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Memory in Beloved

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In everyone’s life there is a moment that is so dreadful and horrific that it is best to try to push it further and further back into your mind. When traumatized by death for example it is very natural to shut off the memory in order to self-defense suppresses the awful emotional experience. Very often it is thoughtful that this neglecting and abandoning is the best way to forget. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, memory is depicted as a dangerous and deliberating faculty of human consciousness. In this novel Sethe endures the oppression of self imposed prison of memory by revising the past and death of her daughter Beloved, her mother and Baby Suggs.

In Louise Erdrich’s story Love Medicine, memory of death and the past is revealed carefully among the characters of June, Gordie, Henry and Lyman. It is apparent by juxtaposing these two novels that the theme of memory of the past and death plays a major role in these characters lives. However the theme of memory is shown and depicted for two different reasons in both these novels. In Beloved, Sethe expresses an insatiable obsession with her memories with the past to understand the causes of death and then being able to cope with them. While in Love Medicine, memory is shown through a series of episodes where Gordie and Lyman attempts to bring back things alive again by revisiting the past of June and Henry through their death.

In Beloved by Toni Morrison, Sethe undergoes a self-imposed prison of memories by revisiting the past and death of her daughter Beloved. She begins by explaining to Denver the power of memories and how they are immortal. Memories have an effect on the present because they change the way we look at the world around us. She continues by explaining that the power of some experiences can be so strong that is seems that even the memory of it is enough to make the horrible incident happen again. “To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The “better life” she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one. Sethe keeping her from the past, that was still waiting for her was all that mattered (pg 51). ”

Here we are introduced to Sethe’s belief of keeping the past where it belongs. However it is inevitable that Sethe is brought back to her memories through her daughter Beloved, who she murdered as a baby eighteen years ago. One unforgettable memory that Sethe has of her dead daughter Beloved is when she thinks back to her stolen milk. “All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me. Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough, or take it away when she had enough and didn’t know it. Nobody knew that but me and nobody had her milk but me (pg 19).” This memory of Beloved through the stealing of her milk is the only memory that shows a mother and daughter relationship to Sethe. Through the protection of her milk, Sethe showed that she once did protect and loved her daughter Beloved even though she tries not to remember.

Sethe tries to understand and cope with her memories of her mother’s death when she revisits the past through Beloved. In this novel there is a relationship between Beloved’s arrival and the blossoming of Seth’s memory. Only after Beloved comes to Seth’s house as a young woman does Seth’s repression of countless painful memories begin to lift. Beloved brings Sethe to speak about her mother’s death, which is another memory that she tries to keep in the past as well. Beloved asks about Sethe’s mother and she explains that she rarely saw her. Sethe mentions that her mother was hanged, and she is suddenly stunned by the recollection of a disturbing memory that she had forgotten. “Hung. By the time they cut her down nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or not, least all of me and I did look (pg 73).” In this section we see how Beloved inspires Sethe’s memory of her mother’s hanging to come to the surface. Sethe does however have one other quite specific memory of her mother of what may have been their only interaction. “She must have nursed me two or three weeks—that’s the way the others did (pg 73).” Again here we see how milk to a child is important to Sethe because it is the only interaction that she had with her daughter Beloved and her nameless mother. Even though Sethe tries to understand and cope with the past, Beloved generates a metamorphosis in Sethe that allows her to speak what she had thought to be the unspeakable.

With Beloved’s arrival and back into Seth’s life, Sethe also feels the need of going back into the memory of Baby Suggs, her mother in law. Baby Suggs held religious gatherings at a place called the clearing, where she taught her followers to love their voices, bodies and minds. However, after Sethe’s act of infanticide, Baby Suggs stops preaching and retreats to a sick bed to die. Accompanied by Denver and Beloved, Sethe feels the need to go to the clearing where Baby Suggs used to preach. “Baby Suggs’ long distance love was equal to any skin- close love she had known. The desire, let alone the gesture, to meet her needs was good enough to lift her spirits to the place where she could take the next step (pg 112).” In this section the memory of Baby Suggs also comes onto the surface, making Sethe want to remember her death by the presence of Beloved.

