Humanity uses numbers as a way to communicate beyond words, evoking ideas more readily than words alone are able to. All religions and cultures have significant numbers that communicate an essence or idea more quickly and completely than words can. It is in this manner that Toni Morrison uses numbers in Beloved. Significant numbers occur starting with the first symbols of the text and the words on the pages before the body of the text starts.
124. The first thing to appear, and we already have a significant number. Sethe has four children. The third one is dead. Numbers 1, 2, and 4 remain. Another number that stands alone in its significance is twenty-eight. Twenty-eight is the length of the menstrual cycle, the lunar month, and the duration of Sethe's happiness: "Sethe had had twenty-eight days - the travel of one whole moon - of unslaved life. From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days" (95). Sethe has lived twenty years of sorrow, for twenty-eight days of pleasure, and spends another eighteen suffering before Paul D and Beloved brighten her life again. "Those twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life....Was that the pattern? she wondered. Every eighteen or twenty years her unbelievable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory?" (173). This symbol is significant, and twenty-eight appears only within this context.
Many numbers occur that are significant even though they are not recurring themes throughout the book. Howard and Buglar "[ran] away by the time they were thirteen years old" (3), the traditional age of manhood ...
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...tion" (695). This seems precisely what is happening when Sixo dies.
As we see, numbers play an enormous role in Beloved. They communicate concepts in a sort of psychic shorthand, adding a deeper subtext to many events. The way in which the numbers are used is universal, using symbols common to all of humanity. It is universal comprehension like that which gives Beloved the power it has, its genius, and its beauty.
Gaskell, G. A. Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths. (New York: The Julian Press, 1960) p. 695
Herder Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Boris Matthews. (Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications, 1993)
Mackey, Cameron. Interviews with. Haverford College, December 1995.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. (New York: Plume, 1988)
Schimmel, Annemarie. The Mystery of Numbers. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)
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