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Anger in Beloved

Anger, in all its sometimes raw, sometimes subtle, sometimes simple and sometimes sophisticated glory is an affect, which from the first line of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (“124 was spiteful”) takes center stage. The true multi-faceted nature of this affect often goes unrealized because we tend to recognize an emotion through its responses. Anger, in most minds is married to aggression and violence and we usually only acknowledge its presence when it is accompanied by these mates. Anger is also often obscured by specifics on the intensity, justification, and manifestation of the emotional state. For example, anger is defined as rage when we want to suggest a loss of self-control from violence of emotion; we use fury when defining an overmastering destructive rage that can verge on madness; Indignation is used to stress righteous anger at what one considers unfair, mean, or shameful and the term wrath is employed when we want to suggest a desire or intent to revenge or punish. The causes of anger such as jealousy, betrayal, indignation, and resentment are also emotions that further mask this deceptively complex affect.

Under Tomkins’ broad, liberating definition of anger, however, anger is both necessarily general and abstract. It both “fails to inform us of the particularities of its activator” and “is free to combine with any stimulus” so that the affect is neither limited by its causes nor its responses. Tomkins also clarifies responses to anger by distinguishing them into four broad categories. In his ‘sculptor model’ of anger detailed on p.212-221, he explains responses to anger as resulting from the nuclear scripts which he labels celebratory, defensive, counteractive, and reparative. Using these new tools, I hope to re-examine anger in the context of Beloved and possibly gain new insight into the characters and the affect along the way. The first instance of anger we come across in Beloved is perhaps the most clearly identifiable. It is the pure, raw fury of the ‘crawling already’ baby towards Sethe. It is characterized by uncontrolled violence – the breaking of mirrors and the thrashing about of furniture and dogs. This response follows a counteractive script during which an individual who has been terrorized, humiliated, or distressed attempts to terrorize, humiliate or distress the other. “The negative affects usually involved in this script are the ‘masculine affects’ of anger, disgust and dismell.” (Tomkins, p.218). We know that the baby is trying to lash out directly at Sethe, the perceived cause of her anger. This becomes clearer later in the novel when Beloved expresses her anger by choking Sethe in the clearing and by dominating and abusing her at the end of the novel.
The counteractive script is also practiced in a more subtle sense by the whole of the black community against Baby Suggs and Sethe. Through a complex and interesting irony, the celebration Baby Suggs plans in honor of her daughter-in-law’s safe arrival somehow turns the community against her. The 90 people who assembled at her house for the feast “ate so well and laughed so much, it made them angry.” (Morrison, p.137). Their collective indignation that Baby Suggs and her kin, who suffered less than they, should be allowed so much is so powerful, its “scent lay heavy in the air”. It was in response to this anger, Stamp Paid later explains on p.156, that the community chose not to warn anyone in 124 that the four strange white men with “the look” were approaching. They responded to their anger by directly revenging the perceived source of their anger. It is interesting to note here that the counteractive script response is represented by a baby and a mass group. This seems fitting as the counteractive script is the most instinctual, and most primitive response to anger – a response that precedes the ability to distill the “baby’s venom” of spite through the machinations of individual personality and experience.

We easily recognize this anger because we are used to viewing anger as a prima donna – an entity complete with a temperamental and aggressive nature and fits of violence. We are well acquainted with raw anger – the pure “spite” that induces physical revenge, though we may be less familiar with other outlets of anger. The celebratory response to anger is one that results from an inability, either of will or position, to react physically to the perceived victimizer. In this response, the victim chooses rather to lash out against the source of the anger mentally by reversing the roles of the victim and the victimizer in fantasy.

One example of this occurs on p.19 of Beloved when Howard and Buglar, angry and frightened by their mother’s attempt to kill them as youngsters, cluster together on the white stairs and make up ” die witch! stories with proven ways of killing her dead.” Though in real life they are bound to their mother through family ties and are unable to act out violently towards her, in their stories they are free to exact revenge in any way they please. Thus in this case, imagination provides an alternative, feasible outlet for their anger.

