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Mothering Violence:

Ferocious Female Resistance in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Sula,


Beloved, and A Mercy
Amanda Putnam (bio)
Roosevelt University
Abstract
Racially exploited, sexually violated, and often emotionally humiliated for years or decades, certain black
female characters within four of Toni Morrison's novels make violent choices that are not always easily
understandable. The violencesometimes verbal, but more frequently physicalis often an attempt to create
unique solutions to avoid further victimization. Thus, violence itself becomes an act of rebellion, a form of
resistance to oppressive power. The choice of violenceoften rendered upon those within their own
community and familyredirects powerlessness and transforms these characters, re-defining them as
compellingly dominant women. However, their transformation often has multidimensional repercussions for
them and those with whom they have chosen to be violent.

Black female characters within Toni Morrison's novels are often scarredphysically and/or
emotionallyby the oppressive environments around them. Racially exploited, sexually
violated, and often emotionally humiliated for years or decades, these women often learn to
coexist with their visible and invisible scars by making choices that are not easily understood.
Specifically, many of Morrison's female characters turn to violencesometimes verbal but
more frequently physicaland, in doing so, attempt to create unique solutions to avoid further
victimization. This process demonstrates the ways in which violence itself can become an act
of rebellion, a form of resistance to oppressive power.
Ranging in age from children to adolescents and adults, these female characters choose
violence to find an escapea disruption of the multifaceted oppression they have suffered
within a white patriarchal society where black women are tormented and subjugated by social
and racial domination, exclusion, and rejection. Their choices of violenceoften rendered on
those within their own community or familyredirects that powerlessness and transforms it.
Wreaking havoc on societal expectations for their behavior and thoughts, these violent
actions establish a new vision of African American femininity and femaleness. Black women
are not powerless or without options; instead, they can create new patterns and refuse
socialized gender and racial identities that attempt to constrain them.
Sometimes their violent choices negatively affect other members of the African American
community in which these female characters reside; however, it reflects the often racially
motivated violence of the world around them. In other words, while the violence may be
wasteful or even damaging to individual psyches and broader communities, it is also a
reprojection of the white oppression that has been forced on their very souls. By taking the
violence forced on them and redirecting it, these characters redefine themselves as
compellingly dominant women.
This pattern of violence emerges in some during early childhood. Realizing their own worth is
in question, young black girls attempt to upset white oppression by redefining the limits of
their power and powerlessness. Young black girls reacting to the oppressiveness of white
dominance or to the stringency of traditional female-behavior expectations counter with
physical violence to find strength within what often are positions of weakness. Likewise, other
black female children react verbally to withstand the force of ever-present white-societal
beauty standards that could otherwise crush their self-identity.
Most of Morrison's youthful characters learn about violence within a matrilineal home setting,
when they are exposed to violence toward, and then from, their mothers and grandmothers.
At times enslaved but always oppressed, these adult women characters are abused
frequently by multiple sources: spouses, parents, employers, slaveowners, and community
members. Consequently, the women's mistreatment is then redirected toward othersoften
childrenwithin the family. While painful to absorb, this redirection can also be seen as an

additional mothering lessonan instinctive message teaching black children coping


mechanisms within a world that denies and exploits their self-worth.
Maternal abandonment, either literal or emotional, is one common manifestation of these
lessons in Morrison's texts, often resulting in child-driven violence. Regardless of whether the
abandonment is intentional or desired, the child perception of being abandoned often drives
the child to act out violently. Disturbing the development of necessary community-based
sentiments, such as empathy or social identification, the mother violence creates children
(and subsequently adults) who feel detached from others in their community, allowing the
twisted familial violence to be perpetuated. Home, then, becomes a place to learn pain, while
community becomes a place to act it out.
Finally, Morrison establishes child murder as the ultimate form of mother violence, exposing
the complexities of the mothering construct in terms of creation and destruction. By not only
deciding on death for their progeny but also performing the murder themselves, these black
women assert their motherhood over societal mores. By choosing death for their children,
these mothers claim their motherhood in ways that are challenging to understandyet, in
doing so, these female characters achieve astonishingly powerful personas.
In The Bluest Eye, nine-year-old Claudia begins to discover the need for rebellion when she
encounters her invisibility in popular culture. Her hatred of white baby dolls begins with an
aversion to a famous white child star. With an adult-like understanding of the inequities that
occur daily due to skin color, Claudia shares her dislike of Shirley Temple, who danced with
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a famous black tap dancer, in various films: "I couldn't join [Freda
and Pecola] in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but
because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought
to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me" 1 (Morrison 1994, 19). In Claudia's
explanation, it's clear that she feels something has been stolen from her (and others like her)
and given to the white child star instead. The performance pairing of the adult black male
and the small white girl highlights the absence of the small black girl performerthe
performer who looked like Claudia. Instead of sharing the spotlight, the black girl becomes
invisible, and Claudia's feelings of anger due to that invisibility are projected onto Shirley
Temple: someone out of reach and yet within view. Claudia's feelings of black invisibility are
magnified via the white baby dolls she receives as gifts. By dismembering them, Claudia
disrupts the obsessive desire to worship white/light attributes, rejecting them for her own
blackness. She rebels against white oppression, forcing others to see her and not a reflection
of whiteness.
The outward violence Claudia feels is not unlike the heartbreaking internal violence another
black girl in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, demonstrates against herself for similar reasons.
Despised by her mother and ignored by her father, Pecola is a tragic example of the
destructive power of accepting white beauty standards. Realizing that the "white immigrant
storekeeper" who she is buying candy from, shows only "distaste . . . for her, her blackness"
(ibid., 48-49), Pecola accepts a self-hatred and embraces all things white: Shirley Temple,
white baby dolls, the white Mary Jane on the candy wrapper, and eventually, her quest to
attain blue eyes. Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall (1992) discuss the effects of
white beauty standards among black children: "According to psychiatrists William Grier and
Price Cobbs, authors of Black Rage, every American Black girl experiences some degree of
shame about her appearance. Many must submit to painful hair-combing rituals that aim to
make them look, if not more 'White-like,' at least more 'presentable'" (43). Without argument,
Pecola accepts the shaming of her blackness, bowing to (and eventually breaking under) the
heavy weight of white oppression. In Morrison's novels, young black girls, taught by society to
worship white femininity and white motherhood by the community adoration of them, must
either believe in their own deficiencies, as Pecola does, or attack the source of oppression, as
Claudia does.
Thus, some of Morrison's females resist white beauty ideals by using verbal violence to
sustain a positive self-image. Claudia and Freda use verbal aggression against Maureen
Peal, a "high-yellow dream child," (Morrison 1994, 62), eventually disintegrating into a yelling

