Beloved

Toni Morrison

BACKGROUND

You might have heard of the movie Beloved with Oprah. It was supposed to be this "Oscar Winning" movie , kind of like the Color Purple II, but instead it sucked. Like many movies, there is a book behind it. While stories of slavery have become more common, Beloved is a story that is probably one of the most unique. It is unique because Toni Morrison created a work that is more than the story of a slave, it is a story where the reader is forced to cope with the morality involved in this institution. The central moral task of Beloved revolves around judging the act of infanticide (killing babies) that is committed by the main character of the book. Making it more complex is that in order to make a moral judgment about what happened, you have to tease the story out from characters that are both living and dead, turning this book into quite the ghost story.

As a result, the content of the book is difficult to grasp, but here is a roadmap you can use to try to understand Morrisonís story.

MAIN CHARARCTERS

Sethe: The main character of the story. She was a slave at a place called Sweet Home where she met her husband, Halle and had four children: two boys, Howard and Bugler, and two daughters, Denver and the child that is the ghost known as Beloved in the story. When the book begins, Sethe is no longer a slave, but her life is one that has been shaped by slavery, so that every decision she has ever made, or will make is a result of living her life in slavery.

Beloved: She is the ghost in the story. She died because Sethe killed her in order to protect her from growing up a slave. Even though she is dead, Beloved has quite a grip on the lives of her family.


Halle: Setheís husband who she hasnít seen in years. He disappeared when they tried to escape from slavery.

Baby Suggs: Donít be fooled, Baby Suggs is not a baby- sheís Halleís mother. This makes Sethe her daughter in law and Denver her granddaughter. She lives with Sethe until she dies.

Denver: Setheís daughter. She is the only child that is still with Sethe that she has when she was a slave. As such, Denver represents an important link between Setheís past as a slave and her present role as a freed slave.

Howard and Bugler: Setheís sons who escaped from Sweet Home as well. They get sick of living with the ghost in the house so they run away very early in the book.

Paul D: A fellow slave from Sweet Home. He was close to Setheís husband Halle so he knows her very well. Paul D was not a significant part of her life at Sweet Home, but becomes very important to her during the present time frame of the story.

PLOT

Part 1

The beginning pages of this book are a little difficult to understand because there are a bunch of time shifts, almost all of the characters are introduced, and a lot of important history is discussed. Confusing, but hang in there. This is most of what you need to know.

The book starts out with a description of the house- referred to as 124. What you really need to know about 124 is that its haunted. Everybody in the town knows it and the people in the house definitely know it. The ghost there is clearly pissed off: why else would she make the house shake and rattle, nearly kill the dog (really), and throw food around?

We learn that the two sons of Sethe are scared off by the ghost and run away. Baby Suggs, the grandmother who lives in the house with everyone, dies. This leaves only Denver and her mom Sethe to deal with the ghost.

At this point you need to understand who the ghost is. The ghost is actually Beloved- the baby that Sethe killed before she left Sweet Home (thatís the place where Sethe was a slave). The age of the ghost at this part of the book is a baby (as opposed to an adult ghost). This doesnít sound important now, but it will be when the ghost appears in human form later.

Paul D shows up at Setheís house. Paul D was a friend of hers at Sweet Home and was friends with Setheís husband. Apparently, Sethe was a pretty hot item at Sweet Home and Paul D remembers her as such. So, when they see each other again, there is a little bit of flirting going on. Eventually, Sethe invites him inside.

Inviting Paul D in for dinner seems like a good idea for Sethe, but clearly, Beloved doesnít think so. The first sign of her discontent with Setheís guest is a strange red light that greets Paul D when he steps into the house.

At this point another confusing time shift takes place. Basically, it is a lot of background about life at Sweet Home. The take home lesson from all of this is that Sweet Home wasnít an altogether bad place to have to be a slave. The slave men respected the slave women, and the slaveís master, Garner, was good to his slaves.

