Shapes of Motherly Sacrifice: Responsibility and Misunderstanding in Beloved and A Mercy

By: Iskandar Haggarty

The following work was written for ENG 470: Toni Morrison.


Toni Morrison’s novels Beloved and A Mercy both deal with a common thread; motherly sacrifice and its correlation to maternal love. In both novels, the mother character forfeits her child to, in her eyes, “save” them from harm – whether from their current situation or an implied future one – within the societal confines of slavery. Sethe, the mother figure in Beloved, kills her infant child to prevent her from being sold into slavery, while the unnamed mother in A Mercy, known only as minha mãe, sells her daughter Florens to the Dutch trader Jacob Vaark in hopes of separating her from future sexual violence at the hands of their Portuguese master, Senhor D’Ortega. At the core of both departures is a misunderstanding between the one who sacrifices and the sacrificed which shapes the central conflict of the protagonists. Naomi Morgenstern’s article “Maternal Love/Maternal Violence: Inventing Ethics in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy” outlines and defines the distinction between “responsibility to” and “responsibility for” which plays a central role in my analysis. In using this dichotomy, I hope to elucidate how the misunderstanding regarding responsibility between mother and child shapes the consequences of their sacrificial actions – both how Sethe’s infanticide consumes her life and how Florens’s abandonment (and inability to understand why she was abandoned) pave the way for her to become “feral” or “wild.”

Morgenstern’s distinction between responsibility to and for directly correlate to one’s response to another; “to respond to the other is to recognize the other as a different and complete subject, a fellow sovereign center of consciousness” (Morgenstern 8). To respond to the other, one must first acknowledge the other as outside the realm of their control. Responsibility for, on the other hand, is characterized as “assuming the other’s needs, being willing to be called to account for the other, surrendering one’s goals and desires in deference to the other’s” (8). Taking responsibility for someone is to supplant one life with another. Sethe takes responsibility for her child when she “recognized a hat and split to the woodshed to kill her children” (Beloved 186). The conscious choice to kill her children is not without reason. In Sethe’s mind, her act of infanticide is a “miracle” because it “got us all out” (190) of “the separation of mother and child” dilemma which Morgenstern identifies as “the primal scene of slavery” for Morrison (Morgenstern 15). In a similar vein, at least on the surface, is minha mãe’s sacrifice. Although her voice “was barely above a whisper,” there was “no mistaking its urgency” when she said, “Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter” (A Mercy 26). The similarities end at the separation of mother and child as the primal scene of slavery, although Florens’s mother is not taking responsibility for her daughter but gifting responsibility to her daughter by giving her to Jacob. From this moment onward, she will experience her own sovereign life away from her mother. Both Sethe and Florens, however, misunderstand the intricacies of the responsibilities taken and given which affect their psyche and shape their growth (or lack thereof) throughout.

Sethe’s shape of motherly sacrifice – of taking responsibility for her daughter by taking her life – is a precarious line to walk as it revolves around a “presumption” that the other is unable to take responsibility for themselves and is “thus less than a subject or less than an other” (Morgenstern 8). While Sethe’s presumption can at least be understood if not condoned – the child is, after all, an infant – a stage of life widely recognized for its inability to take care of itself. Morrison imbues the “haint” in Sethe’s home with a personality that implies a sovereign command of the self (Beloved 18). The novel opens with a description of the house, known only by its number, 124, as “spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (3). Morrison’s characterization of the house as alive with the ghost of Sethe’s baby implies an issue unresolved; “a house palsied by the baby’s fury at having its throat cut” is a ghost with a clear sense of agency (6). Morrison clues us in as to why a “baby could harbor so much rage” by showing us how Sethe deal with the aftermath of taking responsibility for her child’s life (5) – rather, how she has not. As Morgenstern delineated, to take responsibility for involves a serious commitment to the other; in supplanting the baby’s sovereignty, Sethe is tacitly agreeing to “assuming the other’s needs” (Morgenstern 8); by killing her daughter, Sethe is promising her baby the right to live vicariously through her mother, to experience the life taken from her.

