The question of sympathy in Medea and Beloved (a sister post to my last)

Helen McCrory in the National Theatre Production of Medea, 2014.

It must be near impossible for anyone writing or reading about infanticide to avoid recalling Medea, whether consciously or not. When I set out to write about Beloved, this was the classical text that immediately came to mind but somehow, the comparison just didn’t seem to work. This was partly because I knew that I wanted to write about memory and trauma in Beloved and although there are undoubtedly interesting things to discuss on this front in Medea, I was struggling to see a coherent way forward with the theme of infanticide. Now, having got the memory post done, the dots are beginning to join up. This is not a ‘fully baked’ post but I hope it may be of interest nonetheless.

When I was doing some teaching experience with the Open University during my PhD, I ended up observing and co-marking a seminar and essay on Medea, which focused on whether she was a sympathetic character. This seems like the obvious question to ask about her and indeed, about many of Euripides’ tragic heroes; the tragedy chapter of my PhD focused on just that question about Hecuba in the Trojan Women, exploring whether and how far ancient and modern day audiences should consider their/our empathic responses to tragic, often traumatised, characters in the theatre, particularly where they might influence our judgement as political citizens. I suppose that partly what put me off the original blogpost was that I felt that I had already done this work and rehashing it with another Euripidean woman at its centre would feel like cheating, plus, you know, I’m not a one-trick pony! (If you’re interested in reading this work, there is a link to my thesis on the About page of the blog and the post on Lady Macbeth and Hecuba covers much of the same ground.) One could easily ask this same ‘sympathy’ question about Sethe in Beloved, a runaway slave woman who murders her daughter and attempts to murder her other three children when her owners catch up with her, in order to protect her children from ever experiencing the trauma of her past as a slave. However, while the whole structure of Medea, with its agonistic scenes between Medea and Jason, and choral reflections, presents different sides to the justice, or otherwise, of Medea’s outrage and actions, the question of whether to sympathise with Sethe never seems to be invited by Toni Morrison. Now this is interesting! And this is what I found running around my head this morning and what drove me back to the Surface Pro to blog again.

I’m not going to spend long on the question of sympathy for Medea because it’s one that has been hashed and rehashed and the discussion doesn’t really need my voice to swell it. Also, as I said above, my observations about empathic unsettlement with regard to traumatic narratives are already out there. However, I will just say that in spite of my head knowing that I ‘should be’ ambivalent about Medea, my heart is with her: though she spitefully spits at Jason that she killed the children ‘To cause you pain’, to the Chorus she explains that she will kill them because she cannot ‘surrender them to other crueller hands to kill’. Like Sethe, then, she does not weaponise her children for revenge, but kills them out of love, in order to protect them. It is the action of a woman who has sacrificed absolutely everything in her life for a man and has been left utterly desperate by his betrayal. This is not to say that I think she was ‘right’ but that I can sympathise. The National Theatre production starring Helen McCrory really emphasised this reading of the play, focusing as it did on her humanity, her love for her children and on her complete, heart-breaking desperation.

Morrison definitely encourages us to sympathise with Sethe; she is the main character of the novel, through whom much of the narrative is focalised. We hear about the horrific events of her past, things which happened to her, such as Schoolmaster’s nephews holding her down to suck her baby’s milk from her breasts, and the subsequent beating she received which ‘open[ed] up [her] back’, causing scars like ‘a chokecherry tree’, and also things she witnessed, such as her friend Paul A, faceless and feetless, strung up in a tree, and the casual way in which she mentions torture instruments such as the bit and the collar. As a side note, one of the things the novel is primarily about is motherhood and the impossibility of really being a mother as a slave woman because even their children never really belonged to them. In the Foreword to Beloved, Morrison writes that in thinking about writing this novel, she was interested in the history of African American women ‘in which birthing children was required, but “having” them… being, in other words, their parent – was as out of the question as freedom.’ When Paul D finds out about the murder, he describes Sethe’s love for her children as ‘too thick’, partly because of the earlier explanation – focalised through him – that slaves should only ‘love just a little bit’ because nothing and no one belonged to them and ‘when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.’ He reserved his own love for a tree. When we read about the child-murder, the writing is focalised around Schoolmaster, the slave owner, and through the animalistic terms in which he talks about Sethe – her ‘breeding years’, his comparison of her to a horse or a dog which had been beaten ‘beyond the point of education’ – the way in which slaves were seen and treated by their owners as brutish and less than human is made clear; in spite of seeing Sethe ‘holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other’, the appropriate place for our sympathies at this moment is obvious.