Back to the present. Paul D ends up in Setheís kitchen and Denver walks in. She is also not happy about him being there. Not nearly as unhappy, however as Beloved. It doesnít take her long to launch an assault in ghost fashion on Paul D. Beloved throws the kitchen table at Paul D, breaks plates, and tilt the floorboards.. If there is a way to determine a winner if this fight, it is Paul D. Only insofar as he hasnít been scared away by Belovedís presence- yet. This is an important sign that even from the other side, Beloved is capable of showing a possessiveness for Sethe. Beloved has driven everyone but Sethe and Denver from the house in order to have Setheís attention.

So how do you get over the trauma of fighting with a ghost? The coping mechanism employed by Sethe and Paul D is to jump in bed and "reacquaint," so to speak. What end up happening is they have passionate sex, but neither one too happy about what just happened. For Paul D, being with Sethe brings back a rush of memories from Sweet Home. Mostly memories of how much he wanted her then, and then a harsh realization that after 25 years of wanting her, he had her and any more desire for Sethe is gone. However, Paul D realizes that for some reason he is compelled to stick around Sethe, Denver, and Beloved.

Speaking of Denver... We havenít really heard much about her, but do not make the mistake of thinking that she is not a very important character. The first important thing to know about Denver is that she is a very lonely child- she doesnít leave the grounds of 124 and she has no friends (friends donít really want to come over when there is a ghost in the house) so Denver is left to the company of her mom and her imagination. But is it just imagination? Take the following story: Denver is approaching the house and all of the windows seem to be shielded. Except for one. In the one window through which she can see, Denver sees her mom kneeling in prayer. Standing next to Sethe is a white dress (notice- not a person in a white dress, but just the dress itself) and the sleeve is wrapped around her momís waist. Upon seeing this, Denver is filled with the memory of her childbirth. But its not just the memory of what her mother has told her about the childbirth, she is also filled with the memory of what it felt like at the time (something that normal people really canít vouch for).

The story of the birth of Denver merits significant attention. Two key things are happening to Sethe: sheís trying to leave Sweet Home and slavery on foot, and sheís about to give birth to Denver. Tired, hungry, with blistered feet, Sethe is nearly ready to give up hope about living through this when a girl, Amy, appears before her. Amy claims to be on her way to Boston to shop for velvet. Upon running into this poor woman on the verge of dying or giving birth (whichever should come first) Amy decides to help her through the experience. Amy leads Sethe (note: at this point in the book Sethe is referred to as Lu, because that how she introduced herself to her) to a place where she can help Sethe be comfortable. This is as much as you get about the birth of Denver- for now, because in typical Toni Morrison fashion, she switches subjects again.

Now we move to the first time that Paul D, Sethe and Denver function as a family. The ghost hasnít been around since Paul D came on the scene and he "fought" her, theyíve gotten into a routine and Paul D thinks things have settled enough that they should get out of 124 and spend some quality time together. So, they all go to a fair. They walk together as a happy family, eat candy, play games, have a wonderful day. But, if you remember, this is actually a ghost story, so things canít stay perfect for too long.

This is where it happens: Sethe, Denver, and Paul D are walking home from the fair and a young-looking girl wearing a black dress and new shoes that are untied is in front of them. Clearly, this is an alarming sight for Sethe because she nearly wets her pants (really). Because of this bladder emergency, Sethe runs off to take care of business, and when she returns, Paul D, Denver, and the girl are in the house. This girl is parched, drinking cupful after cupful of water. Sheís not talking until someone asks her name. Her answer: Beloved. Finally! The ghost youíve heard so much about is before us in the flesh.

So, Beloved hangs out at Setheís house. All she does is sleep, and then wake up for a little bit for water, then goes back to sleep again. Sounds kind of like a baby- eating and sleeping, needing someone to take care of her, right? Bingo. This is something that takes the whole book to figure out but lucky for you Iím telling you now. Beloved comes back into Setheís life in the body of an adult, but at the mental level that is the same age as when Sethe killed her at Sweet Home. But, sheís going to mature quickly so look for signs of it in the book. Itís only good to know now so that Belovedís strange behavior is slightly understandable.

