Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Ohio River. River separating the slave and free states that Sethe crosses while fleeing from Kentucky to Ohio. She gives birth to Beloved as she crosses the river. Years later, the child reappears to Sethe in mortal form along a riverbank. Toni Morrison’s choice of the Ohio River for these events is significant. One of America’s major maritime shipping routes, the Ohio extends from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and flows for nearly one thousand miles before joining the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois.
In the nineteenth century, the Ohio river was filled with passenger-carrying flatboats and paddle-wheel ferries and served as a central conveyance for families moving west to capitalize on the frontier’s promise of prosperity. In slave narratives from the same period, however, the Ohio River symbolized freedom. For slaves, crossing the Ohio River and making one’s way into the “free” state of Ohio was tantamount to entering a land in which one’s citizenship was honored.
Sweet Home. North Kentucky plantation on which Sethe begins her life as a slave. Her flight from slavery in Sweet Home to Cincinnati is based on the historical story of a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner, who began killing her own children when it appeared she would be recaptured. When Garner was tried for her crime, she was charged not with murder but with theft—for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1856 by destroying the legal property of her family’s slave master.
That the Ohio River represented a physical demarcation between one way of life and another for so many African Americans in the nineteenth century is treated ironically by Morrison, for in no meaningful sense can Sethe be regarded as “free” in...
(The entire section is 756 words.)
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Beloved (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
A child who has suffered a violent death haunts the house where her grandmother, mother, brothers, and sister live. The grandmother dies; the brothers disappear; the mother takes a lover; the sister grows up. The ghost grows up too, assumes a human form, and seduces and drives away the lover. Then she takes possession of the mother. So might run a plot summary of Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved. Yet Beloved is no ordinary ghost story. Brilliant, complex, haunted and haunting, it is a remarkable event in American fiction. With the stark, cathartic power of Greek tragedy, Beloved compels attention, on an intimate and personal scale, to the “Sixty Million and more” victims of slavery to whom the book is dedicated.
Morrison’s principal character is Sethe, a former slave. In 1873, when the novel opens, Sethe is living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Sethe works as a cook in a restaurant, but Denver never leaves the house, which, the reader is matter-of-factly informed, is haunted by the ghost of Denver’s sister, a baby whose throat was cut when she was not quite two. The dead baby’s tombstone reads, simply, “Beloved,” one of the two words Sethe remembers from her daughter’s funeral sermon; she paid for the inscription by having sex at the grave with the stone-carver. Over the years, Sethe and Denver have uneasily adjusted to the disappearance of Howard and Buglar, Sethe’s sons, and to the death of Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law; they have also learned to live with the ghost’s spiteful visitations. Then Paul D appears. Also a former slave, Paul D lived at the Kentucky farm called Sweet Home from which he and Sethe both escaped before the beginning of the Civil War. The two have not seen each other since the night the Sweet Home slaves tried to run. Each knows details about the escape of which the other is ignorant, and this knowledge, along with their shared history at Sweet Home, pulls them together. “The kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry,” Paul D moves into Sethe’s life, confronts Denver’s jealousy, and, with great dispatch, exorcises the dead baby’s ghost.
Since their terrifying escape from Sweet Home and its brutal aftermath, both Sethe and Paul D have “worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe,” but in each other’s presence their stories are slowly and inexorably revealed. Sethe comes to feel that “her story was bearable because it was his as well—to tell, to refine and tell again. The things neither knew about the other—the things neither had word-shapes for—well, it would come in time.” By the end of the book, Sethe and Paul D know everything, and so does the reader. Faithful to the complex processes of what Sethe calls “rememory,” Morrison’s method of unfolding her story bit by bit and her use of multiple points of view produces a relentless tension—in the reader, as well as in Sethe and Paul D—between the hunger to know what has happened to the Sweet Home slaves and an equally urgent desire to avoid that terrible knowledge. Sethe’s and Paul D’s reluctant yet insistent storytelling makes Beloved both excruciating to read and impossible to put down.
If Paul D’s dominant trait is his ability to stir women’s deepest feelings, Sethe’s is a maternal love so tender and fierce that it defies rationality. The context for her maternity is the slaveowners’ practice of breeding slaves as though they were animals and separating families so that slave parents were deprived of knowledge of their own children. “Men and women were moved around like checkers,” Morrison reminds her readers; “anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” Paul D cannot recall his mother, has never seen his father. Baby Suggs has known only one of her eight children as an adult. Sethe remembers the wet nurse who took her mother’s place, remembers too the hanging of her mother, who disposed of all of her children but Sethe because they were fathered by white men. At Sweet Home, Sethe’s unusually enlightened owners, the Garners, allow her to marry and to remain with her husband and growing family. When Mr. Garner dies, however, Sweet Home is taken over by a new master, called “schoolteacher,” who treats the slaves with cold cruelty. They...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Beloved portrays the life of a former slave after the Civil War who is haunted by the horrors of her past. The stories told by the characters in the novel describe the dehumanization that results from slavery and eventually reveal Sethe’s dark secret: her murder of her baby daughter eighteen years ago, when Sethe was caught following an escape attempt. Sethe killed her baby so that the child would not have to live as a slave, without dignity and in a world where her body would be used for a master’s pleasure and for the reproduction of his “property.” Beloved, the spirit of Sethe’s dead baby, returns as a woman of twenty to the house where Sethe and her daughter Denver live. Taking her name from the word on her tombstone, Beloved demands compensation from Sethe for her missing childhood.
