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Psychoanalysis and La Femme: Special Issue Home

Female (Mis)Identifications:
From Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Jealousy to Beloved’s Shame  
Erica Galioto

January 2010

Maternal Otherness

Though more than one hundred years separates the creation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the vast parallels of the two works encourage us to read them alongside one another.  While Stowe depicts the horrors of pre-Civil War slavery and Morrison displays the failures of reconstruction, both novels chronicle roughly the same time period through plantations that occupy the same space of northern Kentucky and main characters who seek to avoid repercussions of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Since both authors wish to retell the fragmented pieces of historical truths, the lives of the slaves themselves mirror each other.  Morrison, like Stowe, puts the theme of maternal love at her service, focusing on domesticity, reproduction, and the unnatural break-up of black families.  The stories of murdering mothers, neglected children, and sympathetic whites drive both race-conscious narratives.  Morrison pays tribute to Stowe; however, the difference that distinguishes them is huge.  Morrison’s revision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Beloved challenges not only reader-response to sentimentalism, but also the effectiveness of matriarchy and sacrificial ethics in relation to pre- and post- Civil War American history.   

Contextualizing Stowe’s text in isolation, we are forced to remember that the novel’s effect on the abolitionist movement was enormous, inciting masses of Americans into action. Stowe curiously inspires the previously meager movement to multiply through her employment of nineteenth-century sentimentalism.  Stowe’s sad stories, combined with her direct addresses to the reader, encourage a sympathetic identification between the middle-class white mother and the black slave mother that prompted women to face the evils of slavery and subsequently react against its inhumanity.  In her scheme, female domesticity and reproduction is central, and maternal feeling is the paradigm of pure love and selflessness that motivates change.  While it would be futile to negate the effect of Stowe’s sentimentalism on readers at a different historical moment on the brink of civil war, the novel’s canonical status, while often contentious, renders an analysis of its effect on the contemporary female reader particularly pertinent.  Since sentimentalism functions through an identification between the text and the reader, Stowe raises critical questions of identification that she masks to ensure the response she demands.  As twenty-first century readers we must beg the questions that Stowe desperately tries to veil: Can cross-racial identification occur?  What are potential negative effects of cross-racial identification?  Are the goals of this cross-racial identification, such as maternal politics and sacrificial ethics, even desirable within the current context of post-reconstruction America?   It is my belief that Morrison’s revision in Beloved provides the answers to these crucial questions by shifting the roles both of the reader as spectator and the text as object.  I would like to suggest that Stowe, by encouraging reader identification, might unintentionally allow her reader to participate in the masochistic element of racism, whereas Morrison, by encouraging reader voyeurism from multiple perspectives, intentionally shames her reader into bearing witness for the atrocities of slavery.

For Stowe’s plan to work, she must dispel the notion that cross-racial identification is impossible, so she describes black maternal love and domestic space as mirrors to those of her white readers.  On reader engagement of the parallel universe, Stowe is explicit.  Numerous times, particularly when mother/child scenes are heart wrenching, she blends the fictional and actual worlds, demanding an emotional response from the reader.  She asks not just that the white reader acknowledge the suffering of a slave mother, but that she imagine how she would feel if her own children were taken away.  Anticipating the overt refusal of white readers to enter into the feeling of a black other, Stowe universalizes maternal feeling, but in so doing, removes the distinction of the slave experience and depersonalizes their relationships. By generalizing the idea that all mothers, regardless of race, love and protect their children, she lessons the otherness of the other to facilitate a white identificatory relationship. Though Stowe turns to the reader and asks, “What if it were your Harry?” the answer remains that it never would be her Harry (105).  Perhaps Stowe falsely assumes that such identification can occur; though both women may be mothers, assimilating race to the sameness of maternity strips the slave mother of her true subjectivity.  At this point of false identification, Morrison revises Stowe.

If Stowe removes the otherness of the other, Morrison reintroduces it for the mothers themselves.  In other words, Sethe reclaims the otherness of the female slave experience as one that refuses identification, with blacks, whites, and even herself, because no one can share her intimate feeling.  Already alienated from the white community, Sethe is also ostracized from the black town and is even relegated to prisoner in her own mind, as she tries to reconcile her present existence with her past.  Whereas Stowe de-psychologizes the female slave experience in her general expression, Morrison reveals the psychological repercussions of actions that are so unspeakable and unimaginable that they live as undying psychic parasites.  Unlike Stowe, Morrison universalizes not on the basis of motherly love but on the failed reparation effort of reconstruction that finds an ambiguous symbol in Beloved herself.  While Beloved appears specifically as the bodily return of the baby Sethe kills for its protection, she also represents a collective memory through her recollection of the Middle Passage.  Through her haunting power, she is at once one singular memory and the composite of millions of memories.  As Barbara Hill Rigney in The Voices of Toni Morrison writes, “Beloved, then, is both self and other, and always, in Morrison’s fictions, such dichotomies are suggested only to be invalidated, subjected, rejected” (49).  As Morrison exemplifies in both Sethe and Beloved, the very idea of a unified self conducive to identification is problematic.  Morrison nullifies cross-racial identification championed by Stowe because the subjects in Beloved cannot even identify with their internal selves; Sethe’s and Beloved’s inability to coincide with their inner beings marks inter-subjective identification impossible.

