Beloved Summary by Toni Morrison
An Introduction to Beloved:
Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. Published in 1987 as Morrison was enjoying increasing popularity and success, Beloved became a best seller and received the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its reception by critics was overwhelming, and the book is widely considered Morrison’s greatest novel to date: Mythic in scope, Beloved is an attempt to grapple with the legacy of slavery. Morrison based her novel on a real-life incident, in which an escaped slave woman who faced recapture killed her children rather than allow them to be taken back into slavery. In the novel, the protagonist’s near-recapture follows the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, which stated that escaped slaves, as property, could be tracked down across state lines and retrieved by their old masters.
In Beloved, Morrison explores themes of love, family, and self-possession in a world where slavery has only recently become a thing of the past. Beloved is the ghost of Sethe’s murdered child, returned for unclear reasons, embodied as a full-grown woman at the age that the baby would have been had it lived. Part history, part ghost story, part historical fiction, the novel also seek to understand the impact of slavery, both on the psychology of individuals and on the larger patterns of culture and history. Morrison was drawn to the historical account, which brought up questions of what it meant to love and to be a mother in a place and time where life was often devalued. The novel powerfully portrays the meanings of what it means to be owned by another and the difficulty of owning oneself.
Beloved also presents a powerful account of the foundation of black America. The memories of the characters?even the strange, supernatural race-memory of Beloved?extend back no farther than the beginnings of American slavery. The institution of slavery destroyed much of the heritage of the Africans brought to the Americas; the novel partially recounts the creation of a new people and culture, a people displaced and forced to forge a new identity in the face of brutality and dehumanization. Fragmentary in structure and written with great psychological intimacy, the book also continues with Morrison’s narrative experiments that began with The Bluest Eye and have continued throughout her career. In 1998 it was adapted for a film starring Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. The film met mixed critical response and was a box office failure, a testament, at least, to the uniquely literary qualities of the novel.
A Summary of Beloved :
Part -1 Section -1
The novel opens in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the past eighteen years, Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver, have been living in a house that is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s firstborn baby daughter. Until eight years ago, Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, also lived with them in their house at 124 Bluestone Road. Before she died, Baby Suggs sank into a deep depression, exhausted by a life of slavery and by the loss of all eight of her children. She spent her last days requesting “color”-bits of brightly colored objects she hoped would alleviate her sadness. Her death came only a short while after Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, each ran away from 124 following encounters with their dead sister’s ghost.
Sethe works hard to remember as little as possible about her past, and the memory of her sons is fading fast. Most of her painful memories involve Sweet Home, a plantation in Kentucky where she lived as a slave until her escape eighteen years ago. On this day, however, she returns home and finds an unexpected and surprising guest: Paul D. Paul D was one of five men who were Sethe’s fellow slaves at Sweet Home; these had included Paul A, Paul F, Sixo, and Sethe’s husband, Halle. Although Sethe hasn’t seen Paul D in eighteen years, they slip into easy conversation and Sethe invites him inside. Paul D walks into a pool of eerie red light and feels a wave of grief come over him. Sethe explains that the presence is the sad specter of her dead baby, whose throat was cut before it was two years old. At her daughter’s funeral, Sethe mistook the preacher’s reference to the “Dearly Beloved” mourners for a reference to her dead daughter. Afterward, she agreed to ten minutes of sex with an engraver in order to have the word “Beloved” carved on the baby’s headstone.
Paul D has desired Sethe ever since she arrived at Sweet Home at the age of thirteen to replace Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs left because her son Halle had bought her freedom with five years of weekend labor. Sethe was beautiful then, and the five male Sweet Home slaves waited in agonizing sexual frustration, having sex with calves and dreaming of rape, while she took a year to make her choice among them. She chose Halle, and together they had two sons and a daughter. Sethe was pregnant with a fourth child, Denver, when the family made its escape from Sweet Home. Sethe and Halle were separated during their escape, however, and neither Paul D nor Sethe knows what happened to Halle. Seeing her mother flirting and talking about Sweet Home with Paul D makes Denver feel lonely and excluded. She reacts with surly jealousy and dissolves into tears at the dinner table one evening. She cries that she cannot stay in the house because the community knows it to be haunted. Consequently, everyone avoids Denver and she has no friends. When Paul D wonders aloud why they haven’t moved from 124, Sethe firmly asserts that she will never run away from anything again.
Later, Sethe explains that she was whipped before she ran from Sweet Home to meet Baby Suggs and her children, whom she had sent ahead, in Cincinnati. The white girl who helped deliver Denver said the resulting scars looked like a chokecherry tree. Sethe cries and says that the men who beat her stole her baby’s milk before she ran. Paul D comes up behind her and pulls down the top of her dress: He cradles her breasts in his hands while he kisses each line of her scars. The house immediately begins to lurch and shake as the ghost vents its rage. Paul D shouts and fights with the ghost, chasing it away. Denver resents Paul D’s act-the ghost was the only company she had.
Analysis of this section:
. From the beginning, Beloved focuses on the import of memory and hisSethe struggles daily with the haunting legacy of slavery, in the form of her threatening memories and also in the form of her daughter’s aggressive ghost. For Sethe, the present is mostly a struggle to beat back the past, because the memories of her daughter’s death and the experiences at Sweet Home are too painful for her to recall consciously. But Sethe’s repression is problematic, because the absence of history and memory inhibits the construction of a stable identity. Even Sethe’s hard-won freedom is threatened by her inability to confront her prior life. Paul D’s arrival gives Sethe the opportunity and the impetus to finally come to terms with her painful life history.
Already in the first chapter, the reader begins to gain a sense of the horrors that have taken place. Like the ghost, the address of the house is a stubborn reminder of its history. The characters refer to the house by its number, 124. These digits highlight the absence of Sethe’s murdered third child. As an institution, slavery shattered its victims’ traditional family structures, or else precluded such structures from ever forming. Slaves were thus deprived of the foundations of any identity apart from their role as servants. Baby Suggs is a woman who never had the chance to be a real mother, daughter, or sister. Later, we learn that neither Sethe nor Paul D knew their parents, and the relatively long, six-year marriage of Halle and Sethe is an anomaly in an institution that would regularly redistribute men and women to different farms as their owners deemed necessary.
The scars on Sethe’s back serve as another testament to her disfiguring and dehumanizing years as a slave. Like the ghost, the scars also work as a metaphor for the way that past tragedies affect us psychologically, “haunting” or “scarring” us for life. More specifically, the tree shape formed by the scars might symbolize Sethe’s incomplete family tree. It could also symbolize the burden of existence itself, through an allusion to the “tree of knowledge” from which Adam and Eve ate, initiating their mortality and suffering. Sethe’s “tree” may also offer insight into the empowering abilities of interpretation. In the same way that the white men are able to justify and increase their power over the slaves by “studying” and interpreting them according to their own whims, Amy’s interpretation of Sethe’s mass of ugly scars as a “chokecherry tree” transforms a story of pain and oppression into one of survival. In the hands of the right storyteller, Sethe’s marks become a poignant and beautiful symbol. When Paul D kisses them, he reinforces this more positive interpretation.
The chapter provides other similar examples of the way that Paul D’s presence works to help Sethe reclaim authority over her own past. Sethe has always prioritized others’ needs over her own. For example, although she suggests in her story that schoolteacher’s nephews raped her, Sethe is preoccupied with their theft of her breast milk. She privileges her children’s needs over her own. When Paul D cradles her breasts, Sethe is “relieved of their weight.” The narrator comments that the “responsibility for her breasts,” the symbols of her devotion to her children, was Paul’s for a moment. Usually defined by her motherhood, Sethe has a chance to be herself for a moment, whoever that may be. Paul D reacquaints Sethe with her body as a locus of her own desires and not merely a site for the desires of others-whether those of the rapists or those of her babies.
Paul D’s arrival is not comforting to Denver because Paul D threatens Denver’s exclusive hold on Sethe’s affections. He also reminds Denver about the existence of a part of Sethe that she has never been able to access. Although she is eighteen years old, Denver’s fragile sense of self cannot bear talk of a world that does not include her. She has lived in relative isolation for her entire life, and she is angered and disturbed by Paul D’s sudden intrusion.
The events of the novel unfold on two different temporal planes: the present of Cincinnati in 1873, and Sethe’s time at Sweet Home during the 1850s, which is narrated largely in flashback. In this first chapter, Morrison plants the seeds of the major events that will unfurl over the course of the novel: Sethe’s encounter with schoolteacher and his nephews; the slaves’ escape from Sweet Home; the story of Amy Denver; and the mystery of Sethe’s baby’s murder. These past events are told in a nonlinear manner, fading and resurfacing cyclically as the characters’ memories reveal more and more to the reader and to the characters themselves.
Summary of Section 2
Section -2 and 3
After twenty-five years of fantasizing about Sethe, Paul D finds the consummation of his desire to be a disappointment. He lies awake in Sethe’s bed and decides that her “tree” is nothing but an ugly clump of scars. His thoughts turn to Sixo, a fellow slave at Sweet Home, who would walk thirty miles to meet his girlfriend while Halle and the Paul brothers pined away after Sethe. We learn that although Baby Suggs had eight children by six different men, Halle, her youngest, was the only one who wasn’t taken from her. When Halle bought Baby Suggs. her freedom, she believed that, at her age, she was too old for her freedom to mean anything.
Paul D’s interested gaze reminds Sethe of Halle, whose love was more like that of a brother than that of a man “laying claim.” Sethe remembers that when she and Halle first decided to get married, she asked Mrs. Garner if they were to have a wedding, but the white woman only laughed. With nothing to make the partnership official in any way, Sethe secretly stitched herself a dress to mark the occasion. The lovers consummated their relationship in a cornfield, and the swaying corn stalks alerted the other men that Sethe had finally made her choice. That night, the other Sweet Home men ate the fresh corn that came from the stalks broken by Sethe and Halle.
Section 3 Summary of
Denver turns to the outdoors for comfort and contemplation. Since childhood, she has sought privacy and repose in what she calls her “emerald closet” — a bower formed by a ring of boxwood bushes that smells of cologne she once spilled there. One time, as she was returning from the bower, through the window Denver saw Sethe kneeling in prayer in Baby Suggs’s room. A ghostly white dress knelt beside Sethe with its arm around her waist. Denver interpreted the vision as a sign that the baby ghost had “plans.” Paul D, she thinks resentfully, has now interrupted those plans.
When Denver had asked her mother what she was praying about, Sethe told her she was thinking about time, memory, and the past. In Sethe’s philosophy, “nothing ever dies.” This means that past events continue to occur, not only in one’s “rememory” but also somehow in the real world. Sethe believes it is possible to “bump into” past events and places again, and her main priority is shielding Denver from these tangible, painful collisions with the past.
Sethe ran away from Sweet Home when she was pregnant with Denver. Sethe’s feet had become raw lumps of flesh by the time she collapsed in the woods, where she was found by a white girl, Amy Denver. Amy explained that she had just completed a childhood of indentured servitude and was heading to Boston to get some “carmine” velvet. Carmine, Amy explained, is what people who buy velvet in Boston call “red.” When Amy asked Sethe her name, Sethe told her a false name, “Lu.” If Sethe were caught, she could be sent back to Sweet Home. Amy led Sethe to an abandoned lean-to and massaged her tortured feet back to life. Sethe later gave birth to her baby with Amy’s help, naming the child after the compassionate girl. Because the story is about her birth, Denver loves to hear it told.
After the episode in which Denver believed she saw the baby ghost kneeling next to her praying mother, Sethe told Denver about schoolteacher, who was Mrs. Garner’s brother-in-law. After Mr. Garner died, schoolteacher came with his two nephews to run the farm. Schoolteacher used to record his observations of the slaves in a notebook. He prodded them with strange questions, and Sethe believes that the questions broke Sixo’s spirit permanently.
