By definition, a memory is, “something remembered from the past” , meaning, it exists in the present but refers back to the past. The word “remembered” itself is constructed in the past tense, alluding to the idea that memories do not just happen in our minds, but they are something tangible that happened in the past as well. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, memories do not exist in time, but instead in the character’s minds; memories can jump from one time to the next and exist through different mediums, but ultimately be triggered by something happening in the present. Throughout the book, Sethe and Beloved discuss, embody, and try to escape their past and through their journeys the reader is able to find insight into how the past has meandered its way into their present. Sethe’s use of the word “rememory” instead of just “memory” embodies her feelings about her past, as she adds the prefix “re” to memory, showing the ability of memories to recall moments from the past in order to relive them again. Beloved’s demeanor suggests that she isn’t a newborn, but instead she has come from somewhere else and experienced the past. Lastly, the uproar and emotions that the house, 124, provokes and brings shows that there is something living within the house, illustrating that the memories of the characters inside are alive as well. Ultimately, Sethe’s obsession with rememories and the past, Beloved’s ability to evoke the past, and 124’s ability to display and represent the past, allude to the idea that what the character’s view as the “past” is really who they are in the present, and their memories exist throughout the present and the past as tangible beings.
For Sethe, time does not matter; her past haunts her throughout her life in the novel, regardless of how long it’s been. Throughout the novel, Sethe constantly remarks upon her “rememory” in her attempt to define what a “rememory” truly is: “I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place– the picture of it– stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened” (43). In this quote, Sethe uses the word “rememory” to not only describe the act of remembering a memory, but also the act of living the memory so that the line between the past and present blurs. Most important about this word is the fact that it is a noun instead of a verb, alluding to the idea that a rememory is an object, place, or thing, just like a noun. Sethe goes on to later describe the concept of what a rememory truly is: “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place– the picture of it– stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.” What Sethe is trying to get at here is that a rememory is not only something tangible, but something that exists throughout time, in the future and in the present, regardless of when it happened. The idea of the picture of the house staying and existing in the world is like Sethe’s rememories of her slavery: Denver and herself are the pictures of Slavery and they exist in the real world; she is living proof of this. Not only does Sethe believe that her memories are tangible and existent in the present, but she thinks that the hardships and the pain is worth bringing back to life: “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (42). Here, Amy Denver is talking to Sethe while Sethe is in pain during labor with her child Denver. At the literal sense, Amy Denver is talking about the child inside Sethe, who is long overdue and who they fear is dead, being born and the pain that this causes. But when looking at this quote more deeply, Amy Denver can also be referring to the idea of Denver being a reminder of Sethe’s past and slavery, which has been dead for a while now, and this memory coming back to life is painful. In this sense, Sethe feels that it is worth the pain to bring Denver into the world, and that bringing memories back to life may actually be beneficial. Furthermore, bringing these memories back to life actually revives Sethe and allows her to live a life exempt of fear, because she is now able to live with these memories.
Throughout the novel Beloved confuses readers into wondering who or where she came from, but regardless of her origins, Beloved personifies the passage of the past to the present. Many theories have been developed about Beloved’s origins and where she came from, but none that can be fully proven in the next, although they can be supported significantly by evidence. However, undeniably, when Beloved enters the story, she evokes much pain, confusion, and love from the characters almost immediately. Beloved’s interactions with the other characters stems memories and realizations from the past, evoking many emotions that had not previously been dealt with or felt. Arguably, Beloved’s role in the story is to force the other characters to deal with their past. Beloved does this through her relationships with these characters. Firstly, her relationship with Sethe is almost obsession-like, as she is constantly requesting that Sethe tell stories from her past. Not only does Beloved wish to hear these stories, but Beloved is trying to get Sethe to deal with them as well. Sethe is described as being “licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes” (68). This quote takes place shortly after Beloved and Sethe meet for the first time, and Beloved is already attached to Sethe. This is seen through the quote as Beloved’s eyes are locked onto Sethe immediately, and will not let go. This quote demonstrates the progression of Beloved’s obsession with Sethe in a twisted way. At first, Beloved “licks” Sethe, meaning she tries her, just getting a glimpse of her. Next, she “tastes” Sethe, getting