Conversely, Stowe masks the difficulty of cross-racial identification by universalizing female domesticity, and then she elevates female reproduction for her political agenda.  In her imagination, society depends on female consciousness, so each relationship she details becomes important to the practical forming of democracy in America.  Her precept is based not on the exclusion of the black race, but rather on the exclusion of men.  With the exception of Tom, who himself is turned into a feminine child, Stowe describes the possibility of an all-female utopia based on loving relationships between mother and child and mother and mother.  By reaching out to the female reader at opportune moments, imploring “And oh! Mother that reads this. . .,” Stowe strategically fashions the females within her text as conduits, vehicles through which white women readers would experience the paradise of domestic politics (153).  Her maternal paradigm is multi-dimensional; she shows not only cross-racial identifications within the text, but she also describes the detrimental effects to both sides of the dyad when the maternal bond is broken too early.

For the parallel between black and white mothers within the text itself, Stowe uses the runaway Eliza and her sympathetic relationships with both Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird.  Rather than being angry about Eliza’s disappearance, Mrs. Shelby actually aids in her escape.  As she seeks the source of the intense feeling she has for Eliza and her child, Mrs. Shelby gets to the crux of the issue questioning, “Am not I a woman—a mother?”  (133).  In addition to fostering an innate connection between mothers inside and outside the text, Stowe continues to show how the patriarchal slave economy works to pervert the possibility of this feminine utopia by contaminating both mothers and their children.  Poor Prue walks around in a living death of drunken stupor as she waits for her eventual death with anticipation.  Her master uses her for breeding purposes and one by one sells all her offspring.  She is allowed the survival of one solitary child, but even “it cried itself to death” (324).  The crazed Cassy, unable to control herself, attacks her master with a bowie-knife after he revokes a promise and sells both of her children.  She subsequently has another child, but puts him quietly to death.  “I would never again let a child live to grow up,” she states chillingly (521).

On the other side of the relationship, children forced to separate from their mothers endure a loss that can never be reclaimed, for they question their very origins.  When asked, “‘Who was your mother?’” Topsy is dumbfounded (355).  Though she does not even realize of what she has been deprived, St. Clare feels his maternal loss acutely.  When he dies, it’s the name “Mother” that escapes from his lips (456).  Even the evil plantation owner Legree was not spared the love and loss of the maternal because “there had been a time when he had been rocked on the bosom of a mother” (528).  Stowe’s feminine utopia depends wholly on the fusion of mother and child; she leads readers to believe that maternal politics reflects an earthly paradise.  While many critics have argued in support of Stowe’s proto-feminist domestic economy, perhaps one of the most notable is Jane Tompkins in “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.”  In response to those who indict Stowe’s political scheme as romantic emotionalism, she effusively writes, “The removal of the male from the center to the periphery of the human sphere is the most radical component of the millenarian scheme” (100).  According to Tompkins, Stowe’s myth is revolutionary because she debunks white patriarchy and instead gives the power to cross-racial maternity.

Morrison’s Beloved provides proof that the myth of Stowe and Tompkins is faulty by detailing the negative political and psychic effects of matriarchy and generalizing the specific examples of Faulkner’s Southern mothers to critique a movement dependent upon maternal universality.  On the one hand, Morrison shows how Stowe’s myth only ostensibly excludes an omnipresent patriarchal power structure, and on the other hand, Morrison reveals how her ideal does, in fact, remove the necessary triangulating presence of the psychoanalytic law of the father.  As Lori Askeland’s “Remodeling the Model Home in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved” argues, neither novel is ultimately able to rid itself of the burden of white patriarchal power, though both attempt a political matriarchy.  Critiquing Stowe’s politics, Askeland maintains that “her matriarchal ideal does not finally alter the basic structure of the patriarchy” because the Christian God looms overhead as the ruling power of man and white civilization (802).  The actions of the women are still over-determined by a force out of their control even if corporeal men are relegated to the fringe.  Similar to the white Christianity that exercises its power in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, white authority continues to circumscribe Beloved’s Bluestone 124.  The all-female enclave resides in a structure harrowed out by abolitionists, the Bodwin family, and Denver gasps her first breath at the hands of a white pseudo-nurse, Amy Denver.  Even though they appear to be an autonomous female unit, the matriarchy of Bluestone 124 is underwritten by a power out of its control.        

While the exterior of Bluestone 124 is constantly undermined by the oppressive, even when absent, force of white patriarchy, the interior erodes due to its own internal disease.  At one time, three generations of females reside within its walls, but their reality bears no resemblance to Stowe’s utopia of maternal plenitude.  “124 was spiteful,” writes Morrison (3).  Even before Baby Suggs’ death and Beloved’s arrival, this isolated matriarchy of excluded women begins to recoil on itself, and Morrison suggests that perhaps its recession is due to Sethe’s belief that “there is no world outside my door”  (184).  Morrison, like Faulkner, reveals that a maternal paradigm may not be as innocent as Stowe implies, for maternity is an antagonism itself.  According to psychoanalytic theory, separation from the mother, predicated on the law of the father, is an ethical necessity, though both mother and child usually desire fusion.  Interrupting the dyad of mother and child, the father, embodying the law, voices his desire of the mother, thereby allowing the mother’s lack to emerge.  When this triangulation does not occur, as in Beloved, neither mother nor child is allowed separate subjectivity and the system begins to incestuously close in on itself. 

