Beloved is a 1987 novel by the American writer Toni Morrison.
The beginning of the novel “124 was spiteful.”, hints at a malicious presence in the house, where Sethe lives with her daughter. The missing number 3 signifies the missing third child of Sethe. There is something ghostly that is harassing Sethe and Denver. The outrageous behaviour of the ghost is described; “turned over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air.” At one time she slams the family dog, Here Boy against the wall and physically assaults him. The frightened dog runs away. The baby ghost also behaves aggressively when Sethe comes close to Paul D.
The burden of brutality Sethe bore as a slave is so heavy on her heart and mind that it haunts her in the form of ‘ghost baby’, as she is called in the novel. It has made the lives of her other three children miserable. The two boys have fled from the house by the time they are thirteen years old and Denver’s life is getting affected in many ways. She is lonely, has nobody to talk to, and cannot live in that house. The black community has boycotted Sethe and her family after the murder of the girl.
With no freedom to interact with other people outside the plantation, the young slaves all lust after Sethe when she comes there. Not only are their movements restricted, their natural sexual urges force them to have unnatural sex with animals. Slavery represses natural human urges. Sethe remembers Halle’s love for her which was not like “a man’s laying claim.” Their marriage didn’t have a legal status and due to their work at the farm, Halle does not get time to spend with Sethe.
Being frustrated by loneliness, Denver finds salvation in her “emerald closet” which is surrounded by trees. Sethe does not talk much about her past but Denver likes to hear the stories from her mother, especially the story of her birth. Here, the image of an ‘antelope’ has been used for the baby in Sethe’s womb. The struggle of baby Denver in her mother’s womb for survival runs parallel with the struggle of Sethe.
House 124 is barren. The walls are slate-coloured, the floor is earth brown, and the curtains are white. There are no dark and bright colours visible, except two orange squares in a patchwork quilt in the house. The orange squares were added when Baby Suggs wanted to see colour around her. As for Sethe herself, she lost all awareness of colour after she saw her daughter’s pink headstone. Since then she has been “as colour conscious as a hen.”
Noticing Sethe’s love for Denver, Paul D remarks that it’s dangerous for a “used-to-be-slave woman” to love so much. At the same time, Paul D reassures Sethe of comfort and security. The hope for a happy future soon gets disrupted by the mysterious entry of Beloved, who reminds Sethe of her dead daughter. Beloved’s emergence from the water, Sethe’s incontinence, Beloved’s name turning out to be the same as the name engraved on her dead child’s tombstone, her smooth skin like a baby, her continuously sleeping like a small baby for four days; these are the signs that suggest that Beloved is be an embodiment of Sethe’s dead child.
Paul D is reminded of countless young women like Beloved that he has seen; dazed and lost, roaming around, looking for lost family members, unaware that the Civil War has ended. He finds her new shoes and hat suspicious but remains silent. There is an ominous reference to the Ku Klux Klan, roaming the countryside, like a dragon “thirsty for black blood.” Here Boy has also disappeared. It seems that, like all animals, it has sensed the ill-fated entry of Beloved. Paul D also senses some unusual things about Beloved, who shows an infantile attachment to Sethe. Denver is thrilled to have the company of another young woman, covering up for her so that she continues to stay at 124.
Sethe is devastated when she learns that Halle, her husband saw all that was done to her by schoolteacher and his boys. Sethe is convinced that Halle must be dead by now, as no man could survive such a mental breakdown. Paul D does not want to share more of his terrifying memories as he has locked them “in that tobacco tin buried in his chest.” This is a recurring image in the novel, drawing our attention to Paul’s emotional suppression.
Beloved’s description of the place where she has come from is unclear. Beloved says the place was dark and hot, surrounded by water, and heaps of people were there; some were dead and they did not have any names. The place symbolizes the ‘Middle Passage’, the forced voyage of enslaved Africans, through the Atlantic Ocean. Africans were kidnapped, traded, transported in ships, and sold to Americans. In those ships, conditions were inhuman. Beloved says that “She belongs here,” establishing the connection between dead baby and herself. Denver has heard the story of her birth so many times that now it is embedded in her memory. Amy Denver, herself an indentured servant, stays back to help Sethe deliver the baby and massages her feet. In addition to Black slaves, many poor Europeans worked as servants on the plantations. The young girl is running away to Boston to buy “carmine” coloured velvet; symbolizing the quest for joy and beauty.
Before Paul D’s revelation, Sethe had been hoping that Halle would return. Feeling in need of solace, she goes to the Clearing; a place where Baby Suggs provided healing and comfort to her people, teaching them self-love. But something happened twenty-eight days after Sethe arrived in 124. Sethe was sent to jail and the Black community abandoned them, keeping a distance from the house and the family.
Sethe feels comforted in the Clearing, massaged by invisible fingers; but suddenly those same fingers try to strangle her. She remembers Baby Suggs touch, so she is sure it couldn’t be her. Denver’s isolation is reflected in the fact that she has never been outside 124 or the field behind it. She never went to school as the children of slaves did not have the right to get an education. The loss of her hearing for two years is a metaphor for her refusal to acknowledge the terrible truth about her mother.