fight about skin color.2 Maureen represents yet more devotion to white beauty standards as
the light-skinned, straight-haired black child who baits a dark-skinned girl. Grasping that
Maureen is using "black" as a derogative description (and recognizing her own presence
within the same category), Claudia's mindset shifts as she understands that she is also under
attack. The final insult by Maureen is used to draw acute awareness of her own highly favored
light skin color: "'I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos'" (ibid., 73). Claudia and
Freda sink under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen's last words:
If she was cuteand if anything could be believed, she wasthen we
were not. And what did that mean? We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but
still lesser. . . . And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the
Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was
the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.
(ibid., 74)

Their community at large has accepted white (and light) skin as beautifuland thus has
negated beauty in black (and darker) skin. The girls, living in this oppressive reality, must
either accept the emotional violence forced on them, believing in their ugliness (which Pecola
does) or fight back as aggressively as possible to maintain a positive self-image. They must
rebel violently for their own self-preservation.
And so they do. Focusing on Maureen's weaknessesbeing born with six fingers, having a
"dog tooth," and a childish play on her nameClaudia and Freda attempt to restore power to
themselves. Their verbal assault upends the power of white/light, refusing the racialized and
gendered expectations for young black girls and instead creating a new vision of themselves
as the dominant figures. While they still suffer from the realization that their dark skin is not as
valued as Maureen's light skin, their verbal attack becomes their own act of rebellion, denying
society's oppression of them. Claudia and Freda's self-esteem remains intact, if dinged, by
society's white obsessive compulsion.
Likewise, the young girls in Sula also engage in childhood teasing, but it quickly escalates into
self-mutilation, the accidental murder of a childhood friend and then conspiracy to avoid
discovery and punishment. In an early scene, the title character and her best friend Nel
attempt to outmaneuver four white teenage boys who enjoyed "harassing black
schoolchildren," forcing the girls to take "elaborate" paths home from school (Morrison 1982,
53). One day, Sula confronts the boys, pulling out her grandmother's "paring knife. . . .
Holding the knife in her right hand, she . . . presses her left forefinger down hard on its edge. .
. . She slashed off . . . the tip of her finger" (ibid., 54). Then, staring at the boys, Sula says, "'If
I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?'" (ibid., 54-55). While some critics
believe Sula's action is an "internalized . . . lesson of racist oppression" (Bouson 2000, 63), it
also can be read as an extreme example of redefined power. Sula's willingness to mutilate
herself is a means to show strength, offering new realizations of what is capable within
violence. Instead of pitifully attacking the boys, who are taller, older, and stronger, and not
succeeding, she chooses to harm that which she has the most control over: herself. 3
Attacking herself shows Sula's inner courage and imagination to the boys, who quickly leave,
realizing that their petty bullying is no match for Sula's actual self-violence and audacity. Thus,
Sula transforms her status, reflecting child and female powerlessness into a terrible ferocity
from which the bullying white boys cannot depart fast enough. Regardless of her age, her skin
color, or her size, Sula becomes the dominant person in this altercation. She succeeds in
rebelling against the standards others have set for her (and others like her), forcing everyone
the boys, Nel, and even readersto view her differently afterward.
Interestingly, many of the girls in these novels learn their violent behaviors from within their
own families, frequently from other female characters, and often from their mothers or
grandmothers, making the violence intergenerational and matrilineal. Many of the women in
Morrison's novels are mothers who have been enslaved or otherwise victimized by intense
racism and oppression, which then embodies itself in violence toward their own, albeit
sometimes as a mothering tool.