As Paul D repairs the furniture he damaged during his confrontation with the ghost, he sings songs he learned while in a chain gang in Alfred, Georgia. After his traumatizing prison experience, he shut down a large part of his heart and head, operating only what helped him “walk, eat, sleep, sing.” The experience of seeing Sethe again reopens the locked part of his mind, and he decides to stay at 124.
Sethe tells Paul D that after her escape, schoolteacher came to Cincinnati to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. Sethe went to jail instead and took Denver with her. Paul D does not ask her for details because the mention of jail reminds him of his experiences in Alfred. Paul D’s decision to stay gives Sethe hope for the future.
Analysis of these Sections
Section2 begins with Paul D gazing at Sethe’s back and it ends with her gazing at his. These images symbolize what is taking place thematically in the
chapter: the characters’ charting of their respective memories, of what lies behind them, at their backs. Sethe’s back also contains the visible scars of her whipping. The narration alternates between two time periods-the present in Cincinnati and the Sweet Home past. The Sweet Home past is presented from both Paul D’s and Sethe’s perspectives, as the narrator’s focus shifts between the two characters. The novel maps out the points of proximity and distance between them. Both characters, for example, are disappointed after having sex, and they simultaneously begin thinking about Sethe and Halle’s encounter in the cornfield twenty-five years ago. On the other hand, Paul D’s sudden, secret revulsion toward Sethe’s scars suggests an emotional distance that takes even him by surprise.
Sethe recalls that Halle loved her in a brotherly way, not like a man “laying claim.” However, beneath the surface of this seemingly positive memory is the fact of the impotence inherent to the slave condition. Even if he had wanted to do so, Halle could not have laid claim to his enslaved wife any more than she could lay claim to herself. Slaves were not permitted to become legally married because marriage means giving yourself in contract to one another, and slaves are already contracted to their owners. The prohibition of marriage also prevented the slaves from having a strong claim on their children. Baby Suggs’s loss of her eight children was nothing unusual in slave life. The names of Paul D and his brothers are also a testament to the slaves’ lack of ownership over themselves and their children. Paul D’s brothers are named Paul A and Paul F, suggesting their interchangeability in the minds of their owners. Moreover, the brothers’ last name-Garner-is that of their owner. It thus marks them as the property of another.
Sethe doesn’t feel she can lay claim to her own memories. She attributes to them powers of autonomy, and her explanation to Denver of her concept of time reveals the powerful hold that the past has on her. Sethe regards the past as a malevolent presence that defies even death. The past has damaged Sethe and Paul D to so that they wonder if it is possible to put the pieces back together. Paradoxically, Sethe tries to shelter Denver from the past by isolating her in a house plagued the ghost of Denver’s dead sister.
In contrast, Denver will not flee the past, because she ardently desires a history. This is evident in her obsessive need to reconstruct the events of her birth in as much detail as possible. She longs for the sense of self that history provides. Similarly, her isolation from the rest of the black community impedes the formation of her identity.
Denver’s attachment to her “emerald closet” is part of the novel’s broader symbolic network of trees and tree images. For Denver, trees provide comfort and shelter. Elsewhere, the ability of trees to function as centers of solace and peace is complicated by the way white men have perverted their natural function. Schoolteacher’s men bind, burn, and shoot Sixo near the trees that he and Paul D found trusting and inviting. And while trees bear the blossoms that lead PaulD to freedom in Chapter 10, they also bear the lynching victims
that haunt Sethe’s memory. Paul D regards Sethe’s scar–tissue “tree” with bitter irony Since white men have reimagined trees as sites of brutality, thinks Paul D, Sethe cannot mask the ugliness and brutality of her wounds by seeing her scars as a tree.
Sections 4, 5 and 6
Summary of Section 4
Denver hurts Paul D by asking him how long he plans to “hang around.” Sethe is mortified by Denver’s behavior but refuses to allow Paul D to criticize her daughter. Paul D interprets this as a sign of intense motherly love and thinks it is dangerous for an ex-slave to love anything too much. Paul D has learned to love the individuals in his life only partially, so that he has enough love left over for the next person when the first is taken away.
Paul D promises Sethe that she can safely reenter her past because he will be there to catch her if she falls. He invites Denver and Sethe to a carnival in town that is having a special day for blacks. At the carnival, Denver surprises herself by having a good time. The people they see there greet her casually, rather than showing her the contempt she expects. Because he is such an extrovert and so shamelessly thrilled by the carnival, Paul D is a hit with the other carnival-goers. He thus helps reintegrate Sethe and Denver into the community, and he makes a few acquaintances. He also inquires about getting a job. Paul D is amused by the spectacle of the supposed “Wild African Savage,” because he says he knew the man back in Roanoke. On the way to and from the carnival, the smell of rotting roses is overpowering. Also, both on the way there and on the way back, Sethe notices that the three shadows of Paul D, Denver, and herself overlap so as to appear to be holding hands. She interprets this as a promising sign that signals future happiness.
Summary of Section 5
A fully dressed woman walks out of a stream and falls asleep beneath a mulberry tree. The woman moves to a tree stump near the steps of 124, where Paul D, Sethe, and Denver find her as they return from the carnival. Sethe suddenly feels a strange, irrepressible need to urinate and is reminded of her water breaking before Denver’s birth. Denver and Paul D take the woman inside, where she drinks cup after cup of water. Her name, it turns out, is Beloved. Her skin is as smooth as a baby’s, and she has no recollection of the past. Denver notes that Here Boy, the dog that was disfigured during one of the baby ghost’s rages, has disappeared.
Beloved sleeps for four days, waking only to ask for water. While Beloved sleeps, Denver cares for her with a possessive devotion. Beloved’s presence makes Paul D uneasy. He remarks that although she acts and sounds sick, she does not show visible signs of ill health-the other day, he tells Sethe, he saw her pick up a rocking chair with one hand. He claims that Denver was also watching, but when he asks Denver for confirmation, she denies having seen any such thing.
Summary of Section 6
Beloved develops a strange attachment to Sethe. Although she usually hates discussing the past, Sethe enjoys pouring stories into Beloved’s eager ears. Beloved asks what has happened to what she calls Sethe’s “diamonds.” Sethe replies that she once owned some crystal earrings given to her by Mrs. Garner for her wedding. She then recounts the story of her haphazard, patchwork wedding dress.
As she watches Sethe arrange Denver’s hair, Beloved asks about Sethe’s mother. Sethe explains that she rarely saw her. Sethe remembers that her mother once took her aside and showed her a circle and a cross that had been burned into her skin. She said that Sethe could use these marks to identify her body if she died. When Sethe asked to be marked, too, her mother slapped her. Sethe tells the girls that she did not understand why her mother had done this until she had a mark of her own.
Sethe mentions that her mother was hanged, and she is suddenly stunned by the recollection of a disturbing memory that she had forgotten. Sethe ran to her dead mother, but Nan, another slave woman, pulled Sethe away from her mother’s body when Sethe tried to search for the mark. Speaking in her mother’s long-forgotten language, Nan told Sethe that the two women had come across the sea in the same ship. The white crewmembers had raped them repeatedly, but Sethe’s mother “threw away” the children she had by the white men. Sethe was kept because she had a black father, for whom she was named. Analysis of these Sections
Although the cheer of the carnival in Chapter 4 is tempered somewhat by the stench of the rotting roses, the chapter ends on a note of optimism that is perhaps unparalleled in the rest of the book. Sethe begins to think that with Paul D there to support her, she may be able to confront her past. There are other beginnings: Denver and Paul D begin to reconcile with each other, Sethe and Denver begin reconciliation with the community, and Paul D begins to feel at home in Cincinnati.
Beloved’s mystical arrival in Chapter 5 interrupts the progress that is made in Chapter 4. In the subsequent chapters, the existing relationships in the novel become unhinged, and the characters recombine with unusual force. Beloved seems to be a manifestation of Sethe’s infant daughter who was killed. Details linking her to the daughter include her age, her name, her lack of memory, her smooth, “new” skin, Here Boy’s disappearance, Sethe’s strange sensation of her “water breaking,” and Beloved’s impossible knowledge of Sethe’s earrings. It is never made clear, however, whether Beloved is a reincarnation of the child-an actual living human who is inhabited by the spirit of the dead baby- or simply a ghost. Paul D’s observation of Beloved’s secret strength suggests that she is capable of the supernatural violence wreaked by the poltergeist before Paul D’s arrival.
In their actions, the residents of 124 treat Beloved as they would a human visitor in need. In their thoughts, however, they associate her with the murdered infant. As the story develops, all three forge relationships with her that
are governed by these thoughts. Although Beloved appears on the surface to be a woman, she resembles a baby in many ways. She does not walk steadily, her speech is impaired, she does not have full control over her bodily functions, and she sleeps constantly. Beloved also represents the untrained and undisciplined desire of an infant. Her single-minded fixation on Sethe resembles that of an infant, who is unable to conceive of an identity separate from its mother and who thinks of its mother as its exclusive possession.
Sethe tries desperately to keep the past at bay, but Beloved’s arrival demonstrates the difficulty-indeed, the impossibility-of repressing the past. Over the course of the novel, Sethe’s confrontation with that past will prove both destructive and productive. This section emphasizes the beneficial aspects of the process: in Beloved’s presence, memories surface that help Sethe understand her past and, consequently, herself. For example, in Chapter 6 Beloved inspires Sethe’s memory of her mother’s hanging to come to the surface. Sethe’s story of the hanging marks the first time Denver has ever heard about her mother’s mother. Especially poignant is the blank space in Sethe’s memory for the forgotten language of her early years. Perhaps Sethe’s failure to remember the African language spoken by her mother is a deliberate part of her attempt to repress her memory of her mother. Importantly, the lost language represents the kind of cultural devastation suffered by the slaves. Just as Beloved partially restores that lost cultural history to Sethe along with her personal history, Morrison’s novel restores a repressed part of American history to contemporary readers by including the stories and memories of plantation slaves. Later, in Beloved’s monologue in Chapter 22, the slaves’ ancestors’ memories of the Middle Passage, the ocean crossing between Africa and America, are evoked.
Summary: Chapter 7:
Beloved’s presence-especially what is described as her “shining” sexuality-disturbs Paul D. He anxiously interrogates her about her past until Sethe, sensing Beloved’s agitation, interrupts him. Afterward, Sethe chastises Paul D for pressing Beloved so cruelly, and during their argument Halle’s name comes up. Paul D then tells Sethe the reason Halle didn’t meet her during the escape as planned. Halle was in the loft of the barn when Sethe was violated by schoolteacher’s nephews. Afterward, he found himself unable to leave. When Sethe realizes that Halle saw everything that schoolteacher and his nephews did to her, she is initially furious that he did not intervene. But Paul D explains that Halle was shattered by the experience: afterward, Paul D saw him sitting blankly by a butter churn; he had smeared butter all over his face. At the time, Paul D was ignorant of the events in the barn and thus wondered what had caused this breakdown in Halle. However, Paul D could not physically form the words to ask him because he had an iron bit in his mouth. Outside, Sethe and Paul D discuss the shame of wearing the bit. Paul D says that the worst part of the punishment was seeing the farm’s rooster, named Mister, watch him
and walk around more freely than himself. It is thoughts like these that Paul D keeps locked within the rusted “tobacco tin” of his heart. Summary: Chapter 8
While Sethe and Paul D sit on the porch, Beloved and Denver dance together inside the house. Denver asks Beloved how she got her name, and Beloved replies that it is her name “in the dark.” Denver asks what it is like in the dark place from which Beloved came. Beloved says that when she was there she was small and curled up. It was hot and crowded with lots of other people, and some of them were dead. She describes a bridge and water. When Denver asks her why she came back, Beloved mentions Sethe, saying she wanted to see “her face.” Denver feels slighted that she was not the main reason for Beloved’s return.
Denver asks Beloved not to tell Sethe who she really is. Beloved becomes angry and tells Denver never to tell her what to do. She reminds Denver that she doesn’t need her-Sethe is the one she needs. The two girls sit in uncomfortable silence until Beloved asks Denver to narrate the story of Denver’s birth. As Denver watches the way Beloved eagerly drinks in every detail, she is able to envision the story she narrates.