Sethe, however, severs that promise when she “settle[s] for” the engraving of one word, Beloved, “on her baby’s headstone,” thinking “That should certainly be enough” (Beloved 5). Sethe misunderstands the type of responsibility she has chosen; although she has taken responsibility for her daughter’s life, she tries to memorialize her baby with a headstone as if the matter were done and closed – as if she understood her actions as giving responsibility to her child, implying that the baby would have chosen the same outcome itself. This is further reinforced by the language Sethe uses to reference her baby; she refers to the baby’s spell over 124 as “no more powerful than the way I loved her” (5). I wish to stress the use of loved as opposed to love here – by taking responsibility for her child’s life, Sethe made a pact to continue loving, living, her child. Her usage of past-tense language indicates her refusal to don the responsibility inherent in taking responsibility for, effectively burying her promise as concretely as she buried her child. It is clear to the reader that in “counting on the stillness of her own soul, [Sethe] had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl” (5).

Sethe’s refusal to accept the form of responsibility she herself chose manifests itself in her language of self-victimization. Morrison explains that “by 1873, Sethe and her daughter Denver were [the baby’s] only victims” (3) – Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, had died, and her two boys had been “chased off by the dead one” (6). This kind of language is imperative to understanding Sethe’s stance on the shape of her sacrifice; by shifting the blame of 124’s haunting onto the child’s ghost, she is absolved. Sethe becomes an innocent and loving mother whose life is torn apart by a greedy child who will not accept her mother’s love. Sethe wages “a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior” (4) of the house, literally fighting against the reminder to adhere to the promise she made and take responsibility for her daughter’s life. Morrison also depicts Sethe’s reticence to encounter the ghost alone; in both battling against and being victim of the ghost’s presence. After Baby Suggs dies, “Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so,” (4) but this, of course, fails; Sethe alone must take responsibility for her child. By dragging Denver into the exorcism, Sethe is again refusing to shoulder the blame for her broken promise by herself, effectively shutting down all lanes of communication with the haint. Sethe is the only one preventing the ghost of the baby from a peaceful rest by denying it a life; as long as she refuses to recognize her responsibility for her child and act accordingly, she is invariably keeping the ghost within the walls of her house herself.

Sethe’s refusal to acknowledge the reason for the ghost’s haunting is lost on her alone; when Paul D visits 124 for the first time in nine years, the first thing he says after crossing the house’s threshold is “Good God…What kind of evil you got in here?” (10). Sethe quickly trivializes the baby’s palpable rage by saying “It’s not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through” (10) – inviting Paul D into her willful ignorance of the ghost’s presence, tacitly asking him to pay it no mind. Denver, however, cannot run away from a past she has not lived; for her, the house and the haint’s rage have always been one. She upsets Sethe and Paul D’s reverie of their time at Sweet Home by interrupting with “We have a ghost in here… not evil. But not sad either” (15-16). When Paul D asks her what it is if not sad or evil, Denver says “Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked” (16). The fact that Denver can parse out the ghost’s feelings attests to how strongly she rages within the walls of 124 and further illustrates that Sethe’s misunderstanding of her responsibility for her dead daughter is one of willful ignorance. Sethe tries again to run away from her responsibility by trivializing the baby’s emotions – “It’s just a baby” – but Denver breaks down saying, “I can’t live here… Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by” (16). Sethe attempts deflecting responsibility once more, saying “It’s the house,” but Denver cuts her off and addresses the truth of the matter outright; “It’s not the house. It’s us! And it’s you!” (16). Denver herself is aware that there is an unresolved issue between the ghost and her mother, and the fact that Sethe refuses to acknowledge it by playing victim only victimizes her living daughter, who is brought up in a house saturated with the consequences of Sethe’s neglected promises and responsibilities.

Sethe exhibits a consistent inability to place rightful blame on herself regarding her children; breaking the promise to her dead baby; refusing the blame for when her boys run away; and ignoring Denver’s pain due to her own irresponsibility, opting instead to victimize herself and identify with Denver rather than solve the problem and free both her daughters. In this light, it is difficult to refute the possibility that Sethe’s ‘motherly sacrifice’ was not really a sacrifice at all; perhaps it was something entirely different and far more selfish than previously imagined.

