Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication
is a novel centering primarily on the psychological scars that slavery
leaves on blacks during and after their bondage. The book contains elements
of the historical and Gothic genres.
Alfred A. Knopf published the novel in New York in 1987. The winner of
a 1988 Pulitzer Prize,
has received acclaim as one of the
better books of the last two decades of the twentieth century.
action begins in 1873 just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. Frequent flashbacks
tell of life for slaves at a farm in Kentucky. Brief episodes of the novel
involving Paul D, one of the major characters, take place in Alabama, Tennessee.
Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware.
quotation preceding the novel begins with the words of Morrison ("Sixty
million and more") and finishes with a verse from the King James version
of the New Testament of the Bible. The verse (Romans 9:25) is the King
James translation of words spoken by St. Paul when he paraphrased a passage
from the Old Testament (Hosea 2:23). What the epigraph says, in effect,
is that God loves everyone, including all the abducted Africans sold into
slavery and all the descendants of those Africans. Here is the epigraph:
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Morrison derived inspiration for her novel from a true story about Margaret
Garner, a slave. In January 1856, she and her husband, Robert, escaped
from a Kentucky plantation with their children and other slaves, crossed
the frozen Ohio River, and safely reached the home of a former slave living
near Cincinnati, Ohio. While the Garners were making plans to go farther
north, slave catchers tracked them to the home to arrest them. Mrs. Garner
then decided to kill herself and her four children. But she succeeded only
in killing her two-year-old and wounding the other children. After a sensational
trial, authorities returned Mr. and Mrs. Garner and one of their children
to slavery in the South.
Sethe Suggs: Former
slave, age 38 at the beginning of the novel in 1873. While in bondage at
Sweet Home farm in Kentucky years before, she endures the brutality of
a cruel overseer and his nephews. After she escapes and makes her way to
freedom in a community on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, her Kentucky
taskmaster tracks down her and her children. However, he turns around and
leaves without his quarry after Sethe commits an unspeakable act to save
her children from a life of slavery.
Lu: Name Sethe uses
when she runs away out of fear that giving her real name might work against
first daughter, born in 1854. She dies in 1855 and many years later haunts
Denver Suggs: Sethe's
second daughter, born in 1855. Sethe was pregnant with her when she escaped
from the Kentucky farm.
Howard and Buglar Suggs:
Sons of Sethe and Halle. When they are adolescents, Howard (born in 1850)
and Buglar (born in 1851) run away from home to escape the ghost of their
Halle Suggs: Sethe's
husband. He loses his mind after witnessing an assault on Sethe.
Baby Suggs: Mother
of Halle and mother-in-law of Sethe. She was born in 1795 or 1796. While
she is at Sweet Home, Halle earns her freedom by doing extra work. Afterward,
she takes up residence outside Cincinnati before the arrival of Sethe and
Denver. Baby was a pet name her husband gave her, but Jenny was
written on the bill of sale when she was sold to the Sweet Home farm.
Mr. Garner: Owner
of Sweet Home farm. He treats the slaves with a measure of courtesy and
even provides them guns to hunt game.
Lillian Garner: Wife
of Mr. Garner. Her attitude toward the slaves is the same as her husband's.
overseer who manages Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies. He is Mrs. Garner's
Paul D: Slave at
Sweet Home farm who is fond of Sethe. He failed in his attempt to escape
from the farm. Later, after he was sold, he attempted to kill his new owner
and ended up at a prison in Alfred, Georgia, where he worked on a chain
gang. One day, he succeeds in escaping and slowly makes his way northward
over several years, eventually turning up at Sethe's home near Cincinnati.
Paul A: Another male
slave at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher hangs him.
Slave at Sweet Home who impregnates Thirty-Mile woman. She lives thirty
miles from Sweet Home~ez_mdash~hence, her name~ez_mdash~but
Sixo manages to rendezvous with her. After failing to escape from Sweet
Home, his captors set fire to him after tying him to a tree. Defiantly,
he shouts the name he has given to his unborn child.
Thirty-Mile Woman (Patsy):
Companion of Sixo. They meet near a deserted stone structure once used
by Indians. When the Sweet Home slaves make their escape, Sixo is supposed
to meet up with Thirty-Mile-Woman. However, he is caught but she gets away.