The home, then, becomes both a place of inspiration and violence, mingling the two in ways
that are not easily separated. As bell hooks discusses in "Homeplace," the black domestic
arena created by black women has been crucial to the reassurance of black children and their
self-identities. She states, "Black women resisted [white oppression] by making homes where
all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our
minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to
ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world" (hooks 1990, 42).
Connecting hooks's point with Morrison's stories means realizing the possibility that daughters
may have learned violent patterns from loving mothers, as well as those who accepted white
oppression. In other words, some black mothers may have intentionally taught violent
behaviors to their daughters to prepare for their daughters' future survival in a world that
devalued them. Claudia Tate states, "[T]here's a special kind of . . . violence in writings by
black womennot a bloody violence, but violence nonetheless. Love, in the Western notion,
is full of possession, distortion, and corruption. It's a slaughter without the blood" (as quoted in
Hinson 2001, 147). When children learn violence from within the home and from their
caretakers, it becomes ordinary and natural and, later, is incorporated into their own
behaviors and thoughts. Thus, while readers definitively notice the violence between
generations, often the characters themselves do not articulate their feelings about the learned
violent behaviors.
Even so-called "good" mothers in several Morrison novels show slight violence at times
toward their children, wreaking havoc on their self-esteem and teaching them to engage in
violent behavior with others.4 In one of the first scenes of The Bluest Eye, both Claudia and
Freda get sick and the narration reflects the impatience of their typically caring mother: "How .
. . do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick?" (Morrison 1994, 10).
Claudia's narration continues: "My mother's voice drones on. She is not talking to me. She is
talking to the puke, but she is calling it my name: Claudia" (ibid., 11). The sick girls feel
unloved and miserable, even though their parents are normally nurturing and attentive. These
simple acts of slight violence evoke pity for the girls, while showing readers a world that is
often uncomfortable or painful: sometimes even loving mothers will inflict emotional abuse on
their children, which, in turn, teaches them to repeat the abuse on each other.
Similarly, in Sula, Helene Wright's desire to remove herself and her daughter completely from
the taint of the whorehouse Helene had been born in manifests itself in quashing Nel's
curiosity: "Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until [Helene]
drove her daughter's imagination underground" (Morrison 1982, 18). Helene's worry that Nel
will portray any semblance of the qualities of Helene's prostitute mother indicates her
willingness to sacrifice strong qualities of creativity or intelligence for meek obedience. In
doing so, Nel's "parents had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter
she had" (ibid., 83). The girl's obedience is steadfast, but the parental violence to her
maturation process forces Nel to develop into a woman who does not understand the options
available to her as an adult. Unlike Sula who becomes a dominant force in her own life, Nel
meekly follows along, having suffered the passive violence of her mother's repression.
In several Morrison novels, maternal emotional abandonment changes children (usually
daughters) in unfavorable ways, causing them to inflict violence on others. In The Bluest Eye,
Geraldine met all the "physical needs" of her son Junior, but it is painfully clear to him (and to
readers) that she prefers the cat (Morrison 1994, 85-86). The subtle but emotionally effective
violence of withholding motherly affection contributes to Junior's eventual desire to "bully girls"
(ibid., 87), and he becomes a tyrant to any child younger or smaller than him.
In Morrison's newest novel, A Mercy, another "good" mother chooses to send away her young
enslaved daughter, in the hope of preventing her daughter from being sexually abused. 5
However, without acknowledgment of the reasoning for this choice, the daughter internalizes
what she perceives as her mother's emotional and physical abandonment, eventually erupting
in more violence against a future rival. In the first chapter of A Mercy, Florens, who is "maybe
seven or eight" (Morrison 2008, 5) misunderstands her mother's reasoning in sending her
away with a new owner as payment of a debt, instead of going with her to the new place.
Florens remembers, with childlike sadness, "forever and ever. Me watching, my mother

listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir
saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A
minha me begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter,
she says. Me. Me" (ibid., 7). The betrayal Florens feels is evident in her versionher pain as
she repeats "Me. Me . . . forever and ever" illustrates to readers that she cannot believe her
mother has just given her away to be separated forever from her. Of course, neither mother
nor daughter is freeso the mother actually has no options. She simply begs to provide for
both children. Unfortunately, the young Florens understands the situation as her mother
choosing a baby brother over the older daughter. Florens shares her growing perception of
the situation by adding that "mothers nursing greedy babies scare me. I know how their eyes
go when they choose . . . holding the little boy's hand" (ibid., 8). Instead of realizing the great
sacrifice her mother has just made for her daughter, Florens only understands her own
abandonmentand this shapes her entire future.
Thus, even though Florens's mother actually had pure intentionsvaluing her daughter more
than herself to save the child from potential sexual abusethe outcome of not choosing to
stay with Florens negatively affects the girl throughout her life, wreaking havoc on the child's
self-esteem and her ability to nurture any other relationship successfully. Eventually, readers
discover that Florens's mother chooses to send her daughter because she believes "Sir" has
"no animal in his heart" (Morrison 2008, 163) versus the men in the house in which they are
currently residing, who have raped the mother multiple times and are already noticing
Florens's changing body (ibid., 162). The mother sees her chance for Florens: "Because I
saw the tall man see you as a human child . . . I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He
said yes" (ibid., 166). Begging to save her infant son (who will likely die without her care) as
well as provide a life-altering opportunity for her daughter, this mother gives away her own
chance of living a better life so that both her children will survive. In this case, Florens's
mother shows a similarity to other enslaved mothers. As hooks explains, "In the midst of a
brutal racist system, which did not value black life, [the slave mother] valued the life of her
child enough to resist that system" (1990, 44). While hooks is actually revising Frederick
Douglass's negative description of his own mother, who walked twelve miles whenever
possible to hold him at night, the description is a valid one in this case, too. Florens's mother
goes to great strides to give her children the best opportunity available.
Unfortunately, the lack of explanation for her mother's actions and choices creates a distrust
in Florens, which she carries with her throughout the novel, eventually ending in a violent
reaction toward a child she views as a competitor. Florens's love affair with a freedman and
her unwillingness to share him with an orphaned boy reflects the violence she has felt her
whole life from her mother. When she initially meets the boy, Florens immediately recognizes
her predicament: "This happens twice before. The first time it is me peering around my
mother's dress hoping for a hand that is only for her little boy. . . . Both times are full of danger
and I am expel" (Morrison 2008, 135-37). Worried that she again will be replaced or excluded,
she cannot see that her lover could love more than one person: "I worry as the boy steps
closer to you . . . As if he is your future. Not me" (ibid., 136). Assuming the boy also wants her
absence, Florens narrates her understanding of him: "He is silent but the hate in his eyes is
loud. He wants my leaving. This cannot happen. I feel the clutch inside. This expel can never
happen again" (ibid., 137). Eventually, Florens attacks the child and shares, "And yes I do
hear the shoulder crack but the sound is small. . . . He screams screams then faints" (ibid.,
139-40). The lover reappears at this moment, having seen the attack, and is outraged and
angered, ironically rejecting Florens, not because he favors the boy but because he has seen
the violence inside her, bred and fostered within slavery and that system's forcible
abandonment by her mother. While Florens is not able to use violence to get what she wants
(her lover), it is still a rebellious action taken against her circumstances. Florens's violent
attack on the childand then moments later on her loveronly makes sense when readers
understand her mindset as the daughter sent away by her mother. Sent away by both her
mother and lover, Florens cannot make sense of the past to create a new life, even in
freedom. Nonetheless, in this desperate act of violence, Florens rebels against the limitations
of societal behavior, taking action and refusing to accept abandonment yet again.
The tragedy, of course, is that Florens's mother was trying to save her daughter (and likewise
her lover was simply being kind to an abandoned boy), but, without that crucial piece of

information from her enslaved mother, Florens does not learn to navigate relationships or
learn to trustand so the innocent and self-martyring act of rescue from the mother becomes
also an act of violence, setting in motion her daughter's future brutality and ultimate selfdestruction.
Similarly, in Sula, readers see again how emotional trauma via mother violence can affect the
development of social empathy and compassion, thereby creating subsequent generations of
violent females. The pain Sula feels upon discovering her mother's opinion of her damages
the young girl's self-concept, preparing Sula to become a violent and distant teenager and
adult. Sula's first realization of her mother's apathy to her segues into a scene of accidental
violence toward another child and later into a coldness toward death in general. After Sula
hears her mother, Hannah, explain that, while she had maternal feelings for Sula, she did not
like her, Sula feels "bewilderment . . . [and] a sting in her eye" (Morrison 1982, 57).
Interestingly, Hannah, asks her own mother, Eva, "'did you ever love us?'" (ibid., 67). Eva,
angered by the question, indicates she did not. Thus, it is not surprising that Hannah repeats
this type of phrasing (and abuse) to her own daughter, not willingly recognizing the damage
inflicted on herself in the same situation. But Sula's maternal abandonment is real and affects
her self-image. Suddenly, Sula is vulnerable, since (like Pecola), if a young black girl cannot
expect her own mother to enjoy her unconditionally, it is unlikely that the rest of the world will
do so.
Comprehending her vulnerability for the first time, Sula recovers via violence toward another
child. The scene quickly changes from Sula's household 6 to Sula and Nel playing near a river
and trees with a little boy named Chicken Little. After climbing up and down a tree with the
little boy, Sula playfully "picked him up by his hands and swung him outward then around and
around . . . [and] when he slipped from her hands and sailed away out over the water they
could still hear his bubbly laughter" (Morrison 1982, 60-61). However, the boy does not
emerge from the water; and instead of trying to save him, both girls wait to see what happens.
In fact, the first thing Nel says is "'Somebody saw,'" (61) suggesting that the girls are far more
concerned about someone seeing them watch a child drown than the actual passivity of their
actions. The girls do not tell anyone what happened, and Chicken Little's water-engorged
body is eventually found and buried a few days later.
But the emotional violence of discovering Sula's mother's passive hostility for her helps create
a detachment in Sula, allowing her to watch death and other tragedies from an easy distance.
Sula later watches her mother burn to death in their backyard, and grandmother Eva believes
the girl did so out of twisted curiosity. Having learned from her mother the possibility of loving,
but remaining remote, and having learned from her grandmother that murder may be a part of
family life (as Eva murders her own son), Sula remains aloof from her mother's fiery death,
just as she was when she accidently killed Chicken Little.
In fact, later in the novel, it is clear that Sula connects her emotional trauma from her mother
with her personal detachment. The intense pain of learning her mother does not like her
blinds Sula to feeling a normal amount of social compassion, which then manifests itself
through violence toward others. Sula recounts her new understanding:
As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to flee pleasure as to give
pleasure, hers was an experimental lifeever since her mother's
remarks sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major
feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with
a closed place in the middle. The first experience taught her there was
no other that you could count on; the second that there was not self to
count on either.
(Morrison 1982, 118-19)

