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What is freedom? Freedom is the ability for every individual to have complete control of his life, the ability to make his own decisions. From the moment an individual wakes up in the morning to the moment he lays back down to sleep in the evening, thousands, if not millions, of choices have been made. Some of these choices have had negative consequences, and some of these choices have had positive consequences, but regardless of the outcome, there remained the freedom of choice.
Too often, ones’ freedoms are encroached upon by someone or something else This encroachment can be both physical and emotional. Such circumstances can be very difficult to deal with and often times lead to hardship and emotional trauma. Sometimes it takes an external force or personality to come forward to help survive such instances. Such a scenario exists in both Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and in the movie Secrets and Lies. In both stories, there is a family disturbed by circumstances from the past and in response a character “from the past” comes back and helps to mend the somber situation, helps to free them from the past.
In Beloved, a slave by the name of Sethe escapes with her children from the dark and dismal environment of plantation life to the bright and carefree environment of freedom. From being shackled and torn from her family, to having her breasts sucked dry of milk by white plantation owners, Sethe has survived too many horrific situations and witnessed too many inhumane acts on her fellow man. In order to deal with such pain and the resulting bitterness, she tries to forget, tries to hide the memories deep down in her self. Sethe refers to these as “rememories.”
Living on a plantation and being a slave, Sethe had experienced first hand what it was like to be deprived of nearly all freedoms. Deprived of the opportunity to make her own choices and decisions, as well as the deprivation of love, it appears the only thing Sethe was not deprived of was bitterness and hatred. Thus, after escaping the captivity, the only life she had ever known, freedom was pure heaven. For twenty eight days, she and her four children lived in a state of bliss. Unfortunately for them, this freedom was short lived. On that twenty eighth day, as Sethe and her children worked in the yard, the white plantation owner, known as School Teacher, approached Sethe’s house in search of his lost slaves.
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Such an incident is not easily forgotten, nor is it easily forgiven. People no longer stopped to visit Sethe’s house. Her two sons, Buglar and Howard, run away, never to be heard from again. The only family Sethe is left with, the only joy in her life, comes from her one remaining daughter, Denver. Unfortunately, for the wellness of the family, Sethe is unable and incapable of expressing her love in a suitable manner. Because Sethe lived her entire life deprived of love, she was clueless when it came to properly expressing her own feelings of love. As a result of this, and also to prevent her own past from infecting her daughter, Sethe keeps an overbearing watch over Denver. Denver is restricted from leaving the house, and is thus deprived of all the freedoms of the “outside world.”
In the months and years following the murder of her child, Seth’s life is in a state of shambles. She does her best to hide the memories, to force them from her consciousness, but no matter how hard she tries, they still linger in the depths of her consciousness, they are a permanent part of her very being. When it appears that life could not get much worse for Sethe, a visitor emerges, a visitor from the past. Referring to herself as Beloved, Sethe’s daughter, the one killed in the work shed, decided to come back into Sethe’s life. Beloved is in search of answers, answers to the many questions that Sethe had worked so hard to hide, to permanently forget about. Through her constant questions and inquisitive personality, Beloved delves into Sethe’s past. Upon Beloved’s return to the family, Sethe’s life begins to make sense once again. The family unit becomes stronger. The more memories Sethe allows to let go of, the more “rememories” she sets free from her consciousness, the less pain Sethe is forced to retain in her heart. Very similar to this situation in Beloved is the situation in the movie Secrets and Lies. The mother, Cynthia, is a middle aged factory worker who, similar to Sethe, is also haunted by her past and her deprivation from freedom. After her parents’ death, Cynthia was forced to accept the role of mother figure to her younger brother Morris. In taking on such a role, Cynthia was forced to sacrifice many aspects of her youth. While sitting on the couch, complimenting herself on the beauty of her own legs, she complains about the loss of her youth. It becomes more evident later on in the story that she is frustrated not so much by the loss of her youth, but more appropriately by the entire aging process. Standing in front of the mirror, she cups her sagging breasts in her hands, crying. She can’t face the realization that she does not have the same body as she did in her youth, time had taken its toll on her. She is frustrated by the fact that she can not escape the aging process.
It is evident from her actions and comments that Cynthia has issues from the past that she has chosen to hide deep within herself. In doing so, she becomes starved for attention, so desperately wanting to reveal the truth, and develops a personality that is both unstable and overbearing. Like Sethe, Cynthia does not know how to love. Later in the movie, Morris says, “She never had enough love.” Because Cynthia never received this love, she in turn does not know how to love. Her idea of love is the overbearing, self- centered person that we see in the film.
At first, we are made to believe that Cynthia is mother to only one child, Roxane. Cynthia tries to love Roxane, but instead of love comes the same overbearing and watchful eye that Sethe had for Denver. Unfortunately for Cynthia, Roxane is easily annoyed and bothered by her mother’s constant nagging, even going so far as to call her mother vulgar names. The relationship between the mother and daughter is very strained and unhealthy. It is often necessary for Roxane to leave the house, to escape the constant nagging that her mother is unable to cease from spouting forth.
