Beloved is a novel written by Toni Morrison.
Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved, is a proud and independent woman who is extremely devoted to her children. Though she barely knew her own mother, Sethe's motherly instincts are her most striking characteristic.
- Denver - Sethe's youngest child, is the most dynamic character in the novel. Though intelligent, introspective, and sensitive, Denver has been stunted in her emotional growth by years of relative isolation. Beloved's increasing malevolence, however, forces Denver to overcome her fear of the world beyond 124 and seek help from the community. Her foray out into the town and her attempts to find permanent work and possibly attend college mark the beginning of her fight for independence and self-possession.
- Beloved - Beloved's identity is mysterious. The novel provides evidence that she could be an ordinary woman traumatized by years of captivity, the ghost of Sethe's mother, or, most convincingly, the embodied spirit of Sethe's murdered daughter. On an allegorical level, Beloved represents the inescapable, horrible past of slavery returned to haunt the present. Her presence, which grows increasingly malevolent and parasitic as the novel progresses, ultimately serves as a catalyst for Sethe's, Paul D's, and Denver's respective processes of emotional growth. The during the end of the novel, she was smiling then disappeared.
- Paul D - Sethe welcomes him to 124, where he becomes her lover and the object of Denver's and Beloved's jealousy. Though his union with Sethe provides him with stability and allows him to come to terms with his past, Paul D continues to doubt fundamental aspects of his identity, such as the source of his manhood and his value as a person.
- Baby Suggs - After Halle buys his mother, Baby Suggs, her freedom, she travels to Cincinnati, where she becomes a source of emotional and spiritual inspiration for the city's black residents. She holds religious gatherings at a place called the Clearing, where she teaches her followers to love their voices, bodies, and minds. However, after Sethe's act of infanticide, Baby Suggs stops preaching and retreats to a sickbed to die. Even so, Baby Suggs continues to be a source of inspiration long after her death: in Part Three her memory motivates Denver to leave 124 and find help. It is partially out of respect for Baby Suggs that the community responds to Denver's requests for support.
- Stamp Paid - Like Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid is considered by the community to be a figure of salvation, and he is welcomed at every door in town. An agent of the Underground Railroad, he helps Sethe to freedom and later saves Denver's life. A grave sacrifice he made during his enslavement has caused him to consider his emotional and moral debts to be paid off for the rest of his life, which is why he decided to rename himself “Stamp Paid.” Yet by the end of the book he realizes that he may still owe protection and care to the residents of 124. Angered by the community's neglect of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D, Stamp begins to question the nature of a community's obligations to its members.
- Schoolteacher - Following Mr. Garner's death, schoolteacher takes charge of Sweet Home. Cold, sadistic, and vehemently racist, schoolteacher replaces what he views as Garner's too-soft approach with an oppressive regime of rigid rules and punishment on the plantation. Schoolteacher's own habits are extremely ascetic: he eats little, sleeps less, and works hard. His most insidious form of oppression is his “scientific” scrutiny of the slaves, which involves asking questions, taking physical measurements, and teaching lessons to his white pupils on the slaves' “animal characteristics.” The lower-case s of schoolteacher's appellation may have an ironic meaning: although he enjoys a position of extreme power over the slaves, they attribute no worth to him.
- Halle - Sethe's husband and Baby Suggs's son, Halle is generous, kind, and sincere. He is very much alert to the hypocrisies of the Garners' “benevolent” form of slaveholding. Halle eventually goes mad, presumably after witnessing schoolteacher's nephews' violation of Sethe.
- Lady Jones - Lady Jones, a light-skinned black woman who loathes her blond hair, is convinced that everyone despises her for being a woman of mixed race. Despite her feelings of alienation, she maintains a strong sense of community obligation and teaches the underprivileged children of Cincinnati in her home. She is skeptical of the supernatural dimensions of Denver's plea for assistance, but she nevertheless helps to organize the community's delivery of food to Sethe's plagued household.
