Beloved Themes

The main themes in Beloved are slavery, motherhood, and trauma.

  • Slavery: Slavery strips people of their freedom, their families, and, in some cases, their sanity. Sethe's attempt to kill her children is a direct result of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Schoolteacher and his nephews.
  • Motherhood: Baby Suggs is a nurturing spiritual leader within the community. Sethe, on the other hand, is so traumatized by her experiences as a slave that her maternal instinct is warped.
  • Trauma: Beloved assumes the role of Sethe's dead daughter, acting both as a vengeful spirit and as a reminder of the murder Sethe committed.

Themes and Meanings

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The characterization of the female fugitive, Sethe, and her murdered daughter, Beloved, is without precedent in fiction. The novel is an accurate portrayal of the black slave woman’s experience. Married by age fourteen, Sethe is pregnant with her fourth child by nineteen. Although Mr. Garner prides himself on the treatment of his male slaves, he nevertheless has the slavemaster’s agenda of using slave women for the purpose of childbearing. Schoolteacher also values Sethe for her childbearing capabilities and the money she represents.

Moreover, the novel is important for its demonstration of the concern that slave mothers had for the welfare of their children. Sethe determines to kill all of her children rather than allow them to be returned to a life of slavery. Thus Sethe struggles to reach Ohio, and her children, at any costs. In fact, she repeats often that she has to get her milk to her “crawling already” baby girl, Beloved. The novel also probes the bond between the nursing mother and her infant. Sethe remembers that slavery has denied her a relationship with her own mother and determines to have a nurturing relationship with her own children. Beloved’s personality, therefore, originates from a lack of bonding with her mother and from a sense of spite, as well as from a need for retribution for her brutal murder at her mother’s hand. Although Beloved is a ghost, it is significant that she acts like a child who has experienced a loss in the infant stage of development; she is psychologically damaged and has enormous anxieties. Thus, Beloved constantly demonstrates a need to be near Sethe at all times and never gets enough of anything, especially her mother. Because of Sethe’s sense of guilt, Beloved is able to demand the best of everything and to make her mother try to meet all of her demands, no matter how ridiculous. When Sethe complains, it does no good.

The genesis of the plot of Beloved came when Morrison worked as an editor. While on a project, the author came across the story of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, who killed one child and tried to kill three others to keep them from being returned to slavery; the story was the basis for Beloved.

The novel treats the theme of the mother as nurturer and protector through the characters of Sethe and Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs protects and takes care of Sethe after her escape, and when she can no longer do so, she decides to die. Sethe sees her children as her property, as lives that she has made. An alternate example is provided by Baby Suggs, who was forced to part with all of her children but her last son, Halle. Sethe determines to put her children where they cannot be hurt by the system of slavery.

The novel is, moreover, an attempt to understand the forces, historical and personal, that would cause Sethe to murder her daughter rather than allow her to experience the horrors of slavery. The horror of the slave past is shown as a haunting, evidenced by the appearance of the baby ghost and the manifestation of the fully grown Beloved. From the opening of the novel, the means of bringing the past into the lives of Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and the community is the use of the supernatural. Beloved represents the troubled past that haunts the lives of all African Americans. This troubling past is represented by the word “rememory,” which is used throughout the novel. The characters are constantly in a struggle to “beat back the past,” which intrudes into their lives and causes a haunting pain that is physically represented by the appearance of Beloved.

Morrison unceasingly places before her readers the environment that created Sethe—economic slavery. This is the source and the context of Sethe’s madness and the impetus for her behavior. Paul D is able to understand and verbalize Sethe’s dilemma by concluding that it was dangerous for a slave woman to love anything, especially her children. Paul D thus points out the tension created by the system of slavery and the instinct of the slave woman to protect and nurture her children. Slavery claimed ownership of all of its property and ignored the slave mother’s right to determine the future of, to mold the character of, and to physically nurture her own children. Sethe instinctively sought to hold on to and love her own children, thus creating the central conflict in the novel.

