Beloved Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Ohio River

*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

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 Ohio. Although she may be legally free there under the law, she is very much a prisoner of her experiences as a slave in Sweet Home. This is why Morrison presents the story not as a linear narrative but rather as a quilt, a tapestry. The kind of time that one can read on a clock and the kind of space that one can calculate on a map are of less importance in the novel than the protagonist’s experiences within a space-time continuum in which the past constantly intrudes upon the present. For instance, the novel distinguishes between “memory,” that is, the human capacity consciously to recall events that transpire in one’s life, and what Sethe experiences as “re-memory”—things that “just stay.”

Bluestone Road house

Bluestone Road house. Sethe’s Cincinnati home. The most important place in the novel, 124 Bluestone Road figures into every section of the book. Each of the novel’s three sections begins with a description of the mood of the house, as if the house itself were a living, breathing creature. The first part opens by describing the house as “spiteful”; the second part calls it “loud,” and the third part calls it “quiet.”

By the time the story begins, Sethe’s male children have been driven from her house by a paranormal presence that seems to haunt its timbers. The arrival of Paul D appears, at first, to signal a return to a more normal state of affairs. However, he soon also senses spirits hovering above the house’s stairwell that resent his presence and his command of Sethe’s attentions and do not wish him well. By the novel’s midpoint, the house drives Paul from Sethe’s bed. Later, he is driven from the house itself. Only after struggles in the novel’s last third is he able to return to the house.

With such a haunted house, Beloved might seem to be part of a long and honorable tradition of gothic tales, aligning it in particular with the nineteenth century psycho-gothic ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. However, this is only superficially true, as Beloved is about dramatizing the psychic pains of its protagonist. Beloved’s spiritual presence in the house is, effectively, Sethe’s own grief and guilt taking on something approaching perilous dimensions. The house has height, mass, and an architectural design to be sure. Sethe herself is no more delusional than her house is a fantasy. The house has all the things that one associates with what is “real.” However, the “reality” of 124 Bluestone Street in Cincinnati far exceeds what is normally meant by a “place,” for Morrison reminds readers that the most important places are those that one cannot leave behind.

Beloved (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

ph_0111201255-Morrison.jpgToni Morrison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 decide to try to escape. At the appointed time, Sethe loads her sons and unweaned daughter onto a wagon, promising to get to them as soon as she can. Barefoot, pregnant with her fourth child, suffering from a savage beating, separated from her husband and from the other escaping slaves, Sethe gives birth on her way to Ohio and manages to get to her mother-in-law’s house in time to resume nursing her older daughter as well as the newborn Denver. Miraculously, she has milk enough for both. For a month she enjoys friends, her mother-in-law, and her children and begins “claiming ownership of [her] freed self.” Then schoolteacher appears to take the fugitive Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home, and Sethe, certain that death is better than life in slavery, commits the only act she is sure will keep herself and her children free: “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”

In the course of the novel’s long opening section, Morrison makes Sethe’s violence against her children entirely comprehensible. At the end of that section, when Paul D learns what Sethe has done, he moves out of the house, leaving Sethe and Denver with the mysterious young woman who has come to live with them at about the time of Paul D’s arrival. The woman calls herself Beloved, and Denver is convinced that she is the grown-up embodiment of her dead sister. Sethe is slower to recognize Beloved, but once her lover is gone, she perceives the truth. Becoming absorbed in this daughter who has come back from the dead, this daughter with whom she need no longer remember anything because Beloved knows it all already, Sethe loses her job and, eventually, her senses. By the end of part 2, which includes a series of luminous interior meditations on possession, the three women have closed their door against the world, “locked in a love that wore everybody out.” In the third section, Beloved’s insatiable craving for her mother threatens to consume Sethe completely: “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur.” Denver realizes that she must somehow rescue her mother from her ghost-sister, and her courage brings the novel to its moving and satisfying conclusion.