In Bluestone 124, a third term does not disrupt the maternal union, and so Sethe becomes the devouring mother who allows no separation.  In Stowe the masculine violates the all-female world, but in Morrison this unit cannot survive without the law of the father.  Through the character Sethe, Morrison ruptures the notion that motherhood is entirely benign.  Instead of the idyllic space of fullness, Sethe is both the scary Medea, who extinguishes her offspring, and also the suffocating mother, who refuses Denver her own place of subjectivity.  Morrison describes Denver’s subjective destitution writing, “Now [Denver] cries because she has no self” (123).  Without the necessary separation from her mother’s suffocating presence, the memory of maternal violence haunts her.  “I’m scared of her because of it,” Denver thinks to herself (205).  According to Morrison, neither mother nor child benefits from this contaminated dynamic based on (mis)identification.  While Stowe champions reunion with the maternal figure as a natural source of politics, Morrison shows severance as the ultimate goal of autonomy.

Morrison also provides powerful counterpoints to Stowe’s vision of emasculated men. Paul D stands as the weakened figure, demoted from the interior to the exterior.  He “even wavers before that which Sethe represents—the phallic mother, the Medusa” (Rigney 99).  Paul D is stripped of his manhood as a slave, and now he has no power to resist Sethe’s memories or Beloved’s sexual advances.  He may be marginalized to the edge of the maternal economy, but his status is certainly not one to be emulated.  Repeatedly raped by Beloved, he does not even have control over his body’s materiality.  While he cannot speak it out loud, internally he thinks, “I am not a man” (126).  Gender segregation praised by Stowe is not progressive in Beloved, but rather reminiscent of slave manipulation.  Paul D recollects that when he was separated from women at Sweet Home, the other male slaves and he were “minus women, fucking cows, dreaming of rape” (11).  Also maternity itself could never be the pure, untainted bedrock of political progress because Sethe’s most heinous violation is the taking of her breast milk.  Instead of joyfully reminiscing about her own mother, Sethe dismays, “I sucked from another woman whose job it was” (60).  Morrison shows how gender separation and idealized matriarchy will never aid in reconstruction efforts; integration of memory, gender, and race is necessary or the process will continually be thwarted.

Jealous Racism

While Stowe’s intended maternal identification is problematic in itself, it is her unintended masochistic identification that concerns me now, as it bespeaks the central paradox of sentimental literature.  Stowe’s sentiment forces the reader not only to identify with the mothers in the text as they are separated from their children, but also as they feel sorrow for violated black bodies.  Through this second identification, issues of violence, sexuality, and desire are brought to the forefront, as white female readers could potentially identify with two positions: the aggressor of the black body and the pained black body itself.  Stowe’s overdetermined sentiment could possibly contribute to the system she tries to dismantle.  Forging an identification based on physical pain, she aims to create a “sentimental wound,” described in the words of Marianne Noble as “a bodily experience of anguish caused by identification with the pain of another” (295).  Conveyed between text and reader, a sentimental wound should allow the reader to mentally experience the physical pain perpetrated on the body of an other.  As she envisioned mothers mentally identifying over the loss of children, Stowe also saw them identifying with those black characters who are physically violated.  However, by encouraging such an identification at the bodily level, Stowe’s representation may contribute to an economy of masochistic pleasure, where the reader does not feel sorry for, but rather sexual excitement from the other’s pain.

Leo Bersani in an early essay entitled “Representation and its Discontents” (1981) argues that sympathetic identification is problematic because of the sexuality that infuses all identificatory relationships.  In this text, Bersani contends that the device of sentiment, while usually linked to art’s moral imperatives, as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “. . . always includes a trace of sexual pleasure, and that this pleasure is, inescapably, masochistic” (150).  Bersani outlines this paradox by writing, “the very operation of sympathy partially undermines the moral solidarity that we like to think of as its primary effect” (150).  While Stowe might wish for her scenes of violence to motivate a moral response from her reader, Bersani’s argument suggests that these scenes of violence and suffering actually are appealing to the reader because sexual excitation is an effect of mimetic representation.  The reader becomes especially susceptible to this excitation when the representation itself is of a violent nature, as in many of the scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  As Freud first enunciates in “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” and Bersani extends, pain and sexuality are closely linked because sexual pleasure is located at the point of jouissance, where pain and pleasure merge.  All sexuality might be considered masochistic because we find pleasure in that which is painful to our subjective orientation.

