Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sethe, a fugitive slave woman. She killed one of her four children eighteen years earlier, when she saw her former owner come to capture them. This happened a month after she escaped to Ohio, where her mother-in-law resided. After the incident, she alienated herself in the community while living with her youngest child in a house occupied by a ghost spirit. the dead daughter, Beloved, returns as a ghost. Sethe enjoys their reunion and responds to all of her demands. When Beloved’s demands increase, she exhausts herself physically and psychologically.
Beloved, a bodily ghost of Sethe’s baby. Having died at the age of two, her throat cut with a handsaw by Sethe, she reappears as a woman of twenty. She calls herself Beloved, the only word carved on her tombstone. She is eager to listen to Sethe’s stories, demands her attention, and accuses Sethe of forsaking her. She disappears with the singing of thirty women in the community.
Denver, Sethe’s youngest child. Denver was born in a river while Sethe was escaping to Ohio as a runaway slave. She was named for a white woman who helped Sethe’s delivery. When Beloved appears, Denver soon recognizes that she is the ghost whom she had seen as a child and welcomes her company. Witnessing her mother’s exhaustion from meeting Beloved’s demands, she asks for help from the community, from which she and Sethe had been...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
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The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The novel takes its name from the character Beloved, a ghost. Beloved was killed by her mother, Sethe, as a baby to keep her from being returned to slavery by her owner, schoolteacher, who has come to Ohio to reclaim his slave property. As a result, the opening lines of the novel state that the house where Sethe, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her daughter, Denver, live is spiteful and full of a baby’s venom. The frightful atmosphere caused by the antics of the baby ghost causes Beloved’s brothers, Howard and Buglar, to run away by the time they are thirteen.
Subsequently, Beloved walks out of the water a fully dressed woman of twenty, the age the murdered baby would have been if she had lived. The author reveals the character of Beloved through the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D (Beloved’s uncle and Sethe’s lover). Sethe is at first flattered by Beloved’s quiet devotion and adoration, which pleases her. Denver is devoted to the care and protection of her ghostly sister, but Paul D is suspicious of Beloved. He notices that she is “shining” and questions her closely concerning her origins. Sethe notices that Beloved vexes Paul D, and he is eventually run out of the house and seduced by Beloved. Moreover, Denver notices “how greedy” Beloved is to hear Sethe talk, and that the questions Beloved asks—such as “where are your diamonds?”—are perplexing since she did not understand how Beloved could...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
There are several signs that seem to indicate that the mysterious stranger who suddenly turns up at 124 Bluestone is the spirit of Sethe's daughter returned in flesh. She has "new skin, lineless and smooth," is the same age Sethe's baby would have been had she lived, and her name is "Beloved," the same word carved on the baby's gravestone. She has little memory of where she has been or why she is here, but somehow knows to ask Sethe "where your diamonds?" and "your woman she never fix up your hair?" Sethe responds by telling the girl stories that were too painful to recall to anyone else. Beloved devours the stories and cannot take her eyes off of Sethe. She also has an "anger that ruled when Sethe did or thought anything that excluded herself." She drives away the suspicious Paul D. by seducing him, and gets Sethe to eliminate Denver from their games. The way that she begins to punish Sethe for leaving her suggests the ghost is finally taking revenge for her murder, while her sudden disappearance from the house seems supernatural.
Is Beloved really a ghost, however, or is her acceptance in the house a case of mistaken identity? There are hints that she is actually an escapee from a slave ship, where she lost her mother. She tells Denver of where she was before: a dark place with "nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in" until she came up to "the bridge." Denver interprets this as a picture of the underworld, but it could easily be the hold...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
"For a man with an immobile face," Sethe thinks of Paul D., "it was amazing how ready it was to smile, or blaze or be sorry with you." Perhaps it is this ability to "produce the feeling you were feeling" that makes him "the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry." But the cruelty of slavery has left Paul D. with a "tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut." He is the only man left from Sweet Home; his brothers Paul F. and Paul A. were sold away or hung, while Sixo was burned and Halle was broken. Paul D. is sold from Sweet Home and put into a Georgia prison after trying to kill his new master. He is kept in a hole in the ground and put to work on a chain gang. A hard rain that turns their cells to mud also allows the gang to escape. A tribe of sick Cherokee frees him from his chains and points the way north.
