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What Is the Relationship Between Sacrifice and Selfishness as Demonstrated in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

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Continuing the literary tradition of her previous novels, Morrison has explored the deep- rooted supremacist ideology of slavery and its “essentialist discursive repertoires that defined the African- American slave as the racial “Other , in her fifth novel Beloved. The novel also argues for a need to extend the longforgotten cultural memories of African- American society, which is stimulated by a longing to share the shame and trauma of slavery.

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What is a “good mother”? One who would sacrifice all for her children. One who offers love that is endless, silent, undemanding, One who would deny her own maternal identity rather than see her offspring rent in two. A good mother is her children; she does not have a story of her own. She is the channel through which others learn to speak. Sethe – the heroine of Toni Morrison’s Beloved – is not a “good mother”. She questions the very conventions of the maternal narrative. An escaped slave in the latter half of the 19th century, she inhabits a world in which “good mothering” is highly valued, but only for a certain type of woman: white, wealthy, outsourcing

Sethe’s role is to be passive: produce flesh, produce milk, but whatever you do, do not love. Tie up your child, work, and then watch as others take your compliance as evidence that you were never really human at all.In his introduction to The Folio Society’s beautifully illustrated reissue of the novel, Russell Banks describes the work as “a story about family life and love, and how, in a social and economic universe designed explicitly to destroy them, they endure.” They endure, but in a haunted, distorted form, an echo of the 28 days during which Sethe can enjoy her children before they are hunted down. Twenty eight days marks the distance between an act of nurturance and one of murder; “the travel of one whole moon […] from the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood.

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Although female roles change as society changes and recently have been affected by the increase in opportunities for women and the break down of gender stereotypes, patriarchal influences still subordinate women. Modern women often struggle to balance all their roles and certainly recognize the tension in their own lives. Because the stories of Sethe and Ginny are applicable to modern women, Beloved and A Thousand Acres remain powerful novels. Readers and critics readily recognize this power judging by how often these novels are studied and the awards the novels have received. Power not only has a strong effect on the characters in the novels, and comes with a horrible price, but power also has an impact on the reader. “I have put down a book because I was too inspired by it to keep reading. I could feel some sort of joy or power flowing from the book to me” (Smiley, “Shakespeare in Iceland” 166). Because of Sethe and Ginny, power and knowledge flow from the novels to the audience. The power of Beloved and A Thousand Acres is certainly not joy, just as the power in Sethe and Ginny’s lives does not bring joy. However, Sethe and Ginny survive, and readers come to understand power and its price.

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As has been noted, we would not expect a mother to kill her child, no matter what the circumstances

But the author is making a comment on the hopelessness that faced the slaves, and the extent to which they were liable to react. The incident of Sethe killing her daughter is put forward as emblematic of the cruelty of slavery. But whatever the reality of it, it is in the past. The message of the novel is that the past must be confronted and laid to rest.

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Smiley on Rewriting Shakespeare.” Flyway: A Literary Review. 5.1-5.2 (Fall 1999/ Winter 2000): 143-67. Print.

Strehle, Susan. "The Daughter's Subversion in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 41.3 (Spring 2000): 211-26. Academic OneFile. Gale. Web. 10 Dec. 2008.

Taylor-Guthrie, Danille. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Print

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