- Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece that delves into the haunting legacy of slavery, exploring the depths of human suffering, resilience, and the unbreakable bonds of family.
- Discover the profound and emotionally charged world of “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, a novel that will challenge your understanding of history and humanity. Dive into this compelling narrative to experience the lasting impact of slavery and the enduring power of the human spirit.
Beloved (1987) is a haunting and profound exploration of the enduring legacy of slavery on the African-American psyche. Set in post-Civil War Ohio, the narrative revolves around the life of Sethe, a former slave who escaped from Sweet Home, a brutal Kentucky plantation, and her struggles with the traumatic past that comes back to haunt her in the form of a mysterious and vengeful spirit.
Introduction: An intense, moving meditation on American slavery and its aftermath.
Table of Contents
When Toni Morrison published Beloved in 1987, her reputation as one of the most important African-American voices in modern literature was already secure. Published ten years earlier, Song of Solomon – which follows the life of an African-American man in Michigan from birth to adult life – won Morrison the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award and cemented her place as one of America’s most powerful and truthful writers.
And yet it’s Beloved that’s Morrison’s true masterpiece. Although it continues her interest in exploring the African American experience, it combines this with an unflinching examination of the enduring legacy of slavery. Through a compelling narrative filled with complex characters and rich symbolism, Morrison provides a haunting yet essential journey into the depths of human suffering, resilience, and redemption.
Beloved doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery. It’s raw, unapologetic, and shocking. It exposes the brutality of this institution, and how it dehumanizes enslaved individuals and their descendants. More than that, it forces us to look deep within the minds of the people affected by slavery and makes us watch as they grapple with moral dilemmas and difficult choices which stem from the brutality that others have inflicted upon them.
Soon you’ll learn about Sethe, an African American woman recently freed from slavery, and the most important moral dilemma that underpins Beloved. Sethe was forced into an impossible position during her time in enslavement, and her decision then will affect her – and drive the plot – for the rest of her life as a free woman.
In this summary, we are going to give you an outline of Beloved’s narrative and relate this to the novel’s overarching themes and symbols.
A word of caution before we begin. Beloved depicts scenes of rape, violence, and murder, so please take care while reading.
Get ready, because there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Memories of trauma and slavery
It’s 1873. Slavery has been illegal in the United States for just 8 years. Sethe is a former female slave living in Cincinnati, Ohio with her daughter Denver. Her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, lived with them until she passed away. Before her death, Sethe’s two sons Howard and Buglar ran away, likely due to the malevolent ghost haunting their home at 124 Bluestone Road. Denver is fond of the ghost, believing it to be her deceased sister.
On the day the novel begins, Paul D, a man Sethe knew from their time as enslaved people at the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, pays Sethe a visit. His presence brings back painful memories long buried in Sethe’s mind. The narrative alternates between the present day in Cincinnati and flashbacks of events at Sweet Home nearly two decades earlier.
Through fragmented flashbacks, Sethe’s history as an enslaved woman slowly emerges. She was born in the South to an African mother she never knew and separated from her siblings at an early age. When she was 13, Sethe was sold to the Garners, the comparatively benevolent owners of the Sweet Home plantation. The enslaved men there lusted after the young Sethe but never touched her. She married another enslaved man named Halle, who’d purchased his mother Baby Suggs’s freedom. Sethe and Halle had two sons – Howard and Buglar – and an unnamed daughter. When Sethe escaped Sweet Home, she was pregnant with her fourth child, Denver.
After the passing of the kind Mr. Garner, his sadistic brother-in-law known only as “Schoolteacher” took over operations at Sweet Home, making conditions unbearable. Schoolteacher’s nephews beat and raped Sethe, stealing her breastmilk. Her husband Halle watched in horror but was unable to intervene. The enslaved people, including Sethe and Halle, planned their escape.
From the outset of the novel, Morrison makes the themes that she wants to explore clear for readers. This isn’t just a novel about slavery, it’s about the psychological consequences of enslavement which, as the book makes clear, linger for a lifetime – even once it has been legally abolished. To communicate this, Morrison chooses to have two main storylines throughout Beloved – one in the present day at 124 Bluestone Road, and one which she recreates through flashbacks, which tells the story of Sethe’s experience of slavery.
A failed escape and a dark turn
Under Schoolteacher’s reign, life at Sweet Home became impossible. Under a tortuous barrage of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, a group of enslaved people decide to plan an escape. They hope to evade capture by staying off the beaten path and sticking to the woodlands, gradually making their way to the northern states of America where slavery is illegal.
But Schoolteacher and his cruel nephews foil their plans, capturing Paul D and another man called Sixo. Paul D is imprisoned and forced to work on a chain gang, shackled to other prisoners day and night. Sixo, meanwhile, is tied to a tree, tortured, and executed. Although Sethe wasn’t part of the escape attempt, Schoolteacher’s paranoid and sadistic psyche convinces him that she helped them. For this, he viciously whips the pregnant Sethe.
