Two Versus Four: Animalization and Dehumanization in Toni Morrison's Beloved

By: Stella Linde

Two Versus Four: Animalization and Dehumanization in Toni
Morrison's Beloved

            Toni Morrison highlights the
degrading yet normalized institution of slavery in the United States during the
1870’s by planting the reader in the life of a family who has been torn apart
and traumatized leading to inhumane and animalistic actions. Morrison dedicates
this novel to those who had to experience the Middle Passage and suffer the
horrific treatment and living conditions that white US citizens put them in.
The morals of slavery can be blatantly summarized as the dehumanization and
objectification of African Americans. As a result, those who were enslaved
began to question their worth and if there was any truth in slavery’s morals,
thus leaving them no choice but to act with animalistic behaviors. Morrison
takes on the institution of slavery and all its evils in a novel that spans
multiple generations. She emphasizes the impact of dehumanization through the
characters at Sweet Home, juxtaposing Mr. Garner’s and schoolteacher’s brands
of slavery and highlighting the moral complexities of Sethe’s infanticide,
arguing that slavery as an institution denies people’s humanity and forces them
into a subhuman, animal state. 

            Although Morrison described Sweet
Home as a beautiful place, what went on there was traumatizing. Those who
survived and escaped the Sweet Home plantation, such as Paul D and Sethe, were
forever tormented by horrendous memories where they were treated like animals.
Plantations, such as Sweet Home, are a prime example of how African Americans
were dehumanized. When Sethe sees Paul D’s bit in his mouth, it reminds her of
the children, women and men she had to watch have a bit installed in their
mouths. Sethe claimed, “People I saw as a child, who'd had the bit always
looked wild after that” (84). Bits are used on horses to allow the rider to
have more control over them, thus when slaves are given bits it implies that
horses and slaves have the same worth. Not only was the freedom of African
Americans swiped from them but even basic human functions such as spitting was
taken. Sethe believed that Paul D wanted to be asked about the bit and “how the
need to spit is so deep you cry for it” (84), however bringing the topic up is
questioned as the thought of a bit on a human is beyond immoral. In addition to
the white slave owners who viewed African Americans as animals, after a while
the slaves began to compare themselves to animals too. While Paul D was at
Sweet Home he spent his time comparing his liberties to Mister, a rooster. He
claimed, “Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed
to be and stay what I  was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a
rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or
dead” (86). Comparing a being to a rooster is shallow and heartbreaking, but to
also name the rooster who serves no significance to his life beyond comparison
purposes goes to show that he respects Mister more than himself. The hate for
Sweet Home was so strong that Sethe would have done anything to never go back.
Even when the schoolteacher found her in the woods, she says, “I wasn’t going
back there. I don’t care who found who. Any life not that one. I went to jail
instead” and was so committed that she was willing to take her newborn Denver
with her to jail (50). Morrison cleverly emphasizes the dehumanization of
African Americans who were enslaved not only through the physical hardships
they were put through,  but also the mental ones that were forced upon
them as they were constantly being compared to animals. 