Thus, Sula's distant and even cruel teenage and adult behaviors toward others are taught to
her by other women in her household. Escaping the pain of emotional maternal
abandonment, Sula mimics that distance to others for the rest of the novel. In fact, when Sula
returns to the town as an adult, she quickly puts her grandmother Eva into a nursing home,

instead of caring for her herself, and is massively condemned for it by the townspeople (ibid.,
112). And yet, her decision makes sense to her because she recognizes no personal
connection to her grandmother (or to her dead mother)and they are the ones who taught
her how to feel that way. She rebels against standard expectations for daughters (and women
at large), ignoring the dictates of society and behaving with passive violence to those who
taught her those emotions.
Regardless of the community's feelings for her, though, Sula is clearly recognized as an
empowered, tough woman. She has sexual relations with anyone she wants, regardless of
race or marital status; is insolent to her grandmother and adult men; and puts her own needs
before those of others. In a novel where Nel's mother turns to "custard" trying to appease a
racist white man (Morrison 1982, 22), Sula is a character foil, reflecting strength and
boldness, even though that same power occasionally hurtsand even killsothers near her.
Other mothers in Morrison's novels move beyond emotional child abuse, adding stark
physical violence, creating additional havoc in the children's levels of self-esteem. At one
point in The Bluest Eye, readers witness yet another scene showing terrible disparity in the
treatment of white and black girls, but this time the scene also highlights the potential brutality
of mother-daughter relations. When Pecola accidentally knocks over a pie in the house in
which her mother works, her legs are burnt by the blueberry juice. Instead of comforting her
daughter, Pauline Breedlove hits her "with the back of her hand knock[ing] her to the floor"
(Morrison 1994, 109). While it is understandable that Pauline is angrythe pie is for the white
family she works for, which could cost her both time and money; additionally, the accident has
"splatter[ed] blackish blueberries everywhere" (ibid., 108) in the pristine kitchen, essentially
creating even more work for Pauline. Regardless of the validity of the issues, Pauline's anger
at Pecola, her own daughter, is out of proportion, especially when readers see how she
comforts the white daughter of the family who employs her, "hushing and soothing the tears of
the little pink-and-yellow girl" (ibid., 109). Clearly, this mother is out of sync with her maternal
feelings, lushly nurturing the child of her employers, while physically abusing and neglecting
her own daughter; but it reflects the race-based oppression under which they all live.
Likewise, the violenceboth physical and emotionalthat she inflicts on Pecola is obscene,
especially in comparison to her mothering behavior toward another child. Pecola absorbs this
ill-treatment, eventually accepting abuse from all corners of her life as her due, directing her
learned violence on herself alone.
Likewise, Pauline Breedlove believes it is her Christian duty to punish her alcoholic husband
and thus co-creates constant domestic disturbances within the family, initiating fights with her
husband, Cholly, which, in turn, encourages more violence from her children. In one such
scene, after a verbal fight between husband and wife escalates into a physical one, the son
actively joins in hitting his drunk father, eventually yelling, "'Kill him! Kill him!'" (Morrison 1994,
44). While Mrs. Breedlove barely reacts to her son's emotional and physical outburst, his
intensity is deeply felt by the reader who sees in him another generation of violence waiting to
blossom. However, even if readers do not care for Pauline Breedlove, it is also clear that she
redirects her own powerlessness in these situations. Mrs. Breedlove is a force to be reckoned
withif only to her daughter, son, and husband. Regardless of anything else, like Florens in A
Mercy, Breedlove becomes powerful through violence, redefining herself via it.
In most of these examples, Morrison positions the home and immediate family relationships
as places of potentially terrible pain. As Carole Boyce Davies explains, "The family is
sometimes situated as a site of oppression for women. The mystified notions of home and
family are removed from their romantic, idealized moorings, to speak of pain, movement,
difficulty, learning and love in complex ways" (1994, 21). These families become real for
readersthey break hearts, they hurt each other, and they do not always apologize. And
though some of the mothers in Morrison's novels mentioned here genuinely love their
children, they also cannot remove the violence that is as a learned part of their lives within an
oppressive culture as is their desire to nurture.
In the most final violence possible, some mothers in Morrison's novels choose to end the lives
of their childrenin infancy and childhood (Beloved) or even in adulthood (Sula), attempting