Similarly, when Paul D is bound (through actual chains instead of family ties) from acting out violently towards his captors in the prison in Alfred, Georgia, he along with the rest of the chain gang members, also follows a recasting script. Coincidentally, Tomkins uses the example of slavery when describing the subtleties of this particular response to anger. On p. 208 he says:
If I had been a black American slave on a southern plantation, feeling the pain of the lash of the whip, I might have wanted to express my anger in kind or to repay the debt in full and then some, or beyond that to kill the oppressor for all past suffering and to ensure freedom for the future. This would have entailed my own death, but I could have responded in an imagined scene in which vengeance is fully and richly taken and celebrated. And such fantasies could have led to sharing such possibilities through knowing glances with fellow victims who had also suffered the lash of the whip.
This of course is precisely the course the prisoners take while they beat the rocks in Alfred. They channel their anger by “singing it out and beating it up”, though it is not just the ‘pain of the lash of the whip’ that they are revenging when “they killed a boss so often and so completely that they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time.” (Morrison, p.109). Killing a boss in imagination is the only way they could fight against rape, humiliation, and abuse from their captors, and the complete hopelessness of escape. The idea that such songs could be sung out loud, that such possibilities could be ‘shared’ as Tomkins suggests is also significant. The shared fantasy is also a way of binding the chain gang together and the songs they sang while beating “rocks, women, children and bosses” is probably
partially responsible for their joint escape from Alfred after the flood. But the recasting response usually works best when the anger and hatred are the only feelings one has towards the cause of the anger and the hatred. When other emotions are added to the mix, such as jealously or resentment, the response becomes a bit more complicated. The response to resentment, defined in Webster’s dictionary as ” a feeling of indignant displeasure of persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult or injury” is a deliciously complex reaction. Unsatisfied by Tomkins celebratory script nor his counteractive one, resentment initiates a response of its own. Whereas the counteractive script is usually employed when direct violent retaliation to angering stimulus is both desirable and possible and the celebratory script is used when such retaliation is desirable but not possible, jealousy and resentment are causes of an anger which do not necessarily desire violent retaliation even though it may be possible. This illogical emotion – this anger without complete justification – creates a mixture of feelings within the person experiencing it and makes for some interesting responses, some of which are explored in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Denver, for example is jealous of Paul D’s intrusion into her house, her life and her mother. She dislikes how he monopolizes Sethe’s conversation and is admitted entry to parts of her life where she has no access. She resents how they “have become a twosome” and retaliates briefly by talking back to Paul D, taunting him with ” Seems like everybody run off from Sweet Home can’t stop talkin’ about it” (Morrison, p.13) and ” How long you gonna hang around?” This method doesn’t fully relieve anger however because she really cannot completely hate Paul D, especially after he treats her at the carnival. Instead she chooses to employ the defensive nuclear script. Tomkins outlines this script on p.218:
The script of defence may take one of several forms of avoidance or escape in which the individual attempts primarily to minimize the negative affect of the nuclear scene by, for example running away from home, becoming introverted, being alone or becoming mute. The negative affects usually involved in these scripts are terror, shame or distress – the ‘feminine’ affects.
Denver is a master at this following this nuclear script. Rather than confront her mother with her anger, she chooses to escape, to take refuge in a boxwood bower where she is “closed off from the hurt of the hurt world.”( Morrison, p.28)
This is not the first time Denver has used the defensive script either. She also uses it when combating her anger towards her mother when she learns of her past. When she first hears about her mother’s crime from Nelson lord, she asks Baby Suggs about it but realizes that “the anger and fear that leapt in her when she asked it had been lying there all along” (Morrison, p.102). Because she is not experienced with the world and there are no gradations in her nuclear script space, the response she is compelled to choose is extreme. She knows she cannot handle the anger in any other way because it concerns not an outsider, but her own mother, so she ‘chooses’ instead to become deaf – to isolate herself from the world by a silence too strong to penetrate. Avoidance of any potentially hurtful experience in fact is Denver’s main focus in life and it isn’t until the end of the novel after she faces the anger and forgives her mother that she can go out in to world again.

