True desperation, even when unobserved by the desperate, is never a comfortable experience. Acts of desperation appear in both Misery, by Stephen King, and Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Characters in both novels reach several levels of desperation throughout the narratives. There are both similarities and differences in the desperation shown by Sethe and Paul.
One of the first things one always notices about a novel is the title. The titles of both novels, Misery and Beloved, have particular significance within the aspect of desperation in the two plots. Each novel is titled with a character in the story that is the central cause of desperation in the current actions of the novel. Beloved, although a manifestation becomes an active character when she appears in human form and Misery, (although not an active character) still has enough impact to be thought of as an actual character in the storyline.
In Beloved, although they can be seen as two identities of one character, both Sethe and Beloved experience separate forms of desperation. Beloved is a physical manifestation of Sethe’s guilty conscience and she knows this. Throughout the novel, Beloved is desperately trying to keep her place in Sethe’s life. Beloved herself was conjured by Sethe’s desperation to continually punish herself. When Sethe’s conscience manifests a separate character, Sethe’s desperation is redirected to trying to save her humanity.
In Misery, Paul is desperately trying to save his own life and free himself from Annie’s captivity. Annie’s desperation stems from her needing Misery to live, so that she can continue to live her life vicariously through the fictional character. With acts of desperation, one is usually trying to make things better or trying to save one’s life. For Beloved and Paul, this holds true: Beloved needs to survive in Sethe’s reality as much as Paul needs to survive Annie’s captivity. For Sethe and Annie, however, the opposite is true. Annie only needs to satisfy her psychotic urges and Sethe’s conscience is desperately trying to constantly punish her.
Sethe’s desire to save her children from slavery was stronger than her humanity, and as a result (in her desperation) she brutally murdered her baby, and buried it under the headstone “Beloved.” Sethe chose to have this engraved on the tomb, because this was the “word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say surely)…Dearly Beloved” (5, Beloved). The baby is first christened at death, with a name by which the preacher refers to the spectators at the burial. Sethe thus named the child after herself, insofar as she, Sethe, was whom the preacher was addressing as “dearly beloved.” In this way she brands her detached conscience with guilt.
Her conscience is detached because in order to go on with life, Sethe needed to remove herself from her guilt. She removed herself so completely that her neighbors, already upset at her crime, isolated her because she seemed to feel no remorse for her awful deed. Sethe’s stoic resolve continues until Denver loses her hearing, which was caused by Denver not being able to deal with hearing what her mother had done. Only when her mother’s conscience manifests itself as the ghost of the baby does Denver’s hearing return.
Misery’s Return is shown to be an escape from reality for Annie in Misery and even more so for Paul, as he “falls into the hole in the paper.” Paul writes not just for the reason to stay alive but also for an escape of the horrors of his current situation.
In both Beloved and Misery, the two main characters need help overcoming their desperate situations. Sethe needs the help of Paul D and the women in the community to rid herself of Beloved and her guilty conscience while Paul Sheldon needs the help of the local authorities to finally gain access to freedom from Annie. In both novels, outsiders throw the antagonists into desperation.
The appearance of Paul D throws everything into turmoil. To Sethe, Paul D is a man that knows what her life was like before she escaped, and might understand why she killed her child. This was a man that she could share herself with. In the stage when the ghost is still in its intangible form and Paul D presents himself at the house, Sethe almost lets the “responsibility for her breasts, at last, [be] in somebody else’s hands” (18, Beloved). As soon as she has this thought, the ghost attacks and wreaks havoc. Sethe’s conscience, manifested in the ghost, wouldn’t allow her to be freed from her past by Paul D. But Paul D angrily rebukes the ghost, “God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!” (18, Beloved), and effectively drives the ghost out. Sethe seems to be relieved, because “to Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay” (42, Beloved). However, Sethe’s guilty conscience shows up again, but now in human form, as Beloved.
When the local authorities and news teams show up at Annie’s house, she goes berserk. She either threatens to kill them or actually goes through with it. These are her desperate attempts to buy time for her Misery to live. It doesn’t matter who suffers, as long as she (and Paul) stay alive long enough for Misery to make it through. While she still has Paul trapped, she has control over Misery’s destiny. What makes this a new aspect to Annie is that this is not an aspect of life and death that she is used to. In the past, she had full control over the circumstances of death. She had no control over the death of Misery and this made her angry and desperate. “‘I don’t want her spirit!’ she screamed, hooking her fingers into claws and shaking them at him, as if she would tear his eyes out. ‘I want her! You killed her! You murdered her!’” (34, Misery) Now she had the power to bring something back to life. Not only her Misery, but Paul. “Dying men rarely scream. They haven’t the energy. I know. I decided to make you live”(p17, Misery). Even if her first instinct was to kill Paul, she kept him alive long enough to have full control of not just his life, but Misery’s. Although she knew that in the end she would have to die, it didn’t matter if her heroine was able to survive.