to offer an escape from something considered worse than death in their maternal minds. By
choosing death for their children, these mothers are definitively demonstrating the ways in
which fatal violence becomes an act of rebellion and a form of resistance.
In Sula, Eva Peace transforms her position of weakness into power, by determining what kind
of life is worth her son's living and then choosing to kill him. When her son Plum comes home
from World War I addicted to heroin, Eva waits to see if he will change his ways. Eventually,
though, Eva "threw [a lit newspaper] onto the bed where the kerosene-soaked Plum lay"
(Morrison 1982, 47), burning him to death to prevent his continued life of drug addiction.
Later, Eva explains it:
he wanted to crawl back into my womb and well . . . There wasn't
space . . . Being helpless and thinking baby thoughts and dreaming
baby dreams and messing up his pants again and smiling all the time. I
had room in my heart, but not in my womb. . . . I done everything I
could to make him leave me and go on and live and be a man but he
wouldn't and I had to keep him out so I just thought of a way he could
die like a man not all scrunched up inside my womb, but like a man.
(ibid., 71-72)

Eva's decision has more to do with her own state of mind than Plum's (who is "smiling all the
time"). As his mother, she makes it her decision whether he should live a life of addiction.
Powerless to change his behaviors and/or make him "live and be a man," Eva redirects her
status of helplessness into dominant female strength and murders Plum.
Beloved's Sethe, the mother of four children, is well known for her attempt to kill her children,
once she realizes they are about to be taken back into slavery. After being free for twentyeight days, Sethe takes control of the situation the only way she knows how: by destroying
the "property" for which the bounty hunter and slaveowner have come, because Sethe "wasn't
going back there . . . Any life but that one" was preferable (Morrison 1988, 42). As Boyce
Davies suggests, "Beloved . . . simultaneously critiques exclusive mother-love as it asserts
the necessity for Black women to claim something as theirs" (1994, 136). Similarly,
Christopher Peterson's analysis indicates that Sethe must "kill her own daughter . . . to claim
that daughter as her own over and above the master's claim" (2006, 554). Sethe's decision
can only be understood when readers recognize the entirety of the choices available to her
and realize that, via violence, Sethe redirects her racialized powerlessness into maternal
possession and dominance.
In Beloved, readers see how maternal love can be so overwhelming that a mother might
decide to kill her offspring rather than return them to a life not worth living. Once Sethe
escapes from slavery, finally reaching her three older children with her newborn baby tied to
her, her mother love is plentiful: "Sethe lay in bed under, around, over, among, but especially
with them all" (Morrison 1988, 93). Unlike some other of Morrison's mothers who deny their
mother love (like Baby Suggs), Sethe revels in it, both in times of happiness and in despair.
According to Christopher Peterson, Orlando Patterson argues that "slavery destroys slave
kinship structures" (Peterson 2006, 549). Sethe actually shows abundant connections to her
children, risking everything for them to escape and celebrating their life together afterward.
But believing capture (and subsequent torture) imminent, Sethe rebels against societal mores
that suggest mothering is nonviolent and takes desperate action. The four white men open
the shed door, seeing that "two boys bled in the sawdust and . . . a nigger woman holding a
blood-soaked child to her chest" is swinging the infant "by the heels . . . toward the wall
planks" (Morrison 1988, 149). Her actions are unthinkable and brutal, yet readers cannot
doubt the truth of both her maternal love and her power. "Because the normative vision of
maternity tends to elevate the mother/child relation to an idealized field of ethical action,
infanticide is most often read either as an unintelligible aberration from normative kinship, or
as an act of pure love, in which case it is thought to be completely intelligible" (Peterson 2006,
551). While Sethe's actions are ghastly, they are also compellingly dominantshe chooses
what will happen to her and to her children. As Peterson argues, "What Sethe claims signifies

not only her daughter, but also what she claims for her act of infanticide: namely, that it is an
act of pure love" (2006, 555). Sethe reprojects the violence that has oppressed her for years
and takes control of what little she can. Sethe loves her children enough to choose death for
them instead of a tortuous slave life.
Even months and years later, after being faced with prison and decades of scorn within her
community, Sethe defends her maternal violence. She explains to Paul D., "I did it. I got us all
out. . . . I couldn't let all that go back to where it was, and I couldn't let her nor any of em live
under schoolteacher" (Morrison 1988, 162-63). Even more telling are Sethe's thoughts when
she recognizes the slaveowner's hat in the front lawn that fateful day:
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.
(ibid., 163)