Beloved eventually gets out of her funk and starts interacting more with Sethe and Denver. Mostly Sethe. She demands enormous amounts of her time. Mostly what she wants is to be told stories of Setheís life. About getting diamonds she got as a wedding gift from her masterís wife and about Setheís mother. This is a red flag! How would Beloved know to ask for these stories? For you, the now informed reader, it is because in a sense, Beloved has always been around. But for Denver and Sethe, they are just figuring out that Beloved is actually the "person" that they think she is.

Now that Beloved has sufficiently forged her way into Sethe and Denverís life, it is time to get into Paul Dís head. She does this by "shining." I donít know how else to put this, but basically, sheís giving signals to Paul D that she wants to get busy with him. Beloved the baby is now turning into Beloved the seductress.

Beloved and Denver start to get closer. They begin to share a room, play together, and Beloved begins to open up to Denver. She talks a lot of being "in the dark" (i.e., being dead) and in doing so, admits to Denver that she could care less about Denver, really. What Beloved really wants is Sethe- all to herself. She wants her attention, and when Sethe is not around, she wants to hear stories about her. This is how you find out more about Denverís birth. Denver tells Beloved that the woman who had called herself Lu helped Sethe through a most difficult childbirth. Both Sethe and her baby were in danger of dying during the birth. Once they made it through that, Lu stayed with Sethe through that night and morning and then sent her on her way across the river where she would find freedom. And here is the important part if youíve been skimming through this: just before leaving, "Lu" tells Sethe that she wants that baby to know how she got into the world. She instructs Sethe to tell her that Amy Denver of Boston brought her into the world. And that is how Denver got her name.

The next big thing that happens is that Sethe decides to go to a clearing with Denver and Beloved. The clearing is has a lot of history for Sethe (good history- stuff about when 124 wasnít a nuthouse and people werenít afraid of it) and she wants some time there so that she can pay tribute to Halle. They are all in the clearing when Sethe begins to rub her sore neck. Beloved points out that there are bruises around her neck (from what?). This is where the weird things happen again. Beloved begins to massage Setheís neck then she leans down, and a bizarre thing happens. Beloved leans down to Setheís neck to kiss it. But in doing so Sethe gets completely freaked out, giving the impression to Denver that Beloved is choking her. Its hard to understand exactly what happens, but it seems like Beloved was trying to heal Sethe in some way. The process externally seems like a kiss, but for Sethe, it was painful. Painful because she realized that Belovedís touch was the same touch that she had been feeling in 124 from "the other side" for 18 years. So, this flood of emotion is what causes this kiss, massage thing to make Sethe jump up and run off in a manner that looks like sheís been assaulted by Beloved. Really, its just Beloved making it known to Sethe who she really is: the baby that she killed with her own hands.

Paul D continues to get freaked out by Beloved. He has made the connection between the ghost he fought when he first showed up at 124 and the bizarre person-like thing that torments him now. Slowly, he begins to escape 124. He does this one room at a time. Instead of sleeping in a bed with Sethe, he sleeps in a chair downstairs. When that wasnít working for him, he started sleeping in Baby Suggís bed. Then that stopped working and he moved to the storeroom, and them finally the cold house- a structure separated from 124 where he thought he would be safe. If youíve started skimming again, read carefully: this final move towards what Paul D thinks is safety only leads Beloved to him. Finally, Beloved has won and convinces him in the cold house (with not too much trouble, I might add) to have sex with her.

For as needy that Beloved was towards Paul D, Beloved becomes needy towards Sethe and Denver. This time her need is food and of course, attention. Paul D kind of keeps his distance and lets Denver and Sethe become wrapped up with Beloved.