Themes Discussed

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Despite having killed her own child, Sethe is presented as an admirable character, for Morrison's emphasis is on the no-exit choices slavery imposed on people. Sethe acted out of love and years later defends her action: "But she had to be safe and I put her where she could be." One of the central themes Morrison treats has to do with the dehumanizing effects of slavery on moral choice. When Schoolteacher comes to recover Sethe and her family under the Fugitive Slave Law, she has no viable option. If she permits this to happen, she and her children will return to conditions that have deteriorated at Sweet Home and will be even worse because of the escape. As she tells Beloved, to return would subject her and her children to the white man's abuse, sexually, physically, and psychologically — the very things that drove Sethe's mother into rebellion. The alternative Sethe chooses is monstrous, and much of the novel is concerned with the debilitating effects her guilt and Beloved's haunting her house, once a way-station on the road to freedom, have on her and her family. She accepts ostracism from the community and has turned inward. Her sons run away as soon as they can; her daughter Denver lives in constant fear that her mother may again be placed in a predicament in which her only choice will be to kill a child. While Morrison does not justify Sethe's decision to kill her children and herself — intervention by an ex-slave who has committed his life to helping others escape prevented her dashing Denver's brains out on a wall — she makes it clear that Sethe's choice results from the twenty-eight days of freedom she actually experienced. Like Baby Suggs, she learned the exhilaration of freedom and therefore could not tolerate the notion of returning to the bit and the dependence of slavery.

As well as a book about moral choice as the effects of slavery, Beloved is also a subtle treatment of two of Morrison's key themes, the nature of community and the potential healing power of love. As her narrative moves through several layers of time, Morrison suggests that Sethe's principal source of hope is the community of which she is a part, but that community's failure contributed in large measure to her great crime.

In fact the novel contrasts two kinds of failed communities. Within the false community at Sweet Home, the slaves developed a subset, which nurtured and supported them as the evil incipient under the Garners' ownership is revealed in full magnitude by Schoolteacher. As his and his nephews' policies became increasingly menacing, the slaves supported one another and conspired to escape to Ohio. Many suffered in the effort; Sixo's death is graphically drawn, and Paul D and Halle were bent or even broken by what they endured in the effort. But they prevailed by acting as a community.

Once in Ohio, the concept of a free community invigorates and inspires Sethe. As she recovers from her wounds, she rejoices in "twenty-eight days of having women friends, a mother- in-law, and all her children together; of being part of a neighborhood" — things she never knew she did not have until she experienced them and things she could not give up when Schoolteacher came to take her back. But in this novel community is a two-edged notion. To celebrate Sethe's recovery and Denver's near-miraculous birth, Baby Suggs prepares a lavish feast. The community sees her rejoicing as ostentatious display, and collective resentment of her feast results in a failure of the warning network. Because this network, designed to protect ex-slaves from owners' capturing runaways under the Fugitive Slave Law, fails to alert Baby Suggs that unfamiliar white men are in the neighborhood, she has no time to prepare for their arrival. Despite her intuition that something is amiss, Baby cannot protect Sethe from Schoolteacher's unexpected presence. Thus the community is indirectly responsible for Beloved's murder, a responsibility they fail to accept by making Sethe an outcast. The community's failure is further emphasized when, after her jail term, the isolated Sethe must pay for a gravestone by selling her body to the stonecutter, who clearly takes advantage of her suffering.

If the community, by failing to warn and support, contributes to Sethe's dilemma, it also contains conditions for her recovery. When Paul D, learning what happened eighteen years before, cannot endure life with Sethe — he says her love is "too thick" — and takes up lodging in a church basement, Stamp Paid is outraged that no one in the neighborhood has offered shelter. As he tells Paul D's story, he also carries news about the dire events in 124, Sethe's house; Beloved and her mother are locked in a war of attrition, and eventually Denver concludes that she must go outside to get help. The women of the community offer physical support, then organize in a spontaneous exorcism to drive Beloved out of Sethe's and Denver's lives. Through this intervention (and unfortunate timing by one of the few kind white people in the novel) her neighbors help Sethe to rid the house of Beloved as ghost made flesh.

At an even more personal level, Beloved is a study in the redeeming power of love. Scarred by the infanticide, Denver has turned inward, and her only familiar is a ghost, later her returned sister whom she vows to defend against their mother. She resists Paul D's presence in 124, longing for her father's return. As Denver watches in horror while Sethe, having lost her job, her meager savings, and her will in her effort to compensate her daughter for the life she denied her, wanes in the battle with Beloved, she becomes the family's savior by confronting a world she fears and finding jobs to support her mother, at last alerting the community to the damage Beloved is doing Sethe and initiating the exorcism.

