In Morrison’s own terms, the controlling theme of the novel is “how women negotiate or mediate between their nurturing compulsion to love the other, the thing that’s bigger or better than they are in their lives — husband, children, work — and the other part, which is the individual separate self that has separate obligations.” As Sethe confronts evil in herself and in the institution of slavery, motherhood itself rescues her from the oblivion of guilt, shame, and madness. Without the underloved ghost or the coddled, sheltered Denver, Sethe might have disintegrated from within, pulled apart by her “rememory.” Instead, she takes refuge in love for her children, and she tentatively, excitedly acknowledges the ego that Paul D returns to nurture — “Me? Me?”
The struggle to love in an inhuman system that breeds children like suckling pigs results in inhuman choices. For women like Sethe’s ma’am, some children must be discarded, flung overboard or crudely aborted. For women like Ella, nature mercifully quenches the light within the “white hairy thing,” the freakish offspring of a monstrous multiple sexual assault. For Baby Suggs, slavery itself gobbles up offspring, selling some and chasing others with dogs and lashes. The unsuckled breasts of the slave women forced back into rice or indigo fields symbolize the unfulfilled maternity that withers, leaving the deep yearning that empowers Sethe to survive flogging and mammary rape and to flee toward the spiritual all-mother who encourages her to find the grace to love herself.
Another significant theme within Beloved is that of history. The main characters of the novel are haunted by their personal histories and by the history of their people. The character of Beloved may represent the physical manifestation of history, signifying how the past can invade the present. As Sethe nearly loses her identity and life through her obsession with her past and her resurrected daughter, Morrison demonstrates how focusing on the past can be all-consuming and destructive. Ultimately, Sethe begins to regain her life by discovering that she has a future. Paul D tells her, “Sethe . . . me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Through the healing love of Paul D, Denver, and the black community, Sethe can learn to let go of the terrible history that has defined her. She may discover that she can define herself through the future she creates with her family.