When her “skin dissolved under that gaze”: Reclaiming a Remedial Look in Beloved

Essay by Cicely Williams

Art by Miranda Yee

As bell hooks notes in her scholarship on the Black gaze, “The politics of slavery, of racialized power relations, were such that the slaves were denied their right to gaze” (115). Quite literally, enslaved persons were often “punished … for looking,” and accordingly, she believes that this denial of “black peoples’ right to gaze … produced in us an overwhelming longing to look” (116). hooks explains that the Black “oppositional gaze” is a “site of resistance,” wherein the Black subject “look[s] back” and “interrogate[s] the gaze of the Other,” the “Other” being the agents of racialized oppression (116). Correspondingly, much of the scholarship on the way Toni Morrsion frames “looking relations” in her novels addresses her exploration of “the controlling gaze of a dominant, racially oppressive society” and how the Black characters “internalize[]” and/or resist this “gaze of the Master” (Guerrero 762). As the object of this gaze, many of Morrison’s characters dare to “look back,” thereby usurping the subject position and reclaiming autonomy by way of their look (hooks 116). 

Yet, true reclamation of the self after being continually objectified by a dominant gaze (the most relevant to Beloved being the gaze of white slave-owners), is perhaps not as simple as continually subverting the subject/object dichotomy so that Black people may inhabit the subject position, and white oppressors, the object position. For, in addition to being denied “their right to gaze” back at the white slave-owners, Morrison’s Beloved shows that Black people were similarly prevented from gazing at one another (hooks 115). As is the case with Sethe and Halle, the couple “saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness” (31). Looking at each other was a luxury that the barbaric work schedules of slavery did not afford them. Therefore, Beloved is not only about Black people enacting resistance by gazing back at white oppressors, but also by gazing at one another. 

Yet, in denying Black people “their right to gaze,” white slave owners attached a hierarchy to the concept of looking and being looked at (hooks 115). According to their model of the gaze, the looking ‘subject’ always has the power and the pleasure, degrading the looked-at ‘object’ with a violating and objectifying look. Consequently, in order for Beloved’s characters to derive mutual empowerment from gazing at one another, they must deconstruct this hierarchy, and thereby eliminate the derogatory connotations of being the object of the gaze. Indeed, by exploring Morrison’s incorporation of the gaze into the healing processes of Beloved’s Black characters, I identify a strategic distancing of the gaze from its conventional power dynamics. Morrison demonstrates that in addition to usurping the subject position, Denver, Sethe, and Paul D must learn that being the object of an empathetic party’s gaze is just as spiritually remedial, and crucial for destabilizing the “Gaze of the Master” (Guerrero 762).

Of all Beloved’s characters, except for perhaps Beloved herself, Denver is the most unaccustomed to gazing or being gazed at. As the only central character who was not born into slavery, she has little first-hand experience with the dominating white gaze. Yet, since she was raised by Sethe, who spent her young life enslaved, Denver is hardly more accustomed than her mother to ideas of self-ownership and subjectivity. Additionally, the Black community’s rejection of her and Sethe, after Sethe’s infanticide, means that Denver has long been “the object of an exclusionary gaze” from other Black people (Wallace-Sanders 181). However, this gaze is perhaps more felt than literally experienced: Denver’s twelve year isolation period with “no visitors … no friends,” means that she does not experience looking or being looked at by hardly anyone but Sethe for most of her life (Morrison 14). As Molly Volanth Hall observes, this “loneliness” means she is “unable” to maintain a sense of “subjectiv[ity],” that is, she does not know how to connect with others as a looking subject (557). Nor is she comfortable being the object of the gaze, as when Sethe and Paul D take her to the carnival, she does not directly engage with others, and is only relieved to find that the “crowd of people … did not find her the main attraction” (58). Unaccustomed to seeing or being seen, she has not yet realized how much she desires to inaugurate herself into a pleasurable experience of looking. 