The escape of Paul D and the other prisoners shows how a solidarity with their community saves the Black slaves. Many other incidents highlight the importance of community; Amy helps Sethe deliver Denver, the Cherokee help Paul D, Ella and Stamp Paid help Sethe reach 124, and Baby Suggs’ house is a sanctuary for runaway slaves. Sethe allows Beloved to live in her house, convinced that the young girl is running away from torture and needs shelter. Denver also seems happier in her company.
Beloved comes between Paul D and Sethe. She seems to have supernormal powers, forcing Paul D to move out of Sethe’s bed and shift to the cold house behind the house. Beloved seduces Paul D and forces him to sleep with her. It is clear that Beloved wants to drive a wedge between Sethe and Paul D.
The brutality of slave owners like schoolteacher has a lasting impact on the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of the slaves. Schoolteacher would comment that slaves are less than animals, and Beloved’s control over Paul D makes him tend to agree with schoolteacher’s views. Paul D does not want to lose Sethe so he decides to start a family with her; “suddenly it was a solution: a way to hold on to her, document his manhood and break out of the girl’s spell – all in one.” But Sethe does not agree, thinking that, “Unless carefree, mother love was a killer.”
Denver knows all that is happening between Paul D and Beloved but she does not tell Sethe. She is afraid of losing Beloved, whom she is getting very attached to. She is sure that Beloved is the “true to life presence” of the ghost baby. In the cold room, Beloved points out chinks of light to Denver. The setting is also significant; it is here that Sethe killed her infant daughter. The chinks of light on the roof resemble the inside of a ship’s hold, dark and with only little light visible. Slaves were transported to America in the holds of ships, in sub-human conditions; many perishing on the way.
The account of Baby Suggs’ past; how she got the house after sixty years of working as a slave and built a life for herself in Cincinnati; preaching and healing, brings the horror of Sethe’s deed into sharp relief. Baby Suggs celebrates the arrival of Sethe and her grandchildren by organizing a feast for the Black community, but they feel jealous of Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs senses bad luck coming to 124; “she smelled another thing. Dark and coming.” For the first time in the novel, there is a description of the events on that terrible day. Till now, there has been no direct account.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, allowed slave owners to recapture those slaves who fled to the free states. Kentucky was a slave state and Ohio a free state. This explains the arrival of the four horsemen that ends the happy and peaceful life of 124. These horsemen are the evil that Baby Suggs senses. Not a single community member informs Sethe about the horsemen. Seeing them, Sethe tries to kill her children but is able to kill only one. After murdering her child, she doesn’t show any remorse for her act. Seeing Sethe with her dead child, schoolteacher thinks that his nephew went too far in mistreating her. He had compared slaves to horses and dogs; telling him not to beat them beyond a point.
Stamp Paid’s decision to tell Paul D about Sethe’s past is surprising. He is the same man who has devoted his life to help runaway slaves and helped Sethe cross the Ohio river. He compares Sethe to a hawk who, after seeing the schoolteacher and his boys, “flew, snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing; how her face beaked, how her hands worked like claws . . .” Paul D does not believe the news about Sethe published in the newspaper.
Paul D asks Sethe about her act of killing her baby. She explains to him because she feels obliged to him; he is the only one who gives her hope for the future. She answers that she did it to save her children; “They ain’t at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain’t got them.” She can only talk about how her children were not hers to love in Kentucky. But Paul D does not understand it and tells her that she loves too much. Sethe believes that love can never be halfway. He thinks this act of Sethe’s is the dehumanizing act of an animal. Paul D is unable to accept this side of Sethe’s love and leaves 124.
In this chapter, Stamp Paid’s feelings of guilt are mixed with Sethe’s memories of schoolteacher and Sweet Home. Schoolteacher treats his slaves like animals. Sixo is the only one who is openly defiant. He eats corn from the fields, refusing to admit that he was stealing it.
Stamp Paid feels that Black people work extremely hard because they wish to dissociate themselves from white people’s image of them as a savage, animalistic species. Stamp Paid thinks that the harder they work to demonstrate their humanity, the more bitter and angry they become. He recalls Baby Suggs who, in his opinion, lost her faith towards her last days. He didn’t understand that she was tired.
The narrative style begins to change; becoming more personal. Sethe addresses Beloved directly in her interior monologue. She tells herself that she does not need to explain anything to Beloved, because Beloved already understands. She shares memories of her days at Sweet Home; caring for her three little children, worrying about them.
Stamp Paid understands that the voices he hears from inside 124 are “the mumbling of the black and angry dead”; sounds of the collective suffering of the slaves. Morrison makes it clear that, escaping from slavery does not imply freedom from its burden. Sometimes they get tired of fighting, as in the case of Baby Suggs.
Sethe’s stream-of-consciousness collects memories of her own mother, Nan, and Mrs Garner; the last two are mother figures. Doubly tormented by memories of her mother’s sufferings and of the daughter she killed with her own hands.