This is not to say that the issue is clear cut. Paul D, on first finding out about the incident says, ‘What you did was wrong, Sethe’ and in words that hit home, ‘You got two feet, Sethe, not four’, suggesting that she should have risen above the bestialising treatment of Schoolteacher and his nephews, proving her humanity, rather than her brutishness. Similarly the people of the town are divided in their opinions of Sethe’s actions: Ella, the woman who ends up leading the women to 124 in Sethe’s defence against Beloved, says, ‘I ain’t got no friends take a handsaw to their own children’, and of the other women in the community, there were those who believed Sethe ‘had it coming.’

However, ultimately, whether the women or Paul D approve or disapprove of Sethe’s actions, the trauma and shame of their own pasts binds them together with her and this transcends any sense of judgement. In Ella’s view, ‘The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind’ and the thought of that past not staying in the past but launching an ‘invasion’ into the present is untenable. For her it’s the thought of ‘that pup’ – a baby she delivered but refused to nurse, fathered by one of the two men (a father and son) who ‘shared’ her as a pubescent girl – ‘coming back to whip her too’ that ‘set her jaw working’. Though we only hear about Ella, the implication is that all the women who rally around Sethe have traumatic pasts that could return in this way and this shared experience surpasses all judgement about the infanticide. For Paul D, it is remembering the essential humanity of Sethe’s treatment of him in the past – the way in which ‘she never mentioned or looked at’ his ‘neck jewelry’ which meant that ‘he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast’ – that persuades him that ‘he wants to put his story next to hers.’ She ‘gathers’ him, allowing him to preserve a sense of his humanity in the face of utter degradation and he performs the same role for her. When he says that he will bathe her at the end, she questions whether the ‘parts’ of her will ‘hold’. However, when she looks at him, she sees the ‘blessedness’ that allows her to voice and cry for her deepest fears and shame. In the end then, Beloved is banished and the future is made possible, because the individuals and the community move beyond judgement of each other’s actions.

So to conclude in brief, I know that I haven’t written much about Medea here, but the issue of judgement appears to me to be central to the play. The different voices of the play warn us against taking any statement by Medea, or about her, too literally, and the dramatic genre, without the voice of an omniscient author, invites the audience – as a body of political citizens – to judge her based on her story, her rhetoric and on what is said about her by others. In Beloved, on the other hand, although we hear many different voices and although the reader is invited to see Sethe’s actions in different ways, the overwhelming tone of the novel is compassionate and in the end, the novel is not about weighing Sethe’s past – its trauma against her violent actions – but rather about the consequences of the past in the present. It is when the characters move on from judgement of the past and find empathy, that the future becomes possible.

Published by sophieraudnitz

English teacher, Classics PhD, teenaged boys and dogs

5 thoughts on “The question of sympathy in Medea and Beloved (a sister post to my last)

  1. Thank you so much for the last two posts – they have given me a lot to think about, but the trouble with me thinking is it both wakes me up and keeps me awake at night in equal measure. Also I have read the posts twice now and will do again as it seems to take me a few reads to understand the points made (always need to think on things).
    I enjoy (if that is the word) considering different types of memory and how they feed into cultural belief. The concept of postmemory is intruiging and I wondered whether this was dependant on trauma being experienced over a prolonged time and, if so, what are the likely time frames. I found the unification of shared trauma which overcomes judgement a particurly powerful thought.
    I will not spoil this by giving my thoughts about the sympathy for Medea (no matter how much I want to) but suffice to say I personally sympathise more with her actions than the Athenian audience might have done (at the end anyway).
    There are only two other points I would like to make: it is painfully evident to me how out of practice I am in communicating analysis in the way you have and the lives and experiences of slaves in the 19th century feels so far removed that it fighteningly alien and equally inaccesible to understand as the lived experiences of the classical world.
    I have enjoyed this so thank you again.

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    1. Thanks for your response! It’s lovely to know that the posts aren’t just disappearing into the ether but are providing genuine food for thought! In terms of postmemory and whether the trauma has to be experienced over a prolonged time… I don’t think I’ve read anything which discussed that specifically; I think it would have to be a profound trauma to have such an effect though. I also read something yesterday about transgenerational memory which is transmitted in utero. I might have to investigate this further!

      I was ashamed at my relative ignorance about the brutality of slave life and how little I had thought about the implications of being owned. Keen to keep reading Morrison!

      Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow – in utero, is that possible? I know chemical can affect so I wonder if it is a case of excess or lack of hormones realeased over an extended time by traumatic experience.
    I completely echo your underdstanding of slave life and just reinforces my belief that it would be impossible for me to write a story from their perspective – not wishing to diminish the serious nature of the subject but in my mind it is the reason I have not read any fiction of women’s experiences in the Trojan War written by men, we just don’t understand the perspective.

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