Summary of the Novel
Mr. and Mrs. Garner owned Sweet Home, a farm where they used the slave labor of Paul F, Halle, Paul A, Paul D, and Sixo—although they treated their slaves with a modicum of respect, asking for their ideas and allowing them the use of rifles for hunting. Sethe, a young female slave, was bought and allowed to choose Halle for her husband. With the Garners’ permission, the two slaves were “married.” They had a family of two sons and a daughter before Mr. Garner became ill and died.
Prior to his death, Mr. Garner had allowed Halle the privilege of hiring his labor out so that he could buy his mother, Baby Suggs, out of slavery. At 60 years of age, Halle’s mother was a free woman and moved to the next state north, Ohio, where she rented 124 Bluestone Road from the anti-slavery Bodwins and became a spiritual leader (rather than a preacher since she preferred not to preach) and a mender of shoes.
After her husband’s death, the weak-willed Mrs. Garner became very ill. She complied when she was told she must have other whites in residence and invited schoolteacher and his two nephews to live with her and manage the farm, including the slaves. Schoolteacher and his nephews were a different breed than the Garners and introduced whippings, torture, humiliation, and the dehumanizing of the slaves, but Mrs. Garner was too ill to take heed. The slaves (with the exception of Paul F, who had been sold two years prior for the money needed to keep up the farm) decided to flee via the Underground Railroad. Sethe, pregnant again, had sent her two-year-old daughter and two older sons ahead with some of the other slaves when her husband, Halle, did not arrive to meet them in the predetermined place at the predetermined time.
She stayed behind to look for him but was caught by schoolteacher’s nephews who held her down and sucked milk from her breasts. Schoolteacher discovered that she told Mrs. Garner about the incident and whipped her, flaying open the skin of her back despite her being six month’s pregnant.
Unbeknownst to Sethe, her husband was in hiding in the loft where he had a view of the attack on her. Watching without being able to come to her aid drove him insane. Paul D was watching Halle, although unable to see what was happening to Sethe. At some undetermined time soon after, he saw Halle sit down and calmly smear the butter from the churn all over his face while his eyes remained vacant. Sethe managed to escape, but had to stop because her baby was being born. An indentured servant, Amy, happened upon her and helped her. The infant was named Denver, which was Amy’s last name.
Sethe reached her mother-in-law’s home with the newborn infant and was overjoyed to be reunited with her other three children. Soon after, Baby Suggs and Sethe hosted a picnic-barbecue for all the neighbors. The abundance of food and good times, in addition to Baby Suggs’ good fortune in having been bought out of slavery, driven to freedom in a wagon by her former master, and befriended by the Bodwins who rented her their two-story house (unlike the one-story houses everyone else lived in), led the neighbors and friends, who also were Baby Suggs’ congregation, to believe she and her family were “uppity.” Thereafter, the residents of 124 Bluestone Road found themselves being shunned until they no longer had any visitors and Baby Suggs stopped being the spiritual leader at the clearing in the woods.
Schoolteacher, one of his nephews, the sheriff, and a slave catcher arrived to bring Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home. No one had warned them but Sethe recognized schoolteacher’s hat as he approached the house on his horse. She whisked her children into the shed and attempted to murder them, rather than allow them to live the kind of life in slavery she had led, as both her mother-in-law and Stamp Paid stood in the yard behind the house, frozen in terror. She succeeded in killing her two-year-old daughter by slitting her throat and would have also killed her infant daughter, Denver, if Stamp Paid had not caught the baby as Sethe swung her against the wall in an attempt to bash her brains out. The two boys had been severely beaten on their heads with a shovel.
Howard and Buglar were nursed back to health by their grandmother while Sethe was jailed to await her trial for the murder. Since Denver was still a suckling infant, she went to jail with her mother. The Bodwins used whatever influence they had in Cincinnati to ensure Sethe’s imprisonment, rather than the death sentence. They were successful.
After serving her sentence, Sethe and Denver returned to Baby Suggs’ home to join her, Howard, and Buglar. Once there, it was apparent that the spirit of the murdered child was haunting the house. Howard and Buglar were so affected by this that each left home as he reached his teens. Sethe found work cooking for most of the day at Sawyer’s restaurant: the owner was not afraid to hire an ex-convict. However, the rest of the community, except for Stamp Paid, continued to avoid the family.