Now that Beloved has come back to her, Sethe wants to look at things around her and introduce her daughter to the beauty of the world. In this chapter, Sethe shares with Beloved, thoughts that she has never shared with anyone before. She did explain her fears to Paul D when he confronted her about killing her daughter. But here, for the first time she talks about her original plan; to kill all her children first and then herself. Sethe mentions her fears about her daughters being sexually assaulted by white men or burnt alive somewhere. There is an emotional urgency to her thoughts.
Sethe braiding the hair on Denver’s decapitated head in her nightmare, shows Denver’s subconscious fear of Sethe. As in the previous chapter, a lot of new things come to the fore. Denver’s revelation of the talks she had with her brothers make us realize that, more than the baby ghost, it was Sethe who scared them away. Denver shared her fears about the baby ghost with her grandmother, who assures her that it is just hungry for love. She longs for her father Halle’s presence and is resentful of Paul D.
Morrison conveys the impression of a child speaking. Beloved is lying in a ship’s hold but it can be difficult to comprehend why Beloved is in a ship, among dead bodies. This chapter is an example of race memory or genetic memory; Beloved’s memories are embedded with the pain of countless Black slaves before her, who lost their lives during the voyage from Africa to America; memories that she has inherited. Beloved did not die in the water but if Beloved is seen as a representative of her race; her suffering makes sense. Schoolteacher and the slave traders are referred to as “men with no skin” and “white men.” There are strong suggestions of sexual abuse on the ship. Beloved craves to be born again so that she can go back to Sethe, who is the unnamed “she.” She comes back to Sethe from the dead.
Beloved fails to distinguish between herself and her mother. Denver warns her sister not to love their mother too much. Sethe is overjoyed at her daughter’s return. Toni Morrison’s prose does away with formal structures and is pure expression of emotion. Beloved’s unfulfilled longing, ‘coming from the other side’ is moving.
Paul D feels that he should have died along with Sixo. Sitting on the steps of the church he thinks how he never really had a family of his own, except the slaves he worked with at Sweet Home. He always envied Black people who had numerous family members to call their own.
Again, the events of that night are recounted but with details never added before. The mystery of Halle not turning up to collect Sethe can only be speculated about. Most probably, Paul A has been killed; Sixo is shot; his pregnant lady love manages to escape; and Halle goes mad after witnessing the bestiality unleashed on Sethe. Sethe is sexually assaulted and whipped on her back, leaving deep scars. Schoolteacher and the other white men talk as if they are discussing breeding animals and how it is profitable to have a female slave; as she will produce more slaves for free. When Paul D is captured, he hears schoolteacher fixing a price for him. He doubts his masculinity and is unsure of his own worth as a human being.
Stamp Paid tries to convince Paul D to think again about his decision to leave Sethe. He narrates the story behind his name to Paul D. His name used to be Joshua. His wife had been taken away from him by their master’s son at a young age. Stamp had not touched his own wife for a year. When his wife came back, he became very angry. He felt like breaking her neck. Instead, he changed his name to tackle his anger. He defends Sethe; saying that she did what she did out of love; she wanted to “out-hurt the hurter.” Paul D discloses to Stamp that he fears Sethe and Beloved. Stamp is anxious to know about the whereabouts of Beloved. He tells Paul D that a few months ago, a white man was killed by the Black girl, whom he had kept forcefully in his house since she was a child.
This chapter charts the metamorphosis of Denver. She has spent her young life without her father’s protection or her brothers’ company. Her concern for her mother forces her to seek assistance. She begins to feel responsible for her mother. Denver knows that Beloved has come back to demand her mother’s love but is not willing to forgive her.
The Bodwins are friends and well-wishers of the Black community. They give Baby Suggs a house and work; and help Sethe get out of jail and find a job. However, there is an object in their home, a piggy bank in the shape of a caricatured and servile Black boy, that indicates that even the most well meaning of white people are unaware of deep-rooted racial prejudices.
After Sethe came back from jail, the Black community shunned her family. Sethe was considered too proud and she, in turn, isolated herself. But they respond to Ella’s plea to rid the house of its evil presence and come forward to drive the ghost of Beloved away. They come, bringing their “Christian faith” with them. On their knees, they begin to pray. Enveloped in their sound, Sethe is “baptized,” feeling that the sacred Clearing has come to her. Beloved vanishes after this. It is the first step that re-establishes the family’s link with their community.
In this chapter there’s a long description of Paul D’s experiences over the years, after he escaped from Sweet Home. The historic events of the period are touched upon; the terrible human tragedy of the Civil War, the dead piling up on both sides, the joy of earning his first coin as a free man. Paul D comes back to 124. Though Beloved has gone, Sethe doesn’t seem to have healed. She lies depressed on Baby Suggs bed; remembering all those she loved and lost. Paul D assures her that he will care for her.
Forgetting about Beloved is the first step towards healing. With the passage of time, Sethe, Paul D, and Denver realize that they cannot remember or repeat a single thing that she said. In fact, they are unsure that whether she was ever really there.
Interpretations of the sentence; “It was not a story to be passed on” vary among critics. Morrison ends the novel with a gentle reminder that this is not a tale to be forgotten; it is a painful account of suffering.