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MARGARET GARNER. The comparison between her life and Sethe in “Beloved” . . MARGARET GARNER. PHOTO TAKEN FROM AN OPERA BASED ON HER TRAGIC STORY .

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margaret garner


The comparison between her life and Sethe in “Beloved” .

margaret garner1



Margaret Garner, slave, in late January 1856, together with 16 other slaves from neighboring parts of Kentucky, formed an escape plan.  The weather was cold, the Ohio River frozen.  On a Sunday night, with two horses stolen from their respective slave-owners, they hitched up a sled to carry them from Kentucky to Freedom.              —Sethe Garner escapes pregnant and alone, but three of her children already reside with Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law.


The 17 crossed the frozen Ohio River on foot.  Their crossing was from Covington, Kentucky to Ohio.  Once across, they thought it best to split up, it being daylight Monday morning.  Simon, Mary, their son Robert, together with his wife Margaret, and their four children (two boys, two baby girls) went the dangerous route to a Mr. Kite's cabin in Mill Creek.  Mr. Kite was the son of one Joe Kite.  The son had been bought out of slavery by his father.  The route via Kite's house was dangerous because white residents might see them pass.  The 9 other escapees, who had taken a different route, made it to Canada.

margaret garner s story



Sethe has 4 children: two boys, two baby girls.  Sethe crosses from Kentucky to Ohio.  The real Robert would become the mythic Halle, and the returning Paul D.             It is not difficult to understand why Robert's mother Mary might become Grandma Baby Suggs, holy.  No other name lends itself to her role so easily.

the critic moment of the murdering of the child
The critic moment of the murdering of the child.
  • Sethe kills her second youngest daughter Beloved with a saw. Sethe's near strangulation is the dead daughter's psychic revenge.  Margaret's one day of freedom becomes Sethe's "twenty-eight days," from her child's "pure clear stream of spit" to "her oily blood"

Margaret seized a butcher's knife, and cut her youngest girl's throat "with one stroke".  "The throat of her little daughter”, "whom probably she loved the best."  She immediately tried to kill herself, and the rest of the children.


William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator of March 11, 1856 recounted that the sinking Lewis, the ship carrying Margaret and her baby in arms, was badly shaken by a ship coming to its rescue.  Margaret and her child were hurled into the river by the shock of the collision.  A Black man and the cook of the Lewis leaped to save them, but only succeeded in saving Margaret, the baby was drowned.  Margaret "displayed frantic joy" on hearing the news, and indicated her intention “to drown herself" before ever returning to slavery.


Beloved, in some ways is a composite of both of Margaret's girl children. She comes out of the water, and seems to have lived in a watery limbo beneath a bridge.  Denver is born on a boat.  Sethe at one time feels she herself is “voiding all the waters of the world”.  Water symbolism in Beloved is largely and clearly related to Garner’s life and the fate of her children. One of her daughters was killed by her and the other one was drown in the waters of the river.


A Cincinnati Chronicle article, reprinted in the Philadelphia Press, March 14, 1870, stated that Robert and Margaret had worked in New Orleans, and then had been sold to one Judge Bonham, for forced plantation labor, at Tennessee Landing, Mississippi.  Robert reported to the Chronicle that Margaret had died in 1858 of typhoid fever.  Her last words to him had been that he should never again marry in slavery, but “live in the hope of Freedom”.


Margaret's and Sethe's stories coincide, though not completely.  Margaret's story, however, should always be remembered.  Like her, Toni Morrison adjures us to "live in the hope of Freedom."


The major deviations from the story of Margaret are:

  • the solo flight of Sethe;
  • the introduction of Amy Denver;
  • the disappearance of the adult males of the Margaret Garner group, both father-in-law and Robert, with only Stamp Paid remaining to remind us of Kite;
  • the uniting of traits of Margaret's two hopeless daughters in the figure of Beloved
  • the downplaying of the legalistic white world, in fact of the white world altogether;
  • the maturing of Denver as a promise for tomorrow.

Conclusions:          A knowledge of Margaret Garner's history and fate helps us appreciate better the vision of Toni Morrison's Beloved.  While Margaret's life was one of unremitting misery, Sethe's offers some hopes for the future—founded on endurance of women.  While the unforgiving past must always haunt us—as Beloved haunts 124. This two black women share the same story of misery. Even though Morrison's story is based on a true story it is touched deeply by the artistic hand of the author. No book can show completely the cruel reality in which Margaret Garner had to live and surely many women are still living. Maybe the manner, the form has changed but slavery still exists and nothing seems to prevent or stop it.