Amy Denver: White
indentured servant who helps Sethe during the latter's escape. Amy delivers
Sethe's baby and nurses the wounds she suffered in a beating before her
escape. Sethe names the baby Denver.
Stamp Paid: Former
slave who takes Sethe and her newborn baby across the Ohio River to the
free state of Ohio. Later, he helps Sethe and her family in other ways.
The narrator explains his unusual name: "Born Joshua, he renamed himself
when he [was forced to submit] his wife to his master's son . . . With
that gift, he decided that he didn't owe anybody anything. Whatever his
obligations were, that act paid them off."
Vashti: Wife of Stamp
Paid. When she was a slave, her master forced her to go to bed with him.
Edward Bodwin: Quaker
abolitionist in his seventies who lodges Baby Suggs in a home he owns.
In return, she does chores for him.
Miss Bodwin: Edward's
sister. She treats Sethe and Denver with kindness.
Janey Wagon: The
Ella: Woman who assists
Sethe when the latter reaches Ohio. She later helps Sethe in many ways.
When Ella was a young girl, a white man and his son repeatedly assaulted
her sexually while holding her as their prisoner.
John: Husband of
Ma'am: Sethe's mother,
who came to America on a slave ship. Sethe says she was hanged but remembers
little else about her.
Nan: Slave who came
to America with the mother of Sethe. When Sethe is a baby, Nan breastfeeds
Mr. Sawyer: Restaurant
owner who employs Sethe.
Judy, Willie Pike, Able
Woodruff: Members of the black community near Cincinnati. Before Paul
D moves in with Sethe, Stamp Paid suggests that any of them might be willing
to lodge Paul.
Sister of Able Woodruff. She works at a brush and tallow factory.
Lady Jones: Woman
who teaches arithmetic and spelling to Denver when she is a child. She
and other children each pay a nickel a month for Lady Jones's services.
Nelson Lord: Boy
in Lady Jones's class. He asks Denver a question about the woodshed incident
(recounted in the plot summary). Embarrassed, Denver never returns to class.
Weaver Lady: Woman
in Delaware with whom Paul D stayed before going to Cincinnati.
Mr. Buddy: Amy Denver's
master. Amy says he would whip her just for looking at him the wrong way.
Mrs. Buddy: Mr. Buddy's
Whitlow: Owner of
Baby Suggs before she was sold to Mr. Garner's Sweet home farm.
Reverend Pike: Minister
who presides at the burial of Beloved.
Hi Man: Man imprisoned
with Paul D in Georgia. One of Hi Man's duties is to alert the other prisoners
that the day's work is to begin.
Brandywine: Man who
purchased Paul D from Sweet Home.
Joe Nathan: Acquaintance
of Amy Denver. He tells her that Mr. Buddy fathered her.
Old Negro woman:
Woman who does sewing for Mr. Buddy.
Mother of Amy Denver:
Woman who lived in Boston before she was turned over to Mr. Buddy.
who hack off Paul D's chains after he escapes from the Georgia prison.
Patty, Famous, Johnny,
Ardelia, Rosa Lee, Tyree, John, Nancy: Baby Suggs's eight children.
Dunn: Purchaser of
Baby Suggs's daughter Ardelia.
Seven-O: Sixo's unborn
Colored Ladies of Delaware:
Women who submit a petition for the release of Sethe when she is in jail.
Four families of slaves that Paul D meets when traveling north through
who attends Mrs. Garner during her illness.
Aunt Phyllis: Woman
whom Sethe says slept with her eyes open.
Jackson Till: Man
whom Sethe says slept under his bed.
One-Ton Lady, Midget, Giant, Arabian Nights Dancer, Abu the Snake Charmer,
Two-Headed Man, Wild African Savage.
Preacher With Eighteen
Children: Previous occupant of 124 Bluestone Street.
main conflicts in the novel pit the protagonist, Sethe, against slavery
and its overseers; against the ghost of Beloved, against neighbors who
shun her, and against her own inner turmoil.
point of view is third-person omniscient, enabling the narrator to reveal
the thoughts of a character in the language he or she would use when speaking,
making it seem as if the character has taken over the narration. Sometimes,
the narrator presents the freely flowing thoughts (stream of consciousness)
of a character. In stream of consciousness, a term coined by American psychologist
William James (1842-1910), an author portrays a character~ez_rsquo~s continuing
~ez_ldquo~stream~ez_rdquo~ of thoughts as they occur, regardless of whether they make sense
or whether the next thought in a sequence relates to the previous thought.
