BELOVEDBY TONI MORRISON
Beloved begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Sethe, a former slave, has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, lived with them until her death eight years earlier. Just before Baby Suggs’s death, Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away. Sethe believes they fled because of the malevolent presence of an abusive ghost that has haunted their house at 124 Bluestone Road for years. Denver, however, likes the ghost, which everyone believes to be the spirit of her dead sister.
On the day the novel begins, Paul D, whom Sethe has not seen since they worked together on Mr. Garner’s Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky approximately twenty years earlier, stops by Sethe’s house. His presence resurrects memories that have lain buried in Sethe’s mind for almost two decades. From this point on, the story will unfold on two temporal planes. The present in Cincinnati constitutes one plane, while a series of events that took place around twenty years earlier, mostly in Kentucky, constitutes the other. This latter plane is accessed and described through the fragmented flashbacks of the major characters. Accordingly, we frequently read these flashbacks several times, sometimes from varying perspectives, with each successive narration of an event adding a little more information to the previous ones.Order now
From these fragmented memories, the following story begins to emerge: Sethe, the protagonist, was born in the South to an African mother she never knew. When she is thirteen, she is sold to the Garners, who own Sweet Home and practice a comparatively benevolent kind of slavery. There, the other slaves, who are all men, lust after her but never touch her. Their names are Sixo, Paul D, Paul A, Paul F, and Halle. Sethe chooses to marry Halle, apparently in part because he has proven generous enough to buy his mother’s freedom by hiring himself out on the weekends. Together, Sethe and Halle have two sons, Howard and Buglar, as well as a baby daughter whose name we never learn. When she leaves Sweet Home, Sethe is also pregnant with a fourth child. After the eventual death of the proprietor, Mr. Garner, the widowed Mrs. Garner asks her sadistic, vehemently racist brother-in-law to help her run the farm. He is known to the slaves as schoolteacher, and his oppressive presence makes life on the plantation even more unbearable than it had been before. The slaves decide to run.
Schoolteacher and his nephews anticipate the slaves’ escape, however, and capture Paul D and Sixo. Schoolteacher kills Sixo and brings Paul D back to Sweet Home, where Paul D sees Sethe for what he believes will be the last time. She is still intent on running, having already sent her children ahead to her mother-in-law Baby Suggs’s house in Cincinnati. Invigorated by the recent capture, schoolteacher’s nephews seize Sethe in the barn and violate her, stealing the milk her body is storing for her infant daughter. Unbeknownst to Sethe, Halle is watching the event from a loft above her, where he lies frozen with horror. Afterward, Halle goes mad: Paul D sees him sitting by a churn with butter slathered all over his face. Paul D, meanwhile, is forced to suffer the indignity of wearing an iron bit in his mouth.
When schoolteacher finds out that Sethe has reported his and his nephews’ misdeeds to Mrs. Garner, he has her whipped severely, despite the fact that she is pregnant. Swollen and scarred, Sethe nevertheless runs away, but along the way she collapses from exhaustion in a forest. A white girl, Amy Denver, finds her and nurses her back to health. When Amy later helps Sethe deliver her baby in a boat, Sethe names this second daughter Denver after the girl who helped her. Sethe receives further help from Stamp Paid, who rows her across the Ohio River to Baby Suggs’s house. Baby Suggs cleans Sethe up before allowing her to see her three older children.
Sethe spends twenty-eight wonderful days in Cincinnati, where Baby Suggs serves as an unofficial preacher to the black community. On the last day, however, schoolteacher comes for Sethe to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. Rather than surrender her children to a life of dehumanizing slavery, she flees with them to the woodshed and tries to kill them. Only the third child, her older daughter, dies, her throat having been cut with a handsaw by Sethe. Sethe later arranges for the baby’s headstone to be carved with the word “Beloved.” The sheriff takes Sethe and Denver to jail, but a group of white abolitionists, led by the Bodwins, fights for her release. Sethe returns to the house at 124, where Baby Suggs has sunk into a deep depression. The community shuns the house, and the family continues to live in isolation.
Meanwhile, Paul D has endured torturous experiences in a chain gang in Georgia, where he was sent after trying to kill Brandywine, a slave owner to whom he was sold by schoolteacher. His traumatic experiences have caused him to lock away his memories, emotions, and ability to love in the “tin tobacco box” of his heart. One day, a fortuitous rainstorm allows Paul D and the other chain gang members to escape. He travels northward by following the blossoming spring flowers. Years later, he ends up on Sethe’s porch in Cincinnati.