In the meantime Paul D is wrought with distress over the whole Beloved/ghost/sex thing (you would be too). He decides heís going to have to leave 124 to get away from it all. He tries to break this news to Sethe, but he fails miserably. He never gets to the part about leaving and they find themselves in bed, deciding that heís going to be sleeping in the house again. This pisses Beloved off in a big way (and in case you havenít caught on, this is not the ghost you should mess with). Beloved isnít hiding her contempt anymore. It seems reasonable to assume that Beloved thought that by bedding Paul D outside of the house, she would drive him off the property as well, leaving Sethe all to herself (with Denver too, but she needs Denver- refer to things to make you look smart for an explanation).

In a conversation that Beloved has with Denver about getting rid of Paul D, yet another weird thing happens. Beloved just stops talking and pulls out a tooth. No pain, almost no blood, just a tooth. This is a big thing b/c Beloved admits what sheís afraid of:: falling apart. Like physically falling apart- her arms flying off her had not staying put on her neck any longer and tooth is just a beginning. What does this mean? It should be a sign that Beloved is going to be very needy. There is some glue that keeps her together and it is Setheís presence.

Finally, we get to a point where we find out what horrible thing Sethe did at Sweet Home, what turned Beloved into the ghost that she is. Pay attention. Everything that goes on in this book is actually a precursor or a consequence to this one complex decision that Sethe makes.

Like everything else in the book, this pivotal scene is written out of order somewhat. Iím going to give it to you in order, just to make your life easier. Sethe takes her children to a barn. This would be Beloved, Howard, Bugler and Denver. The boys are lying in the sawdust bleeding (we never hear exactly what she did to them) Sethe has her baby in her hand and starts to swing it into the planks the make up the wall of the barn. She misses and swings the baby toward the planks again. She is stopped by people outside who see this and quickly slave catchers and schoolteacher and the sheriff are in the barn. More importantly, Baby Suggs is there. Baby Suggs is trying to tend to the children. She notices that they are all alive, with the exception of the baby that is Beloved. Sethe is covered in Belovedís blood and just holding her. In an effort to bring things back to order, Baby Suggs suggests that she nurse Denver. Without thinking, she brings Denver to her breast, allowing her to take her milk along with the blood of her sister. This is where the unbreakable link between Denver, Beloved and Sethe happens.

This incident is brought back from the dead when Paul D meets in a pig yard with a guy named Stamp Paid who has a newspaper clipping. This clipping has the story printed on it, but no longer has the entire picture of the person who committed the crime. Paul D doesnít want to admit to Stamp that the person in this story and Sethe are the same

Beloved is getting weirder and Paul D is growing more uncomfortable. In the final "chapter" of part one, Paul D confronts Sethe on this act of infanticide that she committed in the barn 18 years earlier. In an emotional scene, he tells her that there must have been some other way to escape slavery (thereby judging her decision to be wrong). After really offending her, Paul D leaves.

Part 2

This section begins with Stamp wondering if he did the right thing when he told Paul D about Sethe. Meanwhile, Paul D is wondering if he did the right thing about bringing it up. He knows that he hurt Sethe and he is worried about Denverís well being now that heís gone. He realizes that she is going to have a lot on her plate being alone with Sethe and Beloved.

The three woman that are left in 124 grow closer and closer. Mostly all they do in the house is eat and talk together. Sethe begins to care less about life outside 124 and in the process gets herself fired from her job because she was always late leaving the house.

The following chapters are very important for understanding what is going on in the heads of Sethe, Denver and Beloved. Sethe goes into detail about how glad she is that Beloved has come back to her. According to Sethe, Beloved has left her twice- the first time when she killed her, the second time when Paul D threw her ghost out of the house. For Sethe, the fact that Beloved is back shows that Beloved must understand why she killed her in the first place- a vindication of some sort.

