The past and its memory form an important component of Beloved. Each character carries the burden of past suffering. The novel begins in the year 1873, but the plot covers the period from 1855 to 1873, through flashbacks. There are many historical events that form the background to the painful and traumatic memories of many characters of the novel.
Baby Suggs has spent sixty years of her life as a slave; not even trying to memorize the faces of her new born babies because she knew they would be taken from her. She lost seven of her children; who were either snatched away and sold off or ran away. Her only remaining son Halle buys her freedom, and she finds redemption by preaching love to her people.
Denver’s childhood memories are of an absent father; brothers frightened of a spirit in the house, and a mother who has been in jail for killing her sister. Denver learns to live with the ghost of her dead sister, retreating to her green room in the woods when lonely. Although she doesn’t say anything to her mother directly, she lives with the knowledge of her sister’s murder. In a reversal of roles, Denver becomes a caregiver for her mother. She emerges a stronger person, instrumental in helping seethe drive Beloved’s spirit away. Like Baby Suggs, Sethe too has lost her husband and children. She is tormented by her ultimate act of love that ended in infanticide. Beloved was only nine months old when Sethe killed her with a handsaw. Sethe puts up with the consequences of her tragic act for eighteen years, drowning in a self-destructive love for her daughter, till she is saved by her community.
Each character in Beloved carries the cross of pain. Paul D never had a family and hungers for one. Most of his life he has been running away from bondage and has learnt to lock up his feelings in his chest. Ella was sexually exploited by a white man and his son for a year. Stamp Paid left his wife because he couldn’t bear to have her back after his owner’s son slept with her. Both these characters turn their grief into positivity, helping slaves running away from cruel masters. They ferry them across the Ohio river and help them reach their destinations.
Not all memories in the novel are painful. The story of Denver’s birth, narrated a number of times in the novel, is a story of triumph over adversity. Denver’s birth is a miracle. Like an angel, Amy Denver comes to help Sethe when she is almost dead, after she has been whipped by schoolteacher’s nephew. Sethe feels the healing touch on her feet.