Previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns can be found here.
Welcome to Literary Ladies Cage Fight. I—Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and Chastity—am your hostess, along with my dim-witted sister, Aphrodite. We gather here to celebrate amazing heroines in fiction…and make them fight.
Mother’s Day is right around the corner, which I do not get to celebrate since I don’t really have a mother (and it’s hard to send sea foam a Mother’s Day card). So we are celebrating two mothers of literature, the formidable Hypatia Belicia Cabral from Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Also, speaking of formidable mothers, we’d like to give a very special shout-out to loyal reader Sandy Sook, who gets her PhD next week! Congratulations, Dr. Sook!
Alright, let’s get down to business. Five rounds, winner of each gets one point. The woman with the most points at the end is the winner. Let the cage fight begin!
Sethe is an escaped slave who is still enslaved during large portions of the book. She has four children, including one nursing baby. Her goal is to get her children away from slavery at all costs. She’s lived through some brutal stuff at the hands of her masters and she refuses to let her children experience any of that. She loves her children so much that she would rather kill them herself than let them be captured and sent back to slavery. She trades sexual favors with the gravedigger to get a headstone for her murdered daughter, which simply reads “Beloved.” Love that deep and strong is almost impossible to fathom. Her loyalty to her babies makes her a Hufflepuff.
Hypatia Belicia Cabral, known often as Beli, is placed for adoption due to her parents’ political dissidence in the Dominican Republic. She is adopted by La Inca and taught how to be a lady, but she still feels like an outcast. When she is rejected in school, she drops out and becomes a waitress. She falls in love with a gangster and gets pregnant by him, eventually ending up in hiding in New York. She is the queen of tough love and has a tumultuous relationship with her daughter, Lola. However, when someone on a plane insults Lola, Beli instantly comes to her defense (with a withering putdown that’s not fit to print). She lives on her own terms, even when the consequences are severe. Confident she has everything figured out, Beli is a Ravenclaw.
Winner: Beli. Not because Ravenclaws are tougher than Hufflepuffs, but because Beli is a stone-cold boss who could bring someone to their knees with her vicious insults alone.
Round 2: Sidekick
Sethe is mostly (almost overwhelmingly) alone. After her rape, her husband loses his mind and is ultimately left behind when Sethe escapes to freedom. Her murder of her daughter totally alienates her from her new community. She lives with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, whom she loves but who is unable to help her deal with her grief and pain. Sethe has only one completely positive encounter in the whole book, and that’s with Amy Denver. Sethe escapes while pregnant and goes into labor alone in the woods. Amy finds Sethe half-dead and massages her feet back to life, probably saving her feet from amputation (gross). Then she helps Sethe deliver her baby. Amy, though not in the book for very long, is there right when Sethe needs her. She demonstrates the power of compassion and the bonds between women. I always wish Amy had stayed in touch with Sethe! She could have been her friend.
Beli is also alone in the world. Her parents are not a part of her childhood and she doesn’t make friends at school. The only sidekick candidate is La Inca, her father’s cousin who adopts her. She loves the wild Belicia and does her best to teach her how to be a well-behaved woman. When Beli is kidnapped, La Inca starts the prayer circle and prays unceasingly for days. Upon Beli’s return, half-dead, La Inca’s medical connections are used to nurse Beli back to health so that she can escape to New York. Although she’s not able to control Belicia, she does love her and literally saves her life.
Winner: Tie. Both of our heroines would totes be dead without their sidekicks saving the day. Life-saving sidekicks are the best kind!
Sethe’s husband, Halle, is not a huge part of the book. Their marriage scene is sweet, but the real love interest is Paul D, a fellow ex-slave from Sweet Home. He’s been jonesing after Sethe for years, but when they finally make love it’s not what he had hoped. Their relationship suffers many bumps in the road. There are a lot of deep scars here that will not all heal. But it is Paul D who comes back to Sethe and gets her out of bed at the end, and it is Paul D who tells her “You your own best thing, Sethe. You are.” Which is swoony romantic! So he’s not perfect…but nobody in this book is perfect and that’s what makes it SO GOOD.
The father of Belicia’s living children, Lola and Oscar, is not a character in this book. She has two lovers—the high school boy she loses her virginity to and her gangster boyfriend, Dionisio. “The gangster,” as he is known, seems to have affection for Beli and gets her pregnant, but he is married to one of the dictator Trujillo’s sisters. When the sister finds out about her husband’s infidelity, she has young Beli beaten and left for dead, causing her to lose her baby. He is the cause of Beli’s eventual flight to New York.
Winner: Sethe. Because love interests are supposed to pick you up when you are down, not cause you to be down.
Round 4: Tragic Flaw
Sethe’s tragic flaw is kind of hard to describe. Obviously, killing her baby daughter is a no-no, but she did it with the best of intentions. She truly thought that death was better than slavery and that she was protecting her kids. I guess you could say her flaw was short-sightedness? That she didn’t stop and think and find a way to save her kids without killing them? But she was a victim of so many terrible things that it is impossible to blame her.
Belicia’s flaw is easier to explain: her pride. She is too proud to really open herself up to anyone to be loved. She has been hurt, of course, but she refuses to behave for La Inca, stay in school, or show love to her children (mainly her daughter Lola). I’m not saying she needs to settle down or anything of the sort. I love fiery women, and Beli is definitely fiery. But she might have been able to save herself a lot of pain and heartbreak if she had not thought herself above the rules in many situations.
Winner: Sethe. Both womens’ flaws make sense given their backgrounds, but Sethe is a bit more sympathetic.
Round 5: Happy Ending?
Sethe’s ending is about as happy as it could have been, given that it’s a book about slavery. The ghost of Beloved is chased away, her adult daughter Denver is joining society and ending the social exile of their family, and Paul D has returned and pledged his love (aww!). Everyone is still hurting, and our girl Sethe most of all. It is not a sure thing she’s going to hop out of bed and join a knitting circle or anything! But she has the love of Paul D and Denver, and so there is hope.
Belicia, on the other hand, is pronounced dead in the epilogue. The cancer that plagued her throughout the book finally kills her. It is hypothesized by the narrator Yunior that she gave up hope once her son Oscar died. She lived an unapologetic life and overcame a lot of hardship, but she never did get anything resembling a happy ending.
Winner: Sethe. It might not be picture-perfect, but at least she’s not dead.
Winner: Both of these moms are complicated, flawed, real protagonists that are proof a woman doesn’t have to be “nice” to be worth reading about, but Sethe edges out Beli for the win.
Artie and I would like to note that Junot Diaz is our first male author to be featured in the Cage Fight. Welcome, Junot! May your brothers follow your example and write wonderful women characters!
See you all next time. Happy reading!
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.