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.