 Elaborating on the connection between pain and sexuality, Bersani writes, “Pleasure and pain are therefore both experienced as sexual pleasure when they are strong enough to shatter a certain stability or equilibrium of the self” (148).  According to Bersani, sexuality is this shattering that is experienced as pleasure in pain; the violent destruction or unexpected disruption of the unified self is where the subject finds sexual pleasure.  Stowe’s violent shattering of black bodies then becomes not what the reader detests but what the reader lusts after because it represents subjective breaking.  While at first glance, this excitation in shattering may appear to be sadistic pleasure in the other’s pain, Bersani notes, following Freud, that sadism is really just identification with the shattered object.  In other words, sadism is actually disguised masochism: a pleasurable identification with the pain of the other.  Since Stowe’s text does encourage identification, it is possible that an identification other than the one she intends may be produced.  Rather than finding the violent shattering of her black subjects morally reprehensible, her reader might find sexual excitement in the harmful dissolution of subjectivity.

Other critics have also called attention to the issues related to violence and sexuality in Stowe’s text, but they have failed to address how the pleasure in shattering may be linked to racism.  On the one hand, critics argue that Stowe eroticizes violence in order to purge black sexual desire, while on the other hand, critics argue that violent self-sacrifice eroticizes Christian transcendence.  Peter Stoneley’s “Sentimental Emasculations: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Black Beauty” argues that Stowe attempts to expunge both threatening black desire and frightening desire for black (by her white readers).  Since “blackness calls forth or threatens to desublimate white desire,” Stowe, in his reading, shows the subjugation of menacing black desire to powerful white law (57).   To this end, Stowe details inter-racial whipping tinged with eroticism in an effort to beat the blackness out.  According to Stoneley, Stowe is also concerned with the potential for her white female readers to desire black men, so the erotic violence can also be read as a punishment for inter-racial desire.  Dissuading the actual eruption of such longing, Stowe, in Stoneley’s argument, exposes the sexual desire of white women for black men and then shows the revulsion for this desire through violence. 

Marianne Noble’s “The Ecstasies of Sentimental Wounding in Uncle Tom’s Cabin” focuses on sacrificial ethics and its erotic violence.  In her compelling, yet incomplete reading, the martyrdom of self-sacrifice is erotic to the reader only because it is projected onto a pained black body.  Violence itself is not touted as a sexual expression, but “violence functions as a trope for an ecstatic jouissance associated with the loss of isolated individuality” (Noble 306).  The martyrdom fantasy of Tom becomes sexualized only because it allows the possibility of an ecstatic fusion with God.  She writes, “wounds that a whipping opens in the skin can be zones of ‘joy and desire’ because they are gates between a person’s isolated individuality and God’s kingdom” (305).  In Noble’s argument, the reader does not find pleasure in the violent shattering itself, but in the Christian transcendence that the shattering allows.  In the example of Tom’s ultimate sacrifice, his response, “I can die!” provides more ecstasy in his anticipated union with Christ, than Legree’s inhumane violence: “Legree, foaming with rage, smote his victim to the ground” (Stowe 582, 583).  What both Stoneley and Noble seem to miss is that the reader might find masochistic pleasure in the shattering itself, not in what the shattering destroys (black desire) or in what the shattering allows (transcendence).

While the arguments can certainly be made that Stowe’s erotic violence comes from her beating out black desire or glorifying Christian sacrifice, neither claim fully encapsulates Bersani’s notion of mimetic representation and its sexual effect on the reader.  In both Stoneley’s and Noble’s articles, the reader’s sexual pleasure is conspicuously absent; her excitement is either outright repudiated or deferred to the afterlife.  To bring the reader back into focus, I’d like to turn to Freud’s “A Child Is Being Beaten” (1919), where he discusses beating fantasies and their masochistic pleasures.  Naming art as a recurring impetus for beating fantasies, Freud writes, “In my patient’s milieu it was almost always the same book whose contents gave a new stimulus to the beating fantasies: those accessible to young people, such as the so-called Bibliotheque Rose, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, etc.”  (98).  Not surprisingly, Stowe’s treatise is mentioned as one whose violent scenes often provide onanistic gratification.  Freud finds that his auto-erotically entertained patients experience intermitting periods of pleasure and repugnance in response to their fantasies of beating, especially when they have aesthetic origins. 

According to Freud’s analysis, the beating fantasies usually occur in three distinct phases, following from early childhood to adulthood.  The first phase is not considered masochistic because the child is not in the fantasy and the beater is usually the father.  The second phase is both unconscious and masochistic because the child is being beaten by its father, and “the fantasy is accompanied by a high degree of pleasure” (103).  The third and final stage aligns with the masochistic reader of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Once again, the victim is not the child and the aggressor is not the father, though the child says, “I am probably looking on” (104).  However, this element of observance does not mean that the onlooker is enjoying a sadistic spectacle, but rather, like Bersani indicates, a masochistic identification with the person being tortured.  Although s/he may watch the scenes as a removed observer, the subject actually substitutes him/herself for the child through identification.  In these fantasies, the desire to be punished like the beaten child forms the basis of identification.  According to Freud, the desire for punishment stems from sibling rivalry over the father’s love.  These beating fantasies usually begin in stage one when the child imagines that the father loves him/her more than the other children in the family, which is why he is seen as initially beating another child.  Since feelings of jealousy actually instigate the original fantasies, by the final stage, the child believes s/he should be punished for her jealousy and thus masochistically identifies with the beaten child. 

