Essay on Symbols and Symbolism in Toni Morrison's Beloved


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Symbolism in Beloved


Toni Morrison enhances the effectiveness of Beloved with symbolism. This symbolism has a myriad of origins as well as forms. Number symbols come from astrological sources, while characters' names are allusions from ancient Egyptian mythology, the Bible, and African culture. Furthermore, important color symbols are discernible throughout the novel.

From the very beginning of Beloved, the number 124 is distinguishable. In fact, it appears as the first character of each book of the novel. As the address of the
home where most of the plot takes place, this number is extremely important. According to astrology, the numbers 1, 3, 7, and 22 are "ascribed with magical powers" (Samuels 135). These magical powers are said to be symbols of completion and creation. 124 fits this astrological delineation because the sum of the three digits in the number add up to the aforementioned 7. In addition, a significant association among characters in the novel is in the form of three people -- Sethe, Beloved, and Denver.

Secondly, the name of the protagonist of the novel, Sethe, is associated with "one of the major gods of ancient Egypt and the Biblical Seth, who was the child of Adam and Eve" (Samuels 136). This Egyptian god was part man and part animal or bird, which explains the animal imagery surrounding Sethe in the novel. For example, when explaining her secret about Beloved to Paul D., Sethe is described as if she is a circling falcon or bird. Morrison writes, "She just flew...and the hummingbird wings beat on" (163).

The name Sethe is also unique as a name for a female slave because it is derived from the names of Egyptian and Biblical males. Morrison uses the name to add to the masculinity of Sethe's character. Sethe's ability to overcome overwhelming tragedies and challenges such as her escape from slavery in Kentucky and the murder of her child identifies her with this quality.

Additionally, the name Sixo symbolizes the dehumanization of slaves during the late 19th century. His name, derived from the number 6, implies that white masters didn't consider their slaves with enough respect to recognize them with more than a number. This renaming also symbolizes the power the slaveowners felt by stripping slaves of their individuality.

The distinction of color in slavery adds to the color symbolism which pervades Beloved.

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Along with the obvious symbols of black and white, Morrison considers colors such as blue, green, yellow, pink, and red. Blue, green, yellow, and pink are the colors which Baby Suggs and eventually Sethe spend the last moments in their lives contemplating. Pink also is significant as the color of the gravestone Sethe "purchases" for Beloved.

Ironically, the color which escapes final scrutiny by Baby Suggs and Sethe is the one which is most distinguishable in the novel. This color, red, is found in Beloved's blood, the "carmine" velvet for which Amy innocently longs, as well as in Stamp Paid's lucky red ribbon. Blood symbolizes ending, while Amy's velvet "is like the world was just born" (Morrison 33). Stamp Paid's charm represents hope. Furthermore, Paul D compares the red in a rooster's crown to the lack of red in his tobacco-tin heart (73). For Paul D, slavery took away not only freedom but also the brightness in his heart. Even a simple barnyard animal can be proud of his color, but Paul D cannot.

African culture, astronomy, and Egyptian and Biblical mythology are sources for valuable and meaningful symbols. Toni Morrison's Beloved contains many of these symbols, such as numbers, names, and colors. The effect of these signs compliments Morrison's style in the oral tradition as well as her emotional subject matter.


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