Judged By Its Cover: Beloved

The use of silhouette foregrounds the ideas of racial distinction and identity which Toni Morrison consistently explores: white is separated from black as society demanded both in the novel’s setting of 1850s America and for a considerable period of the author’s life. However, the fact that the silhouette is not entirely monochromatic belies further artistic consideration. The crimson marks on the child’s face refer to the central event within the novel – the mother (Sethe) murdering her own child (Beloved) – and the white discolouration on the mother figure may imply her motivation to commit such a tragic act. The novel is based on the true story of fugitive slave Margaret Garner and explores how the atrocities committed by the white plantation owners of ‘Sweet Home’ convince Sethe to murder her own child rather than be made to suffer herself. This white discolouration of the silhouette thus shows that Sethe is not solely culpable for her act, but that her experiences have driven her to infanticide – just as when she is called an ‘animal’, it is clear that only the animalistic tortures she has endured have made her an instinctive creature. Morrison’s exploration of the guilt Sethe feels for destroying her own ‘best self’ is reflected in this cover art as the novel’s title – the name of the murdered child – springs from and is connected to Sethe’s mind.

The cover becomes a total reversal of the idea of the colour white as indicative of ‘good’ and black of ‘evil’. Whilst Sethe is never able to escape her guilt, here ‘white’ is free of such a sense of moral culpability. The influence of white atrocities appears as an indelible stain on her moral purity and figure.