A factor to consider throughout this analysis is the space within which black women exist in both Beloved and A Mercy. Both novels center around enslaved Black women, accentuating “Morrison’s repeated preoccupation with subjects on the threshold of being” (Morgenstern 8) – these women are of course alive, but their societal role keeps them from living a sovereign life; they are owned, traded, sold, and (at least in the eyes of their white owners) removed from their own status as human, seen more as a type of commodity. Their sense of being is innately liminal – at once to know yourself as deeply human and to recognize that you are not valued that way societally or legally. Sethe is one such woman with little to no legal protection, at the mercy of white masters like Schoolteacher, who “attempt[s] to teach his students to separate out the human  and animal characteristics of slaves” (Morgenstern 16). This kind of methodical othering, of putting “her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right,” (Beloved 228) is what Sethe and the Sweet Home men endured and is “precisely what Sethe cannot allow her children to re-experience” (Morgenstern 16). If “slavery says black mothers and children can be separated because we have decided that they are closer to the merely material” (16), then Sethe’s choice to decide her children’s fate herself is a defiant gesture, violently wresting their futures from the hands of their white masters. Sethe corroborates this when she confides in Paul D; “I did it. I got us all out… Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. Decided… it wasn’t no accident. I did that” (190). Morrison purposefully allows the word ‘decided’ to stand alone as its own sentence In a liminal world between being seen as human and animal, where she was kept on a ranch like cattle, to be able to decide something on her own and make a decision that cannot be undone by anyone – master or slave – must be supremely freeing on its own. Such an action is also a double-edged sword; in claiming a sense of autonomy for herself by taking responsibility for her children, she also takes away that sense of autonomy from Schoolteacher – perhaps a bizarre form of punishment. The baby can sense that her mother’s “gift of death” (Morgenstern 10) is not a gift at all but a punishment for someone else; it is clear the child does not want to die as a punishment, so death is not a gift. This miscommunication also sets the stage for the ghost of the child to take a physical form as Beloved, “A fully dressed woman” (Beloved 60) that takes up residence in 124 and drains Sethe until she is a husk of herself. She effectively restores their pact by consuming all of Sethe’s time, punishing her by forcing her to adhere to the maternal responsibility she had agreed to all along.

The shape of motherly sacrifice in A Mercy, on the other hand, does not at all pertain to taking responsibility for. While minha mãe’s sacrifice still separates the enslaved mother and child against the child’s wishes, minha mãe is giving responsibility to Florens by gifting her as much autonomy she can within the liminal world of enslaved women – while Florens is still a slave, she will be her own person, experiencing life in a completely new setting separate from her family. This type of departure is inherently traumatic, but Florens’s failure to understand her mother’s sacrifice as an effort towards her own humanization is what turns this departure into a crippling event for Florens’s personal growth.

Jacob Vaark describes the setting of A Mercy – early colonial Maryland and Virginia – as “a world so new,” replete with “forests untouched since Noah” upon one could “mak[e] a place out of no place, a temperate living from raw life” (A Mercy 12). In fact, all the scenery in A Mercy can be described as a wilderness, a liminal space between colonial settlements and the expanses of lawless, untamed nature. Wilderness is inherently autonomous, and “A Mercy‘s wild space… is marked by an almost universal state of orphanhood” (Morgenstern 11) that Morrison corroborates in the line: “They were orphans, each and all” (A Mercy 59). To live within the frame of early colonial America was to live in the wilderness, was to be symbolically ‘orphaned’ by virtue of the autonomy innate to the landscape. Florens has already been orphaned by her mother; to become an ‘orphan of the world’ as well is too overwhelming for her at the age of eight. Her misunderstanding arises from the fact that her mother’s gift of her own autonomy – her own responsibility – comes when she is not mature enough to receive it, culminating in her spending the rest of the novel looking for someone she can give her responsibility for to, mistaking that need for comfort as love for the blacksmith.