In this text, Freud also begins to define a relationship that persists throughout his career between women and masochistic pleasure in passivity that feeds directly in Stowe’s novel.  Though I cannot do justice to all of the nuances about women and masochism here, Freud notes that while most of his patients were female, “The children who are beaten are almost invariably boys” (109).  Similarly, in Stowe’s text, most of the beaten black bodies are male, while her readers are expected to be female.  Violence against women is never shown directly, but rather suggested, while violence against men is often described in detail.  For example, the reader hears about violence against women second-hand, as with Topsy: “I’ve seen this child whipped with a poker, knocked down with the shovel or tongs, whichever came handiest” (363).  And with George’s mother: “and the last thing I heard was her moans and screams, when I was tied to his horse’s neck, to be carried off to his place” (186).  And also, when aggression against women is not described second-hand, it is only suggested and never comes to fruition, as when Legree first inspects Emmeline, “He put out his heavy, dirty hand, and drew the girl towards him; passed it over her neck and bust”  (477).  While violence against women is always veiled, aggression against men is often seen quite vividly, as with Dodo: “Henrique struck him across the face with his ridingwhip, and, seizing one of his arms, forced him onto his knees, and beat him till he was out of breath”  (388).  George:  “He tied me to a tree, and cut switches for young master, and told him that he might whip me till he was tired;—and he did do it!”  (61).  And Tom: “He struck Tom across the face with his whip”  (503).  In “A Child Is Being Beaten,” Freud explains these cross-gendered beating fantasies with his notion of penis envy, the desire for women to actually be men.  Cross-gendered identification of white women with violated black bodies then becomes possible, as sexual gratification may arise from the beating itself, not from what precedes or proceeds the beating.

The beatings in Stowe’s text parallel the fantasies described by Freud, because, while Stowe does explicitly draw out some harmful details, she leaves many of the violent scenes unwritten, and instead encourages her readers to imagine the scenarios.  As Noble affirms, “readers construct the images of torture within their minds, drawing upon the incidental details” (304).  Stowe sets the scene of an inter-racial attack, but she leaves the particular details up to the reader’s imagination to be as severe as she deems.  She uses veiled descriptions such as, “scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart.  What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear” and “so as not to shock the eyes and senses of respectable society” to convey the harshness of physical torture, though she allows her readers to take it upon themselves to paint their own fantasies of pain  (583, 467).  So once again, Stowe’s intent may be thwarted.  By allowing violent scenes to transpire offstage, she actually invites readers to use the text for their own masochistic sexual excitement. 

By letting the white female reader construct masochistic fantasies that have jealousy at their root, Stowe might unintentionally fuel the racist thought that Jacques Lacan links to masochism.  In the following famous passage from the Ethics Seminar, Lacan sets up a problematic in which the racial other is perceived to access a forbidden jouissance that creates jealousy within the white spectator:

Lebensneid is not ordinary jealousy, it is the jealousy born in a subject in his relation to an other, insofar as this other is held to enjoy a certain form of jouissance or superabundant vitality that the subject perceives as something that he cannot apprehend by means of even the most elementary of affective movements.  (237) 

Inter-racial violence in the manner of Stowe might inspire this kind of jealous identification on the basis of a forbidden jouissance that the aggressor locates in the black body.  The white female spectator believes that the black man is enjoying a kind of forbidden jouissance that she cannot apprehend, so jealousy results.  Punishing the black body violently allows her to identify masochistically, like the girl with her sibling in Freud’s cases, and she feels pleasure in attacking her own reprehensible jealous thoughts.  The cycle reproduces itself as the spectator envies the perceived jouissance of the black other and then masochistically enjoys her own punishment.  

Following Lacan, Slavoj Žižek extends the individual jealousy of a racial other to encompass group domination.  He writes “excessive enjoyment is the necessary support of social relationships of domination” (51).  Since one group is perceived to experience excess enjoyment, the group who dominates strives to suppress this group, making it inferior through political or social power.  If the other group were not projected as experiencing forbidden jouissance, then there would be no envy and no need to dominate.  Since Uncle Tom’s Cabin is predicated on the suppression of blacks, this individual jealousy might then contribute to large-scale suppression of racial others.  Like the beating fantasies in Stowe, the hatred and aggression that is characteristic of racism can be explained in terms of self-punishment and jealousy.  S/he knows that his/her jealousy is reprehensible, so when s/he punishes the black other for his perceived jouissance, s/he masochistically enjoys punishment through identification.

Since the white spectator actually believes that s/he is inferior to the black other due to a perceived jouissance, the hatred and aggression of racism allows the onlooker to feel superior as he inscribes inferiority on the black other.  As Franz Fanon argues in Black Skin, White Masks, this repeated trauma perpetuates the inborn inferiority complex that plagues the collective black unconscious.  While I do not mean to dismiss Stowe’s project entirely because her intentions are admirable and she certainly does not exist in a vacuum, I do want to suggest that her employment of sentiment, combined with scenes of beating, might encourage the contemporary female reader to participate in an economy of racism based on jealousy.

