On the surface, any similarities between the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz seem very superficial. Both are novels about Black families in America, but that’s about where the similarities seemingly end. Beloved, published in 1987, tells the story of a group of ex-slaves living in post-civil war Ohio; Oscar Wao, published in 2007, tells the story of a nerdy Dominican teen’s search for love. And the main character of Beloved, Sethe, who would do anything for those around her, seems to have little in common with Beli, Oscar’s mother, who is most often seen screaming and cursing at her kids.
However, the more you dig beneath the obvious plotlines, you notice the two novels actually do have a lot in common. Both books reach deep into the family histories: Beloved into Sethe’s experience in and escape from slavery and Oscar Wao into Beli’s experience in and escape from the Dominican Republic under the dictatorial Trujillo regime. Both explore how those pasts influence the women’s relationships with their children. In fact, mother/child relationships are a very large theme in both books– both Sethe and Beli were nurtured by mother figures who were not their biological mothers, and the novels explore those relationships, too. Both Sethe and Beli lose children that they very much loved and are left to mourn afterwards.
The thing that leapt out at me, though, that made me really link these two characters in my head is that both Sethe and Beli bear physical scars from their past on their backs– expansive, knotted scars, Sethe’s from being whipped as punishment for telling her owner how she had been abused by the overseers and Beli’s from getting hot oil thrown on her as punishment when she told her cruel foster family that she was going to go to school instead of work. In both cases, the scars serve as a physical reminder of extremely painful pasts.
Sethe and Beli are complicated figures. Sethe seems less complicated, at least at first– she is a bit of an outcast in her town, but she seems steadfast and giving and caring. Then, we find out why she’s an outcast: she killed her own 2-year-old daughter by cutting her throat when they were found by slave catchers. Sethe explains to another character that she was trying to kill her children “to put them somewhere safe” before they could be taken back to slavery.
Beli, as an adult and as a mother, never seems steadfast, giving, or caring. She has a contentious relationship with her daughter and a manipulative one with her son, and has no problem yelling or cursing at them. It’s obvious that she’s a terrible mother. Even when she is dying of cancer, it’s hard to sympathize with her.
These characters’ pasts, exemplified by their scars, open a door to understanding them. It is incredibly hard to move past the knowledge that a character has murdered her own daughter, but we are also invited back into her history to maybe understand why before we pass total judgment– to relive the horrors of slavery that Sethe endured, things so terrible that even death seems like a more humane option for her children. With Beli, reliving her past lets us see her transformation from sweet and slightly sassy child and teenager into someone who is thrown around relentlessly, heartbroken and physically assaulted repeatedly by people and things entirely outside of her control, even as her adoptive mother tries desperately to protect her. We learn that life under a dictatorship involves very little self-determination. Is it any wonder that someone who was beaten down so thoroughly, time and time again, grows into a callous person? Although Oscar is the main character, it was Beli’s story that I was most interested in and invested in as I read.
There is probably an entire school of literary criticism devoted to analyzing scars as physical manifestations of characters’ emotional wounds, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been in school and I can’t remember any others off the top of my head. However, one thing that struck me as I considered these two characters: Sethe’s scar is described time and time again as a chokecherry tree, and Beli’s as an inconsolable sea. Both images give the impression of something beautiful, something wild but quiet that exists almost separate of the women that carry them; something that you might stumble upon while out for a misty morning nature walk. Do these women wear their scars, or do their scars wear them? It’s obvious that they’ve been shaped by their experiences, and it’s obvious that, given the systems and circumstances they were born into, there was no other way for it to happen. For all of Sethe’s caring generosity, for all of Beli’s seeming cruel lack of maternal instinct, it’s that sad sense of inevitability draws these two women together.