Last Updated on April 11, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
The novel begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where a former slave, Sethe, and her daughter Denver are the only remaining residents of the house at 124 Bluestone Road. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, passed away more than eight years ago, and Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, fled home once they turned thirteen years old. The house at 124 is also haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby, who is referred to as “Beloved,” as that is the only word engraved on her tombstone.
One day, Sethe arrives home to find Paul D, one of the five slave men from Sweet Home farm, where she was once enslaved eighteen years ago, waiting outside for her. When she invites Paul D inside, he senses the presence of Beloved’s ghost. He is also introduced to Denver, who sees him as an unwelcome intrusion from Sethe’s past and dislikes the fact that Paul D is flirting with her mother, which she views as disrespectful to her father’s memory.
Paul D and Sethe talk about their time at Sweet Home. Before she escaped the plantation with Halle, the father of her children, Sethe was whipped and forced to give up the breastmilk her body produced for Denver. The whipping left deep scars on her back, crisscrossing her body in the shape of a tree; she shows them to Paul D, and he massages them, kissing her scarred skin gently and lovingly. This intimate display angers Beloved’s ghost and the house begins to shake violently. However, Paul D shouts and whips the dining table, successfully driving the ghost away—which Denver resents him for, as she sees the ghost as part of their family.
Sethe and Paul D climb up the stairs and into her room, where they proceed to have sex. Afterward, when they are lying in bed together, the couple finds themselves feeling sorry and regretful, and Paul D thinks to himself that his years of yearning for Sethe were misplaced. As he derisively considers Sethe’s body, Paul D reminisces on their time at Sweet Home, where Sethe was the only female slave; all five slave men—Paul D, Paul F, Paul A, Sixo, and Halle—once coveted her. He thinks of Sixo, who had walked more than thirty miles to and from illicit trysts with his lover, Thirty-Mile Woman.
Meanwhile, Sethe thinks of Halle, whom she chose out of the five men because of his kindness and his devotion to his mother, Baby Suggs. Although Baby Suggs had eight children, Halle was the only one she was permitted to keep. Halle bought Baby Suggs’ freedom from Mr. Garner—the owner of Sweet Home—with many years worth of Sunday labor.
Without a wedding, Sethe stitched herself a wedding dress made of cast-off materials, then she and Halle consummated their union in the corn fields at Sweet Home, hidden beneath the tall stalks. The rest of the slave men watched the stalks swaying from a distance, knowing what it meant. That night, they feasted on the fresh corn from the broken stalks.
Denver finds clarity and comfort in the woods outside of 124; she often leaves the family home to sit amidst the trees and think, as she does the night Paul D arrives. One night, as she returned home from the woods, she recalls seeing Sethe kneeling in prayer, the apparition of a white dress beside her, its sleeve wrapped tenderly around Sethe’s waist. Denver interpreted this vision to mean that Beloved had “plans” for their future, and the memory only embitters her further toward Paul D, who she imagines is...
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disrupting these plans.
Thinking of happier times, Denver reminisces on one of her favorite stories: Sethe’s escape from Sweet Home while pregnant with her. On the wrong side of the Ohio River, a pregnant and bone-weary Sethe had resigned herself to death when a bedraggled white woman named Amy Denver chanced upon her, helped her regain her strength, and eventually aided in the delivery of her baby.
Once, Denver told Sethe about her vision of the white dress, then asked her mother what she was praying for; Sethe replied that she was thinking of painful memories and praying that Denver would never have to encounter such pain.
With the arrival of Paul D at 124, Sethe thinks back to what Denver had said about plans, as the very concept is a luxury that she could now perhaps afford. Apart from ridding 124 of Beloved’s ghost, Paul D had also given the home new life. While struggling to scare Beloved away, Paul D accidentally broke some furniture. As he repairs it, he sings songs he learned while working as an indentured laborer in a chain gang based in Alfred, Georgia; he earned the sentence by killing the man he was sold to.
Paul D talks to Sethe about finding work and expresses his desire to settle down with her. When he worries that Denver may find him unwelcome, Sethe explains that Denver is a “charmed child” because she has survived thus far. She also reveals to Paul D that Schoolteacher—Mr. Garner’s brother-in-law and the eventual owner of Sweet Home—had found her and taken her to jail but was unable to force her back into slavery.
On the third day of Paul D’s stay, Denver rudely inquires how long he will be at 124. Paul D is hurt, and Sethe jumps up to chastise her daughter. However, she refuses to let Paul D criticize Denver. Paul D asks Sethe if she feels the same mistrust Denver has towards him, assuring Sethe that he is there to stay and make a life with her.
In order to bring them closer together, Paul D takes Sethe and Denver to the local carnival’s “colored Thursday.” There, the three behave more like a real family—even Denver notices that Paul D’s presence is met with approval from the community. As the night goes on, she finds herself enjoying the various spectacles and sweets. The three walk home together, their shadows holding hands.