The treatment of motherhood is depicted through several different perspectives in Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. In both novels, there is a clear juxtaposition of two mothers and their attitudes towards motherhood. However, the treatment of motherhood by Morrison and Chopin is very different. While Morrison focuses on the slave mother experience, Chopin’s treatment of motherhood revolves around the subjugation of married women with children during the end of the nineteenth century.
Each novel depicts motherhood from the perspective of women who are mothers. This was widely uncommon in literature during the time of each novel’s publication, particularly because motherhood and the maternal experience was previously told from a patriarchal perspective. As Paula Gallant Eckard states in her book “Body and Voice”, “motherhood and maternal experience have been largely defined and ‘written’ by other forces..
. Patriarchal power has objectified the maternal and disregarded female subjectivity. Generally speaking, maternal subjectivity- the presentation of pregnancy, childbirth, and the experience of motherhood from a mother’s perspective- has not been well represented in written culture”(Gallant Eckard 1). Morrison based Beloved on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who murdered one of her children in order to save them from slavery. Morrison took this harrowing incident and used it as her inspiration for Sethe in Beloved.
Through the character of Sethe, Morrison explores the traumatic experiences of slavery on a family and the numerous violations to motherhood that would have occurred before the Emancipation Proclamation. The trauma that Sethe suffered at the hands of the Schoolteacher and his nephews in Sweet Home followed her into free life and continued to haunt her throughout the novel. Sethe tells Paul D of the numerous violations of her motherhood at the hands of these men by repeating “they took my milk” (Morrison 19) while “I was pregnant with Denver but I had milk for my baby girl.” Committing filicide is an extreme act that many slave mothers did so they could prevent their children from experiencing the degrading and humiliating conditions of slavery. Sethe felt justified in her actions because she stopped Schoolteacher from getting to her children, “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (Morrison 193).
Through the physical act of murdering Beloved, thus preventing her from experiencing slavery, Sethe demonstrated her deep love and devotion to her child. As Stamp Paid asserts “She ain’t crazy. She love those children. She was trying to out-hurt the hurter”(Morrison 276).
However, within Beloved, motherhood is constantly wrestling with the theme of slavery, as slavery could not allow a mother and a child to be together. While enslaved, a woman was simply seen as a ‘breeder’ and their children were merely for monetary gain. Children were separated from their mothers at a young age, which can be seen through Sethe’s vague memories of her own mother. Sethe only remembers seeing “a cloth hat as opposed to a straw one, singularity enough in that world of cooing women each of whom was called Ma’am”(Morrison 37). Yet what Sethe does remember is Nan, the woman who nursed and raised her after her mother was hung.
Nan also explained to Sethe of how much her mother loved her “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of a black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around.
Never. Never. Telling you.
I am telling you, small girl Sethe”(Morrison 74). Sethe was deprived her biological mother’s love and milk because of the institution of slavery, which is why she was so desperate to escape and feed her daughter. “All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me”(Morrison 19). Slavery aimed to suppress a mothers’ natural emotional attachment to her child and this attachment was wholly dispirited, as Paul D observed; “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love”(Morrison 54).