Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved covers many different themes; she writes about revenge, racism, death/loss, self worth, relationships, and the importance of community. Her story tackles disturbing situations such as sexual assault, infanticide, slavery, and the mistreatment of human beings that borders on being torturous. She even touches on the supernatural with the aspect of the house being haunted by a ghost, which everyone believes to be the spirit of Sethe’s daughter. Perhaps the most significant theme Morrison touches on, however, is that of identity.
Many characters struggle in the story with the concept of their identity, taken away from because of the horrors of slavery. Baby Suggs, for instance, is confused when her former master is driving her to freedom. Her son has worked overtime on Saturdays, Sundays, and nights to be able to buy her freedom. Mr. Garner refers to her as Jenny Whitlow a few times, and she doesn’t understand why. He finally reveals that Jenny is her real name, not Baby Suggs, which she goes by because her husband was Suggs, and he called her baby. Mr. Garner tells her to go back to Jenny Whitlow when she is in the North because he tells her Baby Suggs is not a “real” name. It has become her identity and is what she had been called by her loved ones, however, and she continues to introduce herself as such even when she is a free woman in the North.
Stamp Paid, too, deals with identity. He renames himself after he has paid off all of his old debts because he feels as though his new name will more accurately reflect his character. He was originally born under the name of “Joshua,” but changes it because he wants a name that is solely his own. Unlike Baby Suggs, he does not have emotional ties to his name, but wishes to be completely freed from his past. His new name not only reveals what he believes to be his identity, but also helps him view himself as an entirely different person.
Paul D and his brothers represent the idea of identity, as well. Their situation deals more with the negative aspects of slavery; they are all named Paul, but are distinguished by the initial that follows: Paul D, Paul A, and Paul F. The fact that the three brothers all have the same name signifies how slavery swallows up an individual’s character to the point that the only difference between the three men is one letter. Readers learn more about Paul D and his character, but names are a significant part of one’s identity; Paul D and his brothers are denied that basic right.
Sethe is arguably the character in which the theme of identity can be seen the most strongly. When Beloved “returns,” Sethe’s identity becomes completely swallowed up in her, to the point that she has no distinctive character outside of her daughter. She is completely obsessed with Beloved, to the point that she is completely dumbfounded and disbelieving when Paul D tells her that she is her best thing, not her daughter. All of the brutalities she faces chip away at her until she is no longer Sethe; perhaps she does not even remember who Sethe is.
Toni Morrison tells a moving story and uses many different themes that broadly cover all of the atrocities that fall under slavery. Her writing shows how the dehumanization of humans leads to cruelty, rape, and the break up of families, and, in some situations, death. Many of the slaves also display a loss of individuality and defining characteristics, as well. Morrison rightly believes the loss of identity is just as much of a tragedy as these horrors, and her writing reflects that with many characters.