In our world today, the fear of people who do not look, act, or talk like us is crippling. We, as a whole, do not easily accept or assimilate those who have been otherized into our communities. Throughout various works of literature, though, it is evident that characters whose origins are unusual or mysterious are able to fully participate in the societies in which they appear. Toni Morrison’s Beloved presents one such situation. When the spirit of Sethe’s late baby materializes at her doorstep, the lives of Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Beloved are changed forever. Because of Beloved’s unusual origins, she has trouble formulating a meaningful self-identity, the family is polarized because of her unexpected arrival, and the novel as a whole is able to better communicate the message that humans have a distinct and deep ability to adapt to new environments.
Beloved has not always been an outsider, but nonetheless has difficulty coming to terms with her foreign origins. She had been a third party observer as a ghost entity in the upstairs portion of Sethe’s house, but when she rises out of the river and comes to actually reside in the house, she does not know where she belongs. She is not able to work because of her low threshold for mental stimulation, and she relies heavily on Sethe to care for her and to be told who she is. There is a significant aspect of the story that Beloved is missing: the opinions of the other people in the house about her. Because she has not had the chance to truly connect with Denver, Paul D, and Baby Sugs, she has no reference point for how she is thought of in their minds. It is almost impossible for her to truly live in tandem with her ”family” because she does not even know her own values, mannerisms, and life outlooks.
Not only does Beloved lack a self-worth component of life because of her mysterious origin, but she also is a polarizing factor in the familiar setting she has: her home. At first, her sister Denver is willing to do anything for her, and it seems as though the two have developed an allyship. However, as Beloved demands more and more attention from Sethe, Denver becomes enraged. Denver does not understand why a foreign person, seemingly without any ties to the family, could be cared about so much by Sethe. Sethe therefore feels a duty to protect Beloved because she caused her pain in the past. Paul D is somewhere in between the two opinions of Beloved, because he wants to support Sethe’s dedication, but he also needs nurturing of his own. Neither Denver nor Paul D truly understand Beloved, since she came from an unknown place and just began living with them. In these ways, Beloved tears apart the family, and her presence negatively affects her relationship to the other characters.
Finally, by having a character like Beloved live closely with others who all have definitive origins, the novel’s message of the human’s ability to adapt to new environments is furthered. For example, Beloved herself learns quickly what is expected of her in the household ─ obedience, helping with jobs around the house, and loyalty. She has to learn how a whole new world operates around her, which is a challenge. Denver, likewise, is forced to mature faster than she wants because her mother no longer has unlimited time and dedication for her. She adapts to a more independent lifestyle and gets a job. Sethe adapts to having another child to take care of and attempts to atone for her past mistakes by treating Beloved well. Even Paul D, who leaves Sethe, shows an important aspect of this message of adaptation: sometimes, the only way to adapt is to leave the environment all together and just adopt a new one. None of these character developments would have occurred had Beloved not shown up.
While it would be much easier to ignore those who are different from us so as to surround ourselves with only people who are similar to us, there is more personal growth with unfamiliar situations. Beloved shows that while this beautiful, child-like, and enigmatic character is inserted into the lives of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D, the enigma becomes her own person and works out an identity, each person in the house forms his or her own opinions on the situation, and the greater message of adaptability is clearly evident. It is our own challenge to respect those with differing origins in order to grow and develop as human beings.
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