Paul D’s arrival at 124 commences the series of events taking place in the present time frame. Prior to moving in, Paul D chases the house’s resident ghost away, which makes the already lonely Denver resent him from the start. Sethe and Paul D look forward to a promising future together, until one day, on their way home from a carnival, they encounter a strange young woman sleeping near the steps of 124. Most of the characters believe that the womanwho calls herself Belovedis the embodied spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter, and the novel provides a wealth of evidence supporting this interpretation. Denver develops an obsessive attachment to Beloved, and Beloved’s attachment to Sethe is equally if not more intense. Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and Beloved controls Paul D by moving him around the house like a rag doll and by seducing him against his will.
When Paul D learns the story of Sethe’s “rough choice”her infanticidehe leaves 124 and begins sleeping in the basement of the local church. In his absence, Sethe and Beloved’s relationship becomes more intense and exclusive. Beloved grows increasingly abusive, manipulative, and parasitic, and Sethe is obsessed with satisfying Beloved’s demands and making her understand why she murdered her. Worried by the way her mother is wasting away, Denver leaves the premises of 124 for the first time in twelve years in order to seek help from Lady Jones, her former teacher. The community provides the family with food and eventually organizes under the leadership of Ella, a woman who had worked on the Underground Railroad and helped with Sethe’s escape, in order to exorcise Beloved from 124. When they arrive at Sethe’s house, they see Sethe on the porch with Beloved, who stands smiling at them, naked and pregnant. Mr. Bodwin, who has come to 124 to take Denver to her new job, arrives at the house. Mistaking him for schoolteacher, Sethe runs at Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick. She is restrained, but in the confusion Beloved disappears, never to return.
Afterward, Paul D comes back to Sethe, who has retreated to Baby Suggs’s bed to die. Mourning Beloved, Sethe laments, “She was my best thing.” But Paul D replies, “You your best thing, Sethe.” The novel then ends with a warning that “his is not a story to pass on.” The town, and even the residents of 124, have forgotten Beloved “ike an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep.”
Sethe-Sethe, the protagonist ofBeloved,is a proud and independent woman who is extremely devoted to her children. Though she barely knew her own mother,Sethe’smotherly instincts are her most striking characteristic. Unwilling to relinquish her children to the physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual trauma she endured as a slave at Sweet Home, she attempts to murder them in an act of motherly love and protection. She remains haunted by this and other scarring events in her past, which she tries, in vain, to repress.
Denver-Sethe’syoungest child, Denver is the most dynamic character in the novel. Though intelligent, introspective, and sensitive, Denver has been stunted in her emotional growth by years of relative isolation. Beloved’s increasing malevolence, however, forces Denver to overcome her fear of the world beyond 124 and seek help from the community.Her foray out into the town and her attempts to find permanent work and possibly attend college mark the beginning of her fight for independence and self-possession.
Beloved-Beloved’s identity is mysterious. The novel provides evidence that she could be an ordinary woman traumatized by years of captivity, the ghost ofSethe’smother, or, most convincingly, the embodied spirit ofSethe’smurdered daughter. On an allegorical level, Beloved represents the inescapable, horrible past of slavery returned to haunt the present. Her presence, which grows increasingly malevolent and parasitic as the novel progresses, ultimately serves as a catalyst forSethe’s, Paul D’s, and Denver’s respective processes of emotional growth.
PaulD-The physical and emotional brutality suffered by Paul D at Sweet Home and as part of a chain gang has caused him to bury his feelings in the “rusted tobacco tin” of his heart. He represses his painful memories and believes that the key to survival is not becoming too attached to anything. At the same time, he seems to incite the opening up of others’hearts, and women in particular tend to confide in him.Sethewelcomes him to 124, where he becomes her lover and the object of Denver’s and Beloved’s jealousy. Though his union withSetheprovides him with stability and allows him to come to terms with his past, Paul D continues to doubt fundamental aspects of his identity, such as the source of his manhood and his value as a person.
