Other characters in the novel, such as Ella and Nan; Beloved, who appears pregnant just before she disappears; the Thirty-Mile woman, Patsy, who is pregnant with Sixos baby, Seven-O; and Amy, who helps Sethe deliver Denver, are all involved in the mothering process, yet do not bring to bear as much influence on other characters through their mothering as the earlier mentioned mothering characters do. Additionally, with the exception of Ella, the little mothering in which they are involved is more stereotypically oriented.
In Beloved, the major mothering figures affect existing characters, belief systems, and accepted or traditional institutions. Sethes mother, then, is the place to begin to understand what differentiates a mother who remains in the stereotype from a mother who consciously opposes and breaks down the stereotyped mother role. Sethes mothers life includes the Middle Passage, the horrid conditions on slave ships, the shock to ones system of being caught and transferred away from ones home, the slave branding. What her life did not include was acceptance of this situation. She does not tolerate the injustice.
She rebels. This is evidenced by the fact that she was hanged with many others and by the heavy tone Morrison uses to describe the event and the event that preceded it. Prior to the hanging, Sethes mother shows Sethe her slave marking, explaining, If something happens to me and you cant tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark' (Beloved 61). Sethes mother is anticipating that her death will not be of natural causes, because she is willing to fight her master, fight slavery, even if the result is her death, even if she orphans the one child she chose to keep.
Sethes mother is hanged and left in the tree as an example to warn other slaves that actions such as hers, although not explicitly presented in the novel, will meet with retribution. Sethe then explains that, By the time they cut her down nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or not, least of all me and I did look' (Beloved 61). Sethe is the devoted, ever-faithful daughter. Mothering for Sethes mother is not about the day-to-day aspects of feeding and cuddling, or even the day-to-day protection needed from undue heat or cold or illness.
Rather than to feed her daughter, Sethes mothers role was to make change in the world so that her daughter might live a better life. She attempts to impress this upon her daughter, giving her fathers name, a piece of her past, Seth-thuh' (Beloved 31). Though she is not permitted to nurture her child long, she demonstrates to Sethe that she retained her cultural heritage and danced and sang, shifted shapes and became something other. Some unchained, demanding other whose feet knew her pulse better than she did (Beloved 31). This demonstrates a stereotyped image of African-American mother.
This relates directly to Collinss viewpoint that African-American mothers try to protect their daughters from the dangers that lie ahead by offering them a sense of their own unique self-worth (127). Sethe is meant to gain self-worth in knowing her heritage, in watching the dancing, in her name. This is the attempt at protection that Sethes mother offers: protection from slavery, disguised as rebellion against it, and all that it contained, so that her daughter, the one she chose, the one she kept and named, might not know the pain she has known.
Collinss point of view directly relates to Sethes mothers choices. Sethes mother leans with the latter, being willing to sacrifice her own life and Sethes for the sake of personal identity and self-worth. Undoubtedly, Sethe learns from her mothers example. Sethes own actions later in the novel, when she attempts to kill her four children, and succeeds in killing one, rather than allow them to be returned to a life of slavery, demonstrate that her mothers actions profoundly affected her own decision-making process.
Garner offers that the mother¦is inextricably bound up with the fact that she is a daughter, whose caretaker and primary childbearer was her own mother and a woman (82) Although not entirely true for Sethe, as she is physically raised more by Nan, another slave, than by her own mother, she is highly influenced by her mothers work and rebellious actions. Thus, Both the capacity and the desire to mother grow out of the mother-daughter relationship (Garner 82). Sethe does recall her mother, as evidenced by her actions and in her rememory, after Beloved asks her if her woman never fix up her hair (Beloved 60).
This memory also influences Sethe and gives belief to Sethes independent attitude and resolutions, regarding her reconciliation with Beloved, her crawling already? girl, even if they mean losing other stable aspects of her life including her job. What Sethe remembers at this point is a time and a language that she repressed. The time is before Sweet Home, when she was a child and before she was sold, and the language she remembers is her mothers African dialect. What she recalls, though, serves as the primary influence on Sethe and her concept of what it is to be a good and caring mother, who takes care of her own in her own way.
The message comes directly from Nan, the wet nurse, but the content is all based upon Sethes mother and her actions. Interestingly enough, the language hi which Nan gives this information is not the masters language. It is through the African dialect that Sethe later thinks of as a code, a language of the slaves, a language of the women (Beloved 62). What Nan explains to Sethe is part of the Middle Passage, how she and Sethes mother were repeatedly raped by the crew, and then later by other whites. What Sethe learns from this information, however, is the difference in the value of life.
Sethes life was valuable to her mother because she loved the black man with whom she copulated. Thus, Sethes life was not one to throw away, for she was the product of love. Sethes mother did not value the lives of the babies conceived out of rape, out of hatred, so she chose to rid herself of them. She consciously refused motherhood at a time when she could refuse nothing else and had control over nothing, not even her own body. This is a powerful example to set. Sethes mother murders; she murders by desertion, by neglect, by the refusal to mother.
Later, when the reader sees Sethe murder her own daughter, albeit one she loves, for different reasons and in a violent manner, one can comprehend at the very least the mentality of choice, the maternal influence, that demonstrates one who has strayed from the stereotypical role of mothering. Sethes mother does more mothering and has a greater affect on Sethe by the work she does, the few words she says, and the actions she takes, than through typical, expected acts of mothering. Sethes mother redefines what it is to be a mother.
Slavery does part of this for her; she is not allowed to mother Sethe on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis because she is made to work for the white master. Shaw emphasizes the fact that slave owners frequently did not allow slave women to mother their children. The womens productive labor was often viewed as much more valuable to their owners than the reproductive labor involved in rearing a child who, as yet, had no value. As a consequence, new patterns of child-care emerged, with a variety of people mothering slave children. (242) In this case, Nan is the designated othermother.