Denver tells Beloved about how Amy Denver found Sethe and discerned the image of a chokecherry tree in Sethe’s bleeding scars. After Amy cleaned the wounds, the two women spent the night in a lean-to shelter. The next morning, Amy helped Sethe limp down to the river, where they found a leaky boat with one oar. It was upon stepping into the boat that Sethe’s water broke. It seemed as though the newborn Denver might die, but Amy finally coaxed a whimper out of her. Later that evening, Amy left Sethe waiting by the riverbank for a chance to cross the river to Ohio.
Analysis: Chapters 7-8
Beloved incites the narration of history time and again. Often, she directly questions Denver and Sethe about the past, but Beloved also has an indirect
influence, which the scene between Sethe and Paul D illustrates. It is the couple’s argument over Beloved that sparks Paul D’s revelation of Halle’s fate to Sethe. Once Beloved has kindled the storytelling process, Sethe and Paul D devote their own energies to it, despite the pain that is involved. For as Amy says to Sethe in Chapter 3 about Sethe’s throbbing feet, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” On a certain level, both Sethe and Paul D realize that it is worth the pain to bring their memories back to life, back into the open. In releasing these memories, they themselves can come back to life and live again without fear. Aware of the pain it will cause, Sethe and Paul D nevertheless proceed to fill in the gaps in each other’s knowledge of the past. For both characters, forming a coherent identity involves weaving together the fragments of their past into a coherent narrative.
These chapters focus on Paul D’s identity in particular. Mr. Garner always bragged that he raised his slaves as “men,” and Paul D had always considered himself a man in his own right. But schoolteacher proved to him that his claim to manhood was not inherent and that it depended upon the will of another.
After wearing a bit as an animal would, a portion of Paul D’s identity was shattered. His relationship with Sethe prompts him to try to find a way to reclaim his humanity, and the process of narration that Beloved inspires proves integral to his attempt.
Beloved also counters the more general forces of silence that recur throughout the novel. According to Sethe and Baby Suggs, one should withhold all talk of the past. Once, when Sethe did speak, she almost lost her life: her report to Mrs. Garner about the theft of her milk caused her to be whipped nearly to death. Because speech is one of the most important differences between humans and animals, white slave owners did everything they could to control the speech of their slaves. Those who rebelled or did not speak with a suitably deferential tone often had their tongues cut out. Thus, the mere act of speaking about a dehumanizing experience is a way of reclaiming one’s humanity.
For slaves and former slaves, such speech often takes the form of song or metaphor. For a long while, Paul D was unable to talk about his degrading experiences, but he could describe them through songs. Sethe uses similar circumlocution when she refers to the violation and beating she suffered using the images of stolen milk and of a chokecherry tree. Stylized expression is historically a means of secretly venting anger or criticizing. Thus, for the oppressed, including slaves, artistic expression becomes a matter of survival, because explicit language could be punished with death.
Paradoxically, although Beloved incites the narratives of others, she remains quite cryptic about her own past. What we do hear of her previous experiences suggests that she may be above all a symbolic figure who represents the history of a people. In her interchange with Denver, Beloved’s memo-* ries of the “dark place” from which she came can be taken as those of a deceased infant girl, but they also greatly resemble an African woman’s memories of the “Middle Passage,” the crossing of the Atlantic on the way to America. Beloved recalls dark, hot, cramped quarters, a pile of dead bodies, and water. Additionally, the “bridge” she talks about could be the bridge of a ship. These uncanny images will resurface in Beloved’s monologue in Chapter 22.
Summary: Chapter 9
Disturbed by Paul D’s information about Halle and missing the soothing presence that Baby Suggs once provided, Sethe seeks comfort in a place called the Clearing. She takes Denver and Beloved with her. Before Baby Suggs fell into a depression, for which Sethe blames herself, the older woman used to preach to the black community of Cincinnati in the Clearing. She would begin by having the people participate in a cathartic mixture of.crying, laughter, and dance, and she would then preach self-love. She would instruct them to love their hands that had been bound, their mouths that had been silenced, and, most of all, their hearts.
Sethe recalls the day she arrived at 124 and met Baby Suggs for the first
time. After Denver’s birth and Amy Denver’s departure, she came across a black man fishing with two boys. The man, Stamp Paid, wrapped Denver in a jacket and poled Sethe across the Ohio. On shore, he left a signal for Ella, another organizer of the Underground Railroad, which alerted her to the presence of a “passenger” who needed help. When Ella arrived, Sethe explained that she was heading to Baby Suggs’s house on Bluestone Road. Ella, noting Sethe’s attachment to Denver, voiced her opinion that one shouldn’t love anything too much.
When Sethe got to 124, Baby Suggs welcomed and bathed her before allowing her to see her two boys and her “crawling already? girl.” To amuse her daughter, Sethe jingled the earrings that Mrs. Garner had given her. During the twenty-eight days she spent in Cincinnati before her daughter’s death, Sethe enjoyed being a part of the community. In the Clearing, she had felt for the first time as though she owned herself.
As she sits on Baby Suggs’s old rock in the Clearing, Sethe calls silently for the calming fingers of her deceased mother-in-law. She begins to feel Baby Suggs massaging her neck, but the touch turns suddenly violent and Sethe realizes she is being strangled. Denver reacts with alarm, and Beloved caresses and kisses the bruises on Sethe’s neck. Beloved’s breath smells like milk to Sethe, and her touch feels like that of the baby’s ghost. Alarmed, Sethe pushes Beloved away, saying, “You too old for that.” Later, Denver accuses Beloved of strangling Sethe. Beloved runs away in anger, insisting that Sethe was being choked by the “circle of iron,” not by her.
We learn that as a seven-year-old Denver attended school lessons with other black children at the home of a woman they called Lady Jones. Denver had been studying there for a year when her classmate Nelson Lord upset her by asking, “Didn’t your mother get locked away for murder?” Denver repeated the question to her mother, but she went “deaf” before she could hear an answer. This deafness was cured by the sound of the baby ghost climbing the stairs. It was the first time the ghost had appeared. But after this first innocuous manifestation, the ghost proceeded to become spiteful, angry, and deliberately abusive. Thinking back to these acts of rage, Denver wonders what havoc Beloved might now wreak on Sethe. Yet she believes she has no power to stop her, especially since she so often feels captivated by the girl. When she goes to Beloved to seek forgiveness for fighting with her, she sees Beloved watching two turtles mate.
Summary: Chapter 10
Paul D was sent to prison in Alfred, Georgia, because he tried to kill Brandywine, the man to whom schoolteacher sold him. The prison had fortysix inmates, all of them black men. They were locked in small boxes in the ground at night and were subject to sexual abuse and chain gang work during the day. During this time Paul D began to tremble chronically, and his trembling only subsided when he was actively working and singing in the chain gang. Once, during a long rainstorm, the ground turned to mud, which allowed the prisoners to work together and escape. Linked together with one
chain, they walked to a camp of ailing Cherokees, who broke their chains. They directed Paul D northward by telling him that he should follow the blooms of the flowers as the warm spring temperatures spread from south to north. In Delaware he met a weaver woman with whom he proceeded to live for eighteen months. As time went on, he locked all his painful memories of the prison and Sweet Home into “the tobacco tin lodged in his chest.” Summary: Chapter 11
At 124 Bluestone Road, Paul D feels inexplicably restless and uncomfortable in every room. Eventually, he is only able to sleep outside the house. He realizes that Beloved is moving him around the house like a rag doll. One night, Beloved comes to Paul D in the cold house, where he now sleeps, and says, “I want you to touch me on the inside part. . . . And you have to call me my name.” Paul D tries to resist her strange power, but he has sex with her, and the tin tobacco box breaks open. He repeats the phrase “red heart” over and over. Analysis: Chapters 9-11
Chapter 9 contrasts two philosophies of dealing with pain. One is represented by Baby Suggs; Paul D and Ella espouse the other. Through her preaching, Baby Suggs hoped to help her fellow former slaves reclaim themselves, to “love their mouths” and express their feelings. While still in bondage, love was an emotional liability, but outside of slavery a person can have more trust that the object of his love will not be taken away. Yet, even when one is no longer a slave, one must deal with a certain amount of loss. Having already known more loss than they feel they can bear, Paul D and Ella have decided they would forego all real love for the rest of their lives rather than feel any more pain. When Baby Suggs tells her listeners to love their hearts most of all, she responds to Paul D’s “tin heart” philosophy. Baby Suggs’s message is that a sacrifice such as Paul D’s is not worth undertaking, because love is part of being human, and humanity should not be sacrificed for the sake of emotional survival. It is questionable whether life without love constitutes “survival” at all.
Sethe’s reaction to the news of Halle’s fate reveals her strategy for coping with pain and love. She wavers and is tempted to suppress her feelings as Paul D does. Ultimately, though, she supports Baby Suggs’s wise words. Having loved Halle so deeply, the news of his psychological breakdown causes Sethe great pain. Yet facing his pain and her own allows her to heal and move on. Instead of moving to a new, unhaunted house, Sethe had stayed at 124 in the hope that her husband would join her someday. As she begins to reexamine the past, Sethe contemplates constructing a new family and life with Paul D. Her decision to stay with him suggests that she is ready to confront the other painful accounts that Paul D still has yet to tell her, and to tell her own stories as well. She has taken another step toward reclaiming her identity and healing her spirit.
Similarly, the sexual encounter between Beloved and Paul D causes Paul D to act against his philosophy, which suggests that it is weak in relation to that of Baby Suggs. Paul D’s engagement with Beloved may be representative of the intense encounter with his past that he is undertaking in the novel. Somehow,
the encounter loosens the lid of Paul D’s “tobacco tin” heart: his pulsating chant, “red heart, red heart,” reflects the sudden overflow of passion he feels as his tin box bursts and his past pours out.
The scene between Beloved and Paul D raises many questions. Beloved’s sexuality complicates the characters’ (and the reader’s) perception of her as the embodiment of the dead baby’s spirit. Her interaction with Paul D seems to prove her power over him, but it also manifests a more vulnerable, plaintive, childlike aspect of her nature. Her insistence that Paul D call her by her name communicates her insecurity about who she is as well as her neediness. If Beloved is representative of history or the past, her actions seem to suggest that although the past has power over us, it is also in a position of dependency. If we do not care for it, acknowledge it, call it by name, it may fade and weaken, but it may also resort to a state of spiteful vengeance, keeping us captive until we bow to its demands.
Summary: Chapter 12
Denver’s attachment to Beloved intensifies. Beloved’s gaze sustains and completes Denver, and Denver fears that she has no self apart from Beloved. Meanwhile, Sethe, ignoring her earlier sense that Beloved is her daughter’s reincarnation, decides that Beloved must have recently escaped from years of captivity. She knows Ella to have endured such an experience: a white man and his son locked her up and raped her repeatedly.
Denver often feels lonely and rejected by Beloved. When she isn’t directly stimulated, Beloved lapses into a dreamy silence, and she never interacts as much with Denver as she does with Sethe. Denver, interested only in the present, does not care for the stories about the past that Sethe narrates in response to Beloved’s questions. Denver also knows about Beloved’s attentions to Paul D because she has noted her nighttime trips to the cold house where he sleeps.
One day, Denver and Beloved go into the cold house to get cider. Suddenly, Beloved disappears into the darkness. Denver is certain that Beloved has gone forever and begins to cry, only to find Beloved in front of her, smiling. Beloved reassures Denver by telling her, “This the place I am.” Beloved then drops to the ground where she curls up and moans softly. Her eyes focus on a spot in the darkness where she claims to see “her face.” When Denver asks her to clarify, she says mysteriously, “It’s me.”
