How do people survive horrible experiences? In Beloved, Toni Morrison gives an illustration of resilience and how fragile it is.
When good hearted Paul D. appears on Sethe’s porch one day in 1873 neither has any idea how his arrival will shake their lives and their Ohio community. It isn’t that he carries a secret. It is that he is unaware of the truth that everyone else knows. His coming will awaken that truth, opening old wounds that will either heal or kill.
Paul D. and Sethe are both former slaves who escaped from a farm called Sweet Home after it was passed on to relatives of the original owners. Mr. and Mrs. Garner had been atypical slave owners who allowed their slaves to learn to read and write, to carry guns and to speak their own opinions. This left their small group of slaves easy prey to the racism and prejudice of the new owners, who felt obliged to punish them for “privileges” to which they had become accustomed. Paul D. and Sethe are the last alive and are free after years of hardship… at least they appear so.
When Paul D. arrives, Sethe is in a bad situation: she lives alone, isolated from the community, in a house inhabited by her youngest daughter, Denver, a teenager, and the ghost of her dead baby girl, who bumps and stomps around the house. Her mother-in-law is long dead, her husband never made it back from Sweet Home, and her two boys have run away. She and her house reek of death and despair, but Paul D. is drawn to this beautiful woman that he desired so many years ago and he is unwilling to see it. Unspoken truth looms over them, sowing discontent.
In Alabama, where Paul D. was in prison, he was part of a chain gang. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, prisoners were put on the chain for the duration of their sentence. They couldn’t relieve themselves or sleep without being chained to the next man. These men were escaped slaves or captured free men and many were there on trumped up charges, for stealing in order to eat, for assault or killing in self-defense. Through incredible teamwork, Paul D.’s entire unit escaped one night in a heavy rainstorm and were freed by Cherokee Indians who sympathized with the prisoners and removed their chains. He became a free man, although he feels that he doesn’t know how to be one.
Sethe was never chained in the way Paul D. was, although she spent some time in prison. Instead, her chains exist in her mind and are every bit as real as his leg irons. She has withdrawn from everyone who might help her remove them, isolating herself from the world around her and thus verifying and accepting the judgments of her neighbors and of her former captors. She has nourished accusing memories and remained stoic and silent.
Beloved stirs up deep emotions. How much can a human being take? It also encourages us to reach out to each other, to try and understand and help those who have horror in their past. The chains required are chains of love and acceptance, not chains of punishment.