Infanticide is a horrifying violence, if not the most horrifying, a violence many writers would not attempt. Toni Morrison not only writes this horror, she leans into it, writing empathetic violence through the perspective of the perpetrator–Sethe, the mother–with tenderness, grief and later judgement delivered through the secondary character, her lover Paul D.
from Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn’t get it right off—she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on. Sethe paused in her circle again and looked out the window. She remembered when the yard had a fence with a gate that somebody was always latching and unlatching in the time when 124 was busy as a way station. She did not see the whiteboys who pulled it down, yanked up the posts and smashed the gate leaving 124 desolate and exposed at the very hour when everybody stopped dropping by. The shoulder weeds of Bluestone Road were all that came toward the house…. (163)
In the above excerpt, Sethe confesses her murder of Beloved, her infant daughter, who has come back to haunt her. Morrison’s brilliances and nuances are too many to list at once, but let’s take a look at a few:
- FOUNDATION: Earlier in the novel, the narrator shares Sethe’s trauma, abuse, rape and more at the hands of the “schoolteacher,” creating a landscape of violence against her in which her own subsequent violence against her child may be interpreted. It is important to note that Morrison never tells the reader what to think, but rather, provides a landscape in which the reader may individually contemplate.
- CONFESSION: Sethe confesses her crime with a mother’s love, a mother’s grief and an escaped slave’s trauma and fear: “…she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew….”
- RIGHTEOUSNESS: Sethe provides righteous motivation, to save her children from a worse fate: “…over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe….”
- JUDGEMENT: Later in this scene, Paul D. judges Sethe for her violence against her child. This provides the reader with a “moral ally,” a perspective through which the reader may judge Sethe even as the reader empathizes with Sethe in her impossible position as a traumatized, abused, raped and terrified mother desperate to save her children from the same fate.
What can we learn from Morrison’s mastery? Violence is a human quality present within even the most unexpected of perpetrators, a mother against her child. Violence is a quality present in our characters, no matter how “good” they are. Violence can sometimes be an ambiguous moral question and this ambiguity is a far more compelling exploration than overt, gratuitous violence. Violence can be written with a “tender” and lyrical syntax and diction, creating not only an irony within the language but also connectivity with the reader. Understatement of violence centers the scene on the characters, immersing the reader far more deeply than overstatement.
Writing Exercise: Empathetic Judgement and Violence
Choose a character and scene from a narrative on which you are currently working. Open a separate document and copy paste the scene into this new document so that you keep your original words. Explore the violent scene with both empathetic and judgmental perspectives using two characters, the perpetrator and a secondary character, such as in Morrison’s Beloved.
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.
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