Unwilling to sacrifice her children's right to freedom, familial connections, and even daily
decision making (something she herself rarely enjoyed until her escape), she chooses violent
death inside family unity. Explaining about cutting her own daughter's throat, Sethe says, "if I
hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her"
(ibid., 200). For Sethe, slavery (especially being owned by the awful Schoolteacher) is death
a death of the spirit and mind as well as bodyand it is worse than any physical dying
because it occurs without any connection to significant others. Sethe's lack of knowledge
about her mother's life or death, her husband's disappearance, and their friends' outcomes
after escape all direct her to realize that making an awful choice can be better than having no
choice at all. As Boyce Davies explains, "Sethe's violent action becomes an attempt to hold
on to the maternal right and function" (1994, 139). After freedom had been achieved, Sethe
accepted the burden of power that came with keeping that freedom at all costs. She acts
rebelliously, willing to die and kill in order to claim her children as her own, above any claim of
property by Schoolteacher.
Though Sethe is the most infamous for her brutal maternal decision, she is not the only
mother in Beloved who resorts to violenceand readers can learn how and why Sethe comes
to her own ferocious mothering decision by noticing more about her relationship (and/or the
lack of that relationship) with her own mother. Known only as "Ma'am," Sethe's mother works
in the rice fields and is a stranger to Sethe, but she is the only child of Ma'am's that is
encouraged to live and thus indoctrinates into Sethe the concept of mothers choosing life or
death for their children. Another slave woman tells Sethe about Sethe's conception and birth
after Ma'am's death: "'She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw
away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she
threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The
others she did not put her arms around'" (Morrison 1988, 62). The story, which implicitly
explains the horrors of multiple rapes upon Ma'am, also recognizes the power of maternal
choice. Ma'am could not escape rape and subsequent pregnancy, but she rebelled, by
refusing motherhood until she was impregnated by someone whom she had accepted.
Ma'am's actions and decisions are not discussed more fully in the novel, but they surely
would have taught Sethe the importance of power, choice, rebellion, and motherhood.
Although technically "unimpressed" with the story as a child, the concept (and power) of
choosing motherhood (and thus also the special burdens of deciding life or death for your
offspring) is established for Sethe from early on in her life.
Additionally, in one of the few positive memories Sethe has with her mother, violence marks
the moment that focuses on possession and recognition, encrypting Sethe with the
understanding that maternal violence is easily also an act of love. During infancy, it is another
woman's job to nurse Sethe and later, an eight-year-old child watches her while her mother
works in the fields. However, Ma'am takes Sethe aside one day to show her a brand below
her ribs, burnt there by slaveowners. Ma'am shows this mark so that "if something happens to

[her] and [Sethe] can't tell [her] by [her] face, [Sethe] can know [Ma'am] by this mark"
(Morrison, 1988, 61). Sethe, encouraged by what is an unusual token of familiar possession
between them, asks her mother to "'Mark the mark on me too'" (ibid.) so that they would be
similar to one another. But Ma'am slaps Sethe for the remark, not wanting her own daughter
to be burnt but not explaining why.
Readers understand this scene through multiple lenses. First, the act of recognition between
mother and daughter is keythe mother is ensuring that, despite the probable violence that
will end her own life (which is accurateMa'am is lynched), she wants her daughter to be
able to recognize her body and know why she is then absent (i.e., unlike the mysteries of
absences related to so many others, like Sethe's husband). But Sethe, unmothered by
slavery, is unable to understandinstead, she wants to bond with her mother by displaying
the same mark as she hasshowing that she and her mother share the same symbol.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, Sethe learns that maternal violencehitting the
child to express your pointcan be an expression of possession and even love. Sethe learns
from this poignant memory that violence can mark the relationship of mother to child, so
readers should not be surprised when she turns to violence later to protect and show her
possession of her own children.
Sethe's understanding of her mother also allows her to explain Ma'am's death in terms of their
connection to each other. When Ma'am is lynched, Sethe wonders what her mother did to
deserve dying: "Running, you think? No. Not that. Because she was my ma'am and nobody's
ma'am would run off and leave her daughter" (ibid., 203). Sethe's immediate refusal of this
particular action as the reason for the lynchingrunning off without taking Sethe with her
reflects her own understanding of familial connections. Sethe would never physically abandon
her children to save herselfher ability to mother them is demanded via proximity and
decision makingeven to the point of choosing the time and means of their deaths, if
necessary.
While other mothers in Beloved condemn Sethe for her violent mothering, many of them also
engage in maternal violence in various ways, as well as treat Sethe's family with violence for
decades. While Sethe's mother-in-law Baby Suggs denounces the choice Sethe makes in the
shed with her children, she also recognizes her own losses via slavery:
Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat
fingertips with her ownfingers she never saw become the male or
female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn't know to
this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their
heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What color did
Famous' skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny's chin or just a
dimple that would disappear soon's his jawbone changed? Four girls,
and the last time she saw them there was no hair under their arms.
Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All seven were
gone or dead. What would be the point of looking too hard at that
youngest one?
(Morrison 1988, 139)

