Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist from Austria, who is credited with the development of logotherapy. In logotherapy, professionals argue that the key driving factor behind the successes and achievements of people is the pursuit of meaning in their lives. Frankl founded the therapy on a number of tenets regarding life. One of the tenets was that life has some form of meaning regardless of the situation. Another key principle is that the key thing that drives people in life is a determination to find the meaning of their lives. Frankl came up with riveting arguments on issues such as conscience, which he described as the core of a person’s being and the main source of their honour. Some of the theories and concepts that Frankl developed apply to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The book, which follows the story of an escaped slave called Sethe, can be scrutinized using Frankl’s theories to explain some of the mysteries surrounding Sethe. Analyzing Beloved using Frankl’s theories reveals that Sethe’s love and devotion to her children acted as the key driving factor in her life, enabling her to go survive many struggles and obstacles.
The story in Beloved follows the life of Sethe, an escaped slave, and her daughter Denver. Fifteen years before the story began; Sethe killed her first daughter after slave catchers had come to take her back to her masters. Sethe’s justification for her actions was that killing her daughter would keep her safe from the horrors of slavery. One day a young woman called Beloved shows up at Sethe’s home. Initially, Denver is happy to have a friend but it soon becomes too much. Meanwhile, Sethe, believing that Beloved is a manifestation of her slain daughter, continues to grant Beloved anything she wishes for and in the process neglects her responsibilities. Denver decides that she needs help and when she asks the community, they perform an exorcism to get rid of Beloved. During the exorcism, a scuffle erupts and Beloved disappears. The mystery behind her existence remains untold with an implication being made that Beloved could have also been a girl who had been locked up by a white man before apparently killing him and disappearing.
Meaning in Sethe’s Life
Sethe’s love and devotion to her children gave meaning to her life. Having experienced the horrors of slavery, Sethe did not want her children to be subjected to the same. When her former masters came after her, she made the hard decision of killing her children, rather than see them cast into the life of a slave. The act of killing her daughter was bound to have affected Sethe in an unimaginable way. Sethe’s reactions to the scars under Beloved’s chin exemplify the grief that she had had to live with. In the book, Morrison narrates that, “the little curved shadow of a smile in the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin—once Sethe saw it, fingered it and closed her eyes for a long time, the two of them cut Denver out of the games” (182). Additionally, her strong reaction to Beloved’s presence and scars suggests that Sethe has a strong conscience and that this has forced her to have to deal with the guilt of killing her own daughter.
When applying Frankl’s theory to the situation, it can be argued that this devotion was what drove Sethe on in her life. Even after she lost one daughter, Sethe still had Denver to cherish and this is likely the reason why she was able to make something out of herself. Frankl argued that meaning was what drove people on in life and it is possible that Sethe’s commitment to Denver helped her recover from the act of killing her daughter and being enslaved, to become a successful woman. At the time that the story was starting, she had a good job as a cook and a home of her own. She provided Denver with whatever she needed and worked hard to keep her home in order.
Changes in the Meaning of Sethe’s Life
The meaning and purpose of Sethe’s life changes with the appearance of Beloved. When beloved first appears, she seems to be a nice girl in need of shelter from Sethe. Sethe and Denver warm up to her, but Paul appears to be immediately aware of Beloved’s ulterior motives. Beloved’s presence at 124 Bluestone changes the meaning of Sethe life. Sethe believes that Beloved is some sort of manifestation of the daughter that she killed and she devotes herself towards serving her. This devotion is borne out of feelings of guilt that Sethe had regarding the crime that she committed. The guilt manifests itself into an unhealthy obsession with Beloved, as Sethe is willing to satisfy all of Beloved’s wishes and requests. Sethe’s damaging devotion to Beloved was evident in their relationship. Beloved disregarded Sethe’s instructions without a single care a fact easily noticeable in exchanges between the two…”Wasn’t it too cold to stay outside? Beloved gave a look that said, So what? Was it past bedtime, the light no good for sewing? Beloved didn’t move; said, “Do it,” and Sethe complied” (Morrison 184).
The extent of this unhealthy commitment is seen in the neglect that Sethe puts Denver through. Firstly, Sethe neglects Denver emotionally, “…the two of them cut Denver out of the games. The cooking games, the sewing games, the hair and dressing-up games” (Morrison 182). Soon after the neglect became physical, as Sethe stopped going to work and providing food for the family. Morrison writes that, “Everything was gone except two laying hens, and somebody would soon have to decide whether an egg every now and then was worth more than two fried chickens” (182). Frankl argued that when people lack meaning, they become an existential vacuum. In Sethe, this vacuum left by her dead daughter manifested itself in the form of an obsession with Beloved, as she devoted herself to pleasing every one of Beloved’s needs and demands.
The Driving Strength in Sethe’s Life
Sethe’s love for her children was what drove her through the difficult experiences in her life. Different incidents in the story exemplify the undying devotion that Sethe had. One key incident occurred when she resorted to killing her own children to save them from the slavers. Her justification of the murder revealed that she was willing to live with the grief of losing a child in the hope of keeping her daughter safe from the slavers. Sethe herself reveals that she went through many difficulties for her daughters. Morrison states that, “Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered, been through, for her children, waving away flies in grape arbors, crawling on her knees to a lean-to” (184). From Frankl’s perspective, this devotion translated itself into the meaning of her life and it became Sethe’s reason for persevering through different struggles in her life.
The meaning of life is a key element in Frankl’s theories and concepts. Frankl perceived the pursuit of this meaning to be the factor that drove people on and inspired them to make different achievements. In Beloved, the same can be said of Sethe. Her children were the inspiration of her life and she went through many obstacles and challenges for their sake. Sethe’s devotion is evident in the way that she provides to Denver. However, the appearance of Beloved introduced the issue of guilt into the story and showed that Sethe was also wracked by deep-seated feelings of guilt over what she did to her daughter. While her obsession with Beloved becomes unhealthy and threatens to kill her, it still alludes to her guilt and strengthens the idea that Sethe lived for her children.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print
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