            Morrison juxtaposes Mr. Garner’s
“good” slavery and the schoolteachers “bad” slavery  to emphasize that
while Mr. Garner gave his slaves more freedom, they were never free because the
general idea of owning another person cuts off so much of their freedom in the
first place.  Mr. Garner even once said “but if you a man yourself, you’ll
want your n*****s to be men too” in response to the school teacher while they
argued about the treatment or worth of those enslaved (12). Mr. Garner
contradicts himself by using a slur while talking about how he wants to make
men out of his slaves. He makes the claim that he wanted his slaves to be men
and strong because it represented him well while the school teacher disagreed
because he did not want his slaves to believe they had the same worth as a
white man. Regardless of the living conditions of the slaves, both of them
benefited the slave owner. Mr. Garner did not allow them freedom because he had
good morals, instead he was doing it because it made him look good. Although
Mr. Garner allowed them to be literate, own guns, and let the men choose their
wives, when Sethe and Mrs. Garner were alone in the kitchen; she brought up
marriage just to be belittled. Mrs. Garner “put down her cooking spoon.
Laughing a little, she touched Sethe on the head, saying ‘You are one sweet
child.’ And then no more,” thus invalidating Sethe’s dream of having a real
wedding and not just mating in the corn fields, like an animal (31). Once Mr.
Garner passed away, the school teacher and his nephew took over with a whole
new level of dehumanization. Compared to Mr. Garner, Paul D claimed that the
“schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less
than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (86). Not only did the
schoolteacher make Paul D feel inadequate to a rooster, but Sixo who is
characterized as a tough person was torn apart by the questions the
schoolteacher asks and writes about in his book. The schoolteacher was doing
experimental research and logging it down in his journal, making those enslaved
at Sweet Home feel as if they were outsiders and different from white people,
stripping them of their humanity. Morrison includes a lot of character dialect
when schoolteacher is brought up to make the reader look at him from the point
of the slaves, who experience his torture versus a narator reminiscing on it.
In a conversation between Paul D and Sethe she put emphasis on the fact that
the nephews stole her milk as she skipped over Paul D’s questions about them
beating her while she was pregnant and using cowhide on her. In response she
replied, “And they took my milk!”  which goes to show how invalidated
Sethe felt when they stole her milk as it traumatized her more than getting
beat while impregnanted (20). Although there are dramatic differences in the ways
Mr. Garner and the schoolteacher treated slaves, Morrison stresses that owning
slaves in general is traumatizing and dehumanizing to one as there are
animalistic aspects of simply owning another being. 

            The peak comparison between
humanistic and animalistic actions in Morrison's novel is when Sethe kills her
children as a form of protection. The way children were talked about in general
was detached as if there was no emotion connected to the subject. Although
Sethe tried killing her two sons, Howard and Buglar, who ended up running away
and successfully killing her baby girl Beloved, it was all out of good
intentions and fear. The institution of slavery traumatized Sethe so much that
she refused to let her children endure what she had gone through. Out of love
for her children, she sacrificed her sanity and killed Beloved. The brutal
infanticide was about as dehumanizing and animalistic as it gets, thus
reinforcing slavery’s morals that claim African Americans acted like wild
animals., Yet Sethe’s intentions were protective, which is a humanistic trait
as mothers tend to protect their daughters at all costs. However, if it was not
for slavery and the torture Sethe was put through, she would not have acted with
such vial behaviors. Morrison emphasizes throughout the novel that even love
was dangerous for those who were enslaved. Paul D even went so far as to say to
Sethe that her “love is too thick,” as if a mother should not love her children
just in case they were taken into slavery (193). The narrator backs this up
claiming that “nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included
her children” (28).  In addition, Morrison takes the animalistic idea
further as the characters are aware that their actions are not the most
civilized. Sethe claimed, “It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to
know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did
that”(194). Sethe refused to listen to anyone who told her what she did was wrong
and worse than slavery. In response Sethe speaks on her infanticide with no
shame as she strongly believed she accomplished her goal, preventing any of her
children being trapped in slavery. Yet again, Paul D pushes against Sethe’s
justification by affirming she has two feet, not four which is his way of
saying that he even thought Sethe’s infanticide was animalistic. Morrison
highlights the chain reaction of slavery where the tortment influenced
animalistic behaviors which then justified the institution of slavery as a
whole through inhumane actions such as Sethe’s infanticide.

            Toni Morrison captured the intense,
traumatizing, inhumane treatment of enslaved African Americans that left them
mentally fragile and torn to pieces by shifting the reader's focus to the
slaves behaviors and forcing one to question what would make them do such a
thing. From the beginning of Beloved, taking place at Sweet Home, Morrison
expresses how slavery, no matter the owners, is detrimental to one’s mind.
Whether it was Paul D comparing himself to a rooster or the school teacher's
nephews pinning Sethe down and stealing her breast milk from her, it made them
believe they were less than human, thus causing them to act with animalistic
manners.  Towards the end of the book the narrator claims that “this is
not a story to pass on” (324). because of the topic’s brutal nature. However,
that is exactly why Morrison passes on such a story that highlights the
struggles African Americans went through which rejected their humanity and placed
them into an alienated category. 


Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage
International , 2004.