How Empathy is Central to the Plot of Beloved
Empathy Vs Sympathy Empathy is an attempt to understand feelings and experiences as if they had happened to oneself.
Allowing one to comprehend reactions triggered by those memories. It also connotes a sense of concern, of trying to help somebody deal with their past.
In the legendary novel Beloved: Empathy is the reason for Paul D. coming to at 124, Beloved turning on Sethe, and Sixo’s love for the Thirty-Mile Woman. In the novel, the arrival of Paul D. allows both him and Sethe to bond over their shared trauma.
This bonding is temporary because Paul D. cannot understand Sethe’s decision to kill her daughter. Sethe needs Beloved to understand that her decision came from a place of love in order for Sethe to be happy. However, Sethe fails to have anyone other than Ella comprehend her decision.
Not receiving empathy has severe consequences, as Beloved’s rejection leaves Sethe bed-ridden. In Beloved, the characters’ main objective is to have somebody empathize with them. Unfortunately for them, empathy only occurs in two circumstances: When somebody has had the same experience as you, or when they can compare it to a situation that happened to them. As these circumstances are rare, empathy is often unsuccessful and leads to undesirable side effects. However, despite the risks involved with empathy, not attempting it is the root cause of racism in the novel.
Paul D. and Sethe’s search for empathy drives the events of the novel. Early in the novel, Paul D. is described as having the ability to “walk into a house and make the women cry” (20). Simply by arriving, Paul D. makes women feel secure enough in his presence to be vulnerable and “cry.” The women that Paul D. interacts with immediately sense that their burdens will be shared with him when they confess their troubles because he understands what they are experiencing. He has this same impact on Sethe: As soon after he arrives at 124, she reveals the scarring on her back and her trauma from having her “milk stolen” (20). Notably, when Paul D. comforts Sethe after her revelation, he relieves the “weight of her breasts’” (21). By writing that Paul D. holds up Sethe’s “breasts,” the place from which Sethe’s “milk” was stolen, Morrison emphasizes that Paul D. metaphorically supports the source of her trauma and thus empathizes with her. Sethe reciprocates this empathy.
Paul D. has difficulty with his masculine identity because of the contrast between his and Mister the Rooster’s recognition. Sethe understands this, and thus never looks at the scars on his neck that remind him of Paul D.’s realization that Mister the Rooster was considered as more of a man than he was at Sweet Home. The reason for their relationship, and thus the events of the novel is their mutual search for empathy. However, Sethe not only seeks empathy from Paul D. Sethe is racked with guilt at having killed her daughter without her knowing that it came from a place of love. Thus when Beloved arrives, Sethe is terrified that before she “could make her [Beloved] understand… what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin… Beloved might leave.” (295). Sethe needing Beloved to know “what it took” is asking Beloved to imagine how she might feel having to make the same definition. In other words, Sethe’s goal after Paul D.’s departure is to make sure that Beloved empathizes with her.
Unfortunately for Sethe, empathy can only occur in Beloved when others have had a comparable experience. Paul D. puts this into words, stating that “only this woman Sethe” could have helped him process his emasculation. (322) Paul D.’s use of the word “only” illustrates how there is something unique to Sethe among all women that allows them to connect. The only characteristic that Sethe has that is unique among all women is that she was present at Sweet Home. Since they were together at Sweet Home, Paul D. and Sethe can empathize with each other’s trauma from that time period because they had a similar experience.
However, as neither Beloved nor Paul D. ever had a comparable experience to having to choose between their children’s life or freedom, neither of them can empathize with Sethe’s decision to murder her daughter. However, there is one person who can empathize with Sethe’s decision: Ella. Ella had been locked indoors and repeatedly raped by a father and son for her entire teenage years, an experience she refers to as “the lowest yet” (301). The use of the word “yet” demonstrates how despite having heard of many peoples troubles, nothing came close to hers. She suffered to a degree that she understands everybody’s trauma because she has always experienced at least as much trauma. Thus while she disagrees with Sethe’s reaction, she can empathize with Sethe’s decision to murder her daughter because she can understand the pain that it took.
Not only is empathy often impossible to execute, failed attempts at it can lead to unfortunate consequences. Sethe’s explanation of why she chose to kill her daughter rather than to let her be brought back to Sweet Home leaves Paul D. unconvinced of the merits of her decision. Because he never had kids, Paul D. has no way of being able to imagine how Sethe might have felt at that moment, and thus cannot empathize with her decision. This failed attempt at empathy leads to him telling Sethe that she has “two feet… not four” (194). As Paul D. does not empathize with Sethe’s decision, he instead judges her for it, telling Sethe that she acted as if she had “four” feet, like an animal. Paul D.’s belief is shared by the rest of the town, and together they leave Sethe in Beloved’s sinister grasp. Another example of failed empathy is Stamp Paid and Baby Suggs’ relationship.
After Schoolteacher’s arrival at 124, Baby Suggs gives up on her brief career as a preacher, a decision that Stamp Paid cannot accept. Paul D. and Stamp Paid’s inability to understand how Sethe and Baby Suggs respectively were feeling at that moment they made their decision makes them believe that there was no justification for the path that was chosen. The decision thus becomes a negative reflection of their character, leading to Paul D. and Stamp Paid being estranged from Sethe and Baby Suggs respectively.
This alienation is dangerous, as it leaves Sethe more vulnerable to Beloved, and Stamp Paid filled with regret for the rest of his life.
However, while empathy is often impossible and attempting it can lead to undesirable consequences,trying to empathize is crucial to dismantling slavery. After Stamp Pain hesitates entering 124, he goes on a monologue in which he describes how “White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle… swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes” (234). According to Stamp Paid, White people assume that Black people are all animals such as “baboons” and “snakes” at their core. Schoolteacher demonstrates this when he has his nephews listing Sethe’s “human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right” (228).
For his nephews to continue the abhorrent practice of slavery, Schoolteacher must make sure that they believe that Sethe’s identity is inherently that of an “animal.” This is because the more the nephews accept that Sethe is fundamentally different to them, the less they are able to imagine how they would feel in her position. The less they imagine that, the less guilt they feel for enslaving her, and thus the less reason to stop. Imagining the experiences of others as if they happened to you is critical to empathy.
Thus, in order to preserve slavery, Schoolteacher makes sure that his nephews cannot empathize with Sethe. However, he is not entirely successful, as after Sethe’s infanticide, one of his nephews is left wondering “What she [Sethe] go and do that for?” (176). Trying to understand Sethe’s reasons is an attempt at empathy by the nephew.
As stated by Stamp Paid, White people’s racism and slavery is predicated on the assumption of Black people’s sub-human nature. As this assumption is obviously incorrect, the nephew’s attempt to dig deeper into this assumption by trying to empathize with a Black person threatens slavery. Thus, in Beloved, despite its difficult and dangerous nature, the quest for empathy that many of characters of the strive towards is key towards ending racism and slavery.