The narrator frequently presents such thoughts without punctuation marks,
as in the following passage from Beloved:
the beginning I could see her I could not help her because the clouds were
in the way in the beginning I could see her the shining in her ears she
does not like the circle around her neck I know this I look hard at her
so she will know that the clouds are in the way I am sure she saw me I
am looking at her see me she empties out her eyes I am there in the place
where her face is and telling her the noisy clouds were in my way she wants
her earrings she wants her round basket I want her face a hot thing in
the beginning the women are away from the men and the men are away from
the women storms rock us and mix the men into the women and the women into
the men that is when I begin to be on the back of the man for a long time
I see only his neck and his wide shoulders above me I am small I love him
because he has a song when he turned around to die I see the teeth he sang
through his singing was soft his singing is of the place where a woman
takes flowers away from their leaves and puts them in a round basket Plot
is 1873. Sethe Suggs, 38, and her daughter, Denver, 18, live in a two-story
house at 124 Bluestone Road in the rural outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio.
years earlier, Sethe's two sons~ez_mdash~Howard and Buglar~ez_mdash~ran off, no longer able
to tolerate the presence of the ghost of their dead baby sister. They left
after Howard saw handprints in a cake and Buglar saw a mirror shatter when
he was standing before it. Before these incidents, the spiteful phantom
had upset the boys in many other ways, dumping a kettleful of chickpeas
on the floor, for example, or crumbling soda crackers and spreading them
in a line in front of a door. So they had had enough, and they ran off.
Shortly after their departure, Sethe's elderly mother-in-law, who had been
bedridden with illness, died.
don't visit Sethe's house because of something She did in 1855 that earned
her the disdain of her neighbors. In fact, whenever a wagon passes the
house, the driver speeds up his horse. However, one day, a man from Sethe's
past~ez_mdash~Paul D, a former slave who once worked alongside Sethe~ez_mdash~shows up on
her porch and eventually moves in as he and Sethe, bit by bit, recall the
days of their bondage. Here's is the story of Sethe, the protagonist of
was born into slavery in the South in 1835 to a woman known only as Ma'am,
who came to America from Africa. Sethe knows little about her mother except
that she was hanged when Sethe was still a small child.
being sold to to Sweet Home farm in Kentucky in 1848, Sethe meets a slave
named Halle Suggs. He and his mother had worked at the farm since 1835,
the year that the owner of Sweet Home, Mr. Garner, purchased them from
a Carolina slaveowner. Four other male slaves also work the farm: Paul
A, Paul D, Paul F, and Sixo. With the permission of Garner, Halle has been
doing extra work outside the farm on Saturdays and Sundays to earn enough
money to buy freedom for his mother, called Baby Suggs, who works indoors
for Mrs. Garner. (Baby was her nickname. The bill of sale from the Carolina
slaveowner, Whitlow, identified her as Jenny. Baby Suggs had given birth
to eight children fathered by several men. (Slave owners forced female
slaves to mate with male slaves. The offspring of such unions became valuable
commodities to be sold at market.) But, she has no knowledge of the whereabouts
of any of her children except Halle. They had been sold or they had disappeared
for other reasons. The narrator says,
She didn't know
to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their
heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What color did Famous'
skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny's chin or just a dimple that
would disappear soon's his jawbone changed? Four girls, and the last time
she saw them there was no hair under their arms. Does Ardelia still love
the burned bottom of bread? All seven were gone or dead. .......After
Baby Suggs gains her freedom at age 60, Mr. Garner takes her to Cincinnati
and turns her over to abolitionists, Edward Bodwin and his sister. They
lodge her at the house on Bluestone Road. In return, she performs various
chores for them, such as cleaning, canning food, making and repairing shoes,
and working as a seamstress. She also becomes ~ez_ldquo~an unchurched preacher,
one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use
it," the narrator says. "In winter and fall she carried it to
AME's and Baptists, Holinesses
and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled,
unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence.~ez_rdquo~
concern for his mother impresses Sethe. Although Paul D wants her, it is
Halle who gets her. In 1849, she and Halle marry. Mrs. Garner gives her
a set of earrings as a wedding present.
