Author Background

Toni Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was born in Ohio and lived there for the first few years of her life. Her novel Beloved is about the repression of memories and denial of the past, commonly seen among slaves. They have been so traumatized by their past that they refuse to confront memories, preferring to bury it. They lack a sense of self without which it is impossible to have meaningful relationships.

Relevance of the Title

Beloved was the word chosen by Sethe for the grave-stone of the two year old daughter that she killed to stop her from falling into a life of slavery. But later the word and the persona behind it come to haunt her. The ghost is manipulative and demanding. She causes discord in the family that is under emotional stress while it tries to handle the issues of slavery, loss of a sense of self and loss itself.  It is only when Sethe acknowledges the past that the ghost is exorcised.

Main Themes

The Destruction of Self

Slavery not only took away freedom from people but it also denied them an identity. The slaves were repeatedly told that they were sub-humans who lacked intelligence and the ability to lead meaningful lives. They subject to harsh punishment and bought and sold as commodities. Even when they were free, old slaves were not able to think of themselves as individuals.  As slaves were torn from their families, they were not able to fulfill natural roles as siblings, parents and spouses.

Significance of Community

Beloved is largely about the position of individuals in their community. Robbed of community support, people lose their sense of belonging. They function in isolation where they fall prey to oppressing forces. It is when Sethe comes to Cincinnati for twenty eight days that she understands what community means. For Denver too, finding her community involved leaving home and experiencing the outside world.

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Characters

Sethe

Sethe is an independent woman whose joy in life is her children. She is ready to do anything to prevent her children from falling into a life of slavery; even killing them. She is so traumatized by this act that she suffers untold pangs of guilt. She suppresses her memory of the terrible things that her white owners have done to her. It is only much later in life she gets a true identity.

Beloved is one of the disturbing characters in the novel. She is likely to be the embodied spirit of the daughter Sethe had killed to save her from a life of slavery. She is malevolent and makes people do things that they really don’t wish to. On the positive side, she is the catalyst for the emotional growth of Denver and Sethe.

Denver

Denver is the intelligent and sensitive younger daughter of Sethe but her isolation from the community into which she was born makes her stunted emotionally. Denver is forced to leave home and venture outside because of Beloved’s malevolence. But it is good for Denver as she sees the outside world for the first time.

Summary

Sethe and her youngest daughter Denver live in a house which is haunted by the embodied ghost of the two year daughter that Sethe had killed to save her from a life of slavery. The presence of the ghost is disrupting; Sethe’s two young sons have left home because of it. One day, Paul D, a man whom Sethe had known several years ago comes visiting. Seeing the condition under which Sethe and her daughter live, he offers to exorcise the ghost. For a while it looks like he is successful, but one day they find a young woman sitting outside the house. She says she is Beloved.  Paul D is suspicious; he thinks that it is the ghost in embodied form. But Sethe is charmed by the young woman. She takes her in. Gradually Paul is shunted out of the house by the machinations of the ghost.

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Later, Beloved seduces him. He is disturbed but cannot stop what is happening. His friends warn him of getting involved with Sethe and his family. When he questions Sethe about her isolation from the community, Sethe narrates the story behind Beloved. Sethe had run away from the plantation where she, Paul D and several others were slaves. Sethe manages to escape from there though her husband gets left behind. The pregnant Sethe reaches Cincinnati where her mother lives with Sethe’s three children. But soon, her white owners track her down and plan to take her and children back to the plantation. Sethe desperately wants to save her children from slavery. She decides to kill them rather than have them live as slaves. But she is able to kill only the two year daughter. She has the word “Beloved” inscribed on her gravestone. Paul D is horrified by this story and leaves.

As the story moves to its climax, women from the community arrive to exorcise the ghost. The arrival at the same time of a white man confuses Sethe. She thinks that the white man is the master of the plantation who had tortured her. In reality, he is the man who had helped Sethe’s mother long ago. Not knowing this, she attacks him. This action re-kindles the memory that she had suppressed all this while. The ghost leaves the house.

Quotes

  1. 124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.

124 is the number of the house occupied by Sethe’s mother and later by Sethe herself. A place to call one’s own was what most slaves longed for. For people who had no identity of their own a place of their own was a dream beyond reality. All three parts of the novel begin with an observation about 124 emphasizing the importance the author ascribed to the house.

  1. White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way . . . they were right. . . . But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place. . . It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread . . . until it invaded the whites who had made it. . . . Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.
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The white people believed that the blacks were not civilized; they belonged to the jungle and carried the wild ways of the jungle with them. The truth was that it was the whites who pulled the blacks out of the jungle and planted them in a strange land. They were ready to kill and maim the blacks because of their racial prejudices.

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