Summary: Chapter 13
Thinking about schoolteacher’s arrival at Sweet Home makes Paul D again question the legitimacy of his manhood in the way that schoolteacher used to force him to do. He likens Beloved’s current manipulation of him to schoolteacher’s abuse and decides that the only way he can hope to stop Beloved is to tell Sethe what has been happening. He meets her outside the restaurant where she works, but he cannot muster up enough courage to confess that he is “not a man.” He surprises himself-and Sethe, who thinks he is about to tell her he is leavingby asking her to have a baby with him. It begins to snow, and they laugh and
flirt on the walk home. Beloved, who has been waiting for Sethe, meets them outside and absorbs Sethe’s attention, leaving Paul D feeling cold and resentful. Sethe, however, breaks Beloved’s spell by insisting that Paul D resume sleeping with her at night. Sethe decides she cannot have a baby with Paul D because “[u]nless carefree, motherlove was a killer.” She begins to question Paul D’s intentions: perhaps, she thinks, he is jealous of Denver and Beloved and wants his own family. Ultimately, Sethe recognizes that she is just trying to justify her decision to not have any more children. Summary: Chapter 14
After Sethe takes Paul D upstairs, Beloved begs Denver to drive Paul D away, but Denver replies that Sethe will be angry at Beloved if Paul D leaves. One of Beloved’s teeth falls out, and she wonders fearfully if her entire body will begin to fall apart. She finds it difficult to feel complete and unified when Sethe is away. Beloved begins to cry, and Denver takes her in her arms, while the snow gathering outside 124 piles higher and higher. Analysis: Chapters 12-14
The language used to describe Denver’s relationship with Beloved is loaded with the vocabulary of need and desire. Denver feels that Beloved’s interested gaze sends her to a place “beyond appetite” and that looking at Beloved is “food enough.” Beloved provides emotional sustenance for Denver in a way that Sethe never could, because Denver is simultaneously responsible for and dependent upon Beloved. Beloved’s constant neediness is most like an infant’s desire for its mother; when Sethe is not there for Beloved, Denver becomes a sort of surrogate mother figure. She is forced out of her role as a daughter and into a more adult role that involves working in the interest of another’s welfare.
Indeed, both need and desire recur in Beloved as forces active in the shaping of human relationships. Indulging desire seems to affirm life. At the same time, repressing desire is self-destructive. Thus, Paul D’s attempts to reject his desire for Beloved are ultimately detrimental and inhibit him from constructing a complete identity.
When Beloved curls up into a ball and rocks herself back and forth in the shed, her behavior recalls her description of life in the “other place” – whether womb, grave, or slave ship-where she lay curled up and hot. In this scene, Beloved points to a spot in the darkness where she sees “her face.” “Me. It’s me,” she tells Denver. Beloved may be conflating her identity with Sethe’s, possibly because her premature death prevented her from forming an independent sense of self. She could also be pointing to the spot in the shed where she was murdered. Alternatively, if we understand much of Beloved’s speech as voicing the thoughts of the slaves during the Middle Passage, her words here may refer not to her own situation but to that of the slaves. Perhaps they refer specifically to the circumstances of her grandmother, Sethe’s mother. Thus, when Beloved identifies “her” face with “me,” she may be speaking in the voice of Sethe’s mother.
Paul D’s proposal that he get Sethe pregnant reveals his desire to redirect
his attention from the past to the future. He has been worrying about his manhood and has been tormented by the curse Beloved seems to have cast over him. When he surprises himself by telling Sethe that he wants her to have a baby with him, he decides retroactively that a baby would be the perfect “solution: a way to hold on to her, document his manhood and break out of the girl’s spell-all in one.” But Sethe feels she has already paid too high a price for motherhood. She has already lost three children and does not want to have another, only to see it, too, run away or be taken from her. Sethe further demonstrates her reluctance to engage with her past when she ignores her earlier sense that Beloved is her daughter. Sethe does not feel ready to face up to the horrible fact that she killed her own daughter, a mother’s worst crime. Willfully rejecting her own instinct, Sethe convinces herself that Beloved must be an ordinary girl who has escaped from some sort of captivity.
Summary: Chapter 15
After Sethe first arrived at 124, Stamp Paid brought over two pails of rare, deliciously sweet, blackberries. Baby Suggs decided to bake some pies, and before long the celebration had transformed into a feast for ninety people. The community celebrated long into the night but grew jealous and angry as the feast wore on: to them, the excess of the feast was a measure of Baby Suggs’s unwarranted pride. Baby Suggs sensed a “dark and coming thing” in the distance, but the atmosphere of jealousy created by the townspeople clouded her perception.
From Sethe’s arrival at 124, the narration goes even further back in time to Sweet Home. Although it meant leaving behind the only child she had been able to see grow to adulthood, Baby Suggs allowed Halle to buy her freedom because it mattered so much to him. Once she left Sweet Home, Baby Suggs realized how sweet freedom could be. While Mr. Garner drove her to Cincinnati, she asked him why he and Mrs. Garner called her Jenny. He told her that Jenny Whitlow was the name on her bill-of-sale. She explains the origin of her real name-Suggs was her husband’s name, and he called her “Baby.” Mr. Garner tells her that Baby Suggs is “no name for a freed Negro.” He takes Baby Suggs to Ohio to meet the Bodwins, two white abolitionist siblings who allow Baby Suggs to live at 124 Bluestone Road in exchange for domestic work. Baby Suggs is unable to learn anything about the whereabouts of her lost children. Summary: Chapter 16
One day, about a month after Sethe arrived at 124, schoolteacher showed up at the house with one of his nephews, the sheriff, and a slave catcher. In the woodshed, they found Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, lying in the sawdust, bleeding. Sethe was holding her bleeding “crawling already?” daughter, whose throat she had cut with a saw. Stamp Paid rushed in and grabbed Denver before. Sethe could dash her brains out against the wall. Because none of the children could ever be of any use as a slave, schoolteacher concluded that there was nothing worth claiming at 124 and left in disgust. Sethe’s older daughter was dead,
but Baby Suggs bound the boys’ wounds and struggled with Sethe over Denver. Denver nursed at Sethe’s breast, ingesting her dead sister’s blood along with her mother’s milk. The sheriff took Sethe, with Denver in her arms, to jail. Summary: Chapter 17
Stamp Paid shows Paul D a newspaper clipping with a drawing of Sethe, but Paul D, refusing to believe that the woman depicted is Sethe, insists, “That ain’t her mouth.” Paul D can’t read, so Stamp Paid tells him the story of Sethe’s tragedy. Stamp Paid leaves some parts of the story out, though. He doesn’t tell how Sethe grabbed her children and flew with them to the woodshed “like a hawk on the wing,” nor does he mention that, out of jealous spite, the community neglected to warn Sethe about schoolteacher’s approach. Summary: Chapter 18
When Paul D confronts Sethe with the newspaper clipping, she begins to circle frantically around the room in a manner that parallels the circular manner in which she unravels her story for him. She tells Paul D how, at 124, she began to love her children with renewed force, because she knew finally that they were fully hers to love. When she recognized schoolteacher’s hat outside the house one day, she felt hummingbird wings beating around her head and could think only, “No. No. Nono. Nonono.” Killing her children was a way of protecting them from the horrors of slavery she had herself endured, a way to secure their safety.
Paul D tells her that her love is “too thick.” He feels distanced from Sethe and condemns her act, saying, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” by which he suggests that she acted like a beast in attempting to murder her own children. His anxiety increases when he sees Beloved standing on the staircase. He leaves 124, and Sethe simply says, “So long.” Although he does not say so, Sethe knows that Paul D isn’t coming back. Analysis: Chapters 15-18
When, after many years of service, Baby Suggs asks the Garners why they call her Jenny Whitlow, she reveals a gap in her self-knowledge. However, this gap is quickly closed and surpassed. By choosing to keep the name she knows as her own despite Mr. Garner’s protestations, Baby Suggs closes the gap and asserts her independence. She takes this further in her preaching, as it enables her to spread her messages of self-love and independence to the community. In preaching, Baby Suggs takes her community as her family and finds a sense of purpose to her life as a freed person.
But the community is fickle. Although it allows Baby Suggs to rebuild for herself a sense of belonging, it does great harm to Baby Suggs’s family. The community is implicated in the infanticide because their jealousy and mistrust weighs on the feast so palpably that it hinders Baby Suggs’s perception of the “dark and coming thing.” More obviously incriminating is that, out of spite, the community deliberately fails to warn Sethe of schoolteacher’s approach. Even after Sethe murders her daughter, the community members feel Sethe is behaving too proudly, a crime for which they will continue to shun her until
Morrison’s indictment of the black community in Sethe’s crime exemplifies the moral ambiguity that pervades Beloved. Like Baby Suggs, Morrison does not seem to “approve or condemn” Sethe’s act. Because Morrison centers the novel’s narrative around Sethe, and because she portrays Sethe as strong, sane, courageous, and a loving mother, we tend to sympathize with Sethe-even as she explains the circumstances of the murder. At the other extreme is the community, which completely shuns Sethe and her family after she murders her daughter. Thus, while Paul D’s initial, horrified reaction to Stamp Paid’s story is justified and understandable, it seems out of place to us because the text locates Sethe’s act outside the bounds of ethical evaluation in a way that the community does not. The text shifts the focus of the reader’s criticism from Sethe herself to the perverse circumstances that have worked upon her to transform her “too thick” motherly love into infanticide.
Denver turns to them for help in Part Three.
The book’s moral ambiguity extends beyond its central conflict to all aspects of the story. Good and evil are not split along a racial divide-we see whites performing good acts along with the bad and blacks performing bad acts along with the good. By complexly intertwining virtue and vice, Morrison makes her characters seem realistic and human, so that they rise above being simple allegorical figures. Even Beloved, the only expressly allegorical figure in the book, is an elusive character. The novel’s sole definitive moral judgment is its condemnation of all forms of slavery. Most prominently, the terror and despair slavery represents to Sethe is portrayed as the indirect cause of her act of infanticide. Even the “softer” form of slavery practiced by the Garners does not escape criticism.
The “four horsemen” – schoolteacher, schoolteacher’s nephew, a slave catcher, and the sheriff-reference the description of the Apocalypse that is detailed in the Book of Revelations. In the biblical text, the four horsemen-famine, plague, war, and death-herald the coming of the end of human existence. The horsemen in Beloved announce the end of the peaceful world that was 124. Before their arrival, Sethe lived in harmony with her family, with her community, and, for the first time, with erself. After Sethe’s attempt to murder all of her children, Baby Suggs sinks into a deep depression and never preaches again, while the community shuns 124 and its inhabitants. Sethe’s surviving children will never again trust her in the same way, and Sethe is haunted for the rest of her lifeliterally by her daughter’s ghost, figuratively by her deed. In a sense, schoolteacher and his posse also herald the end of coherent meaning for the book’s main characters: Sethe’s incomprehensible act ushers in an era of moral and existential doubt in the book. Paul D, who has difficulty understanding his feelings, his motives, his manhood, and his actions, is most explicitly plagued by doubt.
Summary: Chapter 19
When Stamp Paid hears that Paul D has left 124, he feels guilty for having told Paul D about Sethe’s crime without considering her family’s welfare. Stamp Paid reminds himself that he has a duty to Sethe and Denver by virtue of their connection to Baby Suggs, of whom he was very fond. He thinks about her late-life depression, which deeply saddened him. He tried to convince her to continue preaching God’s word, but she claimed she had lost all motivation after the white men’s intrusion into her household.
For the first time since Baby Suggs’s death, Stamp returns to 124. When he approaches the house, he hears a clamor of disturbing, disembodied conversation. He can discern only the word “mine.” Although he has a habit of walking into houses without knocking-it is the one privilege he claims in exchange for the good he does for the Cincinnati community-Stamp Paid feels uncomfortable entering 124 unannounced. He stands awkwardly at the door and thinks about what he ought to do.
Sethe takes Beloved and Denver ice-skating, partly to show that she has not been devastated by Paul D’s departure. Later, Sethe hears Beloved humming a song Sethe made up to sing to her children. Faced with such evidence, Sethe finally recognizes Beloved as her resurrected daughter. Now that her dead child has rejoined her, she decides to discard the past and the future for the “timeless present” of 124.