As a child of eight, Florens is not simply dependent on her mother, she wants to be dependent on her mother. Morrison characterizes this in the first chapter through Florens’s obsession with shoes: “When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes” (4). Florens’s need for shoes does not come from vanity; within the colonial setting of early America, she can sense the wilderness of the outside world, the sovereignty that permeates it. As a dependent child, this kind of self-responsibility is terrifying; she combats ever having to touch that responsibility by sheathing her feet, keeping them cocooned so to speak, keeping them dependent upon her mother. This clashes with minha mãe’s plans for her daughter, as “My mother… is frowning, is angry” (4) at Florens’s inability to take responsibility for herself. This is accentuated by the gifts that minha mãe imparts upon Florens throughout the novel: literacy and sovereignty. Minha mãe had Reverend Father teach her daughter to read as she “hoped if we could learn letters somehow someday you could make your way” (163). Florens does not realize that her mother’s hope in teaching her to read was to give her a tool she could use to later grow into her own sovereign being; instead, she understands it as a comfort, a vestige of her dependence on her mother. Her one special gift – as most slaves could not read at the time – becomes one of her biggest hindrances. Florens spends the rest of the novel misreading signs in nature (signs of wilderness, of autonomous responsibility – a mirror reflection of minha mãe’s greatest hope for her daughter) as signs of her mother’s abandonment, or otherwise struggling to read them at all. From the instant Florens is separated from her mother, she tries “to learn where you are and how to be there” (4) rather than learning who she is and how to be herself. She tries to return responsibility for herself to her mother, unknowingly refusing the ultimate gift minha mãe has proffered.

Florens’s misreading of her own “mother hunger” (63) is reflected in literacy when she takes Rebekka’s letter to the blacksmith in hopes of bringing him back to their estate to cure her mistress. Florens muses that “With the letter I belong and am lawful. Without it I am a weak calf abandoned by the herd” (115). She is afraid of the lawless, of ‘shoelessness,’ as the responsibility of her own autonomy is still too much for her to handle. Much like Sethe, Florens rejects her responsibility to herself through victimization; she convinces herself that her mother did not sacrifice her but abandoned her, confirming “her replaceability by her mother’s male child” (Morgenstern 16).

Florens’s insistences of relying on what she can understand as her mother’s gift – literacy – limits her ability to understand her mother’s true message. She has a hard time not only reading nature but hearing messages as well due to her trauma, admitting that “mothers nursing greedy babies scare me… saying something I cannot hear. Saying something important to me, but holding the little boy’s hand” (A Mercy 8). The fact that Florens recognizes the message as ‘something important’ clues us into her rejection of responsibility to herself as willful; she is too preoccupied victimizing herself, envying the little boy who she feels has usurped her place as dependent, to listen to what her mother is trying to tell her. Florens “cannot stop reading her mother’s decision to give her away to Vaark, and yet she cannot read this apparent failure to protect as love” (Morgenstern 16). It is this crucial misreading of her mother’s attempt to humanize her – at least, to save her from worse dehumanization through sexual violence – and the obsessive re-reading of that misreading, that gnaws at Florens perpetually and shapes her into someone desperate to escape responsibility to herself. She misconstrues the comfort she feels in responsibility for someone as love for someone, and her subsequent quest for the blacksmith’s affections mirrors her psychological quest for her mother.