Shameful  Restraint 

While Stowe may unintentionally contribute to jealous racism on an individual masochistic level that finds pleasure in self-shattering, Morrison’s effect in Beloved is much different.  Instead of perpetrating reader identification, she encourages reader voyeurism from multiple perspectives, thus making it difficult for the reader to find masochistic identification with black figures of suffering.  The white female reader of Morrison’s text is moved to shame, not jealousy.  As she looks on while the characters describe their own shameful feelings, she finds herself moved to shame when she is caught in the act of observance.  Rather than championing an ethic of sacrifice that postpones contentment to the afterlife, Morrison supports an ethic of non-sacrifice that refuses identification but induces shame.  Morrison’s employment of shame as a reader-response strategy emanates largely from its presence in the text itself.  Elaboration on what this shame accomplishes within the minds of her female readers proves to be a stark contrast from Stowe’s sentiment.   

Morrison centers her readers on the affect of shame throughout her text, as she mentions it nearly twenty times in reference to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Denver.  Although the presence of shame as an affect is persistent, Morrison’s references are not haphazard.  Each time she conveys the inner shame of a character, she deliberately chooses the affect to refer to particular details about the feeling itself.  Sometimes the characters feel shame when they watch the violation of someone they care about, like when Sethe observes the hanging of her mother:  “something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind, right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross” (61).  Or when Denver watches Sethe and Beloved reverse their roles of mother and daughter: “it shamed her to see her mother serving a girl not much older than herself” (242).  Other times a character feels shame when s/he is the object of the watching, when someone else watches him/her at the moment of violation.  Paul D feels shame when he is forced into sexual activity with Beloved, as he anticipates what it looks like for an outside viewer.  He also wants to hide away all his bad memories from Sethe, “for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him” (73).  He even recalls the shame he felt when he was observed by inhuman roosters who were present during his periods of violation.  “Walking past the roosters looking at them look at me,” shames Paul D to inferiority even in the gaze of an animal (71).  The desire to prevent a shame-inducing look contributes to a feeling of restraint, a stoppage of activity.  After Sethe’s crime, Baby Suggs wants to avoid the stare of curious onlookers, so it was “shame that put her in the bed” and restrained her from preaching (177).

As these examples show, shame depends on a gaze from the outside, a look from others.  However, this looked transpires at times when the subject is shattered through subjective destitution.  When the shattered subject looks back and meets the outside gaze, s/he is expected to respond in some way, yet this response is impossible.  At the precise moment of shame, the subject is asked to assume what is unassumable.  Like a trauma that is inassimilable, the shattered self cannot produce a response for the gaping gaze, other than veiled eyes and a slow retreat.  In effect, the subject is in a pattern of restraint, unable to move forward.  A self is seen through the eyes of the other, but it is so broken and shattered that it disallows identification with not only the onlooker, but also with the person experiencing the gaze.  The ability for the watchers to also experience shame is often why voyeurs feel the same shame they provoke in their objects; when they are caught in the act of looking, they too are objectified into shame.  The feeling of stark exposure and bare nudeness make the watched subject feel as if s/he is being singled out in a gesture of utter singularity.  As Morrison’s text indicates, shame, like the uncanny, is not an affect that can be felt whole-scale because it depends upon internal otherness; each person’s shattering is exceptionally felt by no one else.

In psychoanalytic terms, shame is often described as a “second death,” as an annihilation beyond what is imaginable (Lacan 248).  Sethe describes the feeling of complete bodily and psychic annihilation, when she described the capacity of white people to “dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore” (251).  Lacan writes that “one cannot finish off someone who is a man as if he were a dog” without pushing one to the second death of shame (279).  Unfortunately, Sethe describes how she, along with Paul D, was treated as if she were an animal—pushed beyond the limit of human treatment—“after they handled me like I was a cow”  (200).  In this shame-inducing description, neither psychic shattering nor physical death brings any respite; the suffering continues although no human subject is present.  Beloved’s unrest certainly proves that death has not brought an end to her suffering.  Her resting-place is not even sacred as she has nothing on her tombstone, save the one word for which Sethe prostitutes herself.  The affect of shame also indicates that the violator takes away not just one’s life, but one’s capacity to enjoy.  In other words, aggressive violators often aim directly at one’s jouissance, so as to contaminate the possibility of pleasure altogether, as when Sethe’s attack targets the pleasure of maternity directly.  Sethe describes the contamination of jouissance saying, “Slaves not supposed to have pleasurable feelings on their own” (209).