more of a sense of who she is but not fully understanding. Lastly, she “eats” Sethe, and now she is fully submerged in her feelings for Sethe. The importance of this obsession is that it arguably creates a mother-daughter type of relationship between the two characters. This relationship forces Sethe to deal with her past, as she now begins to think about her ambiguous relationship with her own mother. Sethe’s mother had abandoned her, leaving her to face the horrors of slavery on her own, which shows why Sethe makes some of the choices she did, such as take in Beloved and kill her children. Ultimately, Beloved’s role in the book is to provoke emotions from other characters, such as Sethe, and allow them to access their past through her, even though these characters did not realize it: “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed” (323). Beloved’s impact on other characters was not something that they noticed or something tangible, but instead it was something emotional; her purpose was not to physically be there, but instead to emotionally be there. This is why when Beloved is gone, she was “disremembered and unaccounted for”, because nobody knew or understood her impact except for Beloved herself. Beloved seemingly came into this book with a goal, clawed her way through characters, and left without a trace (so it seems). But, in reality, the trace she left may not have been something tangible, but instead something nobody else could see or understand: a trace of memories. Beloved herself embodies the memories of others, as she is able to provoke their memories, contributing to the notion that memories are not just remembering the past, but instead it is feeling and experiencing the past again in the present, thus blurring the lines between what is remembered and what is real.
The liveliness of 124 illustrates that the memories of the characters who live inside the house are alive and tangible, just like the house itself. The first line of the entire book starts with a description of Sethe and Denver’s house, 124 Bluestone Road, by saying: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (3). Not only does this quote set the setting for the rest of the book, but looking at the quote more in depth shows that 124 is personified. This personification proves to be very important to the rest of the book, as it shows how Sethe and Denver’s memories are personified as well. To explain this, 124 is described as being “full of a baby’s venom”. Having only read the first line of the book, the reader begins to question “why?”. Later in the book, the reader learns that Sethe killed her children to save them from the horrors of slavery, and now the baby ghost, named Beloved, comes back to live in the house and arguably haunt Sethe and Denver. Thus, the memories of Sethe’s past come back to haunt her in 124. When Paul D is trying to scare the ghost out of the house, the narrator describes this situation as him “screaming back at the screaming house” (18). 124 is again personified here, this time using the word “screaming house”. This is important because it shows how the house embodies the screaming ghost that is Beloved. This shows how Beloved is part of the house, and the house is Beloved. To go along with this, Beloved’s haunting shows that Sethe’s memories still haunt her. Not only does this show that Sethe’s memories are still haunting her, but it shows that Sethe’s memories are alive. The book is able to show that Sethe’s memories are tangible and alive through the personification of the house, as the house is a tangible, physical object. The baby ghost of Beloved does not haunt just Sethe, but all that enter the house. This shows that the house represents more than just one person’s memories, but instead everyone’s collective memories. Ultimately, the house is able to represent many memories that are felt by everyone: the memories of slavery.
Throughout the novel, memories often exist in physical beings, or as experiences, or through relationships, instead of just existing and being in the past. Specifically, Sethe calls these “rememories” because, in her mind, she is not just remembering something from the past, but she is experiencing it again; she is remembering her memories. To add to this, Beloved presents herself as a character whose purpose is to evoke emotions and memories from various characters, especially Sethe, and is successful in doing so. As the story goes on, Beloved’s role becomes more and more confusing, to the point where she leaves at the end of the book without a trace, without even a name to remember her by. Although Beloved physically leaves the book, she undeniably leaves an emotional mark on the other characters, whether they recognize it or not. Beloved has just supplied them with a physical representation of their own memories, as she knew so much about them without their telling her themselves. Similarly, the first lines of the novel are about how “124 was spiteful” (3), showing that before anything can be determined, the narrator wants the reader to know that there was and is something making 124 spiteful. This “something” is the baby ghost of Beloved, the Beloved who was killed by Sethe in the past. This shows how Sethe’s past comes back to haunt her through the house, through something that is physical and tangible. Ultimately, this proves that one’s memories are not just merely in the past, but instead, these memories exist in the present, and even in the future as well. Memories are not just experienced once, but as Sethe, Beloved, and 124 prove to us time and time again, memories are constantly remembered and lived simultaneously
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