Denver’s reaction to Sethe’s news is not unlike that of Paul D’s. When Stamp Paid first informs him of Sethe’s past, he first becomes incredulous and then angry. His anger stems from the view that through the act of taking her child’s life, Sethe, a woman he has grown to admire and care for, has somehow betrayed him. He confronts her in the parlor and during her explanation his anger towards her combines with his anger towards Beloved until “the roaring in his head” swells enough for him to counteract with ” you got two feet, Sethe, not four” (Morrison, p.169). This harsh verbal response to anger proves Tomkins point that the “primary function of anger is to make bad matters worse” for at that very point a “forest springs up between them”. Paul D’s next move is to flee from the site, as ill equipped as Denver to handle the anger engendered by Sethe’s news, he employs the defensive script by leaving Sethe and moving into the cold basement of the poor church of the black community. Like Denver, he also does not emerge until his anger subsides and he decides to forgive Sethe and help her move on with her life.

Another perhaps more mature way to deal with resentment is by following the reparative script. In this response to anger explained in Tomkins on p.219:
The individual attempts to reach the good scene rather than to hide or avenge himself. This may take one of several forms, either an attempted recovery of the pre-problematic good scene before all the trouble started or a new scene scene projected into the future as a utopian scene which will undo all the problems created in part by the nuclear scene and the nuclear script.
Examples of this method of dealing with anger are utilized by all three of the main characters.
Denver first tries to overcome anger at her mother by imagining an ideal time when her father will return and save her. Sethe utilizes this method when she first hears what happened to Halle during one of her last nights at Sweet Home. When she hears that Halle had seen the schoolteacher’s nephews steal her milk, she is clearly angry. She moves slowly towards the table and then commences to “grip her elbows so tightly as though to keep them from flying away.” She repeats the phrase “He saw?” at least six times at first unbelievingly and later with increased rage. She paces “up and down, up and down” as she demands of Paul D why her husband ” saw them boys do that to me and let them keep on breathing air.” Her anger is temporarily cooled however by her imagining a scene in which she and Halle are “by the milk shed, squatting by the churn, smashing cold, lumpy butter into their faces with not a care in the world.” This escape into an ideal fantasy where present problems are erased and the source of the anger is of little concern is one example of a reparative script.

Another example is the one Paul D uses in addition to recasting to deal with his anger at the Georgia prison. His ideal scene, in contrast to Denver however, is in the past not the future. He, along with all the men at prison sing about ” the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed or seen others tamethey sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.” ( Morrison, p.108). In short they sing of a time before the prison that although was pretty horrific, still had some sweet moments. Singing about these moments is one way of glorifying the past, of ” recovering the pre-problematic good scene before all the trouble began.”
The thing to remember with all these scripts however is that although they are deemed necessary and deal temporarily with the anger aroused, they are by no means a permanent solution. They may prove ineffectual after time or through repeated use. In fact, Tomkins stresses that nuclear scripts are nuclear precisely because they “conjoin compulsion with ineffectiveness.” (p.216). How, then should one go about dealing with anger? The answer might lie in covert responses to anger such as the one displayed by Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs, holy, after having her “legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue busted from slavery” decides on using her big heart to fight the anger she feels. Pursuing a path of grace and “sun-lit dances in a clearing”, she advocates transforming anger at white people into increased love for blacks themselves. Her response to anger is no less a “response” because it is covert, and no less so because it consists of a loving, hopeful message rather than an angry punishing fantasy. But this response, unlike the others, which promote revenge, escape or denial, attempts to face the anger head on and then go beyond it. By suggesting that they lay down the weapons of their anger, “Sword and Shield. Down. Down. Both of ’em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and Shield.” and “Don’t study war no more.”, Baby Suggs provides perhaps one of the only ways that the characters in the book can ever hope to overcome the anger and the tragedy of their lives once and for all.