Introduction to Our Project

For this project, our group chose to focus on Sethe's choice to kill her children. We will analyze this choice through four essential questions: Was Sethe justified in killing her kids?, Were there other options?, Was Paul D's reaction appropriate?, and Do you think Sethe's actions were heroic? We will each answer two questions individually (our names will be at the bottom indicating who wrote it) and we will each comment on the other two question that we didn't answer (which was answered by someone else).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Was Sethe justified in her attempt to kill her children (and being successful with the murder of Beloved)?

If you would have asked me this question three weeks ago, I would have firmly answered- NO! Sethe has no right to take a life of an innocent baby by slicing her throat with a handsaw. How can a mother even think about murdering her own flesh and blood? But then again what do I, a white female know about being a slave and a mother?

It was very hard to understand the motive behind Sethe’s action at first (even though Mrs. Mahon did talk about a similar situation that a runaway slave, Margaret Garner had faced) because I did not get a glimpse of Sethe’s life, which is the key to understanding this novel. However, through Toni Morison’s recount of painful experiences that Sethe faced as a slave while at Sweet Home made me realize that the reason for the murder lies in understanding maternal instinct and how it leads a mom to protect her offspring by any necessary means. When babies are born, mothers have full control of their children, right? Yes, but not in Sethe’s case. As soon as Beloved entered the world, she was considered a slave just because Sethe was a slave. And Sethe knew that once she was captured she would lose her control over the innocent baby, and that would morally kill her. In Chapter 26, Sethe explains what she thinks is supposedly the worst thing that could happen in her life, “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you“(Beloved 251). This shows that even though Sethe survived being whipped while pregnant, having been milked by the school teacher’s nephews, and having to pay for Beloved’s tombstone with intercourse, she did not want to see her children being treated as animals. While Sethe became “dirty” after Sweet Home, her children never experienced slavery first hand so they remained the only pure, “clean” thing in her life. Her oldest daughter (Beloved) did not even have a name until she died, signifying how Sethe wanted to keep a blank slate for her daughter, wanted her to be free and live her own life, something that Sethe never got a chance to do since the memories of Sweet Home continued to torment her years after. The only reason she attempted to kill her children was to keep them from being degraded, or “dirtied” by the whites who did that same to her. And this is why Sethe committed of infanticide, she felt obligated to protect her children at any cost. When she’s talking to Paul D, she justified her actions by saying, “It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that.” (Beloved 165).

One might call her act of infanticide animalistic and heartless, but Sethe sacrificed herself for the betterment of her daughter. After the murder she spent her entire life overridden with guilt and despair at what she did. When the reincarnation of the baby ghost showed up at her doo step, Sethe became so obsessed with Beloved that she has given up everything she had to make her happy, putting up with Beloved’s unreasonable demands. When Paul D. came back to visit her in Chapter 27, she replied “She was my best thing” (Beloved 272). She never meant to hurt her, it was out of unconditional love. In my opinion that’s an ultimate gesture of a loving mother and is completely justifiable.


  1. In a way, this question is similar to my own post of whether Sethe's actions were heroic. Though Eugenia deals more with the motive while I dealt more with consequences/how it was received. I had said that, though I don't find Sethe's actions heroic, they are certainly understandable, after reading the book and seeing the situation Sethe was placed in. So I too would agree that her actions were justified. Though one would rather not have it happen at all, it would make sense for a mother to want to be the one to kill her children, rather than have them suffer by the hands of a stranger, and ultimately die a much worse death. It's like that scenario that constantly comes up in TV shows or books: An older sibling is picking on their younger sibling, and the younger sibling resents the older one for it. But then some other, unrelated bully comes into the picture and picks on the younger, and so the older sibling comes to the rescue and says something like, "Only I can pick on them!' In situations like this, it gives the characters (like the older sibling, or Sethe) control - they know that they do what they do out of love, but they have no control over what others do to their loved ones.

    I agree when Eugenia said that Sethe "never meant to hurt her, it was out of unconditional love" (of Beloved). Sethe was only trying to save her daughter from a worse fate. And though Paul D. says there must be another way, there really is no way of knowing that Sethe's children could have escaped schoolteacher if she hadn't tried to kill them. Sethe says herself, "It aint my job to know what's worse. It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible." (Beloved 165). That line alone certainly justifies Sethe's actions.

    -Rachel H.

  2. Although I do agree with Eugenia that the love of a mother on her child is like no other, I strongly believe that Sethe's actions of killing her daughter Beloved is not justifiable. Eugenia does being up many valid points in stating that Sethe never meant to hurt Beloved and that she just wanted to keep Beloved safe. However, is death keeping someone safe? I believe that Sethe did want to keep Beloved safe and out of slavery, especially knowing the history that Sethe has had in slavery, but I do not think that she was successful. Would Sethe consider herself successful in keeping Beloved safe? To me, death is not the way to keep someone safe and I do disagree with Eugenia’s statement of “She never meant to hurt her, it was out of unconditional love.” I do understand how both Eugenia and Rachel see that Sethe how this statement is true because I do believe that Sethe never wanted to being pain upon her child but I can’t agree with the statement that it was out of unconditional love. Although I’m not in Sethe’s position, having never faced slavery or motherhood, I believe that unconditional love is shown from constantly fighting for your child and never giving up. To me when Sethe kills Beloved, I see a lost fight and a battle that was given up on.

    When Paul D. says that there must be another way, I agree with that statement. I too believe that there must have been another way to save those children without murdering them. And although Rachel does bring up a valid point, not only here but in her other comment, of how there is no way of knowing whether Sethe’s children would have been able to escape the schoolteacher’s control, it was worth a try. I believe that Sethe could have followed this path and although it might have lead to the same faith, death, it could have lead to another one, survival. I do not believe that Sethe is justified in her decision to kill her child Beloved.

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  4. Sethes act was justifiable because she did it out of pure motherly love. She didnt want to see her children go through the same traumatizing experiences she went through

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  6. I also disagree that Sethe's actions were justifiable. We attempt to qualify her brutal murder of her daughter by stating that