The motif of Water in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Water: a human being is incapable of living without water for more than three to five days. Almost three fourths of the planet is made up of water, and it is undeniably the most essential compound in existence. The importance of water from a biological and scientific standpoint is paralleled by its prominence and essentiality in many literary works. Water is an extremely diverse and useful symbol. It can be destructive, life-giving, clear, opaque, and used by a writer in basically any way his or her mind can imagine.

Water has been the keystone in many famous works–from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, where all knowledge and understanding of the world is based around the flowing currents of the river, to Dante’s Inferno, in which water serves as the gate between Hell and the living world, many novels and literary works of the highest merit would be nothing short of incomplete without their incorporation of the motif: water.

Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, follows this trend and contains innumerable references to water. All of the characters in the novel are influenced at some point by water, and Sethe, Beloved, and Denver all have life-changing experiences centered around water. Morrison’s inclusion and repeated references to water are critical to her representations of rebirth, crossing between the world of the dead and of the living, as well as establishing the connectedness between Sethe, Beloved, and Denver.

The most critical event in Beloved is undoubtedly the rebirth of Beloved. A key point about Beloved’s emergence back into the world is that she walked out of a body of water. The fact that Beloved returned to the realm of the living in this way is significant for two reasons. One of these reasons is that water is often seen as a bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Many cultures see water as a bridge from death to life or life to death. For example, “in living folklore in Celtic Countries..the crossing of a bridge or stream of water when pursued by…phantoms is a guarantee of protection. There is always the mystic water between the realm of the living and the realm of subjectivity” (Wentz 256). This suggests that Beloved, while in the realm of the dead, sought to escape back to her mother. It also establishes that Beloved is not human, even though she has taken on a human form. She is some kind of otherworldly being returning to life because she has unfinished business on earth that she must take care of–mainly to satisfy her desire to be with her mother . She crossed the water, and was able to satisfy this need. When Beloved does describe her time in the realm of the dead, it sounds horrific: she describes “those able to die are in a pile I cannot find my man…the hill of dead people  a hot thing  the men without skin push them through with poles” (Morrison 249). Her incoherent ramblings suggest the horror of the underworld, one she sought to escape by crossing the water. This idea of water serving as a portal, which was also seen in Dante’s Inferno, makes it clear that Beloved is definitely from the realm of the dead.

Beloved’s emergence from the water is also significant because it could be read as if she was in the womb. When she comes out, she is very much like an infant in the way that she is so helpless, “her head resting on the trunk [of the mulberry tree] in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim in her straw hat…[she was] sopping wet and breathing shallow…trying to negotiate the weight of her eyelids” (Morrison 60). She is clearly in a weak, infantile state–falling in and out of sleep. The womb reading is also supported by Sethe’s behavior when Beloved rises from the depths. The second she beheld Beloved, “Sethe’s bladder filled to capacity…and the water she voided was endless” (Morrison 61). The only time that Sethe ever felt anything like that before was when she flooded a boat while giving birth to Denver. Sethe’s loss of bladder control and evacuation of water establishes many things regarding Beloved and her relation to Denver and Sethe. First of all and most obviously, it makes it clear that Beloved is indeed Sethe’s lost daughter. While they are not actually connected at the time and Beloved does not actually come out of Sethe, the fact that both   Beloved and Sethe simultaneously have experiences similar to childbirth is a clear demonstration that Beloved is experiencing a rebirth, and Sethe is the mother. The only thing that would compare to her experience would be her water breaking. Regarding Beloved’s relation to Denver, this scene in the novel establishes a few things. Since Beloved is a child of Sethe, Denver and Beloved are sisters. Denver realizes this when she feels a strong connection to Beloved right away, which contributes to the decision to bring Beloved back to 124. When Denver saw Beloved, she “was shaking. She looked at [the] sleepy beauty and wanted more” (Morrison 63). It is clear that Denver is enchanted by Beloved and will have an unhealthy obsession with her, as well as an unhealthy yearning to spend time with her and win her attention. While Denver wants Beloved’s attention, all Beloved wants is Sethe’s. The fact that Beloved was born in such a watery way, like Denver, also foreshadows Beloved’s attempts to overshadow Denver as Sethe’s daughter and her desire to have Sethe all to herself. It is almost as if Beloved is trying to out-do Denver’s birth by causing Sethe to expel even more water than when Denver was born. When Beloved’s appearance causes Sethe to feel lack of control of her bladder that she only felt when delivering Denver, it shows that Beloved is going to try to become the new Denver–Sethe’s new favorite daughter.

