Beloved Additional Summary

Toni Morrison


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Beloved moves back and forth through time, telling in flashbacks the story of the characters’ past as slaves. Throughout the narrative, readers learn the background of the characters and the pertinent incidents of their slavery. Beloved is killed by her mother, who will not allow her daughter to be returned to slavery. As the ghost of a woman of twenty, the age the baby would have been if it had survived, Beloved haunts the Ohio house where Sethe and her youngest daughter, Denver, live; Beloved is the past brought to life in the present. Before the spirit of Beloved is manifested in flesh, she is seen as a “baby ghost” who haunts her family and her house.

Sethe once belonged to Mr. Garner, a humane master who treats his slaves well. Mr. Garner purchases Sethe at the age of thirteen to replace the recently freed Baby Suggs. Sethe marries Halle Suggs, Baby Suggs’s son, who fathers every one of her four children; such monogamy was the exception rather than the rule in slavery. With the death of Mr. Garner, and the coming of his brother, “schoolteacher,” and his nephews, Sethe and the other slaves experience the full degradation and inhumanity of slavery. Schoolteacher beats the male slaves and deprives them of their guns. He treats his brother’s slaves as property, keeping a record of their behavior as part of his scientific experimentation with them. Schoolteacher measures their heads and numbers their teeth. When Sethe learns that schoolteacher’s intentions may also include the eventual selling of her children, she resolves to escape North to freedom.

Sethe and Halle make plans to take the Underground Railroad to Ohio to join Baby Suggs. Sethe succeeds in getting her children on the Underground Railroad, but before she can join them, she is violated by schoolteacher’s nephews, who brutally beat her while she is pregnant with her fourth child. Pregnant, barefoot, and mutilated, Sethe escapes to Ohio to join her mother-in-law and her already crawling baby girl, Beloved. She arrives in Cincinnati with Denver, her...

(The entire section is 841 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Beloved’s dedication, “Sixty Million and more,” commemorates the number of slaves who died in the middle passage—from Africa to the New World. Toni Morrison’s protagonist, Sethe, is modeled upon the historical figure of a fugitive Kentucky slave, who in 1851 murdered her baby rather than return it to slavery.

A pregnant Sethe flees on foot to Cincinnati, Ohio, sending her children ahead by way of the Underground Railroad. Her overwhelming concern is to join her baby daughter, who needs her milk. On the bank of the Ohio River she goes into labor, her delivery aided by a white girl who is herself fleeing mistreatment. The new baby is named Denver. Although Sethe reaches her destination, slave-catchers soon follow to return her to Kentucky. Frantic, she tries to kill her children rather than submit them to slavery, but she succeeds only with the older baby. “Beloved” is carved on the child’s tombstone.

Sethe accepts her identity of black woman, escaped slave, wife, mother. Her antagonist is life, which has taken so much from her. She and Paul D, the man who becomes her lover, are the last survivors of Sweet Home, the Kentucky farm that was neither sweet nor home to them. Their charge is to endure memory and accept the unforgivable past.

A vengeful spirit, that of the dead baby, invades Sethe’s house. After Paul D drives it away, a strange young woman appears in the yard, and they take her in. Her name is...

(The entire section is 421 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1848, at the age of thirteen, Sethe is sold to Mr. Garner and his wife Lillian, who run a plantation in northern Kentucky called Sweet Home. Intended to replace Baby Suggs, whose freedom was purchased by her son Halle by renting out his labor on Sundays, Sethe marries Halle, one of five male slaves (the “Sweet Home men”) owned by the Garners, in 1849. Each of the other Sweet Home men—Paul A Garner, Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, and Sixo—wants Sethe for himself, but each accepts her choice and respects her position as Halle’s wife.

Mr. Garner dies in 1853, and his financially strapped, cancer-ridden widow sells Paul F and then brings her cruel brother-in-law, “schoolteacher,” and his equally cruel nephews to Sweet Home as overseers. Fearful that schoolteacher might sell them all, the remaining Sweet Home slaves begin planning an escape in 1855. Before the plan can be effected, the pregnant Sethe is attacked by schoolteacher’s two nephews. One holds her down while the other sucks the milk from her breasts. Schoolteacher watches and takes notes. Unknown to Sethe, her helpless husband sees the entire “mammary rape” from the hayloft, and the event destroys his sanity. Determined to escape, Sethe sends her three children (Howard, age five; Buglar, age four; and Beloved, age nine months) to join the emancipated Baby Suggs in Cincinnati, planning to follow the next day. The four Sweet Home men fail to escape. Sixo is captured and burned alive, Paul A is hanged, Paul D is sold, and the broken Halle, who dies soon after, loses the will to escape. Only Sethe stumbles into the woods toward freedom.

Sethe nearly dies of exposure, but she is found by a runaway white girl, Amy Denver, who doctors her torn feet and helps her to the Ohio River, where they find an abandoned, leaking boat. Before they can cross, Sethe’s water breaks and with Amy as midwife she gives birth prematurely to her second daughter, Denver, in the nearly swamped boat. Amy, also on the run,...

(The entire section is 817 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Morrison’s novel Beloved is her single greatest novelistic achievement and is a tour through some of the nightmares created by slavery. When the novel begins in the post-Civil War era in 1873, Sethe, a former slave who escaped to the North while pregnant during the time of slavery, is living with her oldest daughter, Denver, in a house they both believe to be haunted by the ghost of the infant daughter Sethe killed when she was about to be recaptured (rather than let the daughter grow up in slavery). The novel is loosely based on the account of a former slave named Margaret Gamer who, as an escaped slave, tried to kill all of her children when they were captured in 1850 and succeeded in killing one; the novel is also a triumph of imagination.

When Paul D, who along with Sethe was a former slave at a plantation known as Sweet Home, comes to Sethe’s house on 124 Bluestone Road and quickly becomes her lover, the ghost disappears. Very shortly thereafter, however, a well-dressed young woman about the age that Sethe’s daughter would have been had she lived appears on the doorstep and introduces herself as “Beloved”—which is the only word on the gravestone that Sethe placed over her dead infant.

Paul D’s reappearance and Beloved’s sudden appearance force Sethe to confront the past locked away in what she calls her “rememory.” She tells Paul D the story of spotting Schoolteacher, the cruel master of Sweet Home, and determining to put her babies “where they’d be safe”—that is, to death. What frightens Paul D more than anything else is her continued defense of her actions years later. Paul D is also forced by his meeting with Sethe to confront his own past. When he tells her, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” to upbraid her for her infanticide, he is accusing her of acting like an animal. The comment seems to relate also to Paul D’s past and his own struggle to retain his human dignity despite having been a slave and treated as a beast of burden for much of his life.

Beloved herself is presented as childlike and self-centered, very much like the petulant ghost that had haunted the house for years. Even when the narrative goes inside her head, it is not clear to...

(The entire section is 914 words.)