However, when Beloved arrives, the ghostly manifestation of her dead infant sister, Beloved satiates Denver’s long repressed “hunger” to gaze and be gazed at (139). And, Denver privileges the experience of being the object of the gaze over being the subject. She specifies that although “looking [at Beloved] was food enough to last,” being “looked at in turn was beyond appetite” (139). Beloved’s satiation of Denver’s “appetite” to be beheld marks the moment at which Denver begins to realize her own subjectivity. This is because the experience is not of being “stared at, not seen,” but rather, of “being pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes of the other” (139). This act in turn forces her to recognize her own materiality and conscious agency. And Beloved’s eyes, being “interested, uncritical,” indicates that her gaze seeks to understand Denver rather than scrutinize her. In perceiving that her appearance appeals to Beloved, Denver experiences a positive validation of her identity. In turn, this opens up the possibility for Denver to acknowledge and take pleasure in her own corporal existence, since Beloved has shown her that others are able to. 

Moreover, Morrison’s figuration of the gaze in terms of “food,” “hunger,” and “appetite” frames this experience as life-sustaining (139). Having one’s existence validated by the “uncritical” gaze of another becomes nourishing, and as necessary to corporal function as food. Inhabiting the object position, in this case, does not mean debasement or immobilization. Instead, it provides the nourishment Denver needs to develop a newfound sense of self-reliance; Beloved’s gaze satiates Denver’s constant “hunger” because it fills her up with external validation. With this need fulfilled, she achieves self-sustaining internal validation, a state of burgeoning self-reliance, which takes form in her sense of, “Needing nothing. Being what there was” (139). With no more external “need[s],” Denver feels that her identity and body not only deserve a place in the world, but are the whole world for her: she simply is “what there was” (139).

Indeed, the gaze between Beloved and Denver resonates with bell hooks’s description of the gaze between two Black women in the film Passion of Remembrance, who, dressing and dancing before going to a party together, “appear completely focused on their encounter with black female-ness,” and “display their bodies not for a voyeuristic colonizing gaze but for that look of recognition that affirms their subjectivity” (130). Even if Denver is not yet sure that Beloved is her sister, their shared identity as young Black women prompts Denver to infer that she will be able to recognize herself within Beloved. Experiencing this “look of recognition” enables Denver to acknowledge her own “subjectivity” (hooks 130). As hooks articulates about the women in Passion of Remembrance, “It is this process of mirrored recognition that enables both black women to define their reality, apart from the reality imposed upon them by structures of domination” (129-30). Because Beloved’s gaze “affirms [her] subjectivity,” inhabiting the object position becomes associated with self-governance, thereby juxtaposing the immobilizing intentions of the white gaze. Morrison shows a Black girl recognizing herself within another, and this rehabilitates Denver’s sense of individuality. As the object of the gaze, she garners the requisite self-assurance to inhabit the subject position in turn. 

Of course, this is not to suggest that Beloved has a positive influence upon Denver and Sethe. As the ghostly manifestation of repressed trauma and the “collective suffering” of slavery, Beloved feeds upon Sethe’s pain, and her expulsion is necessary for the family to heal (Wallace-Sanders 187). However, it is hard to say that Denver’s empowerment under Beloved’s gaze is not one of the positive effects of Beloved’s presence. And, she is the catalyst to Denver’s eventual decision to leave 124 Bluestone Road and rejoin the Black community. For, by the time Beloved begins to make “demands” and consume their resources, with Sethe helpless to deny her, it is Denver who musters the autonomy to “step off the edge of the world” and into the community to seek their help (281-3). The connection between her decision to do so and Beloved’s once-empowering gaze parallels the process bell hooks attributes to the “look of recognition” between the two women in Passion of Remembrance: “Mutually empowered” by a shared, affirming gaze, “they eagerly leave the privatized domain to confront the public” (130). Morrison seems to suggest that Denver’s sense of self-affirmation, which Beloved’s gaze helps her achieve, is a necessary condition for her ability to “confront the public.” Beloved’s gaze helps Denver satiate her “hunger” to be looked at and achieve a state of “Needing nothing. Being what there was” (139). However, this is in contrast to Sethe, whom Beloved feeds off of until both of them are “rationing their strength to fight each other,” for both literal food and spiritual sustenance: “The hungrier they got, the weaker [they got]” (139, 281). Only Denver, who now “need[s] nothing,” has already had her “hunger” satiated, and trusts her own internal strength, can venture being “swallowed up in the world beyond the edge of the porch” and return safely with the help she needs (139, 286).   