While she intends to consume all of Sethe’s attention and love, it is clear that Beloved will also have an insatiable hunger for something else–life. Beloved drinks an extremely excessive amount of water. She drank cup after cup, “as though she had crossed a desert” (Morrison 62). Water is a symbol of life, and since Beloved’s life was one of such brevity, she feels a need to get the most life that she can during her second time on earth. The one thing a human can do to ensure that he or she stays alive is drink water. Beloved is aware of this, and as a result she makes sure that she is always drinking water. Her thirst is a symbol for her desire to be alive and with her mother. During the beginning of her second life, Beloved only desires to be healthy and alive. All she does is sleep and drink water; “four days she slept, waking and sitting up only for water” (Morrison 64). Beloved’s initial thirst for life begins to evolve as she becomes healthier and more stable. She used to focus only on drinking water, but as she establishes herself and becomes more alive, she begins to eat more sweets, foods, and focus on finding ways to keep Sethe all to herself. Her desire used to be only to be alive and with her mother, to drink water and meet the bare essentials of living, but it evolved into a selfish lust for a life of indulgence. Beloved always gets her way, and establishes herself as an evil force that gains control over Sethe and Denver. Beloved consumes Sethe, saying, “I am Beloved and [Sethe] is mine…I am not separate from her there is no place were I stop  her face is my own” (Morrison 248). Beloved usurps control of Sethe. “It was Beloved who made demands. Anything she wanted she got, and when Sethe ran out of things to give her, Beloved invented desire. She wanted Sethe’s company for hours…now the players were altered” (Morrison 283). As Beloved’s hunger grows, so does the level of control she has over Denver and Sethe. Starting with her need for water, the minimum necessity for life, the reader is able to watch Beloved evolve and become a monster as she seeks to get more and more out of life and the people around her.

One of the reasons water is such a diverse image is because it exists in so many forms. Liquid, mist, steam, ice, while these are all technically water, they all mean very different things when used as symbols in literature. In Part II of Beloved, after Paul D’s departure, Denver, Sethe, and Beloved go ice skating. While this scene is usually seen as a happy time of familial female bonding, the ice, frozen water, suggests some underlying dark imagery. The ice is symbolic of a frozen portal back to where Beloved came from. As long as the water is frozen, Beloved is going to be on earth rather than where she belongs. One of the key facts about the scene is that there are only three skates for the three girls to use. Because of this, one person is always left without a skate. This is representative of the battles for attention being fought by Denver and Beloved. There is no way that Beloved, Sethe, and Denver can all stay together; one must lose their place in the family in order for it to work. As long as the water is frozen, Beloved is going to be in the living realm winning Sethe’s attention, leaving Denver without affection from Sethe nor Beloved. Another noteworthy aspect of the skating scene is the refrain “Nobody saw them falling” (Morrison 205). Falling on the ice entails risk of breaking through, entering the water, and entering the realm of the dead. This suggests that if Beloved stays much longer, it is going to lead to the death of one, if not all three of the girls. Beloved is going to have to enter the realm of the dead again at some point, and if Sethe and Denver aren’t careful, Beloved will bring them with her. The fact that “nobody saw them” shows that nobody is aware of the trap that Beloved is luring Sethe and Denver, not even Sethe and Denver themselves. The only way that Sethe and Denver can return to a normal, healthy life is if they realize that Beloved must be forced back to where she came from, and for that to happen they must break out of the trance that Beloved has them locked into and effectively melt the ice that is keeping Beloved in a realm where she does not belong.

In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison uses water to establish many of the themes expressed throughout the book. Being seen as a bridge between worlds, a representation of childbirth, and as a symbol of life itself, water enriches Morrison’s work and ties it all together. From the water that Sethe lost while giving birth to Denver, to the water she lost when Beloved walked out of the murky depths, Morrison employed water to emphasize the relations between characters. Furthermore, Beloved’s constant drinking of water, exemplifying her unsatisfiable thirst for life, love, and possession, helps to characterize the enigmatic soul that crawled from the stream. Even the frozen stream that Denver, Beloved, and Sethe skate on so happily, actually symbolizes Beloved’s desire to stay on earth forever and ruin the life that Denver and Sethe once had. Morrison made great use of the versatile and ever pertinent symbol of water, the giver and potential taker of life to establish many of the main themes of her book, Beloved.

Works Cited

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Forgotten, 2007. Print

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Currently writing an essay on water in slave narratives/novels on slavery, and this helped refresh my mind on Beloved. Appreciate it!

    Liked by 1 person

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