Denverís take on the whole thing is that sheís genuinely freaked that her mother killed one of her own kids. The poor girl has apparently been living her life wondering if her mother will be so moved to kill her. In fact, she is so gripped with this fear that the large part of her relationship with Beloved consists of running interference between Beloved and Sethe so that Sethe doesnít try to kill her again.

The two chapters that follow these are pretty bizarre. They both start out with the same sentence, "I am Beloved and she is mine." It seems sort of clear that this is Beloved talking. It seems like the "she" is Sethe. The next chapter is not all Beloved talking. The first hint is that the first of these chapters is written without punctuation- causing an image of disjointed words that goes along with the reality of a disjointed ghost. The next chapter seems to follow general grammar practices- like periods between sentences. What then follows seems to be a dialogue between Beloved, Sethe and Denver. They talk about what they mean to each other, what theyíre afraid of. Really, its not much that we donít already know- the form of how this is written almost says more than the words.

More pieces of the puzzle show up. The plan for escape from Sweet Home is told. More importantly, Halleís disappearance is brought to light. Stamp tells Paul D that he saw Sethe kill that baby that day in the barn. He seems to defend what she did in a manner that seems to say that Paul D should cut Sethe a little slack.

Part 3

Now that Paul D is really gone and Sethe is devoting all her time to Beloved and not working, the three left in the house have grown quiet. Theyíre quiet because there is literally no food left after being locked up in that house for so long. Beloved grew to become even higher maintenance. Denver canít take it anymore (she is the only sane one there, after all) and finally leaves 124 and seeks out Lady Jones, her old teacher from school. Denver asks her for a job and even though she couldnít give her work, the visit inspires Lady Jones to get food to 124.

Denverís life outside improves, but inside of 124 it gets worse. Denver looks for a job again and finds one. This job search of hers does two things: it gets her out of the house and saves her own life, and it spreads the truth about 124 through the town. Slowly, people are finding out that things inside of 124 are very bad.

Denver finally finds a job with the Bodwin family. Whether it is out of pity or because they really have a job for her, the Bodwinís decide to let her work there during the nights (when Beloved and Sethe are sleeping- the only safe time to leave them alone) and Mr. Bodwin will go and pick her up. The evening of the first night that she will work there, the community rallies behind Denver and Beloved. The local women gather outside of 124 and begin to sing. It draws Sethe out of the house, and more importantly it draws Beloved out of the house. For the first time, the women of the community see the thing that has wrecked the life of Sethe. Beloved appears on the front porch with Sethe in the form of a pregnant woman (remember that night with Paul D?). In a scene that takes everyone by surprise, Sethe is tackled my Denver and then Mr. Bodwin, who has arrived. Sethe is torn from the grasp of Beloved . You never hear how it happens, but Beloved disappears.

In the final scene of the book, Paul D makes a last trip to 124. Sethe has been bedridden since Beloved was scared away because she is so hurt that Beloved "left her" again. Paul D tries to convince her that all she needs in life is herself and she should go on, but to no avail.

The final chapter of the book seems to be mostly the voice of the author commenting on what Sethe thinks of everything that happened. Loneliness is more real than you can imagine- it takes on a form that is physical, yet no amount of physical resistance can push it away. She is hurt by the loneliness of not being with her child that she killed, but more so by the loneliness what comes when the people you care about are forgotten. Because the story was not "one to pass on," all Sethe is left with at the end is her memory, and her memory of Beloved.

THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART

  • Always keep in mind that Denver is a living link between past and present. This happens the moment that she drank Setheís milk with her sisters blood the day her sister was killed in the barn. Of course Denver is not conscious of this at the time, but it is the symbolic tool that makes her a much more complex character, especially in dealing with the dynamics of her relationships with Paul D, her mother, and of course, Beloved.
  • Toni Morrison wrote her dissertation on William Faulkner. Does that have to do with anything here? Yes! The disjointed writing style that is especially evident in the "I am Beloved, she is mine," chapters bears a strong resemblance to the writing in The Sound and the Fury.