Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Toni Morrison’s Subliminal take on Motherhood in Slavery

Joe Morse’s illustration portrays the fear that mothers trapped in the brutality of slavery faced.

Many of the topics and themes explored by writers during the Victorian Period are still very relevant in today’s society, which is not surprising considering that many of the writers during this time were far ahead of their time.  One of the most prevailing and complex of these themes to live on is the exploration and critique of the institution of slavery in America.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is one of her most powerful and enduring works because of it’s pairing of a devastating subject matter with simple language.  These elements are also employed in an equally powerful and profound twentieth century novel by Toni Morrison, Beloved.  Even though these works were written over a century apart, they both portray in excruciating fashion the conditions that cause a mother to commit the most unmaternal and sublime of acts, killing their own child. 

The state of motherhood has the ability to be completely different things because it is so dependent on a woman’s situation.  It can be the most joyous and satisfying experience, just as it can be the most damaging burden.  Both Browning and Morrison choose to focus on the idea of motherhood within the confounds of slavery because it is the ultimate juxtaposition.  The idea of someone bringing life into a system that consistently takes life away is a powerful and lasting image.  Browning shows the devastating effect of this through her character of the unnamed slave mother who “could not bear to look” at her baby because “it was so white” (stanza 18).  When she looks at her child she does not see it as being a part of her, but as a reminder of her master.  This moment is telling of how slavery has the ability to strip a person of their identity.  Even though this child is biologically half her, she is not capable of recognizing that.  She has been so deeply hurt by white men that the idea of her child having any connection to them makes her resent it.  This imagery is devastating, especially when she “dared not sing to the white-faced child” to calm it down while she was suffocating it.  She does not lend her child the curtesy of singing to it or soothing it in any way because in her mind it is not her child, it’s a member of the race that has caused her enormous amounts of suffering.  It is easier for her to feel nothing than to allow herself to love a child that she knows has no future.  This exact sentiment is paralleled in Beloved.  One of the characters talks about Sethe, a former slave, saying that “to love anything that much was dangerous, especially her children” (Part 1, Chapter 4).  In these women’s lives having children only brings pain.  They know that they will not be able to give their children the love and freedom that they deserve.  This can create a problematic identity crisis within these women because they have been told their whole lives that a woman’s job is to have children.  Dorothy E. Roberts comments on this notion in her book, Mother Troubles: Rethinking Contemporary Maternal Dilemmas. She claims that “motherhood is virtually compulsory for women: no woman achieves her full position in society until she becomes a mother” (34).  However, the situation is completely different for these women, who can never be a full member of society and neither can their children. They will never be like the white woman who the speaker in Browning’s poem says can “keep live babies on her knee, and sing the song she liketh best” (stanza 31).  The thought of their children growing up and experiencing the same atrocities that they have is worse than death in the eyes of these slave women.

Photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s original manuscript of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.”

It is particularly hard for us, as the reader, to wrap our minds around the desperation that a person must feel to commit such a devastating act.  We have been trained to believe that the murder of a child is always a tragedy.  It goes against all of our natural impulses to think of it as a merciful act.  In a way this makes infanticide a sublime theme because of its unimaginable qualities.  In order to convey this, Browning and Morrison include other subliminal elements in their works to emphasize the inconceivable nature of these mothers’s actions.  In “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” this is accomplished through the use of natural imagery and language.  The speaker first says “I look on the sea and the sky” in the first stanza and then repeats it several times throughout the poem.  The sea and the sky are commonly used to reference the incomprehensible vastness of the natural world because of their inability to be tamed.  Her repetition of this phrase gives the sense that she can look into these immense images of freedom and escape, if only for a second, from the suffocating bounds of slavery.  Morrison conjures the sublime in a much different but still effective way.  She commonly refers to something called “rememory” throughout her novel.  Rememory is never truly defined by any of the characters but Sethe explains it as being like “if a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it— stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world” (Part 1, Chapter 3).  She sometimes unconsciously travels through her memories, as if they control her instead of the other way around.  This shows that she has not or is not capable of coping with what has happened to her.  There is no moving forward because even though she has escaped, her mind is enslaved to the past.  This is possibly the most sublime aspect of slavery, its ability to hinder the progression of people, if they are able to make it out. It has the ability to completely rewire a person’s way of thinking, even making mothers believe that it is more merciful to kill their child then to force them to live in an unfree world. 

Motherhood is at its core the most natural process in the world.  Browning recognized this and knew that it would have a profound effect to tell a story about a mother trapped in the most inhumane of systems.  This theme has stood the test of time, and Morrison brought it to a whole new generation of readers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Both stories are tragically timeless and compelling.  

Works Cited:

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Edward Moxon, Dover Street, 1849.

Roberts, Dorothy E. “Mothers Who Fail to Protect Their Children: Accounting for Private and Public Responsibility.” Mother Troubles: Rethinking Contemporary Maternal Dilemmas. Eds. Julia E. Hanigsberg and Sara Ruddick. Boston: Beacon, 1999. 31-39. Print.

Image:

Morse, Joe. The Folio Society. 2015, Illustration.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Original Manuscript of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” 1846, photograph. British Library.