Sethe’s conscience is masochistic in nature. Whenever it looks like her life may improve, her conscience just finds a new way to make her suffer for what she did. So, as life begins to get better for Sethe and Denver, Beloved shows up, and as she gains strength, she promptly begins to move Paul D out of the house, systematically further and further away from Sethe. This is consistent with the masochistic pattern exhibited by Sethe’s conscience, because Paul D is the only individual who shows potential (at this stage in the plot) of helping Sethe overcome her past. In his absence, her guilt could punish her more effectively. Paul D tries to talk to Sethe about everything as she walks home but an uncovered Beloved surprises them. Beloved once again tries to steal Sethe away from happiness. This time, however, Sethe says to Beloved, “You got to learn more sense that that” (130, Beloved), telling her own guilty conscience that it’s silly to hold on to the past so tightly. Sethe also takes things into her own hands again when “she solved everything with one blow,” and suggests to Paul D that he would rather sleep inside than out in the cold house (130, Beloved). At this point, Beloved sends “threads of malice”(131, Beloved) across the table, because she is indignant that her position of power is being undermined; she recognizes that Sethe is taking matters into her own hands and refusing to be servile to her guilty conscience’s whims. By requesting that Paul D sleep inside, Sethe is beginning to forgive herself and let go of her punishment.
Subsequently, Beloved begins to fall apart: “she (knew) that she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces…she thought it was starting” (134, Beloved). This guilty conscience was having trouble sticking around in human form, now that Sethe was actively fighting it to make her life better. But then Paul D moves out with the discovery of Sethe’s crime, and Sethe and Denver are left alone with Beloved.
Sethe’s progress towards self-emancipation is reversed when Paul D leaves. Finding that her past has driven out the only happiness that she had, Sethe concentrates all her attentions on Beloved. Sethe is feeding her guilty conscience, letting it get the better of her. She does everything for Beloved, spending so much time with her that she loses her job. She gives all the food to Beloved, starving herself and Denver. The roles that should be, of mother and daughter, are reversed and Beloved is the authority figure. Denver is cut out of the picture, just as if there were not two identities but one, just her mother, who was trapped in this cycle of self-destruction.
This sort of role reversal also happens in Misery. There is the juxtaposition of Annie and Paul’s reader/writer relationship. Annie makes suggestions to Paul regarding the destruction of his novel, Fast Cars, and the development of Misery’s Return. These moments are there to emphasize how the roles are reversed between Paul being the writer and Annie being (just) the reader. As Sethe is brought to act like a child by Beloved, so is Paul made to act childlike by Annie. His need for her and his vulnerability to her made him do anything she wished in order to placate her, just as a child might do with his mother.
As mentioned before, Sethe’s original detachment of her conscience is why her neighbors have shunned her for eighteen years. And it is because of this isolation that her detached conscience is able to have so much control over her. This cycle is broken when Denver seeks help, because in this action the townspeople see that Sethe is not inhuman, just in some severe trouble. Ella, her friend during that short happy time eighteen years ago, plays a large role in this “saving” of Sethe. “Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present”(256), and so she organizes a group of women to rescue Sethe.
The group of 30 women that gathers at the gate of 124 shocks Sethe and Beloved. Sethe believed the community cared nothing for her, and this showed that it did. “For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her”(261). The women were Sethe’s salvation, but in her last moments of torment, her guilty conscience takes control. It desperately sends her flying at Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick, because she believes that schoolteacher has come for her children all over again, and she does not want to lose Beloved, she does not want to let go of the past.
In Misery, we learn of the hatred that Paul feels for the character of Misery in his novels. He does not enjoy writing romance novels and thinks he can do better. Not realizing his desperate need to get rid of her, he condones finally killing her off by saying that he believes it was just her time to die. But his desperation is revealed to us when he recalls his actions the moment he finished the last novel, he ran screaming from his room “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, I’m free at last! The silly bitch finally bought the farm!”(14, Misery) Paul can finally move on with his career, forget the past Misery novels and enjoy life. But this ends up being the cause of his horrible situation and, in the end, Misery, turns out to be his salvation.
Beloved disappears because Sethe’s ability to identify with the human race is returned to her and her conscience is reattached when the women hold Sethe back from Mr. Bodwin. This allows Sethe to have direct access to her guilt and truly begin to forgive herself. The guilt is still there, and she wants to take the easy way out and die. She tells Paul D, “She left me…she was my best thing”(272). Finally, it is Paul D that finally helps her forgive herself the most, when he responds, “You are your best thing, Sethe”(273). Sethe is herself beloved. Beloved is gone, but instead of dying, Sethe can now begin to live her free life to the fullest extent. She conquers her conscience and her past with the help of the future, her real daughter, Denver, and her friend and lover, Paul D.
Like Sethe, Paul also needs help in gaining his escape. Although he triumphs over Annie when he relishes in his victory with the Misery fiasco, he still needs help in gaining access back to reality. Without the help of local authorities, he might have died in that house or trying to get out of it. The irony is the eventual outcome between the two novels. In Beloved, Sethe is, at first, desperate to keep herself punished in order to be true to her memory of her Beloved. But, in the end, she wants to have a real life, with a future, and attempt to forgive herself. She succeeds and, the last we know of her, she is finally on her way to happiness. Paul, on the other hand, is only desperate to survive, “in fact, what he did was nothing more than a final staggering grab for self-preservation”(76, Misery). Unlike Paul, instead of trying to live and have a happy future, Sethe seems set on a life of misery and guilt to atone for her actions. Ironically, Sethe ends up with a happy future while Paul, although alive and flourishing in his profits of Misery’s Return, is plagued with a lifetime of nightmares and paranoia.