After returning to 124 several more times and finding himself unable to knock on each occasion, Stamp Paid finally works up the courage to knock on Sethe’s door. No one answers. When he peeks in the window, he sees Denver sleeping in front of the fire, but he does not recognize Beloved and her presence disturbs him. When he asks around about the stranger in Sethe’s home, his friend Ella tells him that Paul D is sleeping at the church. Stamp chastises Ella for not offering Paul D a place to stay, and he is angered by the community’s general neglect of Paul D and of the women.
Stamp wonders whether perhaps he has made a mistake in staying away from 124 for so long, whether he might not owe something to Baby Suggs’s ‘kin. Earlier in his life, he decided that he no longer owed anyone anything. While a slave, Stamp was forced to give his wife to his master’s son to sleep with, and he concluded that his wife was a gift so terrible that it freed him forever after of all obligation. For this reason, he changed his name from Joshua to Stamp Paid.
Sethe cooks all morning at a restaurant and then takes her lunch home. Occasionally, she steals food and supplies because she is too proud to endure the local grocer’s racism. She feels ashamed of her petty thievery and remembers an occasion when Sixo stole a small pig from Sweet Home. When schoolteacher confronted him, Sixo cleverly talked his way out of blame by insisting that he was actually improving schoolteacher’s property by feeding himself so that he could better work the land. Schoolteacher whipped him to teach him
that “definitions belonged to the definers-not to the defined.”
Sethe’s memory of Sixo launches a series of other memories about Sweet Home and slavery. One is so painful that Sethe has told it to no one but Beloved: schoolteacher treated the slaves like farm stock, measuring their body parts and studying them like biological specimens. Once, Sethe overheard him giving a lesson to his nephews about her in which he instructed them to categorize each of her characteristics as either human or animal. Schoolteacher again manifested his cruelty again when, after Baby Suggs’s departure, he stopped Halle from doing any more work outside Sweet Home, thus depriving him of the chance to pay for the rest of his family’s release from slavery. This incident sparked the family to plot a secret escape. But their plan met with a tragic conclusion: Halle went insane, Paul A was hanged, Sixo was burned, and Paul D ended up with a bit in his mouth. Sethe recalls one night when she and Halle discussed the days of Mr. Garner’s rule of Sweet Home, the days before schoolteacher and his sadistic nephews arrived. Halle had surprised Sethe by saying that he saw no real difference between Garner’s kind of slavery and schoolteacher’s.
When Stamp runs away from 124 without knocking, he believes that the “undecipherable” voices he hears from the porch of the house belong to the “black and angry dead.” The chapter ends with Stamp’s thoughts about how slavery dehumanizes everyone involved, including whites. By defining the blacks as “jungle”-like, the whites “plant” resentment among the blacks that burgeons into a real, “jungle” anger. The whites, in turn, become so frightened of their own creation that they, too, began to behave brutally, like animals. The jungle, Stamp thinks, touches everyone, but it is normally hidden. Only from time to time does it manifest itself in rumblings such as the ones he hears emanating from 124.
In this chapter, Stamp Paid’s feelings of guilt are interspersed with Sethe’s memories of schoolteacher and Sweet Home. The result is a sort of dialogue centering on issues of responsibility and blame. The majority of the black characters in Beloved are unhappy, but it is unclear whether the white people are solely responsible or whether the blacks’ sorrows are to some extent due to their inability to come to terms with themselves and their pasts. The chapter also raises questions about what the black community owes to itself and about the ties that bind people who are no longer slaves.
The complex, confused dynamics of Beloved’s behavior-alternately weak and strong, vulnerable and invincible, loving and malicious, needy and omnipotent-represent the irony and contradiction inherent in Stamp Paid’s portrait of the black psyche. Stamp Paid believes that black people feel the need to work extremely hard because they wish to dissociate themselves from white people’s image of them as a savage, animalistic species. Yet, Stamp Paid notes, the harder they work to demonstrate their humanity, the more bitter and angry they become. In the end, that rage begins to threaten the very humanity they had been
trying to protect and emphasize. In this way, thinks Stamp, the whites succeed in creating a kind of savagery where there was none before, and that savagery in turn spreads to the whites themselves. The result is a snarled and anarchic jungle in which questions of blame and guilt can seem almost impossible to unravel. Stamp Paid’s meditation on the tangled network of guilt and retribution that forms racism’s “jungle” expands the chapter’s focus from individual characters and the local black community to the black community at large.
Although, as his chosen name signifies, Stamp Paid used to believe that his own suffering and deprivation freed him from future obligations, he now begins to realize that it may be his responsibility to look out for Denver’s and Sethe’s welfare. He also decides that Baby Suggs is to blame for her own depression, which he saw as her surrender to her oppressors. In Stamp’s mind, when Baby Suggs decided to stop speaking “the Word,” she made a choice to “wear the bit,” even though Baby Suggs herself blamed the whites for her suffering and cited the intrusion of the four horsemen as the beginning of her emotional deterioration. Stamp Paid reminds himself that the black community contributed to Baby Suggs’s eventual descent by failing to warn her of schoolteacher’s approach, thus hindering her ability to prevent the tragedy. These memories
end up muddying his formerly clear-cut understanding of Baby Suggs’s plight.
Sethe, too, deals with issues of guilt. Although she tells herself that she does not need to explain to Beloved what led her to murder a daughter because Beloved already understands, Sethe nonetheless continues to detail her motivations mentally, which suggests her need to justify her actions to herself. Sethe has invested all of her identity in motherhood. Every sacrifice she made was for her children and every abuse she suffered she felt as an offense against her children because, in Sethe’s eyes, her children are extensions of herself and vice versa. Her behavior-plotting out how to explain her act of infanticide to Beloved and to herself-suggests that however much Sethe blames her murder of Beloved on the oppression of slavery, she in fact places a good deal of the blame for the murder on her own shoulders.
Summary: Chapter 20
With Chapter 20, a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues begins. Sethe speaks in this chapter, followed by Denver in Chapter 21 and Beloved in Chapter 22. Chapter 23 comprises a chorus of the three voices. In Chapter 20, Sethe begins, “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” Sethe wants to explain everything to Beloved so that her daughter will understand why her own mother killed her. Sethe cannot understand why, despite all the clues, she initially failed to recognize that Beloved was her daughter incarnate. She decides Paul D must have distracted her.
Throughout the chapter, Sethe ponders the power of a mother’s love. She remembers that her own mother was hanged, but she does not know the circumstances that prompted the lynching. Perhaps her mother attempted to run
away, but without Sethe. Sethe wants to believe her mother would never have abandoned her, that she was as devoted a mother as Sethe herself is. After killing Beloved, Sethe wanted to lie down in the grave with her dead daughter. Yet she knew she couldn’t give up; she had to keep going for the sake of her three living children.
Summary: Chapter 21
Denver’s voice emerges in this chapter, which begins, “Beloved is my sister.” Denver knows that she swallowed her sister’s blood along with her mother’s milk. She confesses that she has loved Sethe out of fear, and that Howard and Buglar ran away because they, like Denver, feared that whatever it was that motivated Sethe to kill her children might resurface one day. Denver believes that Beloved returned to help her wait for her father to come home. Denver is also convinced that she must protect Beloved from Sethe. She remembers everything Baby Suggs told her about Halle, which was that he was an angel who loved things too much. The power of his love used to scare Baby Suggs because she knew that the large size of his heart made it an easy target. Denver’s youth has been comprised of her fear of her mother and her hope for her father’s arrival.
Summary: Chapter 22
Beloved’s fragmented and complex monologue constitutes the third of the first-person stream-of-consciousness monologues. She begins, “I am Beloved and she is mine.” Her patchy memories are of a time when she crouched among dead bodies. She speaks of thirst and hunger, of death and sickness, and of “men without skin.” She says all the people are trying to leave their bodies behind.
Beloved then focuses on a woman whose face she “wants” because it is hers. The rest of the monologue consists of Beloved’s description of her attempt to “join” with the woman. She wishes she could bite the “iron circle” from around the woman’s neck and mentions the woman’s “sharp earrings” and “round basket” several times. At the end of the chapter, Beloved is “in the water,” and neither she nor the woman has an iron circle around her neck any longer. She is swallowed by the woman and, suddenly, she is the woman. She sees herself swim away and says, “I am alone.” She then describes emerging from the water and needing to find a place to be. When she opens her eyes, she sees the “face [she] lost.” She says that “Sethe’s is the face that left [her].” Beloved ends her monologue. by saying, “now we can join a hot thing.” Summary: Chapter 23
Beloved’s words give way to a passage of poetic prose in which the three women’s voices come together and mingle, although not in a typical dialogic style. Beloved says that she and Sethe lost and found one another. She tells Sethe that she came back from the other side for her, that she remembers her, and that she is scared the men without skin will come back. Sethe assures her that they will not. Denver warns Beloved not to love Sethe too much. Beloved says she already loves Sethe too much, and Denver promises to protect her. Beloved begs Sethe never to leave her again and Sethe complies. Beloved la
ments that Sethe left and hurt her.
Analysis: Chapters 20-23
When Stamp Paid hears the unintelligible clamor outside 124 in Chapter 19, the narrator identifies the noise as “the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.” In these chapters, the “unspeakable” and “unspoken” thoughts are put into words. They are turned into literature through the use of literary devices such as imagery, allusion, and symbol, which are what allow the seemingly “unspeakable” to be verbalized. Indeed, the language in Chapters 20 through 23, which is extremely stylized to represent each character’s stream of consciousness, seems to emphasize the fact of its literariness as much as the nature of its message.
As she meditates on her murder of her daughter, Sethe makes mental and emotional connections to her own mother, whom she suspects of having tried to escape without bringing Sethe along. Sethe wants to differentiate her act of infanticide from what she imagines to be her mother’s rejection of her. She conceives of her own act as one of love, free of the disregard or contempt that would motivate an abandonment. Moreover, Sethe sees the fact that she protected her children from slavery as a step toward countering her own mother’s desertion of her. But Denver’s monologue also focuses on family bonds, and her words reveal a previously unarticulated pain at not having grown up in a complete family. She, too, seems to feel abandoned in some sense. More generally, Denver’s monologue seems to suggest that even in freedom, the black family as an institution suffers fragmentation and destruction.
The fragmented nature of each of the three monologues is representative of each character’s fragmented, incoherent identity. And when their voices mingle in Chapter 23, it is difficult to attribute each phrase to its appropriate speaker. One interpretation of this predicament is that Sethe, Beloved, and Denver have conflated and confused their identities beyond recognition. Beloved cannot cut the psychological umbilical cord that attaches her to Sethe.
Beloved’s monologue is highly impressionistic, incredibly dense, and its meaning is elusive. The cramped, dark place that she describes could be a grave full of the “black and angry dead,” like the one Stamp Paid perceived to be lingering around 124. It could also be a metaphorical, inescapable womb. The reading the text best seems to support is that Beloved is describing a slave ship transporting Africans to America. For instance, she mentions piled-up corpses. Packed in overcrowded hulls, many Africans died of disease and starvation on the journey to America. Beloved’s references to rape echo the experiences of Sethe’s mother, who was “taken up many times by the crew” during the Middle Passage. Sea-colored bread refers to the moldy, inedible provisions on board, and the “hot thing” could be a branding iron like the one that marked Sethe’s mother. The “men without skin” seem to be the white captors and masters who oppressed the slaves. Thus, Beloved reminds Sethe not only of the crime for which Sethe cannot forgive herself but also functions as a conduit for memories of the history of slavery. Within the novel, the two are certainly presented
as interlinked, and Sethe needs to come to terms with both her family’s history and the history of slavery.
Of course, literariness in Beloved is not limited to these four chapters: as a larger story and work of art, the novel allows its characters, and, more important, their real-life counterparts (the generations of men and women victimized by slavery), to transcend the limits of speech and memory. The book as a whole gives voice to a suppressed history and recovers the memories that the characters themselves-both white and black-try to destroy. Morrison demonstrates literature’s ability to recuperate a history that would otherwise be lost to the ravages of willed forgetfulness and silence.
