Hystery as Genre: Manifestations of Hysteria & Trauma in Beloved

By Celeste McBride

In “A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Emma Parker uses Toni Morrison’s focus on female characters and the ways that their experiences have been shaped by slavery to suggest that hysteria is one of the novel’s most relevant themes. She defines Beloved as a hystery because it is a story in which characters “unconsciously express repressed memories of psychic trauma through physical symptoms and use a corporeal discourse to articulate what is otherwise unspeakable” (Parker, 1). While most of her argument centers around the character of Beloved as the epitome as a hysterical character, she suggests that Beloved also serves as a manifestation of the trauma of those around her. Despite being a work of fiction, Beloved is deeply rooted within a very real and deeply emotional history; Morrison acknowledges that her writing seeks to reckon with the aftermaths of slavery. Parker’s evaluation of the characters’ hysteria frames Morrison’s novel as a space in which psychological trauma and repressed experiences can be rehashed and confronted without the expectation of a peaceful resolution. Reading Beloved through the proposed genre of hystery–and framing Beloved herself as a manifestation of hysteria–sheds light on the way the inhabitants of 124 attend to their various traumas in different ways. 

In the introduction to the novel, Morrison explains that she wants her readers to feel they have been “kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population” (Morrison, x). Although most contemporary readers of Morrison’s novel have no direct experience with slavery, the language of Beloved and the violent experience of stepping into the novel allude to the traumatic experiences of its characters. Slavery has impacted each of the main characters in various ways; Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Sethe were all enslaved at Sweet Home, and although Denver was a child when her mother escaped, she lost her sister and nearly perished due to the threat of re-enslavement. If Beloved is read as a singular manifestation of these individual traumas, it only makes sense that each of these characters encounters her in a different way and responds differently to her demanding presence. However, her dual identity as both a ghost and a physical being evokes a strong emotional response from each one, signaling a re-encounter with memories that have been repressed. 

Baby Suggs is the only character who encounters Beloved as a ghost haunting 124, and only for a seemingly short period of time. Indeed, Sethe’s arrival at the house and the subsequent murder of her infant daughter Beloved–the event that triggers the ghost’s presence–precipitate the deterioration of Baby Suggs’ faith and will to live. When Baby Suggs originally leaves Sweet Home, she decides that since slavery has rendered her body useless, she has “nothing left to make a living with but her heart” and begins leading religious ceremonies for her community (Morrison, 102). She seeks to bring light to the world after experiencing a lifetime of hardship, and she becomes a pillar of hope for the masses who come listen to her preach at the Clearing. However, “her faith, her love, her imagination and her great big old heart [begin] to collapse twenty-eight days” after Sethe’s arrival–the day Sethe commits infanticide (Morrison, 104). This decline in Baby Suggs’ mental and physical health may symbolize the destabilizing impacts of trauma and its subsequent triggers.

During the time leading up to her death, Baby Suggs’ only request is to see various colors from the world outside; she is aware that death will bring her no peace, so she uses “the little energy left her for pondering color” (Morrison, 4). For Parker, Baby Suggs’ desire for color in her life is a manifestation of her hysteria. She links the way that the ghost of Beloved sucks the energy out of 124 with the way Baby Suggs dies, “starved for color” (Parker, 12). By reading her character as hysterical in the time leading up to her death, it becomes clear that Baby Suggs’ attempts to move forward from the pain of her past ultimately fail because Beloved’s presence stirs up the memories she has tried to repress about the brutality of slavery. The fact that Baby Suggs never encounters Beloved personified may suggest that she dies without fully confronting her traumatic memories. 

Unlike Baby Suggs, Paul D first encounters Beloved as a young woman after she appears outside of 124 the night of the carnival. However, Parker points out that Paul D’s hysteria begins long before he arrives at Sethe’s house–he trembles uncontrollably during his time in prison (Parker, 14). After his escape, Paul D stuffs his painful memories “in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be,” locked deep within himself (Morrison, 86). However, his sexual encounter with Beloved forces the lid of the tin open, revealing the heart that had been hidden away for so long–and the pain that lived within it. Beloved forces Paul D to reckon with memories of his enslavement and, more specifically, its impact on his identity as a man. This reckoning manifests itself in what can be read as another act of hysteria: Paul D surprises himself by asking Sethe to have a baby with him. This proposal comes out of nowhere, but it becomes a solution for Paul D to “document his manhood and break out of the girl’s spell” and ultimately avoid the pain of his past (Morrison, 151). However, his relationship with Sethe soon falls apart as he realizes he cannot avoid Beloved, signaling that he cannot avoid his pain. 