Since then Paul D. has wandered around, thinking he could not stay in any one place for more than a couple of months. Seeing Sethe, however, "the closed portion of his head opened like a greased lock," and he tells her, "We can make a life, girl." The way he makes people respond to him at the carnival starts to convince even Denver that this might be true. Beloved's arrival changes things, however. The girl seduces Paul, and his inability to resist her leads him to doubt his manhood. When Sethe explains the newspaper clipping to him, Paul D. condemns her, moving quickly "from his shame...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
Isolated in the house with her mother Sethe, lonely Denver's only companions are from the past: memories of her brothers, her imaginings of her father, her mother's stories of Denver's birth, and the baby ghost that haunts the house. The reader is allowed hints of the kind of bright, happy child Denver might have been had Sethe not isolated the family from the community. But Denver "had taught herself pride in the condemnation Negroes heaped upon them," and is also proud of her secret knowledge about the ghost. Another way she deals with her isolation is by creating an emerald play world in a section of boxwood bushes. There her imagination "produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out." The only story Denver wants to hear is the one of her birth; she "hated the stories her mother told that did not concern herself ... The rest was a gleaming, powerful world made more so by Denver's absence from it." Thus she feels threatened by Paul D.'s arrival, and sobs out her loneliness for the first time in ten years. The idea that he and her mother might form a "twosome" that would make Sethe "look away from her own daughter's body" is too much to bear. The next day, when the three of them see their shadows holding hands, Sethe thinks it means the three of them might form a family. But Paul D. recognizes that Denver has "something she's expecting and it ain't me."
When Beloved appears, it seems to Denver as if this...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Sethe has "iron eyes and a backbone to match." Slavery, however, has "punched the glittering iron out of Sethe's eyes, leaving two open wells" that reflect the emptiness in her soul. She has spent all of her efforts "not on avoiding pain but on getting through it as quickly as possible." She avoids planning anything, because "the one set of plans she made—getting away from Sweet Home—went awry so completely she never dared life by making more." So instead of counting on family or community to aid her, Sethe creates a small, insulated world in which her only goals are to escape memories of the past and protect the one child she has left. By herself, she can face anything: she is "the one who never looked away," who can watch a man get stomped to death or repair a pet dog with a dislocated eye and two broken legs.
Paul D.'s arrival changes things for Sethe, adding "something she wanted to count on but was scared to." His stories also give Sethe "new pictures and old rememories that broke her heart." Even so, she eventually decides she wants him to stay because he makes her story "bearable because it was his as well." When Paul D. discovers the truth behind her escape from the schoolteacher, however, he moves out. Sethe "despised herself for having been so trusting," but soon forgets this trouble when she determines that Beloved is really the ghost of her dead baby daughter. She can forget everything, now, Sethe thinks: "I don't have to remember nothing....
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Edward Bodwin is one of the abolitionist siblings who assist Baby Suggs when she first arrives in Cincinnati. "He's somebody never turned us down," Stamp Paid says, and it is primarily Bodwin's efforts that save Sethe from the gallows after she murders her daughter. He also helps Sethe find a job after she is released from prison. Bodwin's most distinguishing features are his snow-white hair and his dark velvety mustache, an interesting combination of black and white that leads his enemies to call him a "bleached nigger." Even when Sethe comes at him with an ice pick, Bodwin chooses not to interpret her actions as a personal attack and continues aiding the family by giving Denver a job in his home.
Miss Bodwin is one of the abolitionist siblings who provide Baby Suggs with a house and a job after she is freed from Sweet Home. She is described as "the whitewoman who loved [Baby Suggs]," and her kindness extends to Sethe and her daughter after Baby Suggs's death.
Sethe's second son finally leaves home, presumably to fight in the Civil War, after a mirror shatters simply from his looking at it. Denver remembers fondly how he and Howard would make up "die-witch!" stories. One of the few things Sethe tries to remember is the way her son looked—not the fact that he would not let her near him after his sister's death, or how he always slept hand-in-hand with his brother after...
(The entire section is 2028 words.)
Most characters in Beloved are exslaves, and they are treated with respect and compassion as victims of oppression. By contrast, the few white characters in the novel come off generally as malicious, whether passively so like the Garners and the restaurant owner for whom Sethe works, or actively so like Schoolteacher. One exception, the Bodwin family, championed abolition and contributed to the underground railroad. Ironically, in the second exorcism of Beloved, Sethe confuses Mr. Bodwin, who has come by to give Denver a ride to work, with Schoolteacher coming to take her family back to slavery, and attacks him, in one sense reliving the past to escape it. Another exception, Amy Denver, helps runaway slave Sethe deliver Denver, but Amy's language betrays that she, like Twain's Huck Finn, must rise above her innate prejudices to be decent to Sethe. The ex-slaves are defined by their ability to withstand the trauma inflicted by slave culture, but like Stamp Paid who tells Paul D about Sethe's killing Beloved, must accept moral responsibility for the decisions they make.
Except for Sethe, Paul D, and Denver, in many ways the most important characters of the novel never appear as living entities, but as part of the other characters' memories. Sethe's husband Halle represents a heroic ideal, a slave of great moral courage who volunteered to work extra Sundays to buy his mother's freedom and learned to read and count so the owners couldn't cheat him. Baby Suggs taught...
(The entire section is 777 words.)