Summary: Chapter 24
Paul D, who has been sleeping in the basement of the local church, is filled with despair. He reflects on his past and notes that his two half brothers, Paul A and Paul F, are the only family he has ever known. He does not remember his mother and never saw his father. Throughout his life, whenever he met large black families living together, he loved to hear them describe to him how they were related. Paul D’s thoughts turn to Mr. Garner, who always said that he treated his slaves as real men. In his mind, Paul D has contrasted schoolteacher’s emasculating and dehumanizing treatment of him and his fellow slaves with the more humane treatment of Mr. Garner. Now Paul D begins to follow Halle in questioning whether there was any difference in the slaves’ condition under the two men.
Paul D partially blames his despair on his previous belief that he could build a life with Sethe. He believes that he set his goals too high and has consequently suffered a great fall. Yet he locates the beginning of his downfall far in the past, in the tragic outcome of the slaves’ escape plan. Halle and Paul A failed to appear at the appointed meeting time, and in their places stood schoolteacher, his nephews, and other white men, waiting for Paul D and Sixo. Sixo’s lover, the Thirty-Mile Woman, had escaped, and after he was captured Sixo behaved so maniacally that schoolteacher became convinced he would never again be a suitable slave. While schoolteacher tried to burn him alive, Sixo only laughed – the first time Paul D ever heard him do so. He shouted “Seven-O!” over and over, referring to the baby the Thirty-Mile Woman escaped with inside her.
Schoolteacher and the other men dragged Paul D back home, where he encountered Sethe. Despite the recent disaster, she still intended to run. That was the last time the two saw each other, and Paul D concludes that Sethe’s rape and the theft of her milk must have taken place directly afterward. It was in the aftermath of the failed escape that Paul D first learned the price he fetched: nine hundred dollars. The knowledge forever affected his understanding of himself. He wonders what Paul F’s price was and what Sethe’s would be. He questions whether his life since his aborted escape has been worth it, whether he should have thrown himself into the fire with Sixo.
Stamp Paid visits Paul D in the church and finds that Paul D has been drinking his troubles away. A white man stops by to ask if the men know Judy of Plank Road. Though Stamp knows her, he feigns ignorance. The white man reprimands Paul D for drinking on church grounds and then rides away. Stamp Paid tells Paul D that during the year that his young master slept with Vashti, Stamp’s wife, Stamp Paid did not touch her. When Vashti came to him one night to tell him that she had returned for good, he felt the terrible urge to break her neck. Instead, he changed his name. The conversation turns to 124, and Stamp Paid tells Paul D that he was present when Sethe tried to kill her children. He defends Sethe’s actions, saying she only wanted to “outhurt the hurter.” Paul D replies that Sethe scares him but that Beloved scares him more. Stamp Paid asks if Paul D left 124 because of Beloved, but Paul D does not answer. Analysis: Chapters 24-25
Summary: Chapter 25
Although Stamp’s act of renaming himself signals a kind of spiritual rebirth and reclamation, his new name also testifies to the trauma he has endured under slavery. There is an element of loss in what is otherwise a gesture of strength and self-affirmation. Indeed, in many ways the renaming might be seen as a metaphorical suicide: Stamp had initially wanted to kill one of the masters rather than surrender Vashti, but Vashti had insisted that this would lead only to Stamp’s own death and begged him not to undertake the murder. Thus, although Stamp preserved himself out of respect for Vashti’s wishes, he denied his natural feelings rage and assumed a new identity free of emotional ties or bonds. Stamp estranges himself emotionally from Vashti and devotes the rest of his life to helping others pay off “whatever they owed in misery.” While Stamp’s new identity is assuredly a positive one, it is still born at the expense of the old. of
Like Stamp Paid, Paul D is estranged from himself. Since slavery, Paul D has developed emotional coping mechanisms-such as the “tin heart”—that discourage him from loving too passionately and require him to keep his feelings and memories locked away. The novel is full of evidence of Paul D’s selfalienation. For example, on one occasion in Georgia, Paul D was unable to tell whether the screaming he heard was coming from himself or from someone else. He often questions his worth, as he does in Chapter 24, and he frequently seems unsure of why he does certain things. For example, he cannot explain why he succumbs to Beloved’s seductions, or why he suddenly suggests that he and Sethe have a baby together.
Paul D’s thoughts in Chapters 24 and 25 focus on his fear of asserting his humanity, which is something that he had always considered a given before Mr. Garner’s death. After Mr. Garner’s death and the commencement of schoolteacher’s abuses, Paul D learned that his humanity was in fact subject to a white man’s whim. A white man could beat it out of him, or even make him want to deny to himself, as Paul D’s contemplation of suicide demonstrates. In retrospect, Paul D doubts whether he was ever a man at all, because even Mr. Garner’s presumably enlightened version of slavery denied Paul D the power
to define his identity as a male and as a thinking, feeling human being. As long as Paul D fears the idea of claiming his humanity, he will continue to feel alienated from himself.
Summary: Chapter 26
Like a parasite, Beloved begins to drain Sethe’s life force. Sethe arrives at work later every morning until she loses her job. The food in the house begins to run low, and Sethe sacrifices her portion for Beloved, who grows fat while Sethe wastes away. Beloved wears Sethe’s clothing and copies her mannerisms until Denver has trouble telling them apart. Their roles merge and invert as Sethe comes to act like a child while Beloved looms over her like a mother. When Sethe tries to assert herself, Beloved reacts violently and breaks things, and the two fight constantly. Sethe points out how much she has suffered for her children, but Beloved accuses her of leaving her behind. Denver begins to fear that Beloved will kill her mother.
Denver decides to leave 124 to find help. Before she can do so, she needs (and gets) some encouragement from the spirit of Baby Suggs, because Denver hasn’t left the house by herself in twelve years and fears the outside world. Not knowing where else to turn, Denver goes to the house of her former teacher, Lady Jones.
Although part of the black community, Lady Jones has yellow hair and gray eyes. Ironically, Lady Jones was chosen to attend a school in Pennsylvania for “colored” girls because of her light skin. Afterward, she devoted herself to teaching those who were not picked to attend school. Because she loathes her yellow hair, she married the darkest man she could find. She is convinced that everyone, including her own children, despises her and her hair.
Omitting mention of Beloved, Denver explains that her mother is sick and asks Lady Jones if there is any work she can do in exchange for food. Lady Jones knows of no work, but she tells everyone at church about Sethe’s troubles. Denver begins finding plates and baskets of food on the tree stump in front of 124. Many include a slip of paper with the donator’s name, and as Denver ventures out to return the containers to their owners she becomes acquainted with the community. Lady Jones also offers her weekly reading lessons.
As the trouble at 124 continues, Denver visits the Bodwins for help. Their black maid, Janey, answers the door and recognizes Denver as a relative of Baby Suggs. Denver tells her about Beloved, and Janey circulates the story around town. Denver secures a job with the Bodwins, but as she leaves their house she is disturbed by the sight of a figurine on display. The statuette is a slave who holds coins in its mouth. At its base is a tag that reads: “At Yo’ Service.”
Ella hears Denver’s story. Although she sees Beloved’s tormenting presence as a fair punishment for Sethe’s act of infanticide, she does not believe that the punishment is “right,” because she believes that past sins should stay in the past. She empathizes with Sethe because she also once refused to care for her child. The child was born of abuse after Ella had been locked up for a year and repeatedly raped by a father and son. Ella decides to rally a group of roughly
thirty black women to exorcise Beloved from 124. They march to Sethe’s house, where Denver is waiting for Mr. Bodwin to pick her up for work.
When Sethe and Beloved hear the women begin to sing, they go outside to the porch. The women see Sethe, small and shrunken, standing next to a beautiful, naked, pregnant woman. Sethe spots Mr. Bodwin coming up the road and mistakes him for schoolteacher. She rushes from the porch waving an ice pick, leaving Beloved alone. Beloved watches as Denver also leaves her side to chase after Sethe. All the women rush to prevent Sethe from killing Mr. Bodwin. At the beginning of the next chapter, we will learn what happened next through the narration of Stamp Paid: apparently, Ella punched Sethe before she could attack Mr. Bodwin, and the women held her down; then, after subduing Sethe, the women looked up to find that Beloved had disappeared. Analysis
As Sethe’s only remaining child, Denver represents the future. In Part Three, Denver transforms from a girl into a woman and begins, for the first time, to develop an independent sense of self. She serves as a bridge between Sethe and the rest of the community, and she provides Sethe with an opportunity to escape the haunting memories and sins of the past. She feels a sense of responsibility for her mother, who grows weaker and weaker in the shadows of Beloved’s power and of her own guilt. Ironically, Sethe’s regression toward infancy triggers Denver’s maturation.
While Denver represents the future, Beloved, of course, represents the past. Throughout the book, Beloved stands for the haunting legacy of slavery. As her presence becomes a danger to the whole black community, we see that the consequences of slavery haunt not only individuals but whole networks of people. Correspondingly, Beloved’s exorcism will provide a catharsis for the town’s entire black population as well as for Sethe. It is significant that it will take the community as a whole to rid 124 of Beloved-to exorcise the universal ghostly presence of slavery.
At the same time, it takes one woman, with her own personal sense of past suffering, to organize and lead the exorcism. Due to her own painful relationship with the past, Ella is the most attuned to the invasive and harmful aspect of Beloved’s resurrection. When Ella decides to rid the community of Beloved’s presence, she leads an exorcism of past traumas as well as of past sins. She wipes away the legacies of slavery’s evils and the memories of the evils that slavery induced in its victims, such as Ella’s own rejection of her baby.
Sethe’s mistaking of Mr. Bodwin for schoolteacher during the exorcism indicates the extent to which she is immersed in the past. Instead of repeating the past by running to protect her own children, Sethe does what she wishes she had done before: she attacks the perceived enemy. Schoolteacher is not really present, though, and Sethe’s violence is misdirected. She nearly kills Mr. Bodwin, who not only helped Baby Suggs but also fought for Sethe’s release from jail and is now trying to help her daughter find work. While Sethe does Teenact her past mistake in a way, this time the mistake will not prove tragic;
instead, it opens the door to potential growth. Just as this episode gives Sethe the chance to revise and emend the actions that have haunted her for eighteen years, it also grants the townswomen the opportunity to revisit and adjust their own past behavior. One of the reasons schoolteacher’s visit years ago ended so tragically was that the community had failed to warn Sethe of his approach. Now, the townswomen take action to stop Sethe from doing something she will regret later. The individual and the community work together to learn from past mistakes and to heal themselves.
In many ways, Beloved itself functions as a kind of exorcism. Morrison creates a space for both the victims and the perpetrators of oppression to confront and narrate their pasts. As readers and as heirs to American and world history, we are able to gain understanding of, and thus control over, prior sorrows and crimes. Through the confrontation of a dehumanizing past, humanity can be affirmed. Morrison suggests that we must learn to confront the past both as individuals and as a community before we can truly begin to extinguish its dangerous legacies.
Part -3 Chapters 27-28
Summary: Chapter 27
Stamp Paid tells Paul D about the recent events at 124. The old man says he no longer hears the voices around the house that he used to and that Beloved disappeared in the chaos that followed Sethe’s attempted attack on Mr. Bodwin. A small boy said he saw a naked woman running through the woods with fish for hair, but no one has seen her since.
Paul D asks Denver if she believes Beloved really was her baby sister who had come back from the other side. Denver replies that she believes Beloved to have been her sister, but, at times, she thinks Beloved was more. Denver continues to work for Miss Bodwin, who is giving her informal academic training in the hopes of sending Denver to Oberlin College. Denver warns Paul D to speak kindly to Sethe, who has not yet recovered entirely. Paul D walks to 124 and thinks about the series of escapes he has undertaken in his life. He ran from Sweet Home; he ran from Alfred, Georgia; and, during the war, he worked for both sides and ran from both. After the war, he thought he was free to walk the roads, but he saw dead blacks strewn everywhere, including women and children he still had to keep running. Paul D wonders why he ran from Sethe.
