Water Symbolism in Beloved 11/14

The presence of water (specifically referring to waterways such as rivers, lakes and oceans) in African American literature has always been a site a for memory and history (i.e. The Middle Passage*). This trope resurfaces in both the Another Country as well as Beloved.

This is evident in Another Country as Rufus takes his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River. One could argue that this is done  is in the tradition of the resistance  as some slaves in the Middle Passage  chose to jump overboard rather than endure slavery in the “New World.”

In Beloved,  Sethe escapes from Sweet Home Plantation though in her journey she is confronted with imminent dangers by the Ohio River which is said to be  “infected by the Klan (39**)”. Crossing this river safely, implies that Sethe will be closer to freedom. In route to the other side of the river, Morrison notes:  “As soon as Sethe got close to the river her own water broke loose to join it.” (50**)

What are some ways water can function in Beloved (i.e freedom, birth, death)? You can feel free to expand on the Beloved example given above or cite other implications of water in the novel as well.

*The Middle Passage was a stage of the transatlantic slave trade in  which slaves were transported in bodies of water.

**Pagination is different

5 Responses to Water Symbolism in Beloved 11/14

  1. Abigail Gardener says:

    It is interesting to me that in Denver’s birth scene, water seems to both threaten death and offer freedom. Not only is the baby being freed from Sethe’s womb, but they both have the opportunity to be free if they can cross the river successfully. However, Morrison also writes that the water is dark and that the “river water, seeping through any hole it chose, was spreading over Sethe’s hips” (99). It does not seem like a welcoming environment to birth a baby in, nor does it seem likely that the river could safely carry Sethe and the baby to freedom. Yet it still symbolizes freedom to her. Just as water is fluid, the line between freedom and death is fluid and fragile.

    • Gilberto Rosa says:

      I was also looking at this page because later on Morrison writes “Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained” (99). In this quote we are also engaging with the lasting effects of the The Middle Passage and Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness. I really like that Morrison says that it’s difficult to see these blueferns unless you are in the water which in turn can mean that it is nearly impossible to understand the experience of black life unless you are in it. And she complicates this more by saying that while it may seem twisted to take your own life in hopes for freedom, but that one really has to be in the position of an enslaved black person to really understand the twisted decisions one has to make in a twisted situation.

  2. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I definitely agree that water seems to symbolize freedom. Crossing the Ohio River physically distances Sethe from her past as a slave and allows for the freedom and a chance for rebirth. In addition, however, this water then holds the weight of the past as freed slaves shed their previous identity into the water as the travel and redefine themselves. This may explain why Beloved seems to have emerged from the water, because since she died as a product of slavery, she is forced into the water that holds all these past memories and trauma and pain. Also, it may explain why Sethe’s water breaks as soon as she sees Beloved. Although she doesn’t necessarily realize that it is Beloved, this water signifies the resurfacing of all the problems of the past that Sethe thought she had abandoned on her journey North.

  3. Sarah Terrazano says:

    I agree that the fluidity of water makes it a symbol of freedom, and the ways that one can be free, in the text. In terms of Denver’s birth, Morrison creates a parallel between the freedom of the river for Sethe’s escape and the birth of her daughter into a dangerous environment. In this scene, Denver does not drown in the river; rather, she was “Face up and drowning in its mother’s blood” (99). The river is a site of transport away from slavery, but the harsh emphasis that Denver was drowning in her mother’s blood reinforces the fact that while the river offers the possibility of freedom, Denver is not born into safety.

    It is also worth noting that Beloved comes to 124 from a river. She repeatedly tells Sethe that she was waiting on a bridge, and in her narration in Part II, she says that “I come out of blue water” before finding the house (252). In this way, both Denver’s and Beloved’s entrances into Sethe’s life are connected to water and its deliverance.

  4. Sydney Exler says:

    I think the water imagery throughout Beloved can also be expanded to include rain and snow. When Paul D asks Sethe to have a baby, and it begins to snow, the narrator describes: “It always surprised him, how quiet [the snow] was. Not like rain, but like a secret” (152). If snow embodies quiet secrecy, then we are left to assume that rain is considered brash and overt. Importantly, while snow looks beautiful, the individual flakes are flimsy and short-lived. The association of snow with the moment in which Paul D and Sethe display an innocent and genuine companionship, in conjunction with the moment’s masking of Paul D’s infidelity, suggests that snow exudes a positive public image built on an insubstantial foundation. While we can understand bodies of water to represent history and memory, these alternative forms of water (rain and snow) do not seem consistent with such an interpretation. Snow and rain, which, unlike (some) bodies of water are ‘divinely ordained’. This suggests that water, when controlled, can evoke history and memory; bodies of water, which are contained and ordained, reflect an active involvement, whereas rain and snow are ungovernable.

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