The Motif of Eyes in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
For the characters in Beloved, love is a dangerous emotion, causing them to rely on their eyes, a recurrent motif of the novel, to translate messages of longing, need, and love. As time passes and the characters’ relationships are developed, Morrison creates a clear distinction between emptiness and infinite expression in the eyes of Belove. In Beloved, to see is to love, and to be loved is to be seen. The most powerful and overbearing love present is the one that Beloved feels for Sethe, evident in the descriptions of her eyes as infinite when she looks at Sethe.
When Beloved arrives at 124, she is immediately taken in and cared for by Denver. However, as much as Denver tries to focus Beloved’s attention on her, Beloved’s eyes invariably settle on Sethe. Morrison personifies Beloved’s eyes: “Stooping to shake the damper, or snapping sticks for kindlin, Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes” (68). Beloved’s eyes become a mouth, figuratively eating Sethe up as she gazes. Not only does Morrison use three verbs, emphasizing the commitment of Beloved’s eyes, but she also sets a familiar scene, hinting at the fact that this action of Beloved’s happens often. Stooping to shake the damper, or snapping sticks for kindlin,” are everyday actions, with the verbs conjugated in a tense that allows them to be timeless. Sethe has stooped and snapped, and she will again in the future, just as Beloved will continue to lick, taste, and eat Sethe with her eyes as long as Sethe is in her presence. Beloved stays at 124 because of Sethe. She explains to Denver that “‘[Sethe] is the one. She is the one I need. You can go but she is the one I have to have. ’ Her eyes stretched to the limit, black as the all-night sky” (66).
When speaking of Sethe, Beloved’s eyes “stretched to the limit,” just as her admiration and yearning for Sethe is limitless. Not only is her love infinite, but it is also “black as the all-night sky. ” Morrison compares Beloved’s eyes to a thing of nature, the “all-night sky” is expansive, uncharted, mysterious, just as Beloved’s emotions and intentions. When Sethe looks at Beloved, “the longing she saw there was bottomless” (69). “Bottomless” yet again evokes imagery of infinite size, creating a passionate “longing” that cannot be ignored.
However, Sethe’s eyes are never described in response to Beloved’s, depicting a one sided lust, or unrequited love that is present for other characters, namely Denver. While Beloved’s eyes are infinite when addressing Sethe, they become vacant and detached when regarding Denver. However, in contrast to Sethe, Denver experiences an intense reaction under Beloved’s regard, though it is a different one: “Denver felt her heart race. It wasn’t that she was looking at that face for the first time with no trace of sleep in it, or that the eyes were big and white–blue-white.
It was that deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all” (66). Whereas Beloved’s eyes were “bottomless” and “stretched to the limit” when looking at Sethe, when looking at Denver “deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all. ” Denver wants so badly for Beloved to see her and need her, yet it is evident in such language that the feeling is not reciprocated by Beloved. The lust depicted by the yearning in Beloved’s eyes with Sethe is very different from the relationship she develops with Denver, evident in her empty eyes. No expression at all” describes an impersonal interaction, one in which there is no recognition of Denver on Beloved’s part. Yet even though Beloved doesn’t address her specifically\, Denver feels her “heart race,” illustrating the great power that Beloved’s eyes have in the book. Later in the novel, the relationship begins to change, and once every so often, Denver is able to catch a glimpse from Beloved. Once again, such moments have an incredibly profound effect on her: “Denver’s skin dissolved under that gaze and became soft and bright like the lisle dress that had its arm around her mother’s waist.
She floated near but outside her own body, feeling vague and intense at the same time. Needing nothing. Being what there was” (139). Sethe’s reaction to Beloved’s eyes is seldom described, but with Denver her skin is “dissolved,” “soft,” and “bright. ” It becomes an out of body experience, in which she is “needing nothing. ” Beloved’s eyes are able to pull Denver out of her own skin, due to the attraction that Denver feels to her. In this way, Beloved’s eyes both illustrate and precipitate powerful emotions.
As time progresses and Denver and Beloved’s relationship is further developed, Denver comes to understand Beloved’s sentiment more thoroughly. Denver later sees that “deep down in [Beloved’s] wide black eyes, back behind the expressionlessness, was a palm held out for a penny” (139). What Denver previously understood as “no expression at all” becomes a “palm held out for a penny,” a childish gesture of begging and need. Denver now sees that there is something she might be able to offer Beloved, what exactly she has to offer is still unclear.
Yet a hand held out for a penny is still a rather indifferent gesture, an interaction that might happen between strangers on the street, and much different from the infinite emotion that Beloved expresses for Sethe. In “Beloved,” the eyes, and the reaction to others’ eyes, are essential to understanding the emotions expressed by each character. The slavery from which Sethe, Denver, and Beloved are running, is a social construct that fosters the invisibility of blacks.
Slaves are not addressed nor understood as human beings, and a slave is always below the master, preventing any possibility of looking the master in the eye, so as to be on equal grounding with him. Therefore, within the runaway slave community, the very act of looking at someone, or being seen for human valor and not material worth, becomes exponentially more significant. An action such as the glance of an eye, or the tilt of a head, that may be taken for granted presently, becomes an action to treat with great value as a confession of profound emotion in the setting of Beloved.