As the movie progresses, we learn that Roxane was not Cynthia’s only child. Cynthia had a baby at the age of sixteen, which she immediately put up for adoption. Cynthia never counted on being confronted by this “lost” child, and thus, in her mind, lived only as a suppressed memory. The baby, who came to be known as Hortense, grew up in an adoptive family where she was well loved. Following the death of her adoptive parents, she is driven by a need for answers, driven by a determination to seek out her true maternal mother. By meeting her mother she hoped to become free of her past, to finally know the truth. This was a very difficult decision for Hortense, knowing that her hopes and dreams of meeting her true, biological mother could end up in a sad or uncomfortable situation.
In searching for the answers to questions from her past, Hortense is able to help Cynthia. Cynthia is finally able to vent many of her frustrations and reveal many experiences from her past that she had continued to bottle up deep inside of her. Because of this, the relationship between Cynthia and Roxane improves immensely. Hortense was able to unite the family unit that was so close to collapsing and teetering on utter destruction. The movie ends with the three woman engaged in pleasant conversation, a drastic change from the bickering and superficial hatred that existed between Cynthia and Roxane earlier in the movie.
By examining certain aspects of Beloved and Secrets and Lies, there are definite similarities which can be drawn up, especially in the roles and personalities of the main characters. Take for example Cynthia and Sethe. Both females are overwhelmed and controlled by events from the past. In response to such events, they have decided to hide these feeling and emotions, hiding them from not only themselves but also the people they love. By keeping such emotions bottled up, both women are on the brink of losing their sanity, unable to cope with the everyday tortures of remembering their pasts. Fortunately, for both Sethe and Cynthia, a daughter that they thought to be lost forever, returns to help them, to help free them from the past. In Sethe’s case this was done by Beloved, for Cynthia it was Hortense. Another similarity is each women’s inability to love. Both women were deprived of love as children, and consequently were unable and inexperienced when it became time to love their own children. With the return of Beloved for Sethe and the return of Hortense for Cynthia, the two mothers finally discover the true meaning of love.
Although Roxane and Denver are, for the most part, completely different characters, there are still a small number of similarities that one can uncover. For example, both daughters are forced to live their lives under the “microscope” of their overly protective and overbearing mothers. Despite this similarity, how the two girls react to the situation is much different. Denver is able to accept the fact that she is not to leave the house, not to venture out into the “real world.” She in content to live her life in the confinement of Sethe’s small house. Roxane, on the other hand, reacts very differently. She is so disgusted by her mother’s constant shadowing and in response, is very bitter and negative to her mother. Roxane often runs from the house, yelling profanity, escaping the captivity which she is unwilling to accept. In the end, both Denver and Roxane are able to escape the confinement set forth by their mothers. Denver reacts to this new freedom by venturing out into the surrounding community. Roxane reacts to this new freedom by flashing the smile that she so seldomly revealed earlier in the movie.
Quite possibly the strongest similarity between characters in Beloved and Secrets and Lies was that of Beloved and Hortense. Both of these daughters were separated from their families at an early stage in life, with Beloved’s death occurring around the age of two and Hortense being placed into adoption at birth. Both of these children returned to their families in search of answers, answers about their past. Beloved is constantly nagging Sethe about events from the past, hoping to free up some answers, dislodge some of the painful memories that Sethe had worked so hard to hide. Hortense does the same, asking about her father and other circumstances leading up to her birth. Hortense provides a means for Cynthia to finally reveal some of the pain and suffering that she has been forced to keep concealed. By bringing the past into the present, Beloved and Hortense help their mothers to escape the pain caused from the past. Not only do Beloved and Hortense help their mothers, but also their sisters. Denver and Beloved spend a large amount of quality time together, frolicking in the forest, playing in the yard. Beloved becomes the only friend that Denver has ever really had. The same goes for Roxane. Roxane and Hortense are very happy basking in each others company. At the end of the movie they are laughing and discussing going out to pubs and the sort.
Fortunately for the two families in Beloved and Secrets and Lies, they were able to recover from the unfortunate circumstances that plagued them from the past. With the help of a forgotten daughter, both mothers were able to face their pasts, accept their memories as unfortunate circumstances that they had no control over. In effect, Beloved and Hortense played the role of freedom fighters. By hiding and bottling up their past, Sethe and Cynthia incarcerated themselves in a state of emotional turmoil. By relieving the mothers of their pasts, Beloved and Hortense freed them and opened up their eyes to the joys and beauty of life. Neither mother had a strong sense of self, the understanding and acceptance of who and what they really were. With this new freedom, by putting their pasts behind them, Sethe and Cynthia were able to finally discover the self that had been hidden and strangled by the memories of the past. Sethe and Cynthia were finally free.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: the Penguin Group. 1987.
Simon Channing- Williams. (1996) Secrets & Lies, United Kingdom.