So while Baby Suggs does not murder her children, she does determine to deal with the pain
of losing her children by not loving them (ibid., 23)which does not quite work. For example,
when she hears that two children (Nancy and Famous) died on a ship waiting to leave harbor,
she "covered her ears with her fists to keep from hearing" (ibid., 144). Peterson explains that
Suggs's methodology is due to "the threat of white violence [which] has conditioned former
slaves not to attach themselves too strongly to the things they love" (2006, 153). Again, while
Baby Suggs believes she is on a higher moral ground than Sethe, the reality is that Baby
Suggs forced herself to abandon her children almost at birth, knowing that they will eventually
be taken away within slavery. In contrast, Sethe never abandons her childrenshe remains
constant for them, even though her method of mothering becomes brutal.
Similarly, even Ella, a woman who also does not condone the choices Sethe has made, has
her own secret mother violence: "She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing,

fathered by 'the lowest yet.' It lived five days never making a sound." (Morrison 1988, 258-59).
These choices of maternal neglect show that mother violence takes many forms, and, while
Sethe is condemned for her public choice of brutality, there are several others who similarly
make hard decisions about their own offspring.
These female characters, all flawed but also all attempting to manage situations far beyond
their control, choose violence. In doing so, they transform from powerless subordinates into
dominating forces, even though that transformation often has multidimensional repercussions
for them and those with whom they have chosen to be violent. As young girls, mothers, and
grandmothers, they act in unsanctioned ways, forcing a redefinition of what black femaleness
and black motherhood can and should be, especially under oppressive conditions. Through
multiple generations of violent patterns (reflecting the viciousness of racist society around
them), children learn violence and become violent themselves, and violent mothers may find
themselves unmothered by murdering their own children, depicting a repetitive ghastliness
within Morrison families.
And yet these female characters remain powerful, dominant, and intriguing. They face
horrendously oppressive circumstances and create new endings to them, which their
oppressors can hardly believe. They redirect their powerless positions, transforming
themselves into hauntingly forceful girls and women. They choose their own destinies, even if
those futures are often lonely or tragic. Thus, these violent females provide a new
understanding of violence and its relationship to personal power and community.
Amanda Putnam
Dr. Amanda Putnam is an associate professor who teaches interdisciplinary
humanities courses at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She specializes in women's
literature, with a specific focus on transnational black women's literature. Lately, her
scholarly interests have expanded to include the racial and gendered spaces within
television and film. More about her work can be found at
http://sites.roosevelt.edu/aputnam/.

Endnotes
1. Original emphasis.
2. While Carol Iannone (1987) pointed out in her criticisms of Morrison that this type
of black-on-black cruelty also repeatedly shows black life as strangely traumatic
and/or disturbing, that commentary underplays the reality of absorbed white-societal
obsessivenessand the need for these young girls to rebel against those constraints.
3. While some critics, such as Iannone (1987), suggest that Morrison does not take a
"stand on the appalling actions she depicts" (61), the statement of power behind
Sula's actions is explicit and attention-grabbing.
4. The consequences of accepting mothering as a biological imperative was handled
nicely in Henderson (2009), in that the author offered a reunderstanding of the
definition of a so-called "good" mother, especially in terms of parenting away from
biological children.
5. Again, Henderson's 2009 work in BWGF is helpful as her interviews "enhance our
understandings of maternal absence by moving away from a selfish act of child
rejection to a loving attempt to 'do what's best for the child'" (35).
6. hooks's concept of homeplace is interesting in understanding the link between
intimacy and violence within the home.

References
Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet as It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 2000.
Boyce Davies, Carole. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Henderson, Mae C. "Pathways to Fracture: African American Mothers and the Complexities of Maternal Absence."
Black Women, Gender, & Families 3, no. 2 (2009): 29-47.
Hinson, D. Scot. "Narrative and Community Crisis in Beloved." MELUS 26, no. 4 (2001):147-67.
hooks, bell. "Homeplace." In Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, 41-49. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Iannone, Carol. "Toni Morrison's Career." Commentary 84, no. 6 (1987): 59-63.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume/Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1982. Originally pub. 1973.
. Beloved. New York: Plume/Penguin Books USA Inc., 1988. Originally pub. 1987.
. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume/Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1994. Originally pub.1970.
. A Mercy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, Inc, 2008.
Peterson, Christopher. "Beloved's Claim." Modern Fiction Studies 52, no. 3 (2006): 548-69.
Russell, Kathy, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color among African
Americans. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Copyright 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

Black Women, Gender & Families


Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 2011

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