Psychologists have determined that human behavior is determined by not only how a person is hard wired (nature) but also the experiences and environment we experience (nurture). The history that each human has can directly alter that person’s attitude and habits. While this means that a mean spirited person by nature can be induced into a kind being simply through the environment they are in, a normally kind person can easily be broken and become cruel and harsh if they grow up in the right environment.
In Beloved, each character struggles to make a living in the present in spite of horrific encounters in their past. Each character underwent several experiences prior to the start of the novel that have not only altered their perceptions of reality but also heavily influenced their future. This is particularly notable in Sethe’s character. Slavery rarely left a positive mark on its hapless victims, yet Sethe’s encounters with a cruel master scarred Sethe likely beyond her own comprehension. She was whipped. She was milked like a cow. She was characterized as subhuman by a group of students. She witnessed her husband disappear. By the time she escaped and endured the great burdens of running north (a trial made worse by pregnancy), Sethe carried tons of baggage from her time with slavery and was desperate to keep everything she loved (her children) from facing its might. Therefore, when her former owner came to take her back, in an act of fearful haste she killed one of her children and planned to take all of their lives along with her own. She kept her children out of slavery, yet she now added this event to the emotional baggage she already carried.
Sethe cannot avoid her past; no matter how hard of a lock she puts around the events that scarred her the first time, her unhappy past cannot remained bottled up in a tin case. This is best seen in Beloved’s ghost. As long as a person is remembered, their memory can still haunt an individual even beyond the grave and since Sethe put so much weight upon murdering Beloved, she allows fragments of an unhappy past action to collide into modern experiences. Beloved thrives off of Sethe’s memory of the past, loving when Sethe tells stories from her time as a slave and vanishing when Paul D comes (and thus allowing Sethe to have a positive future). The ghost is constantly causing turmoil in 124, yet Sethe refuses to completely forget about the past and Beloved cannot live without Sethe’s memory. Therefore, Beloved gradually forces all events that could possibly distract Sethe from the past away from Sethe. As a result, Sethe is forced to live in the past and cannot escape the stranglehold it has on her existence.
However, although happiness is ultimatly moving beyond the scars of the past, Sethe keeps herself protected from the society that, while it caused her great harm, is the only hope she has of recovery. As a result of slavery, Sethe has placed a barrier around herself and every person she loved. In spite of being surrounded by death and frequent warnings, Sethe loved Halle, Baby Suggs, and her children beyond all comparison. Yet because of the atrocities of slavery, the normal materialistic nature of a mother became an all-but-penetrable guard of her loved ones. While she loves her family dearly, Sethe refuses to “lay it all down; sword and shield” and allow the “cruel” outside world to enter the lives of her or her children. This barrier is reflected in Morrison’s use of trees; ancient entities that make up the physical sanctuaries that Denver and Sethe hide behind to escape the real world. Sethe’s past sowed seeds that, while they protect her and her children to remain beyond slavery, they also keep her locked within her tragic past. Possible happiness remains beyond her asylum and, unless she dropped her guard it would be beyond her reach. Paul D was the first person to challenge the fortress, yet in spite of the remarkable progress he made he recognized that he was “not an ax” that could cut down the trees inside of Sethe. Sethe’s past kept her from progressing into the future, until the entire town exorcised Beloved, her past could not allow her to find happiness.