Denver, a lonely and very quiet child, was brought up in the house with her mother and grandmother. When she was seven, she discovered that Lady Jones was teaching the local children in her home and joined the classes, only to leave when one of the children innocently asked Denver about the murder of her older sister. Baby Suggs decided to die, despite Stamp Paid’s efforts to dissuade her, and did after keeping close to her house or in her bed for many years. Her death came soon after Howard and Buglar left, but had nothing to do with their departure.
Eighteen years after the murder, Paul D arrives in town. He, too, had attempted to flee Sweet Home but was caught in the attempt and forced to wear an iron bit which holds down the tongue—a form of torture and humiliation. He had been sold to Brandywine, the man he soon tried to kill. The murder attempt led to his imprisonment in the worst possible type of work–gang prison in Alfred, Georgia. He escaped from the prison and stayed with the Cherokee until he was the only escaped prisoner left out of the original forty-six. The Cherokee showed him how to follow the trees to the north, which he did. Eventually he reached Delaware, where he stayed for eighteen months with a woman who had been kind to him. Once he left her, he was rootless until he came to Sethe’s home.
Upon finding Sethe, he is dismayed to hear of Baby Suggs’ death and—despite Denver’s hostility—moves into the house. On the first night there, he has a confrontation with the spirit in the house and wins, thereby effectively sending away Denver’s only companion for the last eighteen years and practically wrecking Sethe’s kitchen. In an effort to win both Sethe and Denver over, he talks them into going to colored day at the carnival. When they return home, they discover a young, very tired, nattily dressed black woman waiting for them. Sethe immediately discerns that she is her daughter’s spirit reborn in the flesh. Paul D and Denver see only that the girl needs sleep and water.
Beloved, who seems to have no memory other than her name, is incorporated into the household, much to Paul D’s chagrin. She becomes devoted to Sethe, following her from room to room and even meeting Sethe after work once she regains her strength. Beloved’s obvious interest in seducing Paul D makes him so uncomfortable he moves into the shed, but Sethe and Denver fail to see “the shining” on her, as Paul D calls her seductiveness. Beloved seems simple: she talks little, doesn’t know how to do much, acts childishly (except when it comes to Paul D), and needs Denver to keep her occupied. As Paul D moves further and further away from her and, finally, out of the house, she occupies more and more of Denver and Sethe’s energy.
At work, Stamp Paid and Paul D are moving pigs toward the slaughter house when Stamp Paid shows him the newspaper article about the murders. Paul D, unable to read, does not know what it says but recognizes the likeness of Sethe. He insists it is not her; the mouth is different. Much to his later regret, Stamp Paid reads the article to Paul D. When Paul D confronts Sethe, she tries to explain that she was saving her children. Paul complains that her kind of loving is too “thick” for him, and he begins to disengage his life from hers, eventually moving out of it for a while.
So involved are the women with Beloved that Denver becomes less sullen and Sethe eventually loses her job for not showing up. Denver knows Sethe cannot take care of them anymore and implores Lady Jones to find her a job, not realizing that jobs are hard to come by and everyone in the community is just about as poor as they are. Unable to offer a job, Lady Jones does make certain the community shares with the family, each different community member leaving some food in their yard at intervals.
By this time, Paul D is living in the basement of the town’s storefront church, which horrifies Stamp Paid, who feels that the community should have opened its doors to Paul D, especially since he is a working man willing to pay for his keep. He finds a drinking Paul D on the church steps and apologizes for his neighbors’ behavior toward Paul D. He also explains that he was there the day of the murder and it wasn’t the way the newspaper said it had been.
Until Denver finds employment, the three women are not doing well—even with their neighbors’ sharing. Instead of dividing the food evenly, Sethe gives most of it to Beloved, who is now pregnant with Paul D’s child, although Sethe and Denver seem not to know it. Sethe appears to be shrinking, and Denver is losing so much weight that her clothes are too big on her. Besides always being hungry, Sethe is becoming Beloved’s slave and complacently abides with her temper tantrums. She is no longer safe from Beloved either, since Beloved apparently attempted to strangle her in Baby Suggs’ clearing. After much deliberation, Denver goes to the Bodwins to seek work.
