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.