The Role of Trees in Beloved

Jan 1, 2007

Trees have been an important part of human life. Various cultures all over the world hold trees with high regard. Trees, after all, is nature; they give humans and animals life. As we humans recently learned, without trees, there is no oxygen, and earth would collapse. Perhaps due to this significant role of trees in human life, trees have also come to represent life, calmness, and healing. In Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel, Beloved , trees take on a similar role. For various characters in the novel, who lived through and in miserable times, trees served as sources of healing and comfort, which then enabled them to continue with their lives. In this literature review of Beloved, the author will analyze the symbolism of trees used in the novel Beloved to represent healing and life, while also revealing their connection to the darker side of humanity.

In summary, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved follows the story of Sethe, a former slave who went through great lengths to escape slavery with her family. The novel is set in the present, but it looks back to the horrible past of the main characters, which continue to haunt them, in particular Sethe. Sethe’s memories are triggered by the appearance of a man with whom she worked at the plantation, Paul D. Sethe is just one of many characters in the novel who suffer great injustices, both physical and mental, in the hands of racist slaveowners. For Sethe, the worst was when she was captured by the slaveowner’s nephew, the schoolteacher, just before she was planning to escape to her mother-in-law Baby Sugg’s house in Ohio, a free state. Three of her older children are already in Ohio. Before Sethe could escape, the schoolteacher captured her and violated her in a barn. Unbeknownst to Sethe, her husband Halle, saw the entire incident from the ceiling. The violation she experienced drove her husband to madness. Meanwhile, Sethe, who reported the schoolteacher’s deeds to the slaveowner, was whipped severely. Despite these, Sethe proceeds to run. She, however, collapses in the middle of the forest from exhaustion, but was nursed back to health by a white girl, Amy Denver. Thus, Sethe managed to reach Baby Sugg’s house, but in just a month, the schoolteacher attempts to take Sethe and her children back to Kentucky. Refusing to return to slavery, Sethe takes her children to a woodshed and tries to kill them. She unfortunately kills her third child, her older daughter, for which a tombstone inscribed with “Beloved” was made. Sethe goes to jail but later on returns to Baby Sugg’s house where she grows old, haunted by the ghost of Beloved. While Sethe lived in freedom, Paul D goes through his own ordeals, managing to escape slavery by following blossoming spring flowers. These eventually led him to Sethe’s house.

Throughout the novel, trees have a duplicitous meaning. Of the numerous characters in Beloved , three characters found comfort and healing through trees. These are Sethe, Amy Denver, and Paul D. While for others, such as the victims of lynchings, trees were the site of their deaths.

Sethe experiences the duplicitous symbolism of trees. First, she makes her escape through the forest of Kentucky. In the middle of this forest, Sethe collapses. However, this is also where Sethe meets Amy Denver who nurses her back to health. Second, Sethe remembers the beautiful tress of Sweet Home, the name of the plantation where she worked as a slave. Her memory of the beautiful trees masks the extreme horror with which the slaves live in plantations. The mere fact that Sethe still chooses to talk about the beautiful trees demonstrates that she clings to these images so as not to arouse images of the inhumanity she experienced. For Sethe, although trees are directly connected to the inhumane things she experienced in the plantations, their beauty represent life and healing. She chooses to see trees as a source of life rather than suffering, which is reflective of her choices to keep on living despite her past. Sethe was able to live in the present, although still haunted by her past, because of trees.

Amy Denver is another character who saw trees as a symbol of healing. Denver is a white woman who was a former indentured servant. She is responsible for saving Sethe when the latter collapsed during her escape. Denver describes the forest as her “emerald closet” that functions as her place of solitude and repose. Like Sethe, the forest hides Amy Denver from her former masters, and serves as the bridge toward the new life they seek. Both of these women find comfort and healing in trees while most see danger and the unknown.

Amy Denver also uses trees to make Sethe’s scars on her back more bearable. She imagines the scars as “chokecherry trees” which she thinks are beautiful. By reimagining Sethe’s scars as trees, she turns a site of pain and trauma into a site of beauty and growth. Amy’s and Sethe’s ability to see the beauty in symbols or sites of trauma demonstrate their agency and freedom. 

Paul D, like Sethe and Amy Denver, finds his freedom with the help of trees. After being sold to a chain gang in Georgia, Paul D manages to escape. He follows the blossoming spring flowers all the way to Sethe’s house in Ohio. Not only that, Paul D, also saw beauty in trees: "... trees were inviting; things you could trust and be near; talk to if you wanted to as he frequently did since way back when he took the midday meal in the fields of Sweet Home"(21). For Paul D, trees literally brought him freedom and helped him find Sethe. However, in contrast to these characters who saw beauty and found freedom in trees, there are countless others, such as Sixo, for whom trees meant the end of their lives. Sixo is one of the slaves who tried to escape but were caught and eventually lynched. Sixo’s death by being hanged from a tree is true for numerous slaves in American history.  

Toni Morrison’s use of trees in the novel Beloved reflects the historical truth of African Americans. For African Americans, trees carry a multitude of meanings, both good and bad. Trees have been weaponized against slaves through lynching. Even today, lynching continues to be done by modern racists against innocent black people . But trees have also helped slaves escape into freedom , as we have seen in Sethe, Paul D, and even Amy Denver. Like Sethe and Paul D, and many other former slaves in the novel, trees cannot be divorced from their dark past. We cannot change the fact that many black people have died on trees due to racism in the US, however, it is also possible to choose to see the beauty in trees. Facing the dark aspect of one’s memories or past is not easy, and it can easily consume a person; however, as the novel shows, it is possible to overcome the past through the help of others who can help one endure and eventually see the beauty even in things that previously symbolize pain. Morrison’s Beloved tackles the painful history of African Americans, that although it continues to be a controversial topic in history , must be faced by both blacks and whites in order for the country to move forward.

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