The novel begins with visits from Paul D, one of the former slaves at Sweet Home in Kentucky, and from Beloved. Urged to tell stories, Sethe recalls memories of the past that she has long buried. She was owned by a humane master at Sweet Home, where she married Halle and gave birth to three children. After the master’s death, a new master, Schoolteacher, tried to dehumanize his slaves, which led to their escape attempt. While the other slaves failed in their attempt, Sethe sent her children ahead to the North.
Unable to find her husband, Sethe, pregnant and barefoot, succeeded in arriving in Cincinnati, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs...
(The entire section is 540 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Beloved provides a feminist’s perspective on historical writing. As such, it challenges the accepted content and narrative mode of historical documents. Morrison shines a light on those who have been silenced and marginalized by history. She chooses to focus on a slave woman’s act of murder as a historical incident to be narrated, and she recounts it through a tradition of storytelling which is the principal literary form in African American culture. Morrison’s achievement in Beloved is having contributed to the recording of an important part of American history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.
Morrison is primarily concerned with the psychological trauma that social conditions create by...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
Pages 1–19: Questions and Answers
1. Why had Buglar and Howard run away from home?
2. How had Sethe bartered for the lettering on Beloved’s headstone?
3. How had Sethe’s children escaped from slavery?
4. Who had been the inhabitants of Sweet Home?
5. Why had Sethe chosen Halle from all the Sweet Home male slaves?
6. Why is Denver so shy?
7. Why do Sethe and Denver argue?
8. What does Sethe tell Paul D about the spirit in the house and the tree on her back?
9. How does Paul D fight the spirit?
10. Why does Denver resent Paul D for having rid the house of the spirit?
1. Buglar and Howard each had...
(The entire section is 635 words.)
Pages 20–42: Questions and Answers
1. Who was Thirty-Mile Woman?
2. Why didn’t Baby Suggs have her children with her?
3. How had Amy helped Sethe?
4. How would you describe the dress Denver sees kneeling next to her mother with its sleeve around her mother’s waist?
5. What does Sethe remember of her childhood?
6. According to Sethe, what is “rememory”?
7. Why had Baby Suggs been so starved for color?
8. What is Denver’s secret place?
9. What is Paul D’s secret fear?
10. What originally caused him to tremble?
1. Thirty-Mile Woman was the woman Sixo loved. She had lived thirty miles away...
(The entire section is 546 words.)
Pages 43–64: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Paul D object to Sethe’s apologizing for Denver’s behavior toward him?
2. Why does Sethe say she would choose Denver over Paul D if it came to that?
3. How does Beloved get to the stump near 124 Bluestone Road?
4. Why doesn’t Paul D press Beloved for more information after she gives her name?
5. What indications do we have that Beloved has become attached to Sethe?
6. How had Sethe obtained her crystal earrings?
7. Why had Sethe made her own “bedding” dress?
8. What materials did Sethe use to make the dress?
9. What does Sethe remember about her mother?
10. What had Nan told...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
Pages 64–85: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Paul D question Beloved so relentlessly?
2. How does the questioning end?
3. Why hadn’t Halle helped Sethe when he witnessed the brutality the nephews inflicted on her?
4. Why does Paul D keep remembering Mister in the face of his torture?
5. Why does Sethe wish she had gone insane?
6. How do we know Denver is assured Beloved is the spirit of her sister?
7. How had Amy treated “Lu’s” back?
8. How had Amy fashioned shoes for Sethe?
9. Why had Denver been born in a boat?
10. Why had Amy left Sethe after Denver’s birth?
1. Paul D questions...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Pages 86–113: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Sethe take Denver and Beloved to The Clearing where Baby Suggs formerly led her spiritual community?
2. What happens at The Clearing?
3. How does Denver know it is Beloved, not Baby Suggs, who did this to Sethe?
4. What had Stamp Paid told the boy when he saw Sethe for the first time?
5. What had Sethe done with her 28 days of freedom?
6. How had Baby Suggs greeted Sethe?
7. Why had Denver left the school and become deaf?
8. What had the prison been like for Paul D in Alfred, Georgia?
9. How had the Cherokee helped Paul D?
10. Who was the weaver lady?
(The entire section is 585 words.)