Furthermore, once Denver enters the community, the mutually affirming gazes she partakes in with its members nurture her growing independence. In fact, the first words spoken to her encourage visual self-affirmation. Opening the door to her, Lady Jones says, “‘Why Denver, … Look at you’” (290). No matter how subtle, this greeting heightens Denver’s awareness of her own presence and worth. First, the use of her name alerts her to the fact that she is valued enough to be remembered, even after twelve years. Then, the following imperative phrase instructs Denver to “look at” herself, which not only reminds Denver of her corporal identity, but endows it with positive connotations; it implies that her body is valuable and worth looking at. And, the following sentence, “Lady Jones had to take her by the hand and pull her in,” recalls the language used to describe the gaze between Denver and Beloved (290). Just as Beloved’s “interested, uncritical eyes,” “pulled [Denver] into view,” Lady Jones “pulls” Denver into her home (139, 290). Perhaps then, Lady Jones’s action takes on a symbolic function: in addition to pulling Denver into her home, she pulls Denver into her “view,” her gaze indeed being “interested, uncritical” (139). The two instances of being “pulled” have the same effect on Denver: she feels her existence “recogni[zed]” and appreciated by an understanding Black woman (hooks 130). 

Moreover, the consequent empowerment allows Denver to not only ask for the help she needs, but to reciprocate Lady Jones’s gaze: “‘Food. My ma’am, she doesn’t feel good.’ ‘Oh, baby,’ said Mrs. Jones. ‘Oh, baby.’ Denver looked up at her” (292, emphasis mine). Being called into this woman’s view allows her to become a looking subject in turn. And, in this moment, Denver experiences not only the onset of her personal subjectivity but of her womanhood. Morrison writes, “She did not know it then, but it was the word ‘baby,’ said softly and with such kindness, that inaugurated her life in the world as a woman” (292). Ironically, the word “baby” initiates her passage into maturity, even though its literal meaning implies the opposite. Yet, in the same way that being the object of Lady Jones’s gaze builds rather than diminishes her subjectivity, being called “baby” distances her from a dependent, infant-like state and completes her “inaugurat[ion]” into womanhood. Being an ‘object’ of the gaze is not degrading, just as being a ‘baby’ to Mrs. Jones is not infantilizing; instead, being an ‘object’ teaches her how to be a subject, and being a ‘baby’ teaches her how to be a woman. Morrison reverses the usual connotations of these two concepts in order to show how an empathetic exchange of the gaze between two Black women is a remedial experience. It eliminates the power dynamic which a racially oppressive society attaches to conceptions of being the subject or object of the gaze.

Later, Denver encounters Nelson Lord, who similarly alerts her to ideas of self-ownership. With a smile Nelson says, “Take care of yourself, Denver” (297). This imperative idiom, like Lady Jones’s “look at you” forces Denver to acknowledge she is responsible for her own selfhood. And, Denver admits this is a first for her: “It was a new thought, having a self to look out for and preserve” (297). Not only does Denver realize her identity, independent from her mother, Beloved, and inherited trauma, but she realizes that this newfound, independent self is deserving of care and preservation. It is the visual and verbal acknowledgement of the self from another Black person that enables her to begin her own process of recovery, and her hand in the banishment of Beloved, or metaphorically the residual trauma of slavery. By inhabiting the object position and being “pulled into view” by the “interested [and] uncritical” gazes of empathetic Black community members, Denver is able to learn her own value and to become a gazing subject in her own right (139).

The gaze plays an equally important role in Sethe’s healing process, the most helpful gaze being that of Paul D. Importantly, their relationship dynamic denies any model of the gaze that suggests a gendered hierarchy. Perhaps the most well-known framework of gendered gazes comes from Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which alleges a dichotomy between the “woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man” (67). Just like the “Gaze of the Master,” which attempts to confine Black people to a derogatorily coded object position, Mulvey’s “male gaze” characterizes the beheld woman as invaded and immobilized by the conquering gaze of the male subject (Guerrero 762). Many Black feminist scholars, and bell hooks in particular, have excluded themselves from this model, arguing that Black women have created “a critical space where the binary opposition Mulvey posits of ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look’ was continually deconstructed” (122-3). Concordantly, Morrison uses Sethe and Paul D’s relationship to exemplify a non-hierarchical gaze. Paul D’s “male gaze” does not “project[] its phantasy on to the female figure,” and Sethe certainly does not perform her “traditional exhibitionist role” and passively cater to his supposed voyeurism (Mulvey 62). Instead, they interchangeably occupy the subject and object positions, forming a mutually empowering, understanding, and ultimately healing gaze. Morrison writes: 

Although her eyes were closed, Sethe knew his gaze was on her face, and a paper picture of just how bad she must look raised itself up before her mind’s eye. Still, there was no mockery coming from his gaze. Soft. It felt soft in a waiting kind of way. He was not judging her—or rather he was judging but not comparing her. Not since Halle had a man looked at her that way: not loving or passionate, but interested as though he were examining an ear of corn for quality (30). 

