Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved


Beloved by Toni Morrison is a novel revealing numerous crucial things, among them mother-daughter relationships, slavery, social justice, and even ethical conduct within a community setting. This novel provides an insight into the lives of escaped slaves who have to deal with their past in order not only to define their future but also to improve their present. When considering the ethical justifications used by the characters, it can be noted that there are various historical influences drawn from their past as slaves. They may explain why Sethe is exceptionally unethical in this book. On the one hand, she may try so much to be a noble and a rather self-driven woman. Nevertheless, her violent and destructive past perverts her; thus, she behaves in very unethical ways. This paper discusses the actions that define Sethe as an unethical character, amongst them killing her daughter and stealing food from the restaurant in which she works. There are many instances when this protagonist may come across as noble and upright, but she often finds herself in situations that inspire her past to define her character.

Are the Sethe’s Actions Ethically Justifiable?

To define whether Sethe’s actions are ethically justifiable, there is a need to examine specific contexts that apply to Sethe as dictated by her personal experiences. Sethe grew up as a slave, with her mother also a slave, who had endured the journey across the Atlantic into the US (Morrison 16). It implies a number of things when it comes to the protagonist’s character. First, she has had to deal with so much animosity and hardship in her life that she may have developed some ‘unbecoming’ self-defense mechanisms. For instance, Sethe is very suspicious of men and, thus, is unable to trust anyone fully. Consequently, such factor may keep her out of trouble for most of the time, but it also inhibits her social integration. Sethe is unable to socialize freely; therefore, she has limited her social circle to only a few men like Paul D and Halle.

Generally, she is unable to forget her past as far as men are concerned. However, such feature makes it rather difficult for Sethe to survive as a free woman. Her past also implies that she has an air of ‘superiority’ in that she can make very questionable decisions and find enabling justifications that are not always justifying. For example, for wanting to protect her children from slavery, she was willing to kill them (Morrison 31). This act would not have been justifiable if anyone else were to do it, but she found it acceptable for her situation. It explains why Sethe can defy the set norms of the very society that keeps her safe from her violent and abusive past. Her supposed nobility, in this case, makes the people shun her rather than respect her. It seems that she elevates herself above the rest of the black community, thus creating a hostile environment for herself and her daughter. Whether her acts are ethically justifiable or not depends on the definition of ethics as applicable within each situation in which she was forced to act.

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Does Sethe’s Act Overstep the Very Idea of Ethics?

Sethe’s character in Beloved is one that is controversial and yet enlightening in terms of the endurance and the devotion she has for her children. Thus, in order to understand the ethics that apply in her actions, there is a need to establish both an internal and external perspective on the action in question. By examining each of these acts, one can establish whether they overstep the very idea of ethics. The specific acts, in this case, include escaping slavery, killing her children, keeping Denver housebound, and stealing food from the restaurant (Morrison 46).

Escaping Slavery

This story presents Sethe as an escaped slave, meaning that the first question on ethics would be whether it was right for a slave to escape from her owner if the latter has bought her. First, one should note that slaves were as human as their masters were, and, thus, had no business being treated like property of farm animals. No one could either buy or sell them in real terms, and slavery as a whole was an unjustifiable concept, which means that escaping from slavery was ethically justified. Among other things, slave masters were mostly incapable of considering their slaves more than just beats of labor. Consequently, they constantly abused and misused the slaves in so many ways. Slaves were like the working class except that they barely received any respect or even the compensation that they deserved. All the factors mentioned above indicate that there are very few points with which one can oppose the justifications of escaping from slavery in the situation depicted. Thus, Sethe’s justifications for running from Kentucky are ethically justified considering that she needed a better life for herself and her children. Having grown up in slavery, she had had a first-hand experience on the limitations of that life. Therefore, later, Sethe was unwilling to subject her children to the same circumstances, which was the main reason she had to escape to Ohio and start a new life in a free state.