Similarly Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men, twice gives Sethe restoring love. When he arrives at 124, Paul is broken by his experiences and has attempted to block out his past by storing unpleasant memories in a tobacco tin he carries with him, but he sees in Sethe's scars (from the beating by Schoolteacher's nephews) a pain he must address; by touching them, he shares her pain, "learning that way her sorrow," and briefly liberates Sethe from the prison of her guilt. They make a family attending a carnival, and Paul D successfully exorcises the "spiteful ghost," but he too is overwhelmed by the ghost made flesh, who eventually demands that he introduce her to sexuality she was denied in death. After he leaves 124 and learns the full extent of Sethe's suffering and his own concern for her, he returns to offer support as she faces a life without either Beloved or her ghost. Recalling Pilate's climactic words in Song of Solomon, Paul offers a limited but compelling vision of hope: "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."

As many scholars point out, Beloved is also a novel about memory and the past. Early, Denver announces the theme of a selective focus on the past. She wants to hear the story of her miraculous birth, but to be spared most details pertaining to Sethe's troubled flight to freedom. This selective treatment of the past applies obviously to the ex-slaves, who except for Stamp Paid have not really faced up to their whole stories. Paul D's arrival at 124 is marked by an exchange of stories about the Sweet Home men, but Sethe tells him an abridged version of her life defining event: "I wasn't going back there ... Any life but not that one. I went to jail instead." What she tells Paul is not a lie, and her motive for killing Beloved is clear from it; but she leaves out the single most important detail. Something very like this describes Sethe's eighteen years of isolation since killing her child.

She has been fixated on the past, but she has not come to terms with it. Because of Paul D's associations with Sweet Home, Halle, and Baby Suggs, his arrival stirs many memories and Sethe literally meets her past in her daughter's incarnation. She must tell her own story over and over to herself and Beloved to explain just what she did and why she did it, to come at last to terms with the meaning of her action for Denver as well as for herself. As critic Valerie Smith puts it, as a ghost made flesh Beloved is "literally the story of the past embodied" and encountering her forces Sethe, Paul D and Denver to encounter "not only the story of her sorrow and theirs; indeed, they encounter its incarnation."

Throughout the novel Sethe uses a portmanteau word, "rememory," as both a verb (to remember) and as a noun (memory). This is Morrison's linguistic instrument to suggest the importance of coming to terms with our individual and collective past, for she is clearly not representing an unschooled character's malapropism. At times Sethe correctly uses both roots, but she and Beloved must "rememory" the past, or come to terms fully with the experiences not as stories but as lived events. Only when she has "rememoried" what happened to Beloved in that lean-to and coped with the horrible choice she had to make can Sethe hope to bear her past into the future.

In one way Morrison subverts even this meaning, for she repeats in the final chapter that this "was not a story to pass on." Sethe needs to accept and end this story so she can put it into a past that is a preparation, not a substitute, for the future.

Expanded Themes

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Race and Racism
"You got two feet, not four," Paul D. tells Sethe when she reveals her secret to him, and the dehumanizing effect of slavery is a primary theme of Beloved. According to the schoolteacher, slaves are just another type of animal: not only does he list their "animal characteristics," he considers them "creatures" to be "handled," similar to dogs or cattle. In some ways, they are not even worth as much as animals: "Unlike a snake or a bear," he thinks while pursuing the runaways, "a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin." Because slaves are treated no better—and sometimes worse—than animals, it leads them to question what it is that makes one human. While Mr. Garner was alive, for instance, Paul D. truly believed that he was a man. But after the schoolteacher arrives and puts the bit to him, he learns a different lesson: "They were trespassers among the human race." There is another side to the dehumanizing effects of slavery, however: just as it turns slaves into animals, it turns owners into monsters. As Baby Suggs thinks of white people, "they could prowl at will, change from one mind to another, and even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did." Stamp Paid understands this effect as well: "The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince [whites] how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, ... the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn't the jungle blacks brought with them," Stamp Paid thinks, but "the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made."

Freedom
For people treated no better than animals, freedom can be a difficult concept to grasp. When Halle buys his mother's freedom, for instance, Baby Suggs thinks that he "gave her freedom when it didn't mean a thing." When she steps across the Ohio River, however, "she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn't; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew there was nothing like it in this world." While under the schoolteacher's bit, Paul D. sees Mister, the rooster, and thinks, "Mister, he looked so … free. Better than me." The reason for this, Paul D. explains, is that "Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was." Once he has escaped from prison and earned his first money, Paul D. decides that "to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got." Freedom is more than this, however, as Sethe has discovered. While waiting for Halle to turn up, Sethe had to learn to become her own woman. "Freeing yourself was one thing," she thinks; "claiming ownership of that freed self was another." This can be a difficult task, especially if one is tormented by painful memories of slavery. In the end, Paul D. comes to agree with Sethe about the nature of freedom: "A place where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now, that was freedom."