Although Sethe initially shows concern for her attractiveness, she relaxes when she finds that Paul D’s gaze does not demand her to cater to a male ideal of femininity. For, by not “comparing” her to other spectacles or indeed his “phantasy” woman, Paul D exists outside of the realm of the “determining” man (Morrison 30; Mulvey 62). His “soft” and “interested” gaze is able to find Sethe sexually attractive without impeding on her individuality or subjectivity. Notably, the word “interested,” recalls the “interested, uncritical” gaze of Beloved towards Denver, and denotes an attempt to understand the other by way of looking at them (30, 139). It is this “interested” quality of Paul D’s gaze which separates it from any objectifying or voyeuristic connotations. And because there is no gendered hierarchy, the gaze between them is just as healing for Sethe as if it came from another woman.

In turn, Paul D seems to desire Sethe’s gaze, as he identifies her “polished eyes,” even when closed, to be her most attractive feature, saying that these are what keep him “both guarded and stirred up” (30). One of Paul D’s characteristics is that anything with enough beauty to “stir him … he tried hard not to love” (316). This is because as a slave he could not love anything without the risk of losing it. Hence, he specifies that without Sethe’s eyes, “her face was manageable—a face he could handle,” that is, a face that he could refrain from caring about (30). Further, he claims that he might be able to stay away from her if she “would keep them closed like that,” implying part of his compulsion to Sethe comes from the pleasure of seeing her eyes open and looking back at him (30). However hesitant Paul D is to become attached to Sethe, he is compelled to her not only because he enjoys looking at her, but because he desires for her to look at him in return, to be the object of her gaze. This is a position that Sethe just as happily fills, as when talking to him later she realizes “how much her eyes enjoyed looking in his face” (56). In a subversion of Mulvey’s gendered framework, the male takes pleasure in being the object of the female gaze. Morrison thus proposes a de-hierarchized and mutually pleasurable structure of looking.

A key point in Sethe’s healing process is when the community’s women come to expel Beloved, and Sethe decides to “run[] into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind” (309). As Wallace-Sanders has observed, “Abandoning Beloved indicates that she is ready to move beyond … the deadly repression of the past, …  embodied by the grown ‘basket-fat’ freak Beloved. The point is not that the terrible trauma is resolved at this moment but that her burden cannot be shouldered alone” (187). This moment marks her acceptance of mutual support, but importantly, shows that her trauma is not entirely “resolved.” And, rather than feeling better after this incident, she goes to lie in Baby Suggs’s bed just as Baby Suggs did after Sethe’s infanticide. This is perhaps Sethe’s lowest point; since it so closely recalls the slow, bed-ridden death of Baby Suggs, it comes across as a form of suicide, a desire to manually shut down her body. And, given the constant reminders of her trauma physically engraved on her body, like the “revolting clump of scars” on her back from being whipped, it is easy to see how finding relief from her trauma while still inhabiting that scarred body would seem impossible (Morrison 25). It thus makes sense that she refuses when Paul D encourages her to “get up” from Baby Suggs’s bed and offers to bathe her (321). Rejecting his help, she “closes her eyes and presses her lips together” (321). In doing so, she voluntarily shuts off two of her senses, speech and sight, becoming conscious of her internal self only. She then denies her corporeality, thinking that a bath would be futile, as according to her there is “nothing left to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe” (321). This desire to retract into herself, deny the existence of her own body, likely stems from the belief that spiritual healing is impossible when her flesh is indelibly marked.

