Beloved Summary

Beloved is a novel by Toni Morrison about Sethe, a runaway slave who believes that the spirit of her dead child has returned to life as a woman named Beloved.

  • When runaway slave Sethe's former slavemaster arrives to reclaim her and her children, Sethe panics and attempts to kill her children. She only succeeds in murdering her eldest daughter. 
  • Years later, Sethe and her remaining daughter Denver take in a woman named Beloved, who Sethe believes is the spirit of her deceased daughter.
  • Beloved is demanding and gluttonous, draining Sethe and Denver's energy.
  • The community successfully stages a cleansing to banish Beloved's toxic spirit.

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Last Updated April 25, 2024.

Beloved is a 1987 novel by American author Toni Morrison. It was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery with her family in 1856. However, when the U.S. Marshals tracked them down and threatened to return them by decree of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Garner attempted to kill her children to spare them from being re-enslaved. Morrison’s work explores the complex relationship between slavery and motherhood, emphasizing how trauma can influence—and even warp—a mother’s love for her children.

Beloved opens in Cincinnati in 1873. Sethe, a former slave, lives with her shy and reclusive eighteen-year-old daughter, Denver. The house was originally occupied by Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, who moved in after her son—and Sethe’s husband—Halle took on extra work to buy her freedom.

However, Baby Suggs died several years before the start of the novel. Sethe’s two teenage sons also fled years ago, which she blames on the ghost that haunts the house. The ghost is believed to be that of Sethe’s eldest daughter, who died when she was only two years old. Denver feels a special bond with the spirit, who she regards as her one companion in an otherwise lonely life.

Paul D, formerly enslaved on the same plantation as Sethe, arrives in Cincinnati and reunites with Sethe after nearly twenty years. Sethe and Paul D are deeply traumatized by their pasts but find comfort and understanding in each other. Denver, however, views Paul D as an unwelcome figure. The ghost that haunts the house reacts negatively to his presence, and Denver is jealous of the attention her mother gives him. Eventually, Paul D chases off the seemingly malevolent spirit, saying, “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!”

From this point, the novel alternates between different points of view and points in time. Sethe and Paul D reflect on their time at Sweet Home, the plantation on which they were enslaved. Life at Sweet Home was initially tolerable, with the Garners allowing the slaves certain liberties. However, after the death of Mr. Garner, the ailing Mrs. Garner asked her brother-in-law—a vicious man known only as “Schoolteacher”—to run the plantation in her stead. Schoolteacher and his nephews treated the slaves cruelly, even assaulting Sethe while she was pregnant with Denver. When Sethe reported their misdeeds to Mrs. Garner, they whipped her in retaliation.

While this brutality further motivated Sethe to escape, it broke the spirit of her husband, Halle, who witnessed everything firsthand and felt powerless to stop it. Sethe was forced to flee without him. She gave birth while on the run and named Denver after a kind white woman who tended to her wounds and later delivered her baby.

A brief period of calm descends on the house after the ghost is banished, with Paul D ingratiating himself into the family. However, everything changes when a mysterious woman named Beloved arrives on Sethe’s doorstep.

Sethe and Denver feel an instantaneous connection to Beloved, whose true identity remains a source of intrigue throughout the novel. Sethe and Paul D initially assume that she is another escaped slave, and they avoid asking her questions out of respect. However, the characters are eventually led to believe that Beloved is the ghost of Sethe’s deceased daughter, who would be around Beloved’s age if she lived. Denver describes her as “the true-to-life presence of the baby that had kept her company most of her life.”

Paul D is wary of Beloved, who dominates Sethe and Denver’s attention. One night, Beloved coerces him into having sex with her, which evokes traumatic memories of his abuse at the hands of slave owners. He intends to warn Sethe about Beloved’s increasingly manipulative behavior. Still, he instead ends up asking her to have a child with him. She reacts negatively, claiming that “motherlove was a killer.”

While discussing his hope of having children with Sethe with some of the local men, Paul D is told the tragic story of how Sethe’s daughter died: When Schoolteacher tracked Sethe and her children down after their escape, Sethe attempted to kill her children rather than allow them to be captured. She only succeeded in killing her oldest daughter—whose grave was marked with the word “Beloved.”

The rest of the local Black community has since ostracized Sethe and her family, horrified by her actions. Paul D also condemns Sethe, telling her that her love was “too thick.” Sethe, however, defends herself; in her eyes, death is preferable to life as a slave.

After confronting Sethe about the murder, Paul D leaves Cincinnati. Beloved’s control over Sethe grows, and Sethe begins to acknowledge her as the spirit of her murdered daughter. Their relationship becomes increasingly abusive and codependent. Sethe dotes on Beloved, spending all of her money to keep her happy and sacrificing her health to tend to Beloved’s every whim. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, Sethe allows herself to be consumed by the guilt she feels over the murder: “[Sethe] sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it.”

Although Denver has always been shy and isolated, her increasing concern for her mother drives her to contact the local community for help. She turns to Mr. and Mrs. Bodwin—white abolitionists who have helped numerous local community members win their freedom—for assistance finding a job after Sethe loses hers due to her obsession with Beloved. A group of local Black women also rally around Denver, providing the family with food. Eventually, they arrive at the house to exorcise Beloved.

The scene of the exorcism is chaotic. Beloved appears pregnant, and Sethe’s delirium leads her to mistake Mr. Bodwin—who has arrived to take Denver to her new job—for Schoolteacher. Sethe attempts to attack him, but she is restrained by the gathered women. In the ensuing confusion, Beloved disappears—seemingly for good.

Sethe mourns for Beloved, believing she is her “best thing.” However, Paul D returns and encourages her to realize that she is her own best thing. Over time, everyone involved begins to move on, and “they forgot [Beloved] like a bad dream.” Although the scars of the past will always be with her, Sethe seems to realize that holding onto the guilt and trauma surrounding her enslavement and her daughter’s death only holds her back from having “some kind of tomorrow.”

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