By Toni Morrison
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work and Publication
.......Belovedis 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, Beloved has received acclaim as one of the better books of the last two decades of the twentieth century.
.......The 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.
.......The 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:
.......Toni 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.
.......The 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.
.......The 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’s continuing “stream” 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:
In 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 basketPlot Summary
.......It 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.
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 “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.”
.......Halle's 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.
.......Howard is born in 1850 and Buglar in 1851. Two years later, Mr. Garner dies of “a hole in his ear that Mrs. Garner said was an exploded ear drum brought on by stroke,” the narration says. And Mrs. Garner herself has “a lump in her neck the size of a sweet potato and unable to speak to anyone.” 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 “Onka.” He is not at all like Mr. Garner, who treated the slaves “like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known.” Instead, the new man—whom the slaves refer to as schoolteacher—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.
.......In 1854, Sethe bears her third child.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......When 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—Howard, Buglar, and the baby—with a woman driving a wagonload of slaves.
.......But 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.
.......Then, 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.
.......But 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.
.......Remarkably, 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—a white woman who was laboring as an indentured servant—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.
.......After 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.
.......When 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 “they let me out for good,” 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."
.......The whole affair greatly disturbs Baby Suggs, and her health begins to decline. Meanwhile, the black community snubs Sethe.
.......Eighteen 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.
.......One 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, “Follow the tree flowers.” 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—Private Keane and Sergeant Rossiter of the Massachusetts 54th—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 Ohio.
.......Paul 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.
.......“The floorboards were [shaking] and the grinding, shoving floor was only part of it,” the narrator says. “The house itself was pitching.”
.......Paul 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—which Paul does not yet know about—the neighbors shun the family.
.......When 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, “"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."
.......Paul says there is “something funny” about her.
.......After 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."
.......Janey 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."
.......Although 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.
.......One 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."
.......But when Paul sees Sethe, he says, "What you did was wrong, Sethe. There could have been a way. Some other way."
......."What way?" Sethe asks.
......."You got two feet, Sethe, not four," he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet.
.......Then he leaves. At night, he sleeps in a church.
.......Beloved 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 is subdued.
Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of the neighborhood women, the ghost has left the house.
.......Paul D reunites with Sethe. With Denver, they begin to face up to the past while hoping for a brighter future. The narrator says,
So 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—looked at too long—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.
.......The 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 of Slavery
.......The 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.
.......Slavery 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
Loss of Identity
.......Historically, 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 Beloved, 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 name Beloved.
.......All 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."
.......Racism 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:
Eighteen seventy-four 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
.......Deprived 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 she died."
.......Following 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. . . ."
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the novel. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)
pool of pulsing red lightAnaphora
This 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.Metaphor
her skin . . . used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes.Onomatopoeia
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
Shivering, Denver 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.Study Questions and Writing Topics
1...Write an essay defending the thesis that the ghost and the reincarnation of Sethe's child, Beloved, are not real.