Having been subject to rape, physical abuse, and psychological torture, Sethe is at breaking point. With her children, she manages to escape to Cincinnati, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs is living as a freed woman. By the time they arrive at Baby Suggs’s house, Sethe and her children are starving, ill, and exhausted, having walked hundreds of miles barefoot. They’re all close to death.
They enjoy 28 blissful days of recovery, freedom, and community.
But Schoolteacher’s determined malice isn’t to be beaten. Tracking them down to Baby Suggs’s house, he tries to reclaim Sethe and her children. And, despairing at the thought of her children having to endure a life of enslavement, Sethe takes them into Baby Suggs’s shed and tries to kill them. Three survive this attempt, but Sethe successfully slits the throat of her older daughter. Soon after, Sethe is imprisoned for murder.
One of the most unique aspects of Beloved is how its climax comes much earlier than a traditional novel’s structure. It’s in this part that the brutality of slavery, and the pivotal moment of Sethe murdering her daughter, arrive. By doing this, Morrison allows herself more space to explore the repercussions of the climax than most authors. This creates a burning sense of injustice and an understanding of how the institution of slavery is so vicious that it can push the victims themselves to do vicious things. Morrison is making a comment on the tragically ironic, dehumanizing aspect of slavery – when someone is treated as less than a human, they’ll act as less than a human in order to prevent their loved ones from suffering a similar fate.
Mysterious happenings and an unknown presence
After the activist efforts of Americans who don’t agree with the injustices of slavery, Sethe is eventually freed from prison. She returns to Baby Suggs, who’s fallen into a deep depression. And because of its dark recent past, the Black community has shunned Sethe’s home at 124 Bluestone Road.
Around this time, Paul D finds his way to Sethe’s home in Cincinnati. After years of torture in a chain gang he’s floated aimlessly around America, living in poverty and struggling to find even poorly paid jobs. His arrival kicks off the major events happening in the present-day storyline. For a while, strange things have been happening at 124 Bluestone Road – things will move of their own accord, and whispers can be heard in darkened corners of the house. On the day Paul D arrives, though, a storm erupts in the kitchen. Tables are shaking, dishes are exploding, and knives are flying. After some effort, Paul D manages to chase the ghost out of the home.
Paul D begins living at the home, and it looks as if he, Sethe, and Denver have a promising future together as a family – they might be able to start healing the wounds left behind from their previous lives. But one night, as they make their way home from a carnival, they find a young woman sleeping on the steps. She says her name is Beloved.
Both Sethe and Denver believe that Beloved is the reincarnation of Sethe’s murdered daughter. What’s more, Beloved seems to believe that too. She develops an intense, obsessive attachment to Sethe – she can barely bring herself to leave her side. Denver, craving the sister she’s always missed, is delighted by Beloved’s presence. Only Paul D and Beloved don’t get on. After his fight with the spirit in the kitchen, Paul D is suspicious of Beloved’s motives, while Beloved can’t bear to see the attention and intimacy that Sethe gives to Paul D.
At this point in the plot, Denver begins to grow into a significant character. She’s immature, isolated, and doesn’t have many friends, which Morrison wants us to understand is the result of her mother’s trauma. This helps to underscore the far-reaching consequences of slavery on successive generations.
Another key theme throughout Beloved is motherhood, and Denver’s character helps the author explore this. Her growing attachment to Beloved highlights the complex dynamics of motherhood – Denver’s longing for companionship, and Beloved’s role as a surrogate sister, reveal how the characters seek solace and connection amid shared suffering.
Another significant aspect of Beloved is the portrayal of the African-American community in post-Civil War Ohio. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, is a central figure in this community, serving as a spiritual leader and healer. Her presence offers a contrast to the horrors of slavery, showcasing hope and resilience in the face of adversity. But her eventual fall into depression serves as a reminder of the pervasive and lasting effects of slavery on even the strongest individuals.
The slow road to the tragic ending
As we enter the final part of the story, the pace and dramatic action accelerate.
It starts as the tension between Paul D and Beloved builds to a climax. First, she begins throwing him around the house without even touching him. Finally, one day when Sethe is out she seduces Paul D. Despite trying everything in his power to resist, he loses control of his body – as if Beloved is commanding it for him. After this incident, Paul D leaves 124 Bluestone Road.
Meanwhile, Sethe and Beloved’s relationship grows more intense every day. Beloved’s appetite for Sethe’s love and attention is insatiable, and Sethe, driven by the guilt of her murder, spends every waking moment obsessively tending to Beloved’s needs and demands. With heartbreaking clarity, we become aware of Sethe’s slow descent into madness and ill health as she desperately tries to fulfill Beloved’s appetite for her. Soon, she’s too weak to leave her bed. Beloved grows more manipulative and cruel by the day, while Sethe pleads with her to understand why she killed her.
