I’ve had some time to marinate the Beloved tree issue in my brain juices for a bit, and there are a lot of complications. I tried drawing on a major end-of-semester research project from three years ago discussing trees in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. (I said that the pear tree was a metaphor for Janie and argued that, as she tried to grow, she kept being pruned back by the men around her. It’s a metaphor I beat to death in the most senseless spurt of cruelty, believe you me. I cringe when I think of it.) In Their Eyes, the tree is clearly a positive symbol–one of healthy relationships, discovery, and flowering life. And in Beloved, Paul D.’s fondest memories of Sweet Home revolve around a tree he named Brother–surely a sign that the tree must be something good here as well. But the elephant in the room as far as tree symbolism goes is the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back: a massive, sprawling tangle of scars that rise like rifts off her back from a whipping that nearly killed her. It’s a horrific juxtaposition, this disfigurement from such nauseating violence and the description of her freshly wounded back as having branches, leaves, beautiful blossoms, fruit. Ug. Early on, we learn of the striking beauty of Sweet Home and how, when Sethe remembers it, “there was not a leaf on the farm that didn’t make her want to scream” though the landscape remained captivating to her, despite the horror of it. She wondered “if hell was a pretty place too.”
The more I thought about it, the more I was certain the tree in Beloved couldn’t be good. In fact, it seemed the opposite of the tree of Their Eyes Were Watching God–the tree shows up in Beloved when life is being taken away. When Sethe standing in the forest clearing (no trees), revisiting the spot where Baby Suggs held her renewing, spiritually-charged gatherings, Beloved stands in the forest and telekinetically chokes her. When Sethe has flashbacks, it’s of dismembered slave boys hanging from trees. The tree imagery is complex enough that the formulation of what the tree might mean in Beloved took me awhile to get at, and, in fact, the symbolism is so subtle that it’s easy to overlook the tree in the first place. But it’s there if you want it. I reread the passage in which Morrison describes Paul D. exploring Sethe’s “tree” on her back, and the passage makes it quite plain what the tree means–just easy to miss.
“He rubbed his cheek on her back and learned that way her sorrow, the roots of it, its wide trunk and intricate branches.”
The tree is sorrow. It has roots that stretch deep into the characters. It has complexity, and it makes them do complex things. It is wide, a sizeable force to be reckoned with. Replace all the trees in Beloved with sorrow, and there you have it. The clearing is a place surrounded by sorrow, but also a place free of it. Paul D.’s tree, Brother, towers over the smaller tree of his love for the beauty in the world, a love “small and [held] in secret. His little love was a tree, of course, but not like Brother–old, wide and beckoning.”
This brings to mind the complications of the tree as negative I alluded to earlier. Brother, Paul D.’s enormous sorrow, is “beckoning”? Sethe remembers “boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world”? When Sethe’s wounds are so infected it looks like white blossoms are erupting on her back and the blanket she lies on becomes stained with “roses”? Why is the sorrow so grotesquely, stomach-curdlingly beautiful? I imagine the key is one of Morrison’s driving point about slavery–how can such horrible things happen in such beautiful places?
I was reading an essay by bell hooks in Rebecca Walker’s (yes, Alice Walker’s daughter) collection of feminist-themed essays, To Be Real. Hooks was saying that her grandmother loved to look at beauty in nature and her mother loved beauty as portrayed through advertisements, and she sees a broader shift toward materialism as means of experiencing beauty in the African American community. She says, among other things, that her “Southern black ancestors recognized that in the midst of exploitation and oppression suffering could be endured if transforming encounters with beauty took place.” I think that Morrison is saying something less political, but relevant nonetheless. The characters in Beloved saw Sweet Home, even the trees the boys hung from, as beautiful. Paul D. tried to use beautiful Brother as a source of comfort, as that transforming encounter that would let him rise above his situation. But in the end, all the beauty does for both the characters and the reader is serve as horrifying, revolting contrast to the inhuman treatment of one human being to another. It’s no wonder the roots of the characters’ sorrow run so deep.
Just as something to end on, I thought it was so interesting that my Their Eyes Were Watching God research (the last time I thought this much about trees, ha) led me to believe that the tree, as a symbol, was life-giving and men were always cutting Janie down before she had a chance to blossom. The ax, in that essay, was the worst of all metaphors. In Beloved, Paul D. says, “Let me tell you something. A man ain’t a goddamn ax…Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.” But if a man could chop down the sorrow in the book with an ax in Beloved, he’d be the hero of the novel.