is born in 1850 and Buglar in 1851. Two years later, Mr. Garner dies of
~ez_ldquo~a hole in his ear that Mrs. Garner said was an exploded ear drum brought
on by stroke,~ez_rdquo~ the narration says. And Mrs. Garner herself has ~ez_ldquo~a lump
in her neck the size of a sweet potato and unable to speak to anyone.~ez_rdquo~
Because she cannot manage Sweet Home and because she does not want to be
the only white person on the farm, she hires the husband of her late sister
to run the operation. With him are two nephews who call him ~ez_ldquo~Onka.~ez_rdquo~ He
is not at all like Mr. Garner, who treated the slaves ~ez_ldquo~like paid labor,
listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known.~ez_rdquo~ Instead,
the new man~ez_mdash~whom the slaves refer to as schoolteacher~ez_mdash~treats them cruelly
and writes down his observations of them as if they were laboratory animals.
What is more, he no longer allows Halle to do extra work. (Halle had hoped
to earn money to buy freedom for Sethe and the children.) Mrs. Garner is
in no condition to intervene.
1854, Sethe bears her third child.
life for the slaves under schoolteacher and his nephews becomes unbearable.
A constant worry for Halle and Sethe is that schoolteacher will eventually
sell their children. So Halle and Sethe decide to join other slaves planning
to escape. Sixo broaches the idea to Halle. Sixo loves a woman thirty miles
away (he calls her Thirty-Mile woman, although her name is Patsy) and sometimes
sneaks off to meet with her. One day, she tells him that two slaves at
her location are going to lead seven other slaves during an escape northward.
The two slaves leading the caravan know the terrain. She invites Sixo and
the other slaves at Sweet Home to join them. Paul F will not be among them,
for he has been sold.
the slaves are ready to make their break for the north, Sethe is six months
pregnant but remains determined to escape. However, Halle does not appear
at the place where she is supposed to meet him. Sethe decides to hang back
to wait for him but sends her little ones~ez_mdash~Howard, Buglar, and the baby~ez_mdash~with
a woman driving a wagonload of slaves.
the Sweet Home slaves do not get very far. Paul A ends up at the end of
a rope. And when Sixo's captors hold a rifle on him, he defiantly charges
and grasps it. His pursuers subdue him, tie him to a tree, and set him
on fire. When Sixo shouts out the name of the unborn child he fathered
with Thirty-Mile woman, his tormentors shoot him. Paul D is taken back
to sweet home and shackled.
in a barn, schoolteacher's frenzied nephews hurl themselves upon Sethe
and suck milk from her breasts. Halle, who is hidden in the barn, witnesses
the assault but is unable to intervene. Later, Sethe tells Mrs. Garner
about the assault. But after schoolteacher's nephews find out that Sethe
told Mrs. Garner what they did to her, they beat her so severely
that she bites off the tip of her tongue.
even after all the physical and mental trauma she has suffered, Sethe is
firm in her resolve to escape. When schoolteacher and the others are paying
little attention to her, believing that in her condition she does not need
to be watched, Sethe runs off.
she makes it all the way to the Ohio River. If she can cross it, she will
be a free woman in the free state of Ohio. But she is in a sorry state.
Not only is she worn out and very sore, she is also about to give birth.
Fortunately, another escapee~ez_mdash~a white woman
who was laboring as an indentured servant~ez_mdash~comes
upon her. Her name is Amy Denver. She nurses her injuries and attends her
while she is delivering her baby, which she names Denver. Then Sethe receives
more help, this time from a from a member of the Underground Railroad.
His name is Stamp Paid. He takes Sethe across the river to freedom. A woman
named Ella is waiting on the other side with a wool blanket, baked sweet
potatoes, and a jacket. When Sethe informs her of her destination, Ella
takes her there.
arriving with her newborn at the home of her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs,
the latter welcomes her warmly, and Sethe reunites with her other children.
