Flashbacks used in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Scholastics Winner: Silver Key in the Critical Essay Category

Jade Abu Bakr, News Editor '22

The harsh and traumatic realities of Toni Morrison’s Beloved do not solely lie in the story itself, but also within how the story is written. Morrison utilizes multiple flashbacks throughout the novel to illustrate the past of each character, while also making connections to the current events taking place at 124. Each flashback, on its own, is vivid and unique. Collectively, however, they paint a broader picture of how much weight remains on the shoulders of those who escaped from slavery and ended up enthralled by Beloved’s aura. Using a variety of sentence structure and an implementation of symbols and dialogue, Morrison strengthens the overall narrative by emphasizing the psychological and emotional toll that everyone has experienced and their lasting effects.

Morrison makes it clear that each character has some element of their past that they wish to either rectify or forget. As such, these flashbacks are often not welcome. They are often embedded at awkward points throughout the novel to reflect the difficulty each character has when these memories resurface. For example, when Sethe talks to Paul D about her milk being stolen at Sweet Home, she is overcome with emotion and fear. What started as a conversation about the mysterious and “spiteful” aura of 124 ended with Sethe thinking back on the day “they took [her] milk”, referring to the white men in Sweet Home (Morrison; 1, 20). The memory left as quickly as it came in. Morrison illustrates this rapid escalation of thought by jumping between points of Sethe’s story, showing that she has no time to process or grieve about her traumas. These sometime small trains of thought foreshadow upcoming events; in this case, Paul D will explain to Sethe that she was not the only one haunted by that day. While connecting the dots, Morrison continues to submerse the audience into the physical and emotional trauma of these characters. If there were breaks between each chapter or a clear transition that tells the reader Morrison is shifting from one point in time to another, the audience would be unable to fully comprehend the strain these events hold.

Stylistically, each flashback may include a multitude of opinions and perspectives, allowing the reader to see one scenario through multiple eyes. With that comes new opinions, separate emotions, and shift in tone and language. At the climax of the novel, Sethe has killed Beloved.  Within this chapter, Morrison shows four different people seeing and reacting to the event in four dynamically different ways. Sethe came from a place of being a mother and knowing that “[she] couldn’t let [Beloved] nor any of ‘em live under schoolteacher. That was out” (192). It was “simple” for her to make the decision of killing herself and her children because she understood that going back to Sweet Home would be worse than death (192). On the other hand, looking at the schoolteacher, the nephew, and Stamp Paid, there was a mix of other emotions that play into the overall scene: fear, guilt, shock, annoyance. Morrison uses the idea of putting the reader into every mindset, rather than just one. She even provides shifts in the language to showcase how each character processes the situation. While the schoolteacher uses metaphor and compares Sethe to a “horse [that is] beat beyond the point of education,” Morrison shows how afraid and ignorant the nephew is through interrogative phrases and ellipses; Stamp Paid uses a mix of thoughts and actual dialogue with Paul D to show that he is afraid to share the whole truth (176). Frankly, sometimes those mindsets can be misleading or biased, and it seems that Morrison hopes to provide all angles possible so the reader can also understand that Sethe was not the only person affected. This strengthens the narration and begs the question of whether the reader is even able to accept Sethe’s decision to kill her daughter. Furthermore, this event provides a necessary conflict of opinion to comprehend the actual complexity or ambiguity of the decisions that each character brings.

The involvement from characters in the past—members of Sweet Home, Baby Suggs, Amy, etc.—are imperative to present day trials of Sethe and 124. Without their involvement in the story, Sethe would lose a layer of her character that was built upon the influence of these people, whether violent or empowering. Baby Suggs as a matriarch of 124 and the people that live there brings an additional aspect to Sethe’s experience and the effect on Beloved within the house. Her flashbacks are often associated with seeing color or understanding the importance of self-identity and “claiming ownership of that freed self” (112). Without her connection to Sethe’s life, there may have been a lack of understanding as to how Sethe could release some of the anger and grief she experienced within her past; losing Baby Suggs also means losing the relationship that she and Denver shared. As far as the men and women in Sweet Home, Sethe’s interaction with them provides a strange dynamic between master and slave. Although the Garner’s were seemingly willing to give the enslaved men and women a voice, there was still an established hierarchy that Morrison did not want to go unnoticed. Finally, Amy gives Sethe an alternative interpretation for her lashes: a tree. Rather than a brand of punishment, it becomes a symbol of growth that has “a mighty lot of branches. Leaves too…Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white” (93). Each supporting character serves as tools for Morrison to bring more layers to Sethe and the choices she makes. These subtle connections lead to a greater understanding as to how, “eighteen years” later each character ended up under the roof of 124 (186).

Overall, Morrison selective process in choosing where to place a flashback is symbolic of what each character chooses to remember or forget. Each flashback is intertwined in a manner that asks you to question and think about its significance individually and as a collective. They provide more depth to each character and how they are woven into the death of Beloved. Likewise, Morrison wants the audience to have difficult conversations, allowing the trauma to resurface. Until that can be done, there will never truly be an opportunity to grieve, reflect, challenge, or improve on the longstanding historical hardships that the country currently faces.