Killing her Children

After about four weeks of freedom, her former masters attempted to retrieve her and her family back into slavery. Such a situation poses a sharp dilemma. Sethe has to choose between killing her children to protect them from slavery and oppression at the plantation or letting them live and face the same horrors that she had had to endure as a slave all her life. Sethe only manages to kill her eldest daughter who was only two years old at the time, by hacking through her neck with a saw. This murderous action of killing one’s own child shapes most of the narrative in this novel.

There are two ways of looking at Sethe with respect to this action. First, one may see her as a loving mother trying to save her child from the horrors of being a female slave. Without belittling the hardships faced by male slaves, one can note that female slaves overworked, their masters beat them at will and sexually abused them, and the master’s wives severely hated them. In other words, being a woman and a slave implied too many forms of trauma, ranging from physical to emotional and sexual. This fact explains why a mother would see it logical and ethical to take the life of her children rather than subject them to such horrors. Sethe’s experiences were horrific and she only knew slavery from her point of view, which made it difficult to visualize some positive possibilities for her children if her master retrieved her. Her love for her children made it impossible for her to leave them to such unbearable fate, hence justifying her decision to kill them before the arrival of the infamous schoolteacher.

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Furthermore, one can look at the situation from the psychological perspective that sees Sethe as an unbalanced mother who has the strength to kill her child with a saw. Most people would argue that a loving mother would have sought a less painful way of ‘saving’ her children. Sethe, however, uses a saw, which means that her daughter suffers greatly before her death. From a general point of view, there is no ethical justification for Sethe’s actions. The fact that she is not retrieved further contributes to the negative implications of her actions, thus demonizing her love for her children and making it dark and possessive to the point of becoming lethal. There have been numerous cases where love turned potent and this could be seen as one of those, where the blinding effects of maternal love create a tragedy. Sethe could have allowed herself to be retrieved along with her children only to plan for another escape later. This way, they all would have been able to survive the injustices of slavery without having to commit murder in the process. From this perspective, it can be noted that the mother had no right to take the life of her daughter or even to think about killing all her children.

Keeping Denver Housebound

Denver, Sethe’s daughter, spent most of her childhood locked up and removed from the society within which they lived. Among other things, Denver is affected more by her mother’s freedom than she may have been by slavery especially from an emotional context. Sethe, while developing her relationship with Beloved, speaks of her ‘mummy issues’ where she is seen to have had a wanting relationship with her mother (Morrison 59). It can be noted that these ‘mummy issues’ are manifested in Sethe’s relationship with her children seeing as the boys run away from home while Denver also eventually leaves to become an independent working woman. The overprotective nature manifested by Sethe may have come from her love and devotion to her children. However, in the end, it oversteps the concept of ethics where children need to be able to make their informed choices and even mistakes. One can further note that Sethe actually kept Denver away from the black community because she felt that they were special or better than the rest of the blacks. It means that she committed all these actions in order to protect her interests and ideas, hence implying self-centeredness, overstepping the very concept of ethics, and setting a bad example as a parent.

Stealing Food from the Restaurant

As a ‘noble’ woman who feels that she is better than other blacks are, one would have expected Sethe to work hard and provide for her family instead of stealing food from the restaurant. However, she exhibits the unethical behavior when she prefers stealing rather than asking for food from her employers or waiting in line with other people from her community. The contexts could have permitted stealing food if there had not been another alternative. Here, however, she could have queued like other blacks instead of going against social norms out of pride.


In order to understand the ethical considerations made by an individual in a given situation, it is often imperative to understand the circumstances within which those considerations were made. Moreover, one should also consider any influences that have a significant impact on the choices made by the individual in question. Sethe grew up as a slave, and her life experiences were enough to motivate her against allowing her children to suffer the same fate. This justification may pass when considering why she chose to murder her children in the story, However, but in the context of ethics, it remains unacceptable to take the life of another, kin or not. In addition, it can be noted that Sethe undertakes a number of other actions, including stealing food and keeping her daughter housebound, that may have been acceptable to her but remain unethical and thus unjustifiable. All things concluded, Sethe is generally imbalanced, which can be expected considering her past as a slave as well as her turbulent relationship with her mother.

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