For Morrison’s post-slave era women, menopause is the resurgence of desire, a fleshly encumbrance that precedes death, a well-deserved respite from indiscriminate breeding, unsatisfactory mates, and children sold before mothers could return home to wave goodbye.
Ma’am, the elusive role model whom Sethe never fully knew, is excluded from this life cycle of virginity, puberty, loss of virginity, childbearing, menopause, and death. The artificiality of the slave lifestyle bears with it the power to lop off a life at any stage, a situation shared with men who hang from the pretty trees of Sweet Home.
For women, the suffering of procreation is compounded by seeing offspring forced into the slave milieu and by knowing that children will have no choice but to go on producing more of their kind to stock the limitless slave rolls that power the plantation system.
The bittersweet love between Sethe and her lost little girl forms the crux, the burden that overloads the scarred back, already laden with its metaphoric chokecherry tree. Sethe, the equivalent of Homer’s amazon, remains in control in most situations — enough to stun Here Boy, set his broken legs, and force his eye back into the socket. The likelihood that any female could survive sexual abuse, lashing, thirst, hunger, and childbirth, yet continue to form milk in her breasts, defies scientific evidence. The fact that Sethe accomplishes all this and more is Morrison’s tribute to her determination. Obsessed by the chokecherry tree, Sethe refuses to vacate the house that enslaves her to the nightmare of her dead infant. She wrestles the embodiment of her guilt to a truce so strong, so enduring that a second buggy in the yard resurrects the image of deadly spite that thwarted schoolteacher 18 years earlier.
It is fitting that a woman strong enough to crawl through woods so that she could give birth in a canoe would spawn a girl as resolute and resourceful as Denver. Although Denver is more inward and more manipulative than her confrontational mother, she recognizes the moment when Sethe is no longer mistress of the house, when the next generation must venture down the plank road to pursue food, solace, and steady work. Even more determined than Denver is Beloved, the whirlwind force that belabors a household for 18 years, exiles two strong brothers, and edges her forthright mother to the brink of madness. Such a threesome does honor to Baby Suggs, the matriarch, whose love sheltered an entire black neighborhood and whose memory comforts and sustains them all.