Narrative Burial and the Pleasure Principle: A Freudian Reading of Trauma in Toni Morrison's 'Beloved'

Tia Byer


This article provides a trauma reading of narrative suppression in Toni MorrisonsBeloved.I argue that Sethes infanticidal guilt, which lays at the heart of the text yet is never directly spoken about, acts as the novels structuring metaphor. Drawing on the trauma rhetoric of Roger Luckhurst and Cathy Caruth as well as various Freudian literary criticism, I propose that Sethes repression and elusive narrativization of Beloveds murder pertains to the process of memory augmentation in Freuds the Pleasure Principle. When Sethes recall, and by extension Morrisons textual structure, imitates the way in which the human psyche represses the pain of trauma with a pleasant re-fashioning of events, the adult Beloveds return signifies unconscious manifestation. I read Beloved as an imaged wish-fulfilment when Sethe accepts her reincarnation as saving the severe mother-daughter bond she longs after. However, as a transmutable manifestation of trauma; moving from a representation and projection of Sethes augmented memory to the originally unexposed and disconcerting memory, Beloveds enigmatic characterization anticipates the harm incurred by undealt trauma. In close reading Sethes refusal to look back; the competing narratives of the infanticide; and then the tempestuous breakdown in the Sethe-Beloved relationship, this article concludes with exploring the inadequacy of The Pleasure Principle in dealing with long-term trauma. Morrisons text ends with Beloved becoming a signification of infanticidal resentment. The novels didacticism which in turn elucidates the necessity of confronting that which causes discomfort in memory, becomes clear through Morrisons conclusive narrative experimentation. In employing the monologue form to indicate the continued prevalence of the pain-inducing adult Beloved in her narrative control and confrontation, Morrisons text communicates the ineffectual function of the Pleasure Principle as a means of traumatic relief.


Trauma; The Pleasure Principle; Psychoanalysis; Narrative Repression; Infanticide

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