Summary: the Psychologically Fracturing Nature of Trauma

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Both Edgar Allan Poe and Toni Morrison explore the psychologically fracturing nature of trauma, by portraying hauntings as an intrusive return of the past. The complex mother-daughter relationship in Beloved amplifies the fracturing effect of slavery and Sethe’s and Denver’s personal psychological damage represents the wider, deeply rooted cultural trauma caused by slavery in America. Denver is presented as afraid of her own mother, expressing her trauma, saying that although “I love my mother”, “I know she killed one of her own daughters”. Morrisons’ choice to graphically narrate the violent murder of Beloved helps the reader to begin to understand the severity the trauma Denver associates with Beloved’s haunting, intruding on her love for her mother by creating a sense of terror that is evoked internally when around Sethe. For Cullinan, Sethe and Denver’s relationship is “highly charged with conflicting emotions” that are “fundamental to the transmission of culture from generation to generation”. This cyclical violence over the generations is a pattern that appears frequently in slave narratives. Sethe grows up with a mother who rejects all of her babies except Sethe and many argue that “Sethe’s own infanticide is prefigured”. As the characters’ psychological conditions develop, Beloved manifests, becoming a physical embodiment of their fractured identities, “disremembered and unaccounted for”. Perhaps Morrison portrays hauntings as an intrusive return of the past to suggest that although some slaves escaped a life of enslavement, the psychological damage caused by generational trauma meant there was no true freedom from slavery.

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A similarity can be drawn in the purpose of setting in both Poe and Morrisons’ work. Both authors present situations where a closed space is disrupted by hauntings, which in turn create psychological trauma for characters. Sethe, Denver and Paul D are subjected to living in house 124, which in the opening line is described as “spiteful”, and personified as “full of a baby’s venom”, underlining the subject of other character’s suffering; Beloved’s ill will, causing the mental decline of characters. Similarly to Sethe, the Usher family attempt to withhold their world within their houses. This resonates in Poe’s choice of the surname ‘Usher’, meaning doorkeeper, insinuating the family guards their world in an attempt to isolate themselves from outside influences. Poe uses pathetic fallacy to create an atmosphere of isolation about the house of usher. It has its own “dark” and “dull” weather system; “the mansion of gloom”, surrounded by clouds that “hung oppressively low”. Being stuck in this repressive atmosphere causes Roderick to become “unceasingly agitated” and “a victim to the terrors”. The characters of Poe and Morrisons’ work subject themselves to the hauntings of ghosts within the walls of the houses. Pahl argues that in The Fall of the House of Usher, “the structure of the story, like the structure of the house, is always already in a state of collapse.” Similarly, it is argued by Charles May that the “story deconstructs just as the house does” . Shortly after the lady Madeline of Usher, “in her violent and now final death-agonies”, attacks Roderick, bringing him forcefully “to the floor a corpse”, the house itself collapses; “the mighty walls rushing asunder”, sinking into the “deep and dank tarn”. The alliteration used here echoes the image of the ongoing depths of the tarn, which the “fragments” of the House of Usher are still sinking to the bottom of. Poe’s description of the destruction of the house appears to represent the fracturing effect that hauntings can have on a person’s mental state. Morrison begins each section of Beloved with a personified description of the house; “124 was spiteful”, “124 was loud” and finally, “124 was quiet”. 

Each personification of the house signifies a change in the mentality of the characters throughout the novel. The contrast of “spiteful” and “loud” and the final section of the novel, when Beloved’s spirit is banished from 124 Bluestone Road, when the house becomes “quiet” highlights the level of disturbance Beloved creates. In attempts by all to avoid the corruption of the outside world, each household seals itself inwards, subject to the sufferings of hauntings and are therefore doomed to collapse.

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