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Mother Figures in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

A sophomore literature student who loves conversing about books from a political, social, and feminist lens.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The Idea of Motherhood in Beloved: An Introduction

Toni Morrison’s Beloved lays bare the physical and mental horrors of slavery by delving into the psychologies of multiple slaves and ex-slaves. Published in 1987 and set in 1876, a decade after slavery was abolished, it explores the devastating effects that the institution of Slavery has on individual identity, motherhood, masculinity, etc.

Attachments and feelings which are taken for granted under “normal” circumstances are considered a privilege within slavery- “Would it be all right to go ahead and feel?”. Slavery made it extremely strenuous for mothers to have an emotionally invested relationship with their offspring. This extortion of motherhood is explored through Baby Suggs’ character, an ex-slave- “My firstborn. All I can remember…is how she loved the burned bottom of the bread. Eight children and that’s all I remember.” Affection could have dangerous consequences where humans are moved around arbitrarily- “nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.”

First edition cover of Beloved

First edition cover of Beloved

Examining Sethe's Character as a Mother-Figure

Sethe’s character does not fit into the traditional "vulnerable" model of womanhood. Her immeasurable angst and agony at being unable to nurse her baby are such that the taking away of her milk supersedes her pain of being sexually abused; “her stolen breast milk signifies the denial of futurity, a body nullified of its most elemental assets" (Richard Perez).

The bare minimum pleasure of taking care of one’s child was snatched away from slave mothers. Though maternal love becomes a challenge within the context of slavery, Sethe does not want to be remembered through “marks” like her mother. The fact that “[s]he kept kissing them" and kissed "the backs of their necks; the tops of their heads” shows her overwhelming and exploding love for her children. Sethe was "willing to bear on," in seemingly insuperable obstacles, in a state of physical injury and exhaustion, with the aid of Amy, a white runaway indentured servant, only for the baby in her womb.

Sethe and Denver’s mother-daughter relationship is realistically portrayed and is not sentimentalized but encompasses its friction and conflict. Though there are reservations, Sethe refuses to “hear a word against her.”

Both the biological arguments and cultural narratives of motherhood demand channelization of unparalleled protection and love towards one’s child, regardless of a woman’s ability to meet them. Sethe is in an extremely paradoxical situation takes care of her children by trying to kill them. This unnatural act is her way of expressing maternal agency. Though the act is horrific, it is a far more horrific comment on the system of slavery, “[which] Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore.”

Slavery denies any agency and motherhood to female slaves over their children, but Sethe still makes that ferocious choice: “No notebook for my babies and no measuring string neither.” This incident is based on the real-life story of Margaret Garner who chose death for her children rather than let them suffer the institutionalized dehumanization of slavery. J. Wyatt remarks that “[t]he novel withholds judgment on Sethe's act and persuades the reader to do the same, presenting the infanticide as the ultimate contradiction of mothering under slavery." In an interview, Morrison commented that it "was absolutely the right thing to do…but it's also the thing you have no right to do."

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When Beloved returns to 124, Sethe undergoes a birthing experience of her “bladder filled to capacity”. Beloved becomes an intriguing figure who unsettles Sethe into thinking her dead toddler has returned. There is a constant need to appease her and resolve unresolved feelings: “Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered, been through, for her children.” Sethe’s possessive maternity and emotional outburst plunges her back in the past and brings about the refusal to be separated from her child: “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine…I have to show…and teach you what a mother should.”

Illustration of a slave mother

Illustration of a slave mother

The Distorted Idea of Motherhood in Beloved

Morrison embeds tales of mothers who, as slaves, cannot function within the conventional understanding of motherhood. Sethe vaguely remembers her own mother, her Ma’am, as “one among many backs turned away from her.” Since her Ma’am was always engaged in field labor, they both could barely share any affectionate moments as mother and daughter. Even Beloved’s mother cannot act “motherly” and succumbs. Beloved notices that the woman with “her face” jumps off the ship voluntarily, thereby leaving her alone and helpless.

Under slavery, the concept of other-mothering becomes “a strategy of survival.” Surrogate/other-mothers like Nan “ensured that all children, regardless of whether the biological mother was present or available, would receive the mothering that delivers psychological and physical wellbeing and makes empowerment possible' (Nina Jenkins).

Unconventional Mothers

Though few and far between, instances of mothers rejecting their children are also present. For example, when Nan tells Sethe about how Nan and her mother were raped multiple times during the middle passage. Ma’am decided to keep only “the one child conceived with a man Ma’am put her arms around.” Similarly, Ella “would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by ‘the lowest yet.’”

Morrison remarkably portrays figures of angry, rebellious, frustrated women and how the experiences of motherhood and the definition of a family get distorted when women are merely recognized as “breeders” of slave owners’ “property.”


1. Beloved A Novel by Toni Morrison, 2007, Vintage International eBooks.

2. Wyatt, J. 1993. "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved".

3. Perez, R. 2014. "The Debt of Memory: Reparations, Imagination, and History in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"." Women's Studies Quarterly, 42(1/2)

4. Jenkins, N. L. 1998. "Black Women and the Meaning of Motherhood" Redefining Motherhood: Changing Identities and Patterns. Eds. Andrea O'Reilly and Sharon Abbey. Toronto: Second Story Press. 201-213.

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