She spends several happy weeks there. Then the past catches up with her
in the form of schoolteacher. With him are a sheriff, one nephew, and a
slave tracker. When Sethe sees schoolteacher coming, she hurries with her
children to a woodshed on the property. There, she plans to kill the children
so that they will not grow up in slavery. She will then kill herself. First,
she decapitates the baby with a hand saw. Then she turns the saw on the
boys but succeeds only in cutting them. By this time, Stamp Paid has arrived
on the scene and he stops her.
schoolteacher enters, he sees Sethe holding the dead baby to her breast
with one hand. With the other, she is swinging Denver by the heels, attempting
to dash her head against a wall. Schoolteacher decides not to take her
or the boys with him. They are no good to him anymore. Here are his thoughts:
Enough nigger eyes
for now. Little nigger-boy eyes open in sawdust; little nigger-girl eyes
staring between the wet fingers that held her face so her head wouldn't
fall off; little nigger-baby eyes crinkling up to cry in the arms of the
old nigger [Stamp Paid] whose own eyes were nothing but slivers looking
down at his feet. But the worst ones were those of the nigger woman who
looked like she didn't have any. Since the whites in them had disappeared
and since they were as black as her skin, she looked blind........While
Baby Suggs tends to the boys' injuries, the sheriff takes Sethe to jail
in a cart, past a crowd of Negroes who had gathered outside. However, Mr.
Bodwin pleads with a judge on her behalf, as do Negro women from Delaware
and Ohio who sign petitions. A newspaper reporter covers her story, and
two white ministers come around to pray for her. Eventually, the sheriff
releases her to attend the burial of her child, and three months later
~ez_ldquo~they let me out for good,~ez_rdquo~ she says. Edward Bodwin recalls that he and
his abolitionist friends "managed to turn infanticide and the cry of savagery
around, and build a further case for abolishing slavery."
whole affair greatly disturbs Baby Suggs, and her health begins to decline.
Meanwhile, the black community snubs Sethe.
years pass as Sethe continues to live at 124 Bluestone Road with the children
and the painful memories of the past. She works as a cook at Sawyer's Restaurant,
where she earns $3.40 a week. She also gets dinner on the job and dinner
to take home. A constant presence in her house is the ghost that caused
Howard and Buglar to run away.
day, one of the former slaves from Sweet Home, Paul D, comes to visit her.
After he last saw Sethe, schoolteacher sold him to a man called Brandywine.
Because he attempted to kill Brandywine, he was sentenced to a prison at
Alfred, Georgia, to serve on a chain gang. During heavy rains over several
days, he escaped, along with other prisoners. The fugitives ran into Cherokee
Indians hiding in the forest to avoid government-ordered resettlement.
The Indians used their axes to free the runaways from their chains. When
Paul asked one of the Indians for directions northward, the Indian told
him, ~ez_ldquo~Follow the tree flowers.~ez_rdquo~ And so, during the spring and summer seasons
over many years, Paul followed the flowers. However, before reaching the
north, he served duty in the Civil War with other blacks. After meeting
up with two soldiers in Alabama~ez_mdash~Private Keane
and Sergeant Rossiter of the Massachusetts 54th~ez_mdash~he
joined them on a skiff that they took out into Mobile Bay, an inlet of
the Gulf of Mexico. They then hailed a Union gunboat, which took the men
northward. Eventually Paul ends up in Wheeling, West Virginia. From there,
he goes to New Jersey and to Delaware. He stayed in Delaware for eighteen
months with a weaver lady, then moved on again and eventually made it to
was one of Sethe's admirers at Sweet Home. After he arrives at her home
outside Cincinnati, he and Sethe eventually become intimate. One day, the
ghost makes its presence known.
floorboards were [shaking] and the grinding, shoving floor was only part
of it,~ez_rdquo~ the narrator says. ~ez_ldquo~The house itself was pitching.~ez_rdquo~
fights back. The narration says,
"Leave the place
alone! Get the hell out!" A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its
leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by
two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the
screaming house. "You want to fight, come on! .......The
spirit leaves the house. Its disappearance displeases Denver, for she has
no friends. Because of the woodshed incident~ez_mdash~which
Paul does not yet know about~ez_mdash~the neighbors
shun the family.
returning home from a carnival one day, Paul and Sethe find a young woman
waiting for them in the front of the house. She calls herself Beloved.