As characters, Paul D, Denver, Beloved, and especially “quiet, queenly” Sethe, her dark eyes so unwilling to see that they have the blank, stylized look of African or Greek sculpture, are completely convincing. Equally vivid are the many characters whom Sethe and Paul D remember, but who are now dead or missing. Each of these also has a story as startling as those of the foreground characters. Among the most memorable of these figures are Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs, the expert cobbler deemed “holy” because once freed, she is called to help other former slaves experience their freedom; Halle, Sethe’s husband, who works extra hours and days to buy his mother’s freedom from the Garners and who is driven mad by what happens to Sethe during the escape attempt; Sixo, the Sweet Home slave who walks thirty miles to see the woman he loves and whose flame-red tongue, indigo skin, and dying laugh Paul D cannot forget. Even the house where Sethe and Denver live, “peopled by the living activity of the dead,” takes on a vigorous human personality that varies with the mood of the ghost who haunts it.

The house belongs to the Bodwins, white abolitionists who allow Baby Suggs and then Sethe and her children to live there rent-free. Although the Bodwins’ generosity to freed and escaped slaves is legendary, they keep an open-mouthed pickaninny figurine, labeled “At Yo Service,” at their back door. Like the Garners, who “ran a special kind of slavery, treating [the slaves] like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known,” the Bodwins, though relatively admirable, are portrayed with serious reservations. Amy Denver, a white woman with good hands, is less objectionable; she tends Sethe’s wounded back and ruined feet and helps her give birth to the daughter who bears her name. Then there is schoolteacher, who runs Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies and who uses ink Sethe herself has made to record her animal characteristics, and there are schoolteacher’s nephews, boys with mossy teeth who hold Sethe down and steal her milk. For a time, Sethe thinks that she can discriminate among whites, but experience teaches her thatanybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself any more. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

Despite the punishing difficulty of its subject matter, Beloved leaves an impression less of anger than of profound astonishment—at the stunning cruelty of slavery, at the death-defying endurance of love, at the sharp beauty of the natural world. Morrison’s style in this book, as in her other novels, combines the magic of Afro-American idiom, the density of poetry, and the speed of the plainest prose; she has never written better. Over and over, her words “say things that are pictures.” Here is her description of a turnip: “A prettier thing God never made. White and purple with a tender tail and a hard head. Feels good when you hold it in your hand and smells like the creek when it floods, bitter but happy.” Her figurative language is often extravagant and daring: There are “berries that tasted like church,” “winter stars, close enough to lick,” “a dress so loud it embarrassed the needlepoint chair seat.” Her use of color is sometimes precisely literal, as with Paul D’s “peachstone” skin, and sometimes symbolic, as with any occurrence of red, Beloved’s color. The tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back, the scar which Paul D caresses and which Sethe has never seen, symbolizes her “sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches.”

Written with such generosity and intensity that the reader more than willingly suspends disbelief, Morrison’s ghost story about Sethe’s love and grief stands for the sixty million and more untold—perhaps untellable—stories that Americans black and white must hear. Beloved is a rich, intricate, and liberating book that leaves a permanent mark on the mind and heart. One can only be grateful to Toni Morrison for this magnificent gift.

Beloved Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 waited with the children. On the way, Sethe gave birth to Denver in a boat on a river with the help of a white woman. Before she left Sweet Home, she was whipped by her master. Upon her arrival in Cincinnati, Baby Suggs attended to the tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back and nursed her back to health. A month later, when the master came to capture her and her children, Sethe instinctively tried to kill her children, cutting her baby’s throat with a handsaw and almost dashing out Denver’s brains before she was stopped.

After eighteen years of alienation from her community, Sethe now rejoices with Paul D’s visit. Soon after, she enjoys her reunion with Beloved. Yet the appearance of this young woman is an ominous one: Baby Suggs soon dies in distrust of God, Sethe’s two sons run away from home, and Paul D leaves upon learning of the murder and being made unwelcome by Beloved. In addition, Beloved’s demands eventually exhaust Sethe. Denver soon recognizes Beloved as the ghost that has been seen in the house and believes that she is her dead sister. Although Denver enjoys Beloved’s company, she ventures into the outside world when Sethe’s exhaustion becomes unbearable—a world from which she has been isolated by her mother’s actions. She asks neighbors for food and work, which they provide for her. Soon the women in the community gather to exorcise the ghost from Sethe’s house. Confronted by a chorus of thirty singing women, Beloved vanishes. Paul D comes back to see Sethe and tries to inspire in her a will to live and an ability to realize her own worth.