Meanwhile, Denver has changed. She no longer admires Beloved, and the joy of being reunited with her lost sister has evaporated. She’s seen how Beloved has begun draining the vitality, the very soul, out of her mother and goes out to seek help.
Denver visits her old schoolteacher – a sympathetic white woman named Lady Jones. With her help, the community organizes an attempt to exorcize Beloved from 124 Bluestone Road. But just as they arrive at the house, Denver’s boss also arrives to take her to her first day of work. Sethe, deranged and exhausted, mistakes Denver’s boss for Schoolteacher, and tries to attack him with an ice pick.
The group which has come to exorcize Beloved manages to restrain Sethe, but once the dust settles on the scene, Beloved is nowhere to be seen. She’s vanished, and she’ll never return.
Despite her parasitic presence, Sethe mourns Beloved for the second time in her life. She’s so weak and broken that she retires to Baby Suggs’s old bed in order to die. On her deathbed, Paul D comes to visit Sethe to say one final goodbye.
On this sad note, the story ends. The town and the surviving characters forget Beloved “like an unpleasant dream during a troubled sleep.”
One of the most fascinating things about this complex novel is that because it contains two main storylines, we’re treated to two climaxes. The first was early on in the book when Sethe kills the infant Beloved, as Morrison reconstructs the characters’ pasts through a series of fragmented flashbacks. Now, it comes when the community gathers to exorcize Beloved, and Paul D’s visit to Sethe on her deathbed.
In this final, hauntingly tragic climax, Morrison again highlights just how much the brutality of slavery can affect the lives of the enslaved long after they’re free, and how something so beautiful and pure as motherhood and childhood aren’t free from its corrupting influence.
Sethe, a former enslaved person, is still wrestling with the traumas of her past. When her plantation is taken over by a barbarous new overseer called Schoolteacher, she flees with her children to the northern states where slavery is illegal.
Schoolteacher tracks them down, and in the final moments as he’s closing in, Sethe murders one of her children to protect her from a life of physical and sexual abuse. But once Sethe is freed from her imprisonment through the help of abolitionists, a mysterious young woman named Beloved appears at her home.
Believing that Beloved is the soul of her reincarnated daughter, Sethe spends every waking moment trying to make amends for her murder – even as Beloved grows increasingly demanding and spiteful. Although Sethe’s local community helps to exorcize Beloved from the property, it’s too late for Sethe. Broken and exhausted, she retires to her bed to give up the ghost.
About the Author
History, Society and Culture
Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a profoundly moving and Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece that delves into the deep scars of slavery, the haunting legacy it leaves behind, and the unbreakable bonds of family. Set in post-Civil War Ohio, the story revolves around the life of Sethe, a former slave who has escaped to freedom but is haunted by her past. The novel weaves together the complexities of race, identity, motherhood, and the ghosts of history.
The novel opens with a haunting and ghostly atmosphere, as the house occupied by Sethe and her daughter Denver is believed to be haunted by the spirit of Sethe’s baby daughter who died, referred to as “Beloved.” Sethe’s other surviving daughter, Denver, lives in isolation and fear, as the community shuns their home due to its dark past. When a mysterious young woman named Beloved enters their lives, it becomes apparent that she is more than she seems and may hold the key to unlocking the family’s painful secrets.
Morrison’s narrative is a tapestry of past and present, shifting perspectives, and rich character development. The novel not only explores the physical and emotional horrors of slavery but also delves into the psychological trauma that lingers long after the physical chains have been broken. It presents the reader with a deeply emotional and thought-provoking journey, bringing to light the lasting impact of history on individuals and families.
Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a tour de force in the world of literature, offering an evocative exploration of the African American experience during the post-Civil War period. It is a haunting, poetic, and emotionally charged narrative that invites readers to confront the harsh realities of slavery and its aftermath. The characters are masterfully crafted, and the prose is lyrical, demanding the reader’s engagement and empathy throughout the story.
The novel’s non-linear structure, shifting perspectives, and fragmented narrative mirror the fractured lives of the characters and the fractured history of the nation. The characters are vividly realized, and Morrison’s lyrical prose makes their pain, love, and resilience palpable.
“Beloved” is a powerful examination of the enduring effects of trauma and the lengths to which individuals go to protect their loved ones. It is a novel that stays with you long after the final page, challenging you to reflect on the weight of history, the power of family, and the capacity of the human spirit to overcome the most profound suffering.
In conclusion, “Beloved” is a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking masterpiece that explores the complexities of identity, motherhood, and the haunting legacy of slavery. Toni Morrison’s storytelling prowess shines brightly, making it an essential read for anyone who seeks a deep and emotionally resonant literary experience.