BabySuggs-After Halle buys his mother, Baby Suggs, her freedom, she travels to Cincinnati, where she becomes a source of emotional and spiritual inspiration for the city’s black residents. She holds religious gatherings at a place called the Clearing, where she teaches her followers to love their voices, bodies, and minds. However, afterSethe’sact of infanticide, Baby Suggs stops preaching and retreats to a sickbed to die. Even so, Baby Suggs continues to be a source of inspiration long after her death: in PartThreeher memory motivates Denver to leave 124 and find help. It is partially out of respect for Baby Suggs that the community responds to Denver’s requests for support.
StampPaid-Like Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid is considered by the community to be a figure of salvation, and he is welcomed at every door in town. An agent of the Underground Railroad, he helpsSetheto freedom and later saves Denver’s life. A grave sacrifice he made during his enslavement has caused him to consider his emotional and moral debts to be paid off for the rest of his life, which is why he decided to rename himself “Stamp Paid.” Yet by the end of the book he realizes that he may still owe protection and care to the residents of 124. Angered by the community’s neglect ofSethe, Denver, and Paul D, Stamp begins to question the nature of a community’s obligations to its members.
schoolteacher-Following Mr. Garner’s death, schoolteacher takes charge of Sweet Home. Cold, sadistic, and vehemently racist, schoolteacher replaces what he views as Garner’s too-soft approach with an oppressive regime of rigid rules and punishment on the plantation. Schoolteacher’s own habits are extremely ascetic: he eats little, sleeps less, and works hard. His most insidious form of oppression is his “scientific” scrutiny of the slaves, which involves asking questions, taking physical measurements, and teaching lessons to his white pupils on the slaves’ “animal characteristics.” The lower-casesof schoolteacher’s appellation may have an ironic meaning: although he enjoys a position of extreme power over the slaves, they attribute no worth to him.
Halle-Sethe’shusband and Baby Suggs’s son, Halle is generous, kind, and sincere. He is very much alert to the hypocrisies of the Garners’ “benevolent” form of slaveholding. Halle eventually goes mad, presumably after witnessing schoolteacher’s nephews’ violation ofSethe.
LadyJones-Lady Jones, a light-skinned black woman who loathes her blond hair, is convinced that everyone despises her for being a woman of mixed race. Despite her feelings of alienation, she maintains a strong sense of community obligation and teaches the underprivileged children of Cincinnati in her home. She isskepticalof the supernatural dimensions of Denver’s plea for assistance, but she nevertheless helps to organize the community’s delivery of food toSethe’splagued household.
Ella-Ella worked with Stamp Paid on the Underground Railroad. Traumatized by the sexual brutality of a white father and son who once held her captive, she believes, likeSethe, that the past is best left buried. When it surfaces in the form of Beloved, Ella organizes the women of the community to exorcise Beloved from124.
Mr. and Mrs. Garner-Mr. and Mrs. Garner are the comparatively benevolent owners of Sweet Home. The events at Sweet Home reveal, however, that the idea of benevolent slavery is a contradiction in terms. The Garners’ paternalism and condescension are simply watered-down versions of schoolteacher’s vicious racism.
Mr. and MissBodwin-SiblingsMr. and MissBodwinare white abolitionists who have played an active role in winningSethe’sfreedom. Yet there is something disconcerting about theBodwins’ politics. Mr.Bodwinlongs a little too eagerly for the “heady days” of abolitionism, and MissBodwindemonstrates a condescending desire to “experiment” on Denver by sending her to Oberlin College. The distasteful figurine Denver sees in theBodwins’ house, portraying a slave and displaying the message “AtYo’ Service,” marks the limits and ironies of white involvement in the struggle for racial equality. Nevertheless, the siblings are motivated by good intentions, believing that “human life is holy, all of it.”
AmyDenver-A nurturing and compassionate girl who works as an indentured servant, Amy is young, flighty, talkative, and idealistic. She helpsSethewhen she is ill during her escape from Sweet Home, and when she seesSethe’swounds from beingwhipped,Amy says that they resemble a tree. She later delivers baby Denver, whomSethenames after her.