As in Beloved’s description of slave survivors, Georgio Agamben in a chapter from Remnants of Auschwitz names shame as the primary affect experienced by Holocaust survivors; the shared expression of shame lends itself to the parallel often made between slavery and the Holocaust.  While many might label this lingering feeling of shame in both cases as “survivor guilt,” Agamben maintains that the shame of survivors has nothing to do with living in place of someone else.  And so we should not align the shame of Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Paul D with their survival, but rather with a limit that they have reached but not yet crossed.  This limit might be described, following Agamben, as an internal difference inside the subject, the same interior alienation that resists identification with external others.  Similar to the uncanny, at this moment of shame, a subject’s noncoincidence with itself is felt most acutely.  Agamben would say that a subject experiences shame when asked to be present during its own desubjectivation: a paradox that describes the double movement of needing to account for oneself at the very moment at which that accounting is impossible.  The subject tries to run away from itself, but the fleeing fails.  Shame is the restraint s/he feels, the tug when s/he cannot get any further away.  Agamben argues that this restraint emerges “because the unrestrainable impulse to flee from oneself is confronted by an equally certain impossibility of evasion” (105).  Although distance from the self is what is most needed at the moment of suffering, this distance is deliberately refused.  When the intimacy of jouissance is forcefully shattered, shame arises because of its precise capacity to be shattered.  The “I” emerges at the point at which it is taken away.

As Agamben writes, readers of Holocaust literature, and I would also argue slave literature, are expected to bear witness to the feeling of shame survivors endured during their desubjectivations—and their repercussions in the present day—when they were forced to assume what could not be assumed.  Morrison asks her readers to bear witness to Sethe’s most horrific acts by giving multiple viewpoints with which to view her.  Sethe’s gang attack at the behest of Schoolteacher is her paragon moment of shame, and this desubjectivation in turn informs her later infanticide.  Sethe’s physical and sexual violation is seen from her point of view, from Halle’s point of view as it is told through Paul D, and from Denver’s point of view as it is told through Beloved.  By always describing the action as memory or as removed from the viewer retelling it to the reader, Morrison prevents the mimetic identification between the reader and the text that might lapse into masochistic pleasure.  No details are left to the reader’s imagination as in Stowe’s text; glimpses from this primal scene of violence are peppered throughout the entire novel and reflect a memory plagued by details that are never fully assumed. 

The reader first experiences voyeurism as Sethe recounts to Paul D the last night before her escape: “After I left you, those boys came in and took my milk. That’s what they came in there for. Held me down and took it” (Morrison 16).  Beating her when she is pregnant and stealing the milk she needs to keep her baby alive, the men who accost Sethe shame her to a point beyond mere physical assault, for they steal her intimate maternal jouissance.  Psychically absent when accounting for herself is most necessary, Sethe’s attack persists as a shameful reminder of her shattered self.  Paul D, though not present during the attack itself, bears witness to its enunciation, as we should as readers, and recalls, “But what [Schoolteacher] did broke three more Sweet Home men and punched the glittering iron out of Sethe’s eyes, leaving two open wells that did not reflect firelight”  (9).  Morrison’s image of Sethe’s eyes is particularly powerful when thought of in relation to shame.  Sethe’s eyes cannot look outward because she is afraid to meet to gaze of others, and no one can look in to shame her any further.  She exists in a perpetual mode of restraint; she cannot show what she cannot see for herself.  Although she thought her husband Halle had no knowledge of her violation, Sethe learns from Paul D that he did see from the loft overhead, and it shamed him to the point of delirium.  Encouraging reader voyeurism now from Halle’s perspective, Paul D breaks it to Sethe: “But whatever he saw go on in that barn that day broke him like a twig” (68).  The last time Paul D saw Halle, “He had butter all over his face” (69).  Sethe internally adds, “looking down on what I couldn’t look at all. And not stopping them—looking and letting it happen” (70). 

Halle’s shame of observance restrains him to a point of paralysis; while Sethe can mask her subjective destitution, he cannot.  Sethe, like the reader, now sees her broken, devalued, abject self through the eyes of Halle, and once again she sees herself as shattered.  Called to bear witness but failing miserably, Halle becomes one more shame-inducing gaze falling on Sethe.  Beloved also allows the reader to observe from another perspective, through Denver who does not understand the shame of her mother.  Morrison writes, “Denver was seeing it now and feeling it through Beloved. Feeling how it must have felt to her mother” (78).  Unlike Stowe’s veiling of violent acts, Sethe’s bare nakedness appears for all to see from a multiplication of perspectives, and she asks, “Why was there nothing it refused?”  (70). This violation hits at the core of her jouissance and motivates her non-sacrificial ethical act of infanticide.          

As the reader sees Sethe’s penultimate violation from multiple perspectives, she also voyeuristically observes her murderous rage against her children in the shed from varied viewpoints.  Though the reader aligns with many gazes, all resist identification with Sethe’s reaction the day Schoolteacher returns for her children.  Despite the fact that the other observers also endured the horrors of slavery, they cannot identify with her infanticide and so they also block the reader from a similar identification.  Neither textual observer nor the female reader can understand Sethe’s motivation in the shed because her behavior connects to her singular shame and the intimate jouissance of her being.  Despite Ella’s own starvation of a child produced under duress of a white master, “she understood Sethe’s rage in the shed twenty years ago, but not her reaction to it” (256).  Though Stamp initially sails Sethe to freedom still bloody from her attack and weak from childbirth, he remarks, “I ain’t got no friends take a handsaw to their own children” (187).  Even Paul D says, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” when she finally legitimizes the rumors (165).  Observing Sethe’s act alongside these characters, the reader cannot identify with Sethe because Morrison disallows the identification that might contribute to masochism.  What the reader does understand is that Sethe’s motivation is intimately connected to her jouissance, the same stolen jouissance that shames her in the barn.  What distinguishes the two is that the stolen jouissance in the barn shames her, while the jouissance in the shed does not.