(On the headstone of Sethe's baby appeared the words Dearly Beloved.)
The young lady is very tired and so thirsty that she drinks down four cups
of water from a tin cup. Sethe and Paul think she is ill, so they allow
her to sleep in Baby Suggs's bed. For four days, she sleeps off and on
in the bed. Denver eagerly attends to her needs. Finally, she seems to
come around after Denver gives her a piece of sweet bread. It seems she
likes anything sweet: honey, molasses, taffy, lemonade, desserts. Paul
eventually becomes suspicious of the girl and says, "You just gonna feed
her? From now on?" Sethe says, ~ez_ldquo~"Denver likes her. She's no real trouble.
I thought we'd wait till her breath was better. She still sounds a little
lumbar to me."
says there is ~ez_ldquo~something funny~ez_rdquo~ about her.
Beloved becomes part of their life, the narrative reveals that she seems
to be the reincarnation of Sethe's dead child. In other words, the baby
ghost that Paul chased away has returned as a grownup. But her behavior
remains similar to a child's. Her goal is to torment Sethe for killing
her, as Denver seems to realize. The narrator says, "Denver thought she
understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying
to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it."
Wagon, the Bodwins' servant, finds out that Sethe's dead daughter has come
back to haunt her and spreads the news. As the story makes the rounds,
the tellers exaggerate the details. They say that "Sethe was worn down,
speckled, dying, spinning, changing shapes and generally bedeviled. That
this daughter beat her, tied her to the bed and pulled out all her hair."
Denver likes Beloved, Paul grows to despise her. The ghost plays
games with him and even seduces him in an apparent attempt to drive him
away from Sethe.
day, Paul finds out what Sethe did on that fateful day in the woodshed.
Stamp Paid makes excuses for her saying, "She ain't crazy. She love those
children. She was trying to out hurt the hurter."
when Paul sees Sethe, he says, "What you did was wrong, Sethe. There could
have been a way. Some other way."
way?" Sethe asks.
got two feet, Sethe, not four," he said, and right then a forest sprang
up between them; trackless and quiet.
he leaves. At night, he sleeps in a church.
then dogs Sethe, who eventually begins to lose her grip on her sanity.
Denver gets help from Ella, a neighbor, and other women. Thirty women in
all parade down the street to Sethe's house. Grouping together outside,
most of them knelt down and began praying. "Hear me. Hear me. Do it, Maker,
do it," they said. When they start to sing, Sethe, who had been chipping
ice, comes to the door with Beloved. The ice pick is still in Sethe's hand.
When the women see Beloved, they think, "The devil-child was clever . .
. and beautiful. It had taken the shape of a pregnant woman, naked and
smiling in the heat of the afternoon sun."
Sethe runs out of the out
of the house toward a figure approaching in a buggy. It is Edward Bodwin,
who has come to take Denver to work. Sethe mistakes him for schoolteacher
and attack him with the ice pick. She manages only to cut him before she
Meanwhile, thanks to the
efforts of the neighborhood women, the ghost has left the house.
D reunites with Sethe. With Denver, they begin to face up to the past while
hoping for a brighter future. The narrator says,
they forgot [Beloved]. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep.
Occasionally, however, the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake, and
the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes
the photograph of a close friend or relative~ez_mdash~looked at too long~ez_mdash~shifts,
and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They
can touch it if they like, but don't, because they know things will never
be the same if they do.
climax occurs when thirty neighborhood women pray and sing outside Sethe's
house on Bluestone Street and drive out the ghost. Their action provides
Sethe the wherewithal to begin anew without the nagging guilt that caused
her to focus continually on the past. It also reunites her with the community,
healing the division that separated her from them.