Motherhood
One of the cruelest effects of slavery is how it severs bonds of love, particularly those between mother and child. Sethe still feels the pain of separation from her mother, while Baby Suggs has lost all but one of her eight children. One reaction to this loss of love is to deny it; as Ella says, "If anybody was to ask me I'd say 'Don't love nothing.'" After having her first three children sold away and a fourth fathered by the man who sold them, Baby Suggs "could not love [that child] and the rest she would not." Sethe similarly understands that she couldn't love her children "proper" at Sweet Home "because they wasn't mine to love." Paul D. also knows mother-love is risky: "For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love." When he nevertheless suggests to Sethe that they have a baby together, Sethe thinks, "Lord, deliver me. Unless carefree, mother-love was a killer." This comment is terribly ironic, of course, coming from a woman who murdered her child for such a love.

Despite the pain mother-love can bring to a woman, the maternal impulse is often too powerful to deny. As Baby Suggs says, "A man ain't nothing but a man. But a son? Well now, that's somebody." Sethe similarly thinks her children are "her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—that part of her that was clean." A mother's love has no time limits, either, as Sethe tells Paul D.: "Grown don't mean nothing to a mother ... I'll protect [Denver] while I'm live and I'll protect her when I ain't." It is this need to care for her children that drives Sethe on to Ohio despite her pain. When telling Paul D. about the beating she received before escaping, she keeps repeating, "they took my milk!"—emphasizing how important it was to her to save her milk for her baby. Unfortunately, Sethe's experiences with slavery have twisted her maternal protective impulses. "To keep them away from what I know is terrible," Sethe attempts to murder her own children. This love may be "too thick," as Paul D. says, but motherless Sethe never had a chance to learn the difference: "Love is or it ain't," she replies. "Thin love ain't love at all."

Memory and Reminiscence
The physical wounds of slavery heal quickly compared to the mental and emotional scars suffered by its victims. Throughout Beloved, characters struggle with their memories, trying to recall the good things without remembering the bad. Paul D. has "shut down a generous portion of his head" so that he will not "dwell on Halle's face and Sixo laughing." Of her first seven children, Baby Suggs can only remember that the oldest liked the burned bottom of bread. "That's all you let yourself remember," Sethe says, and for her "the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay." For Sethe, "re-memories" are so powerful that they exist for her as physical objects: "if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again," she tells Denver. In contrast, Ella seems to have a healthy attitude towards the past: "The past [was] something to leave behind. And if it didn't stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out." But Sethe has a "rebellious brain" which does not allow her to forget: "there is still more that Paul D. could tell me and my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don't want to know or have to remember that." Beloved seems to have "disremembered" almost all of her past, and when Sethe comes to believe the girl is her lost daughter she "was excited to giddiness by the things she no longer had to remember." Her words seem to imply that Sethe tortures herself with memories as a sort of punishment. Now that her daughter is returned, however, "I don't have to remember nothing. I don't even have to explain. She understands it all." The conclusion of the novel seems to imply that finally putting the past behind her will enable Sethe to survive. "We got more yesterday than anybody," Paul D. tells Sethe. "We need some kind of tomorrow." "Remembering seemed unwise," the narrator similarly notes, and so Beloved is "disremembered"—deliberately forgotten: "This is not a story to pass on."

Creativity and Imagination
Despite the statement that "this is not a story to pass on," stories and the imagination play an important role in the novel. Denver's imagination is her only weapon against loneliness and it "produced its own hunger and its own food." Sethe's "deprivation had been not having any dreams of her own at all." Her brain has been "loaded with the past and [is] hungry for more," leaving her "no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day." For Beloved, listening to Sethe's stories "became a way to feed her" and the "profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling" allows Sethe to share things that had been too painful to speak about before. When the lonely Denver tells stories to Beloved, she gives her subjects "more life than life had." Denver uses these stories to keep Beloved with her, trying to "construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved." Stories have the effect of bringing listener and teller together, for in the telling "the monologue became, in fact, a duet." It is this kind of sharing that allows Sethe to begin to heal, and eventually brings her to the brink of a new life with Paul D. Planning on making "some kind of tomorrow" with Sethe, Paul D. thinks that "he wants to put his story next to hers."

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