Updated: Jul 12, 2021
The book Beloved took place under a very racial charged circumstances, with characters who have felt the ripple of slavery either benefiting from it, victim to it, a witness of it, advocating it, or opposing it. Halle is a slave who fathered a girl named Denver, is son to a slave named Baby Suggs and is the husband of a slave woman named Sethe. Halle worked hard in Mr. and Mrs. Garner’s plantation at a place many slaves referred to as ‘Sweet Home’ and was able to buy his mother out of slavery moving her to Cincinnati, Ohio. Pregnant Sethe escapes to go and live with Baby Suggs however Halle didn’t make it up to the North although he died attempting to. Baby Suggs takes care of Sethe for a short while as the schoolteacher from 124 Sweet Home comes to Ohio to capture Sethe and her children to go back to Sweet Home to work during her remaining years of life.
Sethe is a mother who has endured physical, sexual, spiritual and emotional abuse as a slave. She ends up escaping into a shed with plans of attempting infanticide of her own children and committing suicide. She ends up killing her oldest child with a saw and before she can kill her two boys and herself, a white sheriff takes her away into custody. When released from prison, Sethe moves to 124 Sweet Home, where she lives with her two sons who eventually ran away, her daughter Denver, who is stunted in her own growth looking for some kind of companionship, and Baby Suggs.
Beloved was first depicted as a spirit that inhabited 124 Sweet Home and traumatized Sethe’s sons Howard and Buglar, Baby Suggs, Sethe, Denver and eventually Paul D. After Howard and Buglar run away and Baby Suggs passes, Paul D moves into the house and becomes Sethe’s lover. Denver was jealous of the relationship Sethe had with Paul D because of all the attention her mother was paying. Paul D being able to chase Beloved out from the house made made Denver more infuriated with him. One day coming back from a carnival, Sethe, Paul D, and Denver encounter a woman who later in the book turns out to be Beloved, reincarnated. Beloved is now in the flesh and moves in to 124 Sweet Home to much of Denver’s liking, since Denver had been alienated and living in solitude most of her life. After committing crime comes guilt, but Beloved re-entering Sethe’s life is taken as a symbol of forgiveness (for the act of infanticide she committed) instead of guilt. Denver becomes obsessed with Denver but Beloved doesn’t really reciprocate the same amount of interest Denver shows her, instead she exudes interest in Sethe and becomes dangerously obsessed with Sethe.
There is no ethical argument that can make infanticide legitimate however I can understand the legitimate conditions that made Sethe believe that killing Beloved was the right thing to do as a mother. I believe that the spirit of Beloved has haunted Sethe ever since Sethe killed Beloved. Killing Beloved was an action of Sethe’s resistance towards slavery that she took in order to protect Beloved from being a slave. In Sethe’s eyes it is better to be dead, than to be a slave and allow her daughter to go through al the physical, sexual, spiritual and emotion abuse she has endured. When it comes to rape, slave women suffered a lot at the hands of both black and white men along with their motherhood being taken away from them. Slave women were taught not to love their children especially since they do not have any position or input on the decisions that are made in their children’s lives. Sethe didn’t really show any love towards her children as she threw her children at birth, didn’t give them names and didn’t hold any of them in a warm embrace except for Denver. Although she loved Denver very much to the dismay of others, she tried to do whatever it took to keep her children out of slavery. She thought it was better to die with dignity rather than to live with shame.
According to Immanuel Kant, one must follow the first proposition of morality, which is an action that must be done from a sense of duty, if it is to have moral worth. Sethe was practicing her motherly duties in making sure that her children were to have healthy and happy lives. As a slave woman, one couldn’t ensure that her children were able to pursue happiness or that it would live a healthy life. The only way Sethe knew how to let her children escape from the treacherous world she birthed them into was to kill them (that way she knew that her dead children could never become slaves). Sethe was fulfilling her duty as a mother who loved her children and wanted them to have a better life than the life of a slave (which was the only option available for them). Her goodwill was not inclined by universal morality but rather motivated by duty. The moral law must be a categorical statement and must be obeyed. Sethe was justified in killing Beloved because Beloved’s life was destined to be enslaved if she grew up at that time period as a black slave’s child. Society believed that slaves were savages who were to be civilized not only through religion but through violent domestication. In the racist, misogynistic and patriarchal society of that time, white men believed that God left them in charge of all creation, reducing the slaves to the status of an animal. The categorical imperative that Sethe’s operated on was the maxim of motherhood and providing a better life and future than what she had to her children. The future is never certain however if you are an enslaved woman during that time period in America (early 1800’s) having a child fathered by another enslaved person, most likely the child would become a slave. Sethe’s maxim is that it is better to die with dignity than live in shame and do whatever it takes to keep her children out of slavery, so in that circumstance, yes; Sethe was justified in killing Beloved which can be viewed more as a mercy killing.