The Haunting Aftermath
theme of Beloved is the continual intrusion of a nightmarish past
on the present life of Sethe Suggs, a former slave. When the Kentucky
overseer steps out of the past to return her to slavery, she kills her
own baby so it will not have to grow up in the yoke of white men. Later,
when the court releases her from jail, the past appears as the ghost of
her baby and then in the flesh of a young woman. The spirit scourges her
soul, her conscience, just as her taskmasters scourged her body. The story
ends with a glimmer of hope that Sethe will learn to live in the present
and look forward to the future.
not only isolated blacks from society; it also separated them from family
members and friends. For example, of the eight children whom Baby Suggs
bore, seven were taken away from her. The only child she really knows is
Halle. But after he buys his mother her freedom and sends her to Ohio,
she never sees him again.
grew up without her mother, Ma'am, who was hanged. When Sethe escapes from
Sweet Home, her husband disappears, and she never sees him again. When
schoolteacher comes to reclaim her, she kills her baby so it will not have
to grow up in bondage. After her release from jail, the community ostracizes
her; she and her family receive no visitors. Then, after the ghost of the
baby haunts her household, her two adolescent boys run off. All of these
happenings upset her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her health declines.
While bedridden, she laments the absence of her two grandsons: "She couldn't
get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two
creeping-off boys," the narrator says.
is isolated from the woman he loves~ez_mdash~except
for brief assignations with her~ez_mdash~and dies tied
to a tree while shouting the name of his unborn child.
years before Paul D attempts to escape from Sweet Home with other slaves,
his half-brother Paul F is sold. Then, during the escape attempt, Paul
D's other half-brother, Paul A, is caught and hanged. After Paul D himself
is sold, he attempts to kill his new owner, Brandywine, and ends up at
a Georgia prison on a chain gang. After Paul D escapes, he makes his way
northward, alone, and eventually finds Sethe. But the ghost of the baby~ez_mdash~now
taking the form of a young woman~ez_mdash~tries to
separate him and Sethe. It succeeds for a while. Meanwhile, the narrator
says, "Denver was lonely. All that leaving: first her brothers, then her
grandmother~ez_mdash~serious losses since there were
no children willing to circle her in a game or hang by their knees from
her porch railing."
Loss of Identity
many slaves had no knowledge of their country of origin and no knowledge
of their family history. Some of them did not even have a last name. In
Paul D, Paul A, and Paul F have no last name until they receive the surname
of the owner of Sweet Home, Garner. Before Sethe married Halley Suggs,
she had no last name. All she knew was that her mother's name was Ma'am.
Her third child dies nameless. Only after her death does she receive the
slaves had no citizenship, they had no national identity. Because their
owners sold them from time to time, slaves had no geographical identity~ez_mdash~no
place that they could call home.
the slaves in Beloved suffer the humiliation of being treated as
less than human. Their overseers beat them like animals and regard them
as commodities to be bought and sold at auction. Recalling the day when
he was sold to Brandyine, Paul D says to Sethe, "Mister was allowed to
be and stay what he was. But I wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was.
Even if you cooked him you'd be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn't
no way I'd ever be Paul D again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed
me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting
in the sun on a tub."
was of course rampant before the Civil War. But it did not end when President
Lincoln promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, as Paul D notes
eleven years later:
and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes;
eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools
burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped
like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken.Lack of Fulfillment
of freedom, the slaves at Sweet Home (as well as all other slaves) could
not fulfill their dreams or even lead a normal life. And even after gaining
their freedom, slaves such as Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Paul become preoccupied
with the past, preventing them from taking full advantage of their freedom.
Consider Baby Suggs. When lying on her death bed, she attempts to "catch
up" on the colorful world that she missed. "She never had time to see,
let alone enjoy [colors] before," Sethe says. "Took her a long time to
finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when
are examples of symbols in the novel.
Tin tobacco box: This
represents Paul D's painful past. After he arrives at Sethe's home near
Cincinnati, he begins to discuss his feelings about the past. Then he stops
talking because "saying more might push them both to a place they couldn't
get back from," the narrator says. "He would keep the rest where it belonged:
in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its
lid rusted shut. He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy
woman. . . ."
Sweet Home: This
name for Mr. Garner's farm symbolizes the attempt of white society to justify
the institution of slavery. Sweet Home farm was, of course, anything but
Denver's birth: Sethe
bears her fourth child, Denver, just before crossing the Ohio River, the
boundary between slave states and free states. Denver's birth thus symbolizes
the life of freedom awaiting Sethe on the other side of the river, as well
as the "new birth of freedom" for the United States that Abraham Lincoln
referred to in 1863 in his Gettysburg Address.