However, Sethe is able to pull herself out of this and return Paul D’s gaze: she “opens her eyes knowing the danger of looking at him. She looks at him” (321). Indeed the “danger” in looking is that it prevents her from resigning her corporeality. For, Sethe becomes aware of her subjectivity under Paul D’s gaze, just as Denver does under the remedial gazes of Beloved, Lady Jones and Nelson Lord. Paul D’s gaze forces Sethe to acknowledge her mental and physical autonomy, which in her grief she would rather relinquish. Rather than do the tempting thing, which is to repress her trauma and immobilize her body, this act of opening her eyes and looking at Paul D signals that she has chosen the effort of healing. She describes looking at him as a “danger” because she knows that within Paul D’s “ready, waiting eyes,” she will see “the thing in him, the blessedness, that has made him the kind of man who can … make the women cry … cry and tell him the things they only told each other” (321). This cathartic process of healing forces Sethe to vocalize and relive her trauma in order to expel it, a difficult but ultimately more healing option than repression. And, it is specifically the act of looking and being looked at by Paul D that begins Sethe’s process of externalizing and banishing her grief. However reluctantly at first, in being the ‘object’ of Paul D’s gaze, Sethe finds the courage to look at him in turn and open herself up to vulnerability and catharsis. 

In the same moment, Paul D similarly realizes the healing power of Sethe’s gaze for him. He claims that Sethe “never mentioned or looked at” his three neck scars from being “collared … with chains,” and in this way, Sethe “left him his manhood” (322). Sethe’s considerate gaze intuitively bypasses the scars which are associated with his past enslavement and which impede upon his process of self-reclamation. Her gaze then admires the rest of his body, thereby reinforcing his sense of its value and affirming the strength and dignity of his “manhood.” By being the object of Sethe’s appreciative gaze, Paul D is able to reclaim ownership of his male identity, feeling it is no longer wounded by the “shame” of his body’s objectification under the barbaric control tactics of slavery and the objectifying white gaze (322). Paul D then encourages Sethe to enact this self-reclamation in turn. When Sethe mourns the loss of Beloved by saying, “She was my best thing,” Paul D corrects her: “You your best thing, Sethe. You are” (321-2). Sethe then responds “Me? Me?” (322). Paul’s phrasing implies that Sethe ‘belongs’ to herself, which is a new concept for her, given that the residual trauma of slavery prevented her from experiencing a true sense of self-ownership even in her freed life. Just like Denver, for whom it was a new concept to “hav[e] a self to look out for and preserve,” Sethe’s “Me? Me?” indicates that Sethe is awakening to the concept of unmitigated self-ownership and self-love for the first time (297, 322). She does not quite understand it yet, but Paul D and Sethe’s mutually restorative and life-affirming gaze upon one another forms a bond which allows them to emerge into a truly liberated and autonomous future. As Paul D says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322).

Beloved is able to have this hopeful conclusion because Denver, Sethe, and Paul D have successfully regained self-ownership, a feat at least partially accomplished by deconstructing the hierarchical construal of the gaze whereby the beholder degrades the beheld with an invasive, dominating look. This hierarchy is indeed a consequence of racialized power constructs; by denying the enslaved person “their right to gaze,” the proponents of slavery monopolized a domineering version of the subject position, which in turn figured enslaved people as the powerless objects of their gaze (hooks 115). Wallace-Sanders identifies the project of Beloved to be an “attempt to reverse the terms of slavery, shifting attention from the spectacle of the oppressed Black body to a Black viewer whose gaze implicates ‘whitefolks’ as the architects of that peculiar institution” (177). Wallace-Sanders’s key word being “architects,” Morrison reveals that the power dynamics between master/subject and slave/object, are arbitrary constructions: they are not natural or fixed but are designed and built by the architects of oppression. Beloved not only inverts those power dynamics, so that its Black characters are able to gaze back at white figures of oppression and “interrogate” racialized hierarchies, but it eliminates the hierarchy associated with the subject and object positions overall (hooks 116). This makes space for a “mutually empowered” gaze between Black people, which, just like the act of looking back at the agents of racialized oppression, becomes an act of personal healing as well as public resistance (hooks 130). 

Works Cited

Guerrero, Edward. “Tracking ‘The Look’ in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 24, no. 4, 1990, pp. 761–773. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=0000210357&login.asp&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Hall, Molly Volanth. “Beloved as Ecological Testimony: The Displaced Subject of American Slavery.” Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 25, no. 3, 2018, pp. 549–565. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2019391102&login.asp&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, 1992, pp. 115-131.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, Vintage Books, 1987. 

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Visual and other pleasures. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1989. 14-26.Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002.