave to a man and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Garner. After Garner’s sudden death, schoolteacher comes to Sweet Home and takes control of the slaves. His treatment of all the slaves forced them to run away. Fearing that her children would be sold, Sethe sent her two boys and her baby girl ahead to her mother-in-law. On the way to freedom, a white girl named Amy Denver helped Sethe deliver her daughter, who she later names Denver. About a month after Sethe escapes slavery, schoolteacher found her and tried to bring her back. In fear that her children would be brought back into slavery, Sethe killed her older daughter and attempted to kill Denver and her boys. Sethe, along with Denver, was sent to prison and spent three months there. Buglar and Howard, her two sons, eventually ran away. After about eighteen years, another ex-slave from Sweet Home, Paul D., came to live with Sethe and Denver. A few days later, while coming home from a carnival, Sethe, Paul D., and Denver found a young woman of about twenty on their porch. She claimed her name is Beloved. They took her in and she lived with them. Throughout the novel, Morrison uses many symbols and imagery to express her thoughts and to help us better understand the characters. Morrison uses the motif of water throughout the novel to represent birth, re-birth, and escape to freedom.

In Beloved, one of the things that water represents is birth. When Sethe was running away form Sweet Home, she was pregnant. In order to get to freedom, she had to cross the Ohio River. On the way to the river, Sethe met a young white girl named Amy Denver. Amy helped Sethe to keep going because her feet were swollen up. When Sethe and Amy got to the river, Sethe thought the baby had died during the previous night. However, she soon felt the signs of labor. “It looked like home to her, and the baby (not dead in the least) must have thought so too. As soon as Sethe got close to the river her own water broke loose to join it. The break, followed by the redundant announcement of labor, arched her back” (p. 83). Sethe crawled into a boat that soon began to fill with water. It was in this boat that Sethe gave birth to Denver. “When a foot rose from the riverbed and kicked the bottom of the boat and Sethe’s behind, she knew it was done and permitted herself a short faint” (p. 84). In these two passages, water signifies birth. Denver was thought to be dead until Sethe reached the river, a large body of water. Also, Denver is actually born in the water because the boat that Sethe was in was filled up with water. When Beloved first appears at Sethe’s house, Sethe leans in to look at the woman’s face. As she does so, she suddenly feels a great need to relive herself. “She never made the outhouse. Right in front of its door she had to lift her skirts, and the water she voided was endless. Like a horse, she thought, but as it went on and on she thought, No, more like flooding the boat when Denver was born” (p.50). When Sethe looked at Beloved’s face, her bladder filled up. When she was relieving herself, the amount of urine reminded her of flooding the boat when her water broke at the time Denver was born. Denver’s birth is associated many times with water.

Throughout her novel, Toni Morrison also uses the motif of water to signify re-birth. When we first meet Beloved, Morrison writes, “A fully dressed woman walked out of the water” (p. 50). In this passage, Beloved, the daughter that Sethe murdered 18 years ago, comes back to the world of the living. She comes straight out of the water. Here, water signifies the re-birth of Beloved. When Beloved is taken into the house, the only thing she asks for is water. ‘“She said she thirsty,’ said Paul D. He took off his cap. ‘Mighty thirsty look like’” (p. 51). “The woman gulped water from a speckled tin cup and held it out for more. Four times Denver filled it, and four times the woman drank as though she had crossed a desert” (p. 51). Water is an essential part of life. It is necessary to survive. In these passages, Beloved has just come back to life. By drinking water, she is in a way being re-born and the water supplies her with a “life force” to help her survive.

Water is again used as a motif that signifies re-birth later on in the novel, but this time for Sethe. When Sethe arrives at Baby Suggs’ home, she is met by Baby Suggs who then tries to wash and bathe Sethe’s body. “She led Sethe to the keeping room and, by the light of a spirit lamp, bathed her in sections, starting with her face. Then, while waiting for another pan of heated water, she sat next to her and stitched cotton. Sethe dozed and woke to the washing of her hands and arms…the rest of the night Sethe spent soaking” (p. 93). In this passage, Sethe has just arrived at Baby Suggs’ home in Cincinnati after escaping from Sweet Home. While on the way, Sethe was molested by schoolteacher’s nephews and also gave birth. She was obviously very soiled and needed to bathe. Thus, Baby Suggs bathes Sethe’s whole body. This is like a re-birth for Sethe because not only does she feel refreshed and anew, but this also signifies her freedom from Sweet Home.

Morrison also uses the motif of water to represent freedom and escape from slavery. For Paul D., water was an essential part of obtaining his freedom from the prison camps in Alfred, Georgia. “It rained. In the boxes the men heard the water rise in the trench and looked out for cottonmouths. They squatted in muddy water, slept above it, peed in it…it happened so quick he had no time to ponder…one by one, from Hi Man back on down the like, thy dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping” (p. 110). In this passage, Paul D. is at a prison camp in Alfred, Georgia. All of the prisoners were locked up and chained. One day it started raining and did not stop. It rained so much that all the dirt under the bars of the “cells” turned to soft mud. At this point, the prisoners decided to escape. The dove through the mud and ran away to safety and freedom. If it weren’t for water, the dirt would not have turned to dirt and Paul D. would never have escaped form the prison camp.

Water represents freedom for Sethe as well. In order to get away from schoolteacher and slavery, she had to cross the Ohio River, which is a large body of water. ”Just when she thought he was taking her back to Kentucky, he turned the flatbed and crossed the Ohio like a shot. There he helped her up the steep bank” (p. 91). In this passage, Sethe has just delivered Denver, her baby, when she runs into Stamp Paid and two boys. She tells them who she is and where she is going. Stamp Paid takes her across the river because someone would be waiting there for her. If Sethe didn’t cross the river, she wouldn’t have escaped Sweet Home and slavery all together.

Through her usage of water as a motif, Morrison expresses her feelings and helps us to better understand the novel. Water comes to represent birth, re-birth, and freedom and escape from slavery. There is also a deeper meaning to all of this. Water also comes to represent a sort of life force for Beloved. When she just appears for the first time, she comes out of the water. But she also needs to drink a vast amount of water. It seems as though she needs the water to survive. For Sethe, water comes to mean both a sort of re-awakening and a symbol of freedom. This is apparent through her actions and emotions when she was bathed by Baby Suggs. Water also represents freedom for Paul D. This is because he escaped due to the mud created by the water. The motif of water is well used throughout the book to come to signify many things to the characters.

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