Janey Wagon convinces the Bodwins they need someone to stay with them at night since they are older now and she has her own family to tend. She also spreads the news in the community that Sethe’s dead daughter has come back to bedevil her. The women of the community decide to go to 124 Bluestone Road to drive Beloved out. Just as thirty of them gather, Mr. Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver for work. When the women begin to sing, Sethe and Beloved come to the door to see them. Sethe has a confused flashback and thinks Mr. Bodwin is schoolteacher, come to take her children back to slavery. She rushes toward him with the ice pick in her hand as Denver intercedes to save him by leading some others in wrestling her mother down so that Ella may hit her on the jaw. Mr. Bodwin is unaware of the attempt on his life, aware only of the beautiful, naked, pregnant woman standing in the doorway and what he thinks is Sethe going to stop some of the other women from fighting amongst themselves.
Paul D and Denver run into each other on the street. She is still working for the Bodwins, and Miss Bodwin is teaching her. Beloved disappeared the day her mother tried to kill Mr. Bodwin. Sethe is not doing well. Soon, Paul D resumes his residence in Sethe’s house. He tries to convince Sethe that she, not Beloved, is her own best thing.
Estimated Reading Time
Because of the constant shift from past to present and back again and the rich metaphoric language which does not state—but rather implies—this is not a quick novel to read despite its moderate length. Rather than rush through it and miss all the visual images, it is suggested you read it in ten sittings, totaling approximately eight hours.
Part One will take half this time with the following breakdown:
pages 3–42—one hour
pages 43–85—one hour
pages 86–113—45 minutes
pages 114–147—45 minutes
pages 148–165—half an hour
Part Two will take two and a half hours:
pages 169–199—one hour
pages 200–217—45 minutes
pages 218–235—also 45 minutes
Part Three will need the remaining hour and a half:
pages 236–262—one hour
pages 263–275—half an hour
These page numbers are based on the softcover edition of the novel (Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume Books, 1988). Please remember this is simply an estimation; reading speeds are different for individual readers and some may prefer to dwell on certain parts of the novel while others may choose different sections of the novel in which to invest their time.
The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Her parents, Ramah (Willis) and George, survived the Great Depression with the aid of government assistance and by sharing with their equally poor black and white neighbors. Her great-grandmother had been a slave and her grandfather was born in slavery, not being freed until he was five, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
Ms. Morrison earned a B.A. in English from Howard University in 1953 and, while a student there, changed her name to Toni. She also joined the Howard Players during her undergraduate years and toured the South, playing to mostly black audiences. Her M.A. was earned in 1955 at Cornell University; her thesis was on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She moved to Texas Southern University, where she became an instructor of English from 1955 to 1957. There she wrote a play entitled “Dreaming Emmett” which dealt with the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Ms. Morrison returned to Howard University to be an Instructor of English for the next seven years and began writing. During that time, in 1958, she married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison. Two sons were born during this six-year marriage. After divorcing her husband, she took her sons back to Lorain to their grandparents’ home. The next year, she became an editor for the textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse, New York.
Five years later, in 1970, her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published and Ms. Morrison took an editorial position at Random House’s New York office, where she eventually became a senior editor. During this time—1971 and 1972—she was also an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York–Purchase. In 1974, Sula, her second novel, was published and she edited The Black Book, a collection of memorabilia from three hundred years of black history, which contained the Margaret Garner story—the springboard for Beloved. Upon the publishing of The Black Book, Ms. Morrison wrote an article entitled “Rediscovering Black History.” The following year, Sula was nominated for the National Book Award. For the next two years, she was a visiting lecturer at Yale University. In 1977, her third novel, Song of Solomon, for which she received the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letter Award, was published and quickly became a paperback best seller with 570,000 copies in print. Ms. Morrison was then named Distinguished Writer of 1978 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Tar Baby, her fourth novel, published in 1981, was on the New York Times best seller list for four months. During this time, Ms. Morrison was on the cover of Newsweek.
From 1984 to 1989, Ms. Morrison was the Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the State University of New York–Albany and won numerous honors. In 1986, her play was produced by the Capitol Repertory Company and she won the New York State Governor’s Art Award. The following year, Beloved—which was dedicated to the 60 million who died in slavery—was published and nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Award. In 1986, Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Award for this fifth novel. In 1989, Ms. Morrison became the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University, where she teaches both creative writing and Afro-American Studies. Jazz, which is her sixth novel, and her non-fiction Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, were published in 1992.
Toni Morrison has been featured on the Public Broadcasting System’s Writers in America, London Weekend Television’s South Bank Show, and Swiss Television Production’s In Black and White. She was appointed to President Carter’s National Council of the Arts and elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Many books of interpretation and criticism have been written about her novels. Her own novels have been translated into German, Spanish, French, Finnish, and Italian and are taught in Afro-American, American Literature, and Women’s Studies courses.