When Paul D first comes to Sethes house, she tells him she has a tree on her back. The dead mass of scar tissue has become a living tree in her imagination. However, after they have spent the night together, Paul D realizes it is just “a revolting clump of scars” (22). Trees are alive and vibrant, but Sethe at this point has no real life in her, so the “tree” on her back is not alive but a dead imitation of a tree.
Trees recur throughout the text.Paul D has a favorite tree at Sweet Home that he calls “Brother.”? Knowing that it is unsafe to love people too much, he loves this tree instead. Trees are often symbolic of life, yet they are a mixed symbol in Beloved.The trees at Sweet Home are beautiful, yet the life there is horrible. “Brother” replaces real human interactions.Sethes “tree” is dead scars. All of these trees mock the slaves who do not have lives of their own because they should represent life but are actually reminders of the life the slaves do not have.
When Beloved appears, she is sitting on the stump of a tree. It is as though human life has sprung out of a dead tree. However, really, she is also the stump of a life that cannot grow and flower. Like some other trees in the text, this tree offers a promise of life to which the characters are denied access.
Trees do sometimes deliver on their promise. Paul D follows the tree blossoms all the way north when he is running away (119). However, the freedom he finds is tarnished by his closed-off heart that comes from slavery. Ultimately, trees can only offer as much joy and life as the people are able to accept.
In a book about slavery, color becomes especially powerful. The conflict between white- skinned and dark-skinned people is the whole basis of slavery, so color can represent conflict. Indeed, Sethe has decided that there are no good white people, and even white people who dont believe in slavery, like the Bodwins, assume the worst of black people. Baby Suggs says “there is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks” (94). So, in this sense, color is the cause of all the trouble and the tension.
However, when Baby Suggs gives up on life, all she wants to do is think about color because colors are safe. She tells Stamp Paid that only colors are harmless. “Blue. That dont hurt nobody. Yellow neither” (187). While she is dying, all she thinks about are colors and she has Sethe bring them in to her. Colors are alive, but they are not false and dangerous like people or trees.
Yet, colors are dangerous, as Stamp realizes. He finds a red ribbon with hair still attached to a bit of scalp from a little girl who was probably lynched and keeps the ribbon in his pocket. “The skin smell nagged him, and his weakened marrow made him dwell on Baby Suggs wish to consider what in the world was harmless. He hoped she stuck to blue, yellow, maybe green, and never fixed on red” (189). Red is not just the color of the ribbon; it is also the color of the blood that is shed so often in this book. So, colors are not harmless; they can be just as violent as people.
When Sethe arrives at the river, Stamp Paid ferries her across. This river crossing is from slavery to freedom, and river crossings are common in slave narratives. Not only did many slaves actually have to cross the Ohio River, but crossing water has Biblical implications. The Israelites entered the Promised Land from Egypt by crossing the River Jordan, escaping slavery like Sethe escapes by crossing the Ohio River.
Beloved also crosses water to get from one existence to another. She describes being on a bridge as she travels from the world of the dead to the world of the living. She comes out of the water in the stream when she arrives, because, like her mother, she has had to cross water to come to the Promised Land.
In literature about slavery, however, crossing water does not guarantee freedom.The slaves who were brought to the United States from Africa also crossed water in what is known as the Middle Passage. Sethes mother and the woman who took care of her as a child, Nan, both went through the Middle Passage. They spoke an African language, and her mother was branded under the breast for the journey. On the journey, Sethes mother was raped many times by the crew, and she threw away the child that resulted. For them, crossing water was a journey from civilization to barbarism, rather than from slavery to freedom. The Middle Passage is a reversal of crossing the River Jordan to get to freedom.
In all these situations, the crossing is an event that can be marked. For life to change as completely as it does, a significant journey and change must occur. This is why they cross the water.