When Paul D reaches 124, he senses that Beloved has left forever. He finds Sethe lying in Baby Suggs’s bed with vacant eyes. He fears that, like Baby Suggs before her, Sethe wants simply to lie down and wait for death. He tells her that he wants to help Denver take care of her. She replies miserably that her “best thing” has left her again, and Paul D wonders at the range of emotions that Sethe inspires in him. Sixo once told him that his Thirty-Mile Woman inspired his love because she gathered up the jumbled pieces of him and gave them back to him in order. Paul thinks that Sethe does the same for him. She
helps him to stop being ashamed of his past, and he notes that when he is with her, the memories of being collared and muzzled like a beast no longer have the power to steal his manhood from him. He tells her they have more of “yesterday” than they need and that they need more “tomorrow” to make the “yesterday” bearable. Taking her hand, he tells Sethe that she shouldn’t consider Beloved’s departure to be the departure of her “best thing.” Sethe, and not her children, is her “own best thing.”
Summary: Chapter 28
As though Beloved were a bad dream, everyone tries to forget her. The community sees her as the representative of an implacable loneliness that cannot be soothed or rocked away. Never satisfied, it roams and devours. Sethe, Denver, and Paul D take longer to forget Beloved than the townspeople do. Nevertheless, after a while they realize they cannot remember or repeat a single thing she said. In fact, they cannot say with certainty that she was ever really there. Analysis: Chapters 27-28
When Paul D first showed up at the doorstep of 124, he seemed aware of the necessity of confronting the past in order to escape its grip. He assured Sethe that with him there to pull her out, she should feel safe about venturing “inside” her painful memories. When Beloved’s arrival forces Sethe to face the past, these memories begin, as Sethe feared, to consume her completely. Only with the help of those around her can Sethe escape Beloved’s hold. Denver keeps Sethe alive, the community helps to expel Beloved, and Paul D supports Sethe by telling her that she, and not her children, is her own “best thing.” By dealing with the past, Sethe and Paul D secure the possibility of enjoying a future together.
Beloved performs a similar function. The novel catalogs a past that contemporary readers must contend with before moving forward. Through most of the book, the narrator filters almost all of the story through the various perspectives of Sethe, Paul D, Denver, Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid, schoolteacher, Lady Jones, Mr. Bodwin, Beloved, and Ella. In the short, closing chapter of the book, Morrison returns the narration to a more universalized, abstracted, and distanced voice. The result is poetic: words rhyme and phrases repeat, affecting an almost trancelike state in the reader. Morrison punctuates these mesmerizing, cadenced paragraphs, describing how everyone gradually forgot Beloved, with the blunt explanation, “It was not a story to pass on.” Enigmatically, this phrase evolves, by the chapter’s end, into a warning: “This is not a story to pass on.” And yet Beloved does pass that story on. Its purpose is to restore a history to a people whose history has been erased by centuries of willed forgetfulness and forced silence. The narrator’s warning is intended to remind us that it is not easy to keep that history in our memory. Nor is it necessarily helpful for us to remember that history if it is not conveyed with responsibility and sensitivity. Resurrecting the past is a painful process, and Beloved is an emotionally painful book to read. Like its title character, it is a difficult entity to contend with, one that can inspire or distress the reader with equal intensity.
Yet, by engaging with this disturbing, unrelenting force in a conscientious way, we may begin to understand the past, as well as its impact on our present.
A Critical Analysis of Beloved:
Beloved is a novel of historical fiction. While what is considered “historical” in fiction is still a matter of debate among critics and writers, one common definition considers historical fiction to include any story in which the setting plays a significant part in the events and is anywhere from 25 years in the past to prehistoric times. The story may portray life in a particular time period or focus on a specific event in history. The key to effective historical fiction is the accuracy of the author’s references to actual events and the authentic portrayal of characters in the time period. Characters in historical fiction may either be imaginary or portrayals of actual historical figures.
Beloved is both a reconstruction of true events and an elaborate, multidimensional reimagination of the black slave experience told through a modern lens. Author Toni Morrison was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave woman from Kentucky who killed several of her children to protect them from being returned to slavery. Morrison uses the story of Garner’s life as a narrative device to explore the struggle for freedom, and the lasting repercussions of that struggle. Beloved is set between 1855 and 1874, thereby incorporating the waning days of antebellum South, the Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction to right the racial and social ills of America; however, Morrison manipulates the passage of time and the use of point of view to suggest a fluidity of pain and the lasting impact the past has on informing the present. The omniscient narration indicates that the story, though clearly set in a late 19th century milieu, resonates well into the present day.
Though set in the 19th century, Beloved has all of the elements of contemporary literary fiction, conventions that reflect the preoccupations of modern America, the author, and the literary community. In particular, these concerns are conveyed through four key traits: the use of multiple narrative perspectives, ambiguity in plot and theme, the mix of the real and unreal, and experimental syntax.
Until the 1970s, most major novels were written from a single or predominant point of view; in recent years, however, it has become common for contemporary novelists to use multiple perspectives, in large part to show the subjectivity of experience and to describe how the actions of a person ricochet throughout the world. What is unique about Morrison’s work is that she often implements multiple narrative perspectives within the span of a single chapter; there are instances in which the change occurs between a mere paragraph or sentence. This narrative construction reflects the intensified and pained inner lives of the main characters, who are struggling to reconcile their past experiences and present emotions with those around them.
“124 was spiteful. 124 was loud. 124 was quiet.” The house 124 that Sethe’s family lives in is haunted by the ghost of the baby who drives her two sons
away as well as the rest of the neighbourhood. Paul D, an old friend from Sweet Home, visits 124 in search of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, only to find she died eight years ago. Paul D is invited into the house where he meets Denver and senses the evilness of Beloved, however the ghost is soon sent away after Paul D’s arrival which upsets Denver and causes her to act coldly towards him. Recalling memories of Sweet Home of Sethe’s marriage to Halle, the other men at Sweet Home and Sethe’s escape, “the notion of a future” with Paul D crossed Sethe’s mind.
That Thursday the three of them went to the carnival in town which made all three happy, however on return to 124 they found a woman sat on a tree stump who said her name was Beloved which excited Denver for she now had the company she longed for. Denver went out of her way to make Beloved feel better and although Denver loved her, Paul D thought there was something strange about her. Beloved continued to ask Sethe and Denver of their past and Denver’s birth. Denver told Beloved about Baby Suggs, her Grandmother, and about the Clearing where Baby Suggs used to preach. The three women headed towards the Clearing for Sethe to think, however she was choked by someone or something who she thought was Baby Suggs. Denver thought otherwise and thought it was Beloved who choked her. Beloved seduces Paul D after he believes she has driven himself and Sethe apart. This leads Paul D to ask for him and Sethe to have a child together, thinking that this would relieve Beloved’s power over him. However, Paul D is infuriated by Beloved as she waits for Sethe to return home from work, which strengthens Sethe’s belief of Beloved being her child she gave birth to and breaks the romance between the couple because she wants Paul D to leave.
In flashback, the memory of Sethe murdering her baby is then evoked. It was Stamp Paid, an old friend, who took the dead baby from Sethe and gave her Denver before Sethe was placed in custody. Then in present, Stamp visits Paul D and shows him a newspaper clipping of when Sethe murdered the baby. In disbelief, he insults Sethe and leaves her. Sethe took Baby Suggs’ advice; “lay it all down” and so she did. The three of them went ice skating and laughed endlessly resulting in Sethe to go late to work the next day, and she did so for the following weeks until she was fired. Feeling guilty for sending Paul D away, Stamp argues with Ella after finding out she didn’t offer Paul D a place to stay and he was staying at the church, recalling memories of Sweet Home. felt it
Feeling she was responsible for the silence and hunger at 124, Denver was only right that she left 124. All three grew tired therefore in search for a better life, Denver rèceived help from Lady Jones and the rest of the neighbourhood. During the day she looked after Sethe She and in the evenings worked for the Bodwins. However, on the first day of work, when Edward Bodwin came to collect her, the ladies of the neighbourhood gathered together at 124. As Edward arrived, Sethe thought of him as a man who wanted slaves and attacked him with an ice pick, leaving Beloved standing on the porch alone but as everybody looked back, there was nobody standing on the porch. After
the incident, Paul D came back into Denver and Sethe’s lives and they all forgot Beloved and thought of her as an unpleasant dream. Narrative Style
This novel is written in third person singular with an omniscient style but however shifts to first person singular; “Sethe had the amazing luck of six whole years of marriages to that “somebody” son who had fathered every one of her children” and “I never had to give it to nobody else – and the one time I did it was took from me – they held me down and took it.” The pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ are frequently used and characters are continuously addressed by their names. The novel is also written in flashback whilst describing Sethe’s escape and the birth of Denver to Beloved. Flashback is also found when she recalls memories of Sweet Home with Paul D and when Paul D has memories of his brothers. Also there is a chapter written in stream of consciousness relating to Beloved’s thoughts; “I am not big small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in â¦” Character Analysis
Denver: is an independent, selfless young lady. This is shown through her care and devotion to Beloved when she arrives at the house sick. She is also a determined girl that devotes her time to her family, especially her mother when she is sick. Denver is an independent woman as her independence is shown when she seeks a job to support her family when her mother lost her job.
Sethe: is a very kind and compassionate woman as she is devoted to her family, even during the hardest situations. This is shown because she was a slave in her past at Sweet Home and she escaped for her family. It is also portrayed when she went hungry and picked the crusts for her children to eat, especially Beloved. She is also a very proud woman as she is determined to endure the ‘correct’ way of marriage at Sweet Home when marrying Halle this is shown when Sethe is adamant on having a wedding dress on the first night they are together.
Beloved: at first is portrayed as a helpless woman, seeking attention and love. This is given to her by Denver as she cures her from her sickness by devoting her time. However, Beloved then becomes an untrustworthy, selfish woman. Her selfishness is shown manipulation, as she deceives Sethe by acting upon her guilt. She doesn’t forgive Sethe for her past and forces power upon her to give her what she wants.
Language & Diction
Beloved is a descriptive novel that uses informal language often including slang and vulgarity throughout dialogue. The language and diction also reflects the speech of Afro-Americans for example; “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” Long sentences are used to describe feelings and objects, for example; “Although they had been polite to her during the quiet time and gave her the whole top of the bed, she remembered how it was before: the pleasure they had sitting clustered on the white stairs – she between the knees of Howard or Buglar – while they made up die-witch! stories with proven ways of killing
her dead”. Short sentences are used more often during dialogue such as; “Now you. Come on,” and “Come on in here girls.” Short sentences are also used to make impact and emphasize the meaning, for instance; “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
The imagery is evident throughout the novel because all stimuli are aroused. Tactile imagery is evident when Paul D touches Sethe in the kitchen as “he rubbed his cheek on her back and learned that way her sorrow.” There is a sense of smell when the roses at the carnival are described; “the closer the roses got to death, the louder their scent” and “stench of the rotten roses.” Visual imagery is foreseen throughout the novel when the keeping room is described and how Baby Suggs was “starved for colour”. One can imagine the “slatecoloured walls” and the “earth-brown floor” and the dullness of the room. Auditory imagery is evident when Denver can hear “chickens and the knock of a badly hinged gate” as well as voices behind her as she walked. Taste imagery is evident when the numerous offers of foods are found on the tree stump each day, each meal provided by a different neighbour; “sack of white beans,” “plate of cold rabbit meat,” Taste imagery is also found during a memory of 124 of “tonic mixed that cured a relative,” as one can imagine the strength of the mixture.