Similar to Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine shows characters also dealing with memory of death and the past. In this novel we encounter many characters who are affected by the death of June, especially her husband Gordie. After her death, Gordie thought to himself, “We knew each other better than most people who were married a lifetime. We knew the good things, but we knew how to hurt each other too.” “They had always been together, like brother and sister stealing duck eggs, blowing crabgrass between their thumbs, chasing cows (pg 208).” Similar to Sethe, Gordie tries to shut down the past and memories of loved ones. Moreover, Gordie tries to deal with June’s death by shutting down all his memories together through drinking alcohol. “A month after June died, Gordie took the first drink, and then the need was on him like a hook in his jaw, tipping his wrist, sending him out with needles piercing his hairline, his aching hands (pg 208).”

In this section of the novel, Gordie also justifies that his hands remembered things his mind could not. “His hands remembered things he forced his mind away from—but what his hands remembered now were the times they struck June. They remembered this whole they curled around the gold-colored can of beer he had begged down the road at Eli’s. (pg 209).” Here we discover through Gordie’s memories that he once was abusive with June and that his hands also had memories of their own which were clearer to Gordie than his actual mind. Despite the fact that Gordie has these abusive memories of June, he also has some quite delightful memories of them together at their honeymoon. “ Side by side, they walked the little path to the cabin, went in, and lay down without speaking. They kissed each other’s hands and then folded them together and lay that way, like two people carved on stone caskets, staring up at the ceiling (pg 268).” Gordie’s memories of June is repeated and shown in ways to only bring her or spirit back alive in his mind. He is overcome by grief and love as he goes through their years together trying to shut these memories out by drinking. It is in and only after her death that he realizes his true love for her.

In the novel Love Medicine, Henry and Lyman are also characters that deal with the memories of the past and death. In the beginning of the chapter “Red Convertible”, we are introduced to the memories of Lyman when he describes the one thing that connects both of the brothers, the red convertible. “We went places in that car, me and Henry. We took off driving all one whole summer. We started off towards the Little Knife River and Mandaree in Fort Berthold and then we found ourselves down in Wakpala somehow… Some people hang on to details when they travel, but we didn’t let them bother us and just lived our everyday lives here to there (pg 179).” Lyman’s memories of them together with the red convertible are memories that are significant to Lyman with his brother Henry. However these are memories that slowly begin to fade when Henry comes back from the war.

When Henry comes back from the war, he undergoes a profound change that not only affects him but Lyman as well. Henry holds memories of his experience at war that does not allow him to be his “old” himself. “When he came home, though, Henry was very different, and I’ll say this: the change was no good. Once I was in the room watching TV with Henry and I heard his teeth click at something. I looked over, and he’d bitten through his lip (pg 183).” Henry’s memories of his past at war are so powerful that it shuts him down completely from the world around him. Lyman thought that since Henry loved the car that fixing it would help him get his old brother back and bring back some old memories. However this fails. At the end of the chapter, Henry jumps into a river, which leads to his suicidal death. Lyman drives off the red convertible to sink in the river as well Henry. This in a way shows how Lyman still wanted Henry to have the car with him at the end and all the memories that it held for him to keep and live on with him even after his death. Before and after Henry’s death, Lyman held memories that he tried to bring back alive through both his brother Henry and the red convertible.

Overall, in both novels, Morrison and Erdrich emphasizes memory of death and the past as a connection between the relationships of each character. Whether you cope or deal with these memories to be able to understand the past that weren’t clear to you, like Sethe did in Beloved or work as a way to bring the past and people that were part of them back alive, like Gordie and Lyman did in Love Medicine, memory represented an obstacle to such an existence through their individual lives. We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they are called memories. Just like these characters in both novels presented, memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, and the things you never want to lose.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009

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