Similarly to Paul D, Denver expresses symptoms of hysteria prior to interacting with Beloved as a young woman. Denver temporarily loses her ability to hear when she is confronted with the fact that her mother killed Beloved and tried to kill her; this sensory loss can be read as a “corporeal manifestation” of her psychosis (Parker, 2). Only when Denver sees Beloved’s hands choking Sethe at the Clearing does she realize that Beloved is the reincarnation of her dead sister, forcing her to confront the memory of her murder. Seeing Beloved’s hands around her mother’s throat evokes a realization in Denver that she would always choose Beloved over her mother. After the incident at the Clearing, Denver expresses fear for her mother; she recalls that when Beloved showed up, she was “ready for [Denver] to protect her” (Morrison, 243). However, despite the way her encounters with Beloved change her relationship with Sethe, Denver ultimately ends up happy at the end of the novel: she forces herself to interact with her community and ends up hopeful for the future. Denver’s fate–and Paul D’s, as he ends up with Sethe in the end–signifies that the confrontation of a repressed memory can have positive effects. 

The character most clearly impacted by Beloved’s appearance is Sethe, and her hysterical symptoms begin the moment she sees Beloved outside of 124. Upon seeing the young woman, Sethe loses control of her body, runs behind the house, and urinates. At the same time, Beloved has entered the house and Paul D and Denver watch her as she drinks “cup after cup of water” (Morrison, 61). This is just the beginning of Sethe and Beloved’s give-and-take relationship; throughout the novel, Beloved consumes Sethe and takes everything she has to give. Parker points to Beloved’s insatiable hunger–and Sethe’s selflessness–as clear manifestations of hysteria, of the fact that for both characters, “nothing can make reparation for [Beloved’s] death” (Parker, 5). As Sethe is “licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes,” she grows weaker because she is desperate to repent for killing her daughter and she sees Beloved’s reincarnation as a chance to make up for what she has done. 

As Sethe grows weaker and gives more of herself to Beloved, she becomes increasingly hysterical; her experience towards the end of the novel where she loses her job and locks herself inside of 124 with Beloved “epitomizes the debilitating effects of the hysteric haunting of the present by the past” (Parker, 13). Denver begins to realize how destructive her mother’s hysterics are; she reflects it being “as though her mother had lost her mind, like Grandma Baby calling for pink and not doing the things she used to” (Morrison, 282). Unlike Baby Suggs, however, Sethe does not deteriorate and die–the women in the community come together to exorcise Beloved from 124. Parker points to this scene as a healing one because Sethe is able to re-experience the conditions that led to her daughter’s death; when Bodwin approaches the house “the same way that schoolteacher approached to recapture his slaves… Sethe chooses a different course of action… instead of trying to protect her children by killing them, she flies at Bodwin with an ice pick” (Parker, 13). 

It is through this moment of action–one of the most jarring acts of hysteria in the novel–that Beloved is removed from the house and Sethe’s guilt becomes less all-consuming: she has proven to herself that she will do anything to protect her children, and that she has learned from the regrets of her past. Ultimately, her encounter with Beloved has forced Sethe to come to terms with the pain she has repressed for eighteen years. Although it is clear that she will never forget Beloved, nor will she ever completely forgive herself, Sethe grows willing to move forward with Paul D at the end of the novel. Sethe will become her own “best thing,” signifying an understanding of her traumatic past and the desire to move forward with it.

Although Beloved’s presence evokes different memories–and triggers various hysterical symptoms–from each of the inhabitants of 124, Parker emphasizes the importance of community in overcoming past traumas. Beloved is only exorcised from the house once the group of women comes together to remove her, which supports the idea that her character can be read as an indication of mass hysteria among a broken community. Parker ultimately concludes that “if the ghost [of Beloved] can be read as a shared hysterical symptom, this implies that ‘rememory’ must be a communal project for peace to be established” (Parker, 15). However, despite the fact that the book ends with a resolution–the removal of Beloved and the reunion of both family and community–it is unclear whether or not peace can ever be established in the process of remembering and memorializing the experiences of slaves. If Beloved represents the “Sixty Million and more to whom the book is so movingly dedicated,” we cannot accept her absence as permanent because in the case of so many unnamed slaves, memory is all there is. 

Works Cited: 

Parker, Emma. “A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”. Twentieth-Century Literature, vol 47, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1-16. 

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Random House, Inc., 1987.

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