Beloved Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 showing how the protagonist’s alienation and despair result from her experience in slavery. One of the social conditions that Morrison reveals is that only white males such as Schoolteacher have the authority to record history and determine literary tradition. She also provides evidence of African American women’s double suppression because of their gender and race. These concerns are still the central problems of many women’s lives in the author’s contemporary society.

The reality of such problems is not foreign to Morrison, who has faced some obstacles as an African American woman writer. Despite its high literary quality, achieved through a unique narrative style and the use of symbolism and poetic imagery, Beloved was overlooked by two major literary prizes, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. These oversights brought controversy, and many African American writers and critics demanded recognition of Morrison’s achievement in Beloved. Eventually, the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Moreover, Morrison won international recognition when she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature; she is the eighth woman and the first black woman to win the prize.

Beloved Historical Context

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
One of the central events of the novel—Sethe' s attack on her children—is described as "her...

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Beloved Literary Style

Narration/Point of View
For the most part, Beloved uses a third-person narrator—one who tells the story by describing...

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Beloved Literary Techniques

Beloved is, with the later Jazz, (1992) Morrison's most experimental novel and in its firm control of time and memory it indicates a...

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Beloved Ideas for Group Discussions

The range of possibilities for stimulating conversation about Beloved are nearly endless. Perhaps the most fruitful areas involve...

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Beloved Social Concerns

Throughout her work, Morrison has probed the effects of physical dislocation and cultural alienation on African-American communities. Behind...

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Beloved Topics for Further Study

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 changed the way free states were required to deal with fugitive slaves, leading to Sethe's terrible response...

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Beloved Literary Precedents

As is true of most truly original works of fiction, Beloved draws on many literary and folklore precedents. The method of interweaving...

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Beloved Media Adaptations

After a decade of working to bring the novel to the screen, producer-star Oprah Winfrey finally brought out a film version of Beloved...

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Beloved What Do I Read Next?

Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1969), is a contemporary portrayal of the self-hatred and destruction that can occur when African...

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Beloved Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Margaret Atwood, "Haunted by Their Nightmares," in New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, pp. 1, 49-50....

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Beloved Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 reaction to its publication, as well as more focused scholarly essays analyzing themes and issues in Beloved.

Bowers, Susan. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 18, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 59-77. Discusses the novel in the tradition of African American apocalyptic writing. Concludes that the book maps a new direction for the African American apocalyptic tradition that is more instructive and powerful than the versions used by writers of the 1960’s.

Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Puts forth the argument that African American folklore is the basis for most African American literature and that Morrison transforms historical folk materials in her novels, creating what Harris terms “literary folklore,” allowing no dichotomy between form and substance. The study examines The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved based on this theory.

Holloway, Karla F. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 516-525. An analysis of the literary and linguistic devices that facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women’s experiences. Also treats the mythological basis of the novel.

McDowell, Margaret. “The Black Woman as Artist and Critic: Four Versions.” The Kentucky Review 7 (Spring, 1987): 19-41. Discusses the significance of the work of Morrison and other African American women writers because of the broadness of their inquiry and the intensity of their commitment to issues related to art, race, and gender.

Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Focuses on the analysis of the entire body of Morrison’s work, giving a thorough character and thematic analysis of the author’s novels through Beloved.

Simpson, Ritashona. Black Looks and Black Acts: The Language of Toni Morrison in “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved.” New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Focuses on Morrison’s successful struggle to represent African American lanuage and linguistic traditions without relying on nonstandard grammar or syntax. The author, Simpson argues, chooses language that “acts black” over language that “looks black.”

Spaulding, A. Timothy. “Ghosts, Haunted Houses, and the Legacy of Slavery: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Gothic Impulse.” In Re-forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. Discusses Beloved in the context of a broader movement toward representing the history of slavery in the United States through the lens of the supernatural and the subversion of realist narrative conventions.

Weinstein, Philip M. What Else but Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Extended discussion of the representation of race’s effects on loving relationships—from parent-child to romantic—by two of the United States’ greatest authors. Includes a chapter juxtaposing Beloved with Light in August (1932).