Mrs. Garner's lump:
The lump in Mrs. Garner's throat may symbolize the cancer of slavery that
afflicted the Confederate South and eventually destroyed it in the smoke
Animals: Mister (a
rooster) and the other animals symbolize the slaves and the inhumane treatment
slaves had to endure. Note that Here Boy, the name of a dog, is also a
phrase that overseers and other whites often used to summon a male slave.
Slave trackers in Ohio:
The four mounted slave trackers who come to Ohio for Sethe and her children
may symbolize the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine,
and death. According to the New Testament of the Bible, the appearance
of the Four Horsemen heralds the nearness of the end or the world. In Beloved,
the appearance of the four slave trackers signals the end of freedom for
Sethe and her children. At the cost of the life of one of her children,
she preserves her world.
The death of Sethe's third child by the hand of her own mother may symbolize
the death of Christ. In His death, Christ saved humankind. In her death,
Beloved saved the rest of her family.
are examples of figures of speech in the novel. (For definitions of figures
of pulsing red light
she couldn't get interested
in leaving life
or living it, let
alone the fright of two creeping-off boys.
The water sucked
and swallowed itself beneath them.
here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about
baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the
bone. This here Sethe talked about
safety with a handsaw. This here new
Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began.
124 and everybody in it had closed down, veiled over and shut away; before
it had become the plaything of spirits and the home of the chafed, 124
had been a cheerful, buzzing house where
Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed. Where
not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where
the lamp burned all night long.
But now even the daylight
time that Beloved had counted on, disciplined herself to be content with,
was being reduced, divided by Sethe's willingness to pay attention to other
things. Him mostly. Him
who said something to her that made her run out into the woods and talk
to herself on a rock. Him who kept
her hidden at night behind doors. And him
who had hold of her now whispering behind the stairs after Beloved had
rescued her neck and was ready now to put her hand in that woman's own.
hazelnut man with too long hair and no
notebook, no charcoal, no
oranges, no questions.
As soon as one strip of husk
was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed
at last. How loose the silk. How
quick the jailed-up flavor ran free.
makes him feel righteous. One makes
him feel ashamed.
her skin . . . used
to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes.
Comparison of the face
to a mask
A breastplate of darkness
hid all the windows except one
Comparison of the darkness
to a breastplate (part of a suit of armor)
the girl who walked down
. . . round and brown with the face of an alert doll.
Comparison of the face
to that of a doll
Five boxwood bushes, planted
in a ring, had started stretching toward each other four feet off the ground
to form a round, empty room seven feet high, its walls fifty inches of
Comparison of the space
enclosed by the boxwood bushes to a room
Pig boats jammed
the Ohio River, and their captains' hollering at one another over the grunts
of the stock was as common a water sound as that of the ducks flying over
their heads. Personification
approached the house, regarding it, as she always did, as a person rather
than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits. Synesthesia
Use of an adjective associated
with one sensation to describe a noun referring to another sensation
The closer the roses
got to death, the louder their scent.Simile
her eyes . . . were
like two wells into which he had trouble gazing.
Questions and Writing Topics
Comparison of the eyes
to water wells
although her voice was heavy
as a man's, she smelled like a roomful of flowers
Comparison of her smell
to that of a roomful of flowers
[The quilt] was smelling
like grass and feeling like hands~ez_mdash~the unrested
hands of busy women: dry, warm, prickly.
Comparison of the smell
of the quilt to the smell of grass; comparison of the surface of the quilt
to the surface of hands
A mighty wish for Baby Suggs
broke over her like surf.
Comparison of the sudden
occurrence of a wish to the sudden occurrence of an ocean surf
So Stamp Paid did not tell
him how she flew, snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing; how
her face beaked, how her hands worked like claws.
Comparison of a woman
to a hawk
an essay defending the thesis that the ghost and the reincarnation of Sethe's
child, Beloved, are not real.
an essay defending the thesis that the ghost and the reincarnation of Sethe's
child, Beloved, are real.
the following terms that appear in the novel: Fugitive Bill (Fugitive Slave
Act), manumission, and Dred Scott.
what do the words Klan and dragon refer in the following
sentences: "It was one thing to beat up a ghost, quite another to throw
a helpless coloredgirl out in territory infected by the Klan. Desperately
thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam
the Ohio at will."