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  • Selfhood and Community:Psychoanalysis and Discourse in Beloved1
  • Jennifer FitzGerald (bio)


When Paul D Urges Sethe to "Go as Far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles. Make sure you get back out" (46), he is inviting her to "work through" past traumas with himself as psychotherapist (Freud). The novel's intertwined narratives can be viewed as a form of "talking cure": consequently, several critics have taken a psychoanalytical approach to Beloved.2 But many theorists, especially Black and feminist, have grave reservations about psychoanalysis (Abel; Spelman). Although Freud demonstrated the specific cultural construction of the psychic processes he analyzed, both he and his successors have tended to generalize from limited data unproblematically, positing a model which is both normative and universalized. As a result, psychoanalysis isolates psychic experience from the diversities of ethnicity and class; furthermore, it focuses intensively on the interaction of infant and mother as if this existed as a free-standing relation, independent of the economic, political or social conditions which affect the circumstances of parenting. In doing so, it defines motherhood according to a very specific, restricted norm, and places a huge burden of responsibility, not to say blame, on mothers (Riley; Walkerdine and Lucey; Nice). It pathologizes nonnormative families, privileging the healthy development of individual autonomy, highly valued by white Western capitalism. [End Page 669]

How appropriate is such a model to African Americans, whose family history—as Beloved shows—has been (forcibly) shaped along nonhegemonic lines (Billingsley; Gutman; hooks; White)? At the same time, how not to draw on psychoanalysis in discussing a novel which explores the aftermath of appalling hurts, the psychic as well as material damage inflicted by slavery?

Among psychoanalytic schools of thought, one may prove useful. Objects relations theory proposes that the psyche is constructed within a wide system of relationships, offering a model of how social, cultural and political forces become internalized.3 As Elizabeth Abel points out, it is at least potentially capable of recognizing the range of relationships which influence the psyche, although in practice it has confined itself to the Western nuclear family (186). This essay, therefore, draws on the vocabulary and insights of objects relations psychoanalysis in suggesting a reading of Beloved. But first, an explanation of my methodology.

Literary criticism examines texts, not people; it analyzes discourse, not psyches. Psychoanalysis is only one of the discourses circulating through the novel, one of the range of positions and meanings available to Beloved's characters under, and after, slavery. It is therefore not offered as a truth to which the characters, qua patients, must be led. It is nevertheless worth noting the resemblances between the discourses of psychoanalysis and slavery. The discourse of slavery privileges humanity, autonomy, and participation in a family—by denying these values to slaves. It is not a coincidence that the major focus of psychoanalysis is on precisely these practices: the socialization of the newborn "animal," the human baby, and its acquisition of autonomous identity within the context of the nuclear family. Both discourses obviously derive from the same ideology, individualistic Western capitalism.

Such similarities are to be expected, since "the systematic character of a discourse includes its systematic articulation within other discourses" (Henriques et al. 105-106). But they remind us of the wider context which a purely psychoanalytic focus might obscure. Although each of the characters in Beloved has been damaged by slavery, they are not only victims —they are also agents. Discourse analysis draws attention to the variety of subject positions of which they avail themselves. Paul D, for example, moves from the position of object in the discourse of slavery to the position of subject in the discourse of masculinity; the discourse of the good mother offers Sethe a similar shift. This essay therefore reads the novel through various discourses, including the repressed pre-Oedipal discourse [End Page 670] triggered as each character confronts a psychic trauma.4 As these past hurts surface, Denver, Sethe and Paul D work through them in ways which offer an alternative to classic psychoanalytic therapy. The discourses circulating in Beloved include:

  1. 1. The dominant discourse of slavery, which produces meanings of humanity, autonomy and familial relationship...