The theme of evil is represented throughout the novel by Beloved, as a ghost and as a person. This is evident when the ghost of Beloved chases away her two brothers, Howard and Buglar as well as other people who use to walk along Bluestone Road. The evil represented through Beloved as a human being is when she manipulates Sethe and causes pain for Sethe, although Sethe only seeks forgiveness. A theme of religion is also apparent throughout the novel as God and Jesus are constantly being referred to. It is carried throughout the novel by Baby Suggs from her preaching at the Clearing then Paul D and at the end of the novel, by Denver who was given a Bible by Lady Jones. Setting
This novel is set in America mainly 124 Bluestone Road. This is evident because Sethe escaped to Ohio to number 124 where Baby Suggs was living in Cincinnati. The novel is also set at a place called Sweet Home. Sweet Home is brought into the novel whilst Sethe has flashbacks of her past before she escaped. The setting is also evident because of the diction used whilst a character speaks.
The genre is a family drama because of the life experiences the family endure. All adult characters in the novel were previously slaves who had escaped and Baby Suggs was bought by her own sons’ earnings. Sethe also experienced her child’s death before her own. After this, her ‘dead daughter’ came back to 124 but tormented her by using her guilt against her. The novel is also an Afro-American genre because of diction used during speech and first person narrative style.
Predominant among Morrison’s themes is the presence of evil. The ghost of Beloved – an ironic name that might have had “Dearly” carved ahead of it on the tombstone if Sethe had allowed herself ten more minutes with the gravestone carver makes itself felt in “turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air.” Later, like a flesh-and-blood poltergeist, Beloved rests under a tree on the Thursday that Paul D, Sethe, and Denver return from the carnival. Shortly after, she creates unsubtle havoc by alienating Paul D from the two women he has begun to think of as family. However, like the table standing on three good legs and a reasonably stable repaired leg, the family, on the surface, appears strong enough to support daily demands.
In Morrison’s own terms, the controlling theme of the novel is “how women negotiate or mediate between their nurturing compulsion to love the other, the thing that’s bigger or better than they are in their lives husband, children, work and the other part, which is the individual separate self that has separate obligations.” As Sethe confronts evil in herself and in the institution of slavery, motherhood itself rescues her from the oblivion of guilt, shame, and madness. Without the underloved ghost or the coddled, sheltered Denver, Sethe might have disintegrated from within, pulled apart by her “rememory.” Instead, she takes refuge in love for her children, and she tentatively, excitedly acknowledges the ego that Paul Dieturns to nurture “Me? Me?” –
The struggle to love in an inhuman system that breeds children like suckling pigs results in inhuman choices. For women like Sethe’s ma’am, some children must be discarded, flung overboard or crudely aborted. For women like Ella, nature mercifully quenches the light within the “white hairy thing,” the freakish offspring of a monstrous multiple sexual assault. For Baby Suggs, slavery itself gobbles up offspring, selling some and chasing others with dogs and lashes. The unsuckled breasts of the slave women forced back into rice or indigo fields symbolize the unfulfilled maternity that withers, leaving the deep yearning that empowers Sethe to survive flogging and mammary rape and to flee toward the spiritual all-mother who encourages her to find the grace to love herself.
Another significant theme within Beloved is that of history. The main characters of the novel are haunted by their personal histories and by the history of their people. The character of Beloved may represent the physical manifestation of history, signifying how the past can invade the present. As Sethe nearly loses her identity and life through her obsession with her past and her resurrected daughter, Morrison demonstrates how focusing on the past can be allconsuming and destructive. Ultimately, Sethe begins to regain her life by discovering that she has a future. Paul D tells her, “Sethe… me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Through the healing love of Paul D, Denver, and the black community, Sethe can learn to let go of the terrible history that has defined her. She may discover that she can define herself through the future she creates with her family.
Water images abound, such as Nan pointing out to Sethe her mother wading in the flooded indigo field, the convicts’ escape during the flood, and the flow of amniotic fluid from Sethe’s womb as the infant Denver forces her way into the light. The shape of the canoe, an oversized replica of the female vulva, emphasizes the importance of the birth of the one child that Sethe intends to hang on to. After Beloved’s water-soaked wade from the Ohio River shore, Sethe experiences a recurrence of flooding waters, this time from an incontinent bladder inordinately full of urine. Beloved, croupy and thirsting, gulps four cups of water, and then sleeps for four days and wets the sheets, which Denver rinses in secret. Upon Paul D’s arrival at 124 Bluestone Road, he detects the female “shining” on Sethe’s bare legs, the same symbolic seminal fluid she wiped from her skin the day that she accepted Halle from among the five lustful brothers at Sweet Home.
Temporarily, water freezes into ice firm enough to hold the three women, sliding on one whole pair of skates and one shared pair. Like their tenuous family triad, the happy scene results in slips and mishaps, and then crumbles into unforeseen tears from Sethe. Her solution is the liquid of life, the warm milk that they drink to warm themselves, just as they did in babyhood when Sethe held her breast to their thirsting lips.
Breast and milk images are frequent as well. The first is a reminder of the maternal role of Ma’am, Sethe’s mother, who discards unnamed offspring resulting from inappropriate matings and then burns the tender flesh under her breast with circle and cross, as though embracing with the circle and delineating with the cross the child she intended to nurture. This image prefigures the viciousness of Sethe’s assault in the barn. Rather than the tearing of her flesh, Sethe recalls the deprivation of nourishment for her infant.
After Paul D reveals to Sethe that Halle witnessed her attack and smeared butter from the churn onto his face, Sethe interprets his act as a desperate response to his wife’s bizarre deprivation of breast milk. For Sethe, the scene fills a gap in the story of her flight; it explains, in part, why Halle could not rescue her or reunite with his family. For Baby Suggs, Halle no longer exists, gone with her other seven offspring. But he is replaced by her daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, whom she welcomes with a sumptuous feast for 90, a food offering as rich as the butter that smeared Halle’s face when he realized his powerlessness to stop the assault on the barn floor beneath his hiding place in the loft. These feedings symbolize a generosity denied by slavery, a hunger not soon to be alleviated, even after nationwide emancipation.
Colors are the single rays of hope that brighten Baby Suggs’s last days. She particularly craves lavender and the orange squares that lessen the forbidding neutrality of the keeping room both for her and for its subsequent inhabitant, Beloved, who also gravitates toward a rich, fiery hue. Touches of red signify Beloved she is bathed in red blood, gravitating toward a flitting cardinal, and wrenching open the cloistered red heart within Paul D. The black –
community, designated as Bluestone Road, is like a sapphire, a jewel that forms in nature. Like a pearl evolving around grit or a diamond forced into sparkling life from dispirited carbon, Bluestone (a way station) colors black freedom with a reassuring luster.
Metal images appear, such as the knife that Paul D grips like a harpoon as he skewers Beloved with personal questions about where she came from and where she is headed. The iron in Sethe’s eyes and the iron bit in Paul D’s mouth that stops him from talking with Halle about his trauma represent the dichotomy of female strength versus male impotence. The cruelties of Sweet Home stiffen Sethe against all buffetings, even loss of respect for her much-loved husband; these same indignities harness Paul D like a dray animal and stop his mouth from communicating his loss of manhood.
Without imagery, Beloved would be a sterile ghost story, fit only for titillating audiences into a shiver and nervous giggle. Details, richly evocative and endlessly interconnected, support the framework of Beloved’s plot. The multiple levels of communication perform multiple tasks:
They tell the story.
They describe the historic underpinnings of slavery.
They reveal the dehumanizing effect of bondage and torture. They investigate the difference between male and female responses to powerlessness. ●
They delineate the necessity for self-love.
They crown the story with its ritualistic laying on of hands, the healing touch that restores wholeness. ●
– Morrison’s evocative blend of detail, memory, and lyrical commentary forms a liquid stream that carries the reader along, sometimes blind or only halfaware of a significance or nuance but always attuned to the sad-expectant outlook of the channeling voice. The mesmerizing skill with which Morrison spins her tale lures the reader along with nuggets of fact – a date, an event, a motive until the story jells in spite of the veiled meanings of the speaker’s truths, half-truths, and suppositions.
The precise detail of Morrison’s fiction has the ring of truth, as though she were recalling some oddment from an evening’s story session long past in her childhood. For example, she explains that Sixo marks Patsy in order to deceive her master; he “punctured her calf to simulate snakebite so she could use it in some way as an excuse for not being on time to shake worms from tobacco leaves.”
For Morrison’s women, sexuality is the reward and burden of their gender. She describes Paul D’s effect on females this way;
“Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other: that way past the Change of Life, desire in them had suddenly become enormous, greedy, more savage than when they were fifteen, and that it embar
rassed them and made them sad; that secretty they longed to die that sleep was more precious to them than any waking day.” it 1 – to be quit of
For Morrison’s post-slave era women, menopause is the resurgence of desire, a fleshly encumbrance that precedes death, a well-deserved respite from indiscriminate breeding, unsatisfactory mates, and children sold before mothers could return home to wave goodbye.
Ma’am, the elusive role model whom Sethe never fully knew, is excluded from this life cycle of virginity, puberty, loss of virginity, childbearing, menopause, and death. The artificiality of the slave lifestyle bears with it the power to lop off a life at any stage, a situation shared with men who hang from the pretty trees of Sweet Home.
For women, the suffering of procreation is compounded by seeing offspring forced into the slave milieu and by knowing that children will have no choice but to go on producing more of their kind to stock the limitless slave rolls that power the plantation system.
– in most situations his The bittersweet love between Sethe and her lost little girl forms the crux, the burden that overloads the scarred back, already laden with its metaphoric chokecherry tree. Sethe, the equivalent of Homer’s amazon, remains in control enough to stun Here Boy, set his broken legs, and force eye back into the socket. The likelihood that any female could survive sexual abuse, lashing, thirst, hunger, and childbirth, yet continue to form milk in her breasts, defies scientific evidence. The fact that Sethe accomplishes all this and more is Morrison’s tribute to her determination. Obsessed by the chokecherry tree, Sethe refuses to vacate the house that enslaves her to the nightmare of her dead infant. She wrestles the embodiment of her guilt to a truce so strong, so enduring that a second buggy in the yard resurrects the image of deadly spite that thwarted schoolteacher 18 years earlier.
It is fitting that a woman strong enough to crawl through woods so that she could give birth in a canoe would spawn a girl as resolute and resourceful as Denver. Although Denver is more inward and more manipulative than her confrontational mother, she recognizes the moment when Sethe is no longer mistress of the house, when the next generation must venture down the plank road to pursue food, solace, and steady work. Even more determined than Denver is Beloved, the whirlwind force that belabors a household for 18 years, exiles two strong brothers, and edges her forthright mother to the brink of madness. Such a threesome does honor to Baby Suggs, the matriarch, whose love sheltered an entire black neighborhood and whose memory comforts and sustains them all.
A Note on Slavery
Set on the bloody side of the Ohio River, life at Sweet Home mocks the “Old Kentucky Home” of Stephen Foster’s saccharine, sentimental set pieces. For Mr. Garner’s male slaves, life is bondage, longing, and potential death if they step outside the prescribed norms of behavior. Baby Suggs and Sethe, separated by color, class, and privilege from Mrs. Garner, know the eternal ache of seeing
their loved ones “run off… hanged . . . rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” For Sethe, blessed with six years of marriage to a loving man, the only tempering mechanism for daily drudgery lies in sprigs of myrtle, salsify, and mint that sweeten the bitterness of servitude. But for Baby Suggs, too lost in a milieu of passing mates and disappearing family, reality is a slave’s truth: “… nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.”
For Cincinnati blacks, slavery’s legacy lies beyond the whip, far from the auction block, a generation away from dogs, slave catchers, patrollers, rapists, child-sellers, iron bits, and pronged necklaces. The curse of bondage lies in the spirit that has been so dirtied that it can no longer love itself. Morrison composes her novel to honor the survivors – station keepers like Baby Suggs who have the courage and determination to fight not only the emerging Ku Klux Klan and other forms of white spite, but to wash away the baptism of silt that coats the psyche and blocks out the light. The holy Baby Suggs names the individual parts of the body that each freed slave must rescue – hands, feet, neck, liver and concludes her sermon with an appropriate benediction: “More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, – love your heart. For this is the prize.”