Pondering Stew: Isolation and Loneliness in “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Pondering Stew is a new kind of post for my blog. Basically books will leave me thinking sometimes, pondering and stewing about something, a phrase, a theme, a character, a situation. Usually I will connect it to my life, a current event, a random other thing, or simply an idea. Hopefully some ideas resonate with you even if you haven’t read the book that I triggered this thinking for me. I hope you enjoy it!

Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out. Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, and salvation was as easy as a wish.

Beloved by Tony Morrison (italics in original text)

This month I read Beloved with one of my book clubs. I had previously read it in high school for a class and even wrote an essay about the use of the word “veil” in the book. Now I could talk about so many things regarding Beloved; however, some of the things that I’ve been pondering and stewing over while reading this book and many days after I finished it are the themes of loneliness and isolation as well as the consequences of feeling those things for too long.

Beloved really had me thinking…

Beloved was inspired by a real event that involved Margaret Garner, a woman who killed her daughter rather than see her be enslaved again. Here are the characters from Beloved that you can keep in mind as we go through some of the thoughts I had:

  • Sethe: A woman who is able to escape slavery with her children, three were sent ahead of her and then she gave birth to the last one as she was escaping. She is only able to spend 28 days with all her children in some semblance of happiness.
  • Denver: The child Sethe gave birth to as she escaped. Denver is 17 years old when the narration of the book starts.
  • Paul D: A man who lived in Sweet Home, the place Sethe ran away from. Paul D also escaped and has been traveling, trying to find the place where he belongs. He arrives the day that the book starts.

This book has each character carry their loneliness around them, like a blanket that they use for protection. Being lonely means that they don’t have to admit their feelings to other people, isolated they can almost sit next to each other and just be in that moment while shoving all other memories away. None of them make much of an effort to connect to other people either, and most people also leave them alone since they get that feeling that they don’t want to be bothered. In part it is that taboo about how Sethe killed her child and went to prison for it, so there is a reason why people stay away. Denver is also deeply affected by this and doesn’t even get to play with other kids her age, instead she imagines that she plays with her baby sister who was murdered and who now “haunts” her house. Her brothers are barely mentioned but what it does say in the book suggests that they were just waiting for the right moment to leave.

All the characters in Beloved had one or multiple traumatic events happen in their lives that they never really got to process or grieve. Paul D and Beloved both suffered incredible physical torture in the form of beatings, being chained in a box in the ground, and many other unmentionable things. All the characters have suffered mental traumas since they were born into slavery, being treated as objects sold and used however their masters wished, and overall suffered the lack of love and acknowledgement from others throughout their lives.

After more than a year of physical isolation that started in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this book mirrored my own loneliness and isolation in some ways. Pre-pandemic I had a couple groups of people who I interacted with, coworkers, people I went to dance classes and events with, high school friends I saw from time to time. But now I don’t really see many of them at all or as often and I think, wow, I’ve lived in some form of isolation for a year (I’m not fully isolated since I do live with my parents and sister now, but my physical interactions with people face to face have decreased significantly) and this is nothing like what these characters are going through. Each of them were trapped in their own internal isolation and loneliness throughout their lives, it’s so heavy, so heartbreaking.

I imagine Denver, sitting in that space that the trees made and feeling that loneliness, that heaviness and not really knowing what to do with it. Mental health is not something that is prioritized for any of these characters, and of course, why would it be? They have other things to worry about! But nowadays, we can go to therapy, learn how to understand our emotions, learn the difference between being isolated vs being alone, increase our own self-awareness. Not that it’s easy! For me, it has taken me years to get to a point where I can recognize that “oh, I feel…. lonely” or “oh, I did that because I am afraid of what others think of me” and so on. I am still not great at it, but I am working on it. (Thanks to my therapist Ruth!). Thankfully, these characters were able to see through that blanket of loneliness and isolation and saw each other and themselves. Paul D saw a home in Sethe, Sethe saw a glimmer of hope as he extended a hand to her, and Denver saw herself and her own ability to learn and grow and be someone for herself.

Most of us go through these moments (short or long) feeling like we are alone and we’ll never feel anything else, but if anything, Beloved shows us that we can have hope if we turn to the person next to us, or the person within us, that self/soul/essence, that lights our fire and our passions. I encourage you to take a look in the mirror today for 60 seconds, a staring contest with yourself if you will, and see that fire within yourself. It is there, acknowledge it, love it, empower it, because it is what makes you unique and yourself and that is wonderful.

Those were some of the thoughts I’ve pondered and stewed over the past week or so. Beloved left me with many thoughts but these were the ones I went back to again and again. What if Sethe had had a therapist? What if Paul D had talked to someone about his traumas? They didn’t have the means or the access, and many other people still don’t have means or access to mental health help nowadays. But, what if we all did? All of us who need that help could all become self-aware and might be able to see where our true passions lie and that we are truly capable of doing it and achieving our dreams. What if…?

What do you think? Have you felt any of these things before? Also, did you do the mirror challenge? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Pondering Stew: Isolation and Loneliness in “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s