Paul A, Paul F, andSixo-PaulA and Paul F are the brothers of Paul D. They were slaves at Sweet Home with him, Halle,Sethe, and, earlier, Baby Suggs.Sixois another fellow slave.Sixoand Paul A die during the escape from the plantation.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Slavery’s Destruction of Identity
Beloved explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery, a devastation that continues to haunt those characters who are former slaves even in freedom. The most dangerous of slavery’s effects is its negative impact on the former slaves’ senses of self, and the novel contains multiple examples of self-alienation. Paul D, for instance, is so alienated from himself that at one point he cannot tell whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else’s. Slaves were told they were subhuman and were traded as commodities whose worth could be expressed in dollars. Consequently, Paul D is very insecure about whether or not he could possibly be a real “man,” and he frequently wonders about his value as a person.
Sethe, also, was treated as a subhuman. She once walked in on schoolteacher giving his pupils a lesson on her “animal characteristics.” She, too, seems to be alienated from herself and filled with self-loathing. Thus, she sees the best part of herself as her children. Yet her children also have volatile, unstable identities. Denver conflates her identity with Beloved’s, and Beloved feels herself actually beginning to physically disintegrate. Slavery has also limited Baby Suggs’s self-conception by shattering her family and denying her the opportunity to be a true wife, sister, daughter, or loving mother.
As a result of their inability to believe in their own existences, both Baby Suggs and Paul D become depressed and tired. Baby Suggs’s fatigue is spiritual, while Paul D’s is emotional. While a slave, Paul D developed self-defeating coping strategies to protect him from the emotional pain he was forced to endure. Any feelings he had were locked away in the rusted “tobacco tin” of his heart, and he concluded that one should love nothing too intensely. Other slavesJackson Till, Aunt Phyllis, and Hallewent insane and thus suffered a complete loss of self. Sethe fears that she, too, will end her days in madness. Indeed, she does prove to be mad when she kills her own daughter. Yet Sethe’s act of infanticide illuminates the perverse forces of the institution of slavery: under slavery, a mother best expresses her love for her children by murdering them and thus protecting them from the more gradual destruction wrought by slavery.
Stamp Paid muses that slavery’s negative consequences are not limited to the slaves: he notes that slavery causes whites to become “changed and altered . . . made . . . bloody, silly, worse than they ever wanted to be.” The insidious effects of the institution affect not only the identities of its black victims but those of the whites who perpetrate it and the collective identity of Americans. Where slavery exists, everyone suffers a loss of humanity and compassion. For this reason, Morrison suggests that our nation’s identity, like the novel’s characters, must be healed. America’s future depends on its understanding of the past: just as Sethe must come to terms with her past before she can secure a future with Denver and Paul D, before we can address slavery’s legacy in the contemporary problems of racial discrimination and discord, we must confront the dark and hidden corners of our history. Crucially, in Beloved, we learn about the history and legacy of slavery not from schoolteacher’s or even from the Bodwins’ point of view but rather from Sethe’s, Paul D’s, Stamp Paid’s, and Baby Suggs’s. Morrison writes history with the voices of a people historically denied the power of language, and Beloved recuperates a history that had been losteither due to willed forgetfulness (as in Sethe’s repression of her memories) or to forced silence (as in the case of Paul D’s iron bit).
The Importance of Community Solidarity
Beloved demonstrates the extent to which individuals need the support of their communities in order to survive. Sethe first begins to develop her sense of self during her twenty-eight days of freedom, when she becomes a part of the Cincinnati community. Similarly, Denver discovers herself and grows up when she leaves 124 and becomes a part of society. Paul D and his fellow prison inmates in Georgia prove able to escape only by working together. They are literally chained to one another, and Paul D recalls that “if one lost, all lost.” Lastly, it is the community that saves Sethe from mistakenly killing Mr. Bodwin and casting the shadow of another sin across her and her family’s life.
Cincinnati’s black community plays a pivotal role in the events of 124. The community’s failure to alert Sethe to schoolteacher’s approach implicates it in the death of Sethe’s daughter. Baby Suggs feels the slight as a grave betrayal from which she never fully recovers. At the end of the novel, the black community makes up for its past misbehavior by gathering at 124 to collectively exorcise Beloved. By driving Beloved away, the community secures Sethe’s, and its own, release from the past.
The Powers and Limits of Language
When Sixo turns schoolteacher’s reasoning around to justify having broken the rules, schoolteacher whips him to demonstrate that “definitions belong to the definers,” not to the defined. The slaves eventually come to realize the illegitimacy of many of the white definitions. Mr. Garner, for example, claims to have allowed his slaves to live as “real men,” but Paul D questions just how manly they actually are. So, too, does Paul D finally come to realize with bitter irony the fallacy of the name “Sweet Home.” Although Sixo eventually reacts to the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of slavery by abandoning English altogether, other characters use English to redefine the world on their own terms. Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid, for example, rename themselves. Beloved may be read as Morrison’s effort to transform those who have always been the defined into the definers.
