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Sethe Suggs is a strong woman who lives under an oppressive cultural and social system that does not permit her to be nurtured or to nurture others reliably. Sethe was hurt severely by her mother's inability to care for her because of the slave environment in which they lived; taken from her mother as an infant, she only saw her a few times in her life. As a result, she has pitifully few bits and pieces of memory of her mother. As an adult, Sethe understands that her mother was constrained by slavery and, therefore, literally unable to tend to her. As a child, however, she could not understand the lack of attention she received from her mother. She felt only abandonment and loss. Even as an adult, Sethe still hurts from her lack of a true mother.
Sethe responded to her own mother’s abandonment by wanting to be a reliable and nurturing mother herself. Unfortunately, slavery would not allow her to succeed. She could not nurture her children as infants because they were taken from her so that Sethe would be free to do slave labor. Additionally, Sethe was separated from other women who could have advised her on caring for her children. She knew, however, that her mother’s milk was vitally important to her children; it was the one reliable source of nurturing for them. It was also the only thing that she could give her sons and daughters, for she had no money of her own to buy things for them. When her milk was brutally stolen by Schoolteacher’s nephews, she felt robbed of her ability to be a mother and nurture her child.
Sethe understands the horrors of slavery in its most intimate violations--the violations of family trust between mother and child. She also understands the violation of being treated as an animal and is determined that her own children will not endure the treatment she has received at the hands of white slaveholders. Since she believed that the next world would be a safer place than this one, she tried to kill all her children rather than seeing them grow up in slavery. Even though she believed she was acting reasonably and in good faith, she also knew that she had no right to take her baby's life. As a result, she is haunted by guilt throughout the novel.
Sethe's recovery involves her facing and dealing with the past. When she tries to leave it behind without confronting it, the past comes back to her embodied and demanding in the form of Beloved. Even then, she tries to forget the past and make up for it, instead of grieving, accepting, and working through it. She tries to give up herself in order to give everything to the child she injured. In the end, she is able to accept herself and take a path toward wholeness.
Baby Suggs, the mother of Halle and the mother-in-law of Sethe, lived sixty years in slavery and lost eight children to it. She tried to stop loving her children, but that proved to be impossible. Once she is bought out of slavery by Halle, she helps other ex-slaves claim freedom by running a way station to support their needs and by preaching to them about the necessity of loving themselves. Baby Suggs is a nurturing soul. Although she had never seen the children of Halle and Sethe, she accepts and nurtures them once they arrive on her doorstep. In a like manner, she greets Sethe and her newborn infant warmly and offers them support and a home.
Baby Suggs is literally destroyed by Sethe’s actions in the shed. Horrified over the murder, she struggles with the impossible choice between condemning a woman who killed her child to save it from slavery and agreeing with that woman's actions. Overcome with a sense of loss, she simply gives up her will to live and dies about a month after her granddaughter’s murder.