When Florens arrives at the blacksmith’s house and tells him of Rebekka’s request, Florens intends to stay by the blacksmith’s side forever. Although she was essentially running an errand for her mistress, Florens believes that “I will stay… I am here with you always. Never never without you” (136). What she understands as love is not a mutually responsible relationship between peers; she wishes to give responsibility for herself to the blacksmith, to live under his rule as a kind of love-slave. Florens’s effort to re-experience the comfort she felt prior to responsibility substitutes the blacksmith as “the original maternal object,” (Morgenstern 15), but just as with minha mãe, there is a little boy competing with Florens for dependence on the blacksmith. When the blacksmith introduces Maliak as the reason she cannot come with him to Rebekka’s aid – someone has to stay back and mind the “foundling” (A Mercy, 136), orphaned by his father’s death – Florens is instantly transported to “peering around my mother’s dress hoping for her hand that is only for her little boy” (136). She relives her fear of abandonment when “the boy steps closer to you. How you offer and he owns your forefinger. As if he is your future. Not me” (136). If Florens could recognize her mother’s sacrifice and own her responsibility to herself as sovereign, this is the moment in which she could form her own family with the blacksmith and Maliak – but Florens is still in the throes of understanding her trauma, of rejecting her responsibility and victimizing herself; such a realization is impossible. Instead, after the blacksmith has left for the Vaark home, Florens tries to rewrite her past by struggling with the boy for the place of dependent, intent on staying with her ‘mother figure’ this time; “That is why I pull his arm…And yes, I do hear the shoulder crack” (139-140). The moment she physically assaults Maliak, though, she is lost; the blacksmith shouts “and I am lost because your shout is not my name” (140). Florens victimizes herself again by perceiving another mother abandonment; the blacksmith berates her and tells her, “I want you to go… Own yourself, woman, and leave us be… You are nothing but wilderness” (141). The wilderness that Florens has so feared, has spent the entire novel running from, has now manifested itself inside her as lawlessness – a desire to be owned so complete that she would stop at nothing, even hurting a child, to achieve it. This disgusts the blacksmith and plays out as a confirmation of Florens’s greatest fear – that her mother abandoned her because she did not want her, that she was “throwing away” (34) a child for which she had “no use” (96).

Florens’s refusal to take the responsibility gifted to her by minha mãe leads her to rely far too much on the gift she has accepted – reading, re-reading, and misreading her mother’s intentions to humanize her daughter. This misunderstanding, coupled with the rejection of responsibility, consumes Florens with a fear of abandonment which she sees realized and confirmed by the blacksmith, effectively completing her metamorphosis from responsibility slave, lawful slave, to lawless slave: “I am become wilderness… In full. Slave. Free. I last” (161). Although it seems like she has finally broken free from her own self-slavery, Morrison reminds us that Florens keeps “one sadness; that all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me” (161). Her new sense of lawlessness, sovereignty in a sense, was borne from never understanding her mother’s sacrifice, never reconciling with her sense of abandonment.

Although both Sethe and minha mãe are separated from their children by their own (limited) choice within the frame of the enslaved Black woman, their manners of assuming and giving responsibility to their charges are vastly different. Sethe assumes responsibility for her children but does not honor the contract she made, leading to a rejection of that responsibility that raises questions as to if it was ever truly a sacrifice. Minha mãe, on the other hand, gifts sovereign responsibility to her daughter, Florens, but it is far too much far too soon. This overwhelms Florens to the point of rejecting her mother’s gift, misreading her sacrifice to the point that she, too, questions if it ever really was one. While Sethe’s responsibility for her dead daughter eventually consumes her, Florens’s responsibility to herself eventually does the same; both exacerbated by (willful) misunderstanding which warps their responsibilities into negative outcomes. Sethe becomes nothing, a living husk purely to service Beloved, whereas Florens becomes wilderness, turning feral and living apart from any kind of human relation she had so hungrily sought before. Both motherly sacrifices are lost in the translation of responsibility; by taking it but ignoring to honor it and by ignoring/rejecting it when it is given, Sethe and Florens doom themselves to eventually face the consequences of their own rejections. Florens’s mother implores her daughter to “hear a tua mãe,” (Mercy, 167) but the message of taking ownership of the responsibility will never reach either Florens or Sethe. This is, after all, “not a story to pass on” (Beloved, 324).

Works Cited

Morgenstern, Naomi. “Maternal Love/Maternal Violence: Inventing Ethics in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” MELUS, Vol.39, No.1, Spring 2014, pp.7-29.

Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. New York, Vintage, 2008.

—. Beloved. London, Vintage, 2016.

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