While slaves, the characters manipulate language and transcend its standard limits. Their command of language allows them to adjust its meanings and to make themselves indecipherable to the white slave owners who watch them. For example, Paul D and the Georgia prison inmates sing together about their dreams and memories by “garbling . . . tricking the words.”
The title of the novel alludes to what is ultimately the product of a linguistic misunderstanding. At her daughter’s funeral, Sethe interpreted the minister’s address to the “Dearly Beloved” as referring to the dead rather than the living. All literature is indebted to this “slippery,” shifting quality of language: the power of metaphor, simile, metonymy, irony, and wordplay all result from the ability of words to attach and detach themselves from various possible meanings.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Morrison enhances the world of Beloved by investing it with a supernatural dimension. While it is possible to interpret the book’s paranormal phenomena within a realist framework, many events in the novelmost notably, the presence of a ghostpush the limits of ordinary understanding. Moreover, the characters in Beloved do not hesitate to believe in the supernatural status of these events. For them, poltergeists, premonitions, and hallucinations are ways of understanding the significance of the world around them. Such occurrences stand in marked contrast to schoolteacher’s perverse hyper-“scientific” and empirical studies.
Allusions to Christianity
Beloved’s epigraph, taken from Romans 9:25, bespeaks the presence that Christian ideas will have in the novel. The “four horsemen” who come for Sethe reference the description of the Apocalypse found in the Book of Revelations. Beloved is reborn into Sethe’s world drenched in a sort of baptismal water. As an infant, Denver drinks her sister’s blood along with her mother’s breast milk, which can be interpreted as an act of Communion that links Denver and Beloved and that highlights the sacrificial aspect of the baby’s death. Sethe’s act so horrifies schoolteacher that he leaves without taking her other children, allowing them to live in freedom. The baby’s sacrificial death, like that of Christ, brings salvation. The book’s larger discussions of sin, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, love, and resurrection similarly resound with biblical references.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, orcolorsused to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Colors from the red part of the spectrum (including orange and pink) recur throughout Beloved, although the meaning of these red objects varies. Amy Denver’s red velvet, for example, is an image of hope and a brighter future, while Paul D’s “red heart” represents feeling and emotion. Overall, red seems to connote vitality and the visceral nature of human existence. Yet, in Beloved, vitality often goes hand in hand with mortality, and red images simultaneously refer to life and death, to presence and absence. For example, the red roses that line the road to the carnival serve to herald the carnival’s arrival in town and announce the beginning of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D’s new life together; yet they also stink of death. The red rooster signifies manhood to Paul D, but it is a manhood that Paul D himself has been denied. The story of Amy’s search for carmine velvet seems especially poignant because we sense the futility of her dream. Sethe’s memory is awash with the red of her daughter’s blood and the pink mineral of her gravestone, both of which have been bought at a dear price.
In the world of Beloved, trees serve primarily as sources of healing, comfort, and life. Denver’s “emerald closet” of boxwood bushes functions as a place of solitude and repose for her. The beautiful trees of Sweet Home mask the true horror of the plantation in Sethe’s memory. Paul D finds his freedom by following flowering trees to the North, and Sethe finds hers by escaping through a forest. By imagining the scars on Sethe’s back as a “chokecherry tree,” Amy Denver sublimates a site of trauma and brutality into one of beauty and growth. But as the sites of lynchings and of Sixo’s death by burning, however, trees reveal a connection with a darker side of humanity as well.
The Tin Tobacco Box
Paul D describes his heart as a “tin tobacco box.” After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Alfred, Georgia, he locks away his feelings and memories in this “box,” which has, by the time Paul D arrives at 124, “rusted” over completely. By alienating himself from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage. In order to secure this protection, however, Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by foregoing feeling and gives up much of his selfhood by repressing his memories. Although Paul D is convinced that nothing can pry the lid of his box open, his strange, dreamlike sexual encounter with Belovedperhaps a symbol of an encounter with his pastcauses the box to burst and his heart once again to glow red.