Defiantly stating, “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe,” Sethe indicates that her non-sacrificial act is worthy of no shame (164).  She does not shrink back in restraint, but rather follows her desire to the end.  Her desire entailed that she keep her baby safe, so by killing her, she actually affirms the love of her child.  Although Sethe gives up what is most precious to her, she is not a martyr, nor is her act a sacrifice.  Death is only the coincident effect of following her desire. “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all,” Sethe states, and because she acts in conjunction with this love, she feels no shame (164).  When she is viewed from the perspective of others in the community, she is not shamed for this act because the subject they view is not broken like the one in the barn.  Her jouissance has not been stolen, but rather it has been protected.  Like Medea and Antigone who protect their jouissance until the end, Sethe intimidates the onlookers for “what she claimed” (164).

Similar to a voyeur totally contained in the act of watching who is suddenly surprised to find himself turned into an object, the reader of Beloved is also reminded of her object status.  As Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber also notes in a psychoanalytic analysis of Beloved, readers “experience themselves as objects when they realize that the African-American text is gazing at them, signifying something about themselves” (447).  The reader does indeed find herself surprisingly turned into an object when the constructed distance between herself and the text crumbles, making the words too close for the reader to bear.  The effect of this too-closeness causes not just an objectification, but I would argue, also shame.  Shame, like the uncanny, operates within and without Beloved.  The text finally turns its gaze on the reader during Beloved’s inter-subjective soliloquy that blends her with Denver and Sethe, in addition to the reader through the persistent “you.”  Whereas the reader previously watches the action in the text from a distant multiplication of identities, suddenly she is called to bear witness.  Surprisingly turning a shame-provoking gaze on the reader, Morrison writes, “You are my face; I am you/Why did you leave me who am you? . . . You forgot to smile/I loved you/You hurt me/You came back to me/You left me” (216-217).  Caught in the act of looking, the reader is shamed to learn that she too is an object.  Previously wide-eyed and eager to continue consumption of the text, the reader feels the restraint of shame and pulls back, averts her eyes, and covers her nude exposure.  No pleasure is found here, but instead the desubjectivation encountered through the gaze.  Like the other townspeople who are suddenly called to bear witness for Sethe at the request of Denver, the reader’s response is equally ambiguous: “Maybe they were sorry for her or for Sethe.  Maybe they were sorry for the years of their own disdain” (249).  Maybe the response is nothing more than to pause in restraint and acknowledge the “disremembered and unaccounted for” (274).  She encounters a fleeting moment of the shame of slavery; she bears witness to the stolen jouissance that can never be recovered and the protected jouissance that can motivate murder.

Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved provoke the white female gaze.  In Stowe’s attempt to facilitate sameness, she denies maternal otherness and perpetrates masochistic pleasure.  And in Morrison’s recognition of internal alienation, she calls her reader to bear witness for what can never be accounted.  Perhaps what both Stowe and Morrison show is that the only response to slavery is an intimately personal one: a response that touches the center of one’s jouissance where identification is impossible.  Rather than looking at slavery through a pleasurable fantasy or blind denial, the female reader should observe through the humble restraint of eyes covered by open fingers.  Not with the shame-provoking “Look” of whites, but with the personal shame of unaccountability.  “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 275) with female (mis)identification, but with open acknowledgement that we should all be shamed into restraint when the gaze of slavery lifts its eyes. 


Works Cited

Agamben, Georgio. “Shame, or On the Subject.” In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone, 1999.     

Askeland, Lori. “Remodeling the Model Home in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved.” American Literature 64.4 (1992): 785-805.   

Bersani, Leo. “Representation and Its Discontents.” Allegory & Representation. Ed. Stephen J. Greenblatt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981. 145-62. 

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967.

Freud, Sigmund. “A Child Is Being Beaten.” Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963. 97-122.

Lacan Jaques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1987.

Noble, Marianne. “The Ecstasies of Sentimental Wounding in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 10.2 (1997): 295-317. 

Rigney, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1991.

Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. “Reader, Text, and Subjectivity: Toni Morrison’s Beloved as Lacan’s Gaze Qua Object.” Style 30.3 (1996): 445-62.

Stoneley, Peter. “Sentimental Emasculations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Black Beauty.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 54 (1999): 53-72.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Tompkins, Jane. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 81-104

Žižek, Slavoj.  The Plague of Fantasies.  New York: Verso, 1997.


Erica D. Galioto is an Assistant Professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches classes in American literature and psychoanalysis, English education, and writing.  Her research focuses on a concept she calls “real-world therapy”: everyday experiences in fiction and life that occasion therapeutic effects outside a clinical setting. “ Split Skin: Adolescent Cutters and the Other” is forthcoming in an edited collection entitled Skin, Culture, and Psychoanalysis.


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