Pages 114–147: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Paul D make love to Sethe each morning before he is seduced by Beloved?
2. Why does Denver enjoy Beloved’s staring at her?
3. What happens between Denver and Beloved in the cold house?
4. How do Paul D and Sethe conduct themselves when he meets her after work?
5. How does he see her pregnancy as a solution to his problem?
6. Why does Beloved think her body is falling apart?
7. How would you describe the feast at Baby Suggs’ house?
8. Why had her congregation shunned Baby Suggs and her family after the feast?
9. Why hadn’t Baby Suggs been able to find her children?
10. Why had the...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
Pages 148–165: Questions and Answers
1. Why hadn’t Baby Suggs been warned of the slave catchers’ approach by her community?
2. Why had Sethe taken her children to the shed as soon as she recognized schoolteacher’s hat?
3. How had Stamp Paid saved Denver’s life?
4. Why had the sheriff sent schoolteacher, his nephew, and the slave catcher away?
5. How had Baby Suggs been able to take Beloved’s body from Sethe after Stamp Paid had been unsuccessful at this?
6. Why had Denver been taken prisoner with her mother?
7. Why does Stamp Paid show Paul D the newspaper article?
8. Why does Paul D keep insisting the mouth of the woman in the picture with the...
(The entire section is 574 words.)
Pages 169–199: Questions and Answers
1. How had the community conducted itself when Baby Suggs died?
2. Why wasn’t Stamp Paid used to knocking on the doors of the community?
3. What are Sethe, Denver, and Beloved doing when Beloved begins to hum the song she couldn’t know?
4. Why does Stamp Paid suddenly understand Baby Suggs’ indifference to the world once she’d decided to die?
5. What does Sethe realize about the shadows she had seen at the carnival?
6. What does Sethe remember of the efforts to save her life?
7. Why is Stamp Paid outraged when Ella tells him that Paul D is sleeping in the basement of the church?
8. Why does Sethe pilfer from...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
Pages 200–217: Questions and Answers
1. Why had Sethe stuttered until she met Halle?
2. How had Denver drunk her sister’s blood?
3. Why had Denver kept pretending to love Sethe?
4. How had Halle tried to make his mother more comfortable?
5. How had Baby Suggs viewed Denver?
6. Why had the “men without skins” given the Negroes their urine?
7. How was Beloved able to find the house?
8. What does Beloved admit to Sethe?
9. What warning does Denver give Beloved?
10. What accusation does Beloved make of Sethe?
1. Sethe stuttered until she met Halle as a result of having seen her mother’s body when...
(The entire section is 393 words.)
Pages 218–238: Questions and Answers
1. How had schoolteacher changed life at Sweet Home?
2. What had been their plan for escape from slavery?
3. Why hadn’t Thirty-Mile Woman been caught?
4. Why had Sixo been burned and then shot to death?
5. How had Paul D been tortured when he was captured?
6. What does the white stranger tell the two men sitting on the church steps?
7. Why does Stamp Paid apologize to Paul D?
8. Why had Stamp Paid changed his name from Joshua?
9. Why had Stamp Paid gone to see the young master’s wife?
10. What does the red ribbon signify for Stamp Paid?
(The entire section is 603 words.)
239–262: Questions and Answers
1. When did Sethe and Beloved begin to exclude Denver?
2. What happened to the $38.00 that was Sethe’s life savings?
3. What is Lady Jones’ impression of Denver?
4. How do Sethe, Beloved, and Denver survive?
5. How does Denver become reacquainted with the community?
6. Why does Denver go to Cincinnati?
7. What does she tell Janey Wagon of her home life?
8. What is the job Janey obtains for Denver?
9. Why do the women come to 124 Bluestone Road?
10. Why does Sethe attempt to murder Mr. Bodwin?
1. Sethe and Beloved begin to exclude Denver once Sethe sees the scar...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 263–275: Questions and Answers
1. How did Sethe and Beloved look standing in the doorway?
2. How was Mr. Bodwin saved?
3. Why doesn’t he realize there was an attempt on his life?
4. How is Denver faring now?
5. Why does Paul D come back?
6. How does the house look when he enters?
7. Where is Sethe?
8. Why is she preparing to die?
9. What does Paul D tell her at the end of her tears?
10. Why is Beloved forgotten?
1. Sethe looked unaccountably smaller than Beloved as the two stood in the doorway. While Beloved is visibly pregnant, it is not just her belly, but her whole person, that looks much...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Anderson, Linda, ed. Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1990. Offers feminist criticism on the novels of Morrison and other women authors whose writing questions traditional modes of thought. The first part of the essay on Beloved examines historical novels by women, and the latter part analyzes the work and provides strong commentary on Morrison’s reinterpretation of historical writing.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Includes sections on the “story behind the story,” the novel’s characters, and the general critical...
(The entire section is 537 words.)