- Ella - Ella worked with Stamp Paid on the Underground Railroad. Traumatized by the sexual brutality of a white father and son who once held her captive, she believes, like Sethe, that the past is best left buried. When it surfaces in the form of Beloved, Ella organizes the women of the community to exorcise Beloved from 124.
- Mr. and Mrs. Garner - Mr. and Mrs. Garner are the comparatively benevolent owners of Sweet Home. The events at Sweet Home reveal, however, that the idea of benevolent slavery is a contradiction in terms. The Garners' paternalism and condescension are simply watered-down versions of schoolteacher's vicious racism.
- Mr. and Miss Bodwin - Siblings Mr. and Miss Bodwin are white abolitionists who have played an active role in winning Sethe's freedom. Yet there is something disconcerting about the Bodwins' politics. Mr. Bodwin longs a little too eagerly for the “heady days” of abolitionism, and Miss Bodwin demonstrates a condescending desire to “experiment” on Denver by sending her to Oberlin College. The distasteful figurine Denver sees in the Bodwins' house, portraying a slave and displaying the message “At Yo' Service,” marks the limits and ironies of white involvement in the struggle for racial equality. Nevertheless, the siblings are motivated by good intentions, believing that “human life is holy, all of it.”
- Amy Denver - A nurturing and compassionate girl who works as an indentured servant, Amy is young, flighty, talkative, and idealistic. She helps Sethe when she is ill during her escape from Sweet Home, and when she sees Sethe's wounds from being whipped, Amy says that they resemble a tree. She later delivers baby Denver, whom Sethe names after her.
- Paul A, Paul F, and Sixo - Paul A and Paul F are the brothers of Paul D. They were slaves at Sweet Home with him, Halle, Sethe, and, earlier, Baby Suggs. Sixo is another fellow slave. Sixo and Paul A die during the escape from the plantation.
Beloved begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Sethe, a former slave, has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver. Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, lived with them until her death eight years earlier. Just before Baby Suggs's death, Sethe's two sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away. Sethe believes they fled because of the malevolent presence of an abusive ghost that has haunted their house at 124 Bluestone Road for years. Denver, however, likes the ghost, which everyone believes to be the spirit of her dead sister.
On the day the novel begins, Paul D, whom Sethe has not seen since they worked together on Mr. Garner's Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky approximately twenty years earlier, stops by Sethe's house. His presence resurrects memories that have lain buried in Sethe's mind for almost two decades. From this point on, the story will unfold on two temporal planes. The present in Cincinnati constitutes one plane, while a series of events that took place around twenty years earlier, mostly in Kentucky, constitutes the other. This latter plane is accessed and described through the fragmented flashbacks of the major characters. Accordingly, we frequently read these flashbacks several times, sometimes from varying perspectives, with each successive narration of an event adding a little more information to the previous ones.
From these fragmented memories, the following story begins to emerge: Sethe, the protagonist, was born in the South to an African mother she never knew. When she is thirteen, she is sold to the Garners, who own Sweet Home and practice a comparatively benevolent kind of slavery. There, the other slaves, who are all men, lust after her but never touch her. Their names are Sixo, Paul D, Paul A, Paul F, and Halle. Sethe chooses to marry Halle, apparently in part because he has proven generous enough to buy his mother's freedom by hiring himself out on the weekends. Together, Sethe and Halle have two sons, Howard and Buglar, as well as a baby daughter whose name we never learn. When she leaves Sweet Home, Sethe is also pregnant with a fourth child. After the eventual death of the proprietor, Mr. Garner, the widowed Mrs. Garner asks her sadistic, vehemently racist brother-in-law to help her run the farm. He is known to the slaves as schoolteacher, and his oppressive presence makes life on the plantation even more unbearable than it had been before. The slaves decide to run.
Schoolteacher and his nephews anticipate the slaves' escape, however, and capture Paul D and Sixo. Schoolteacher kills Sixo and brings Paul D back to Sweet Home, where Paul D sees Sethe for what he believes will be the last time. She is still intent on running, having already sent her children ahead to her mother-in-law Baby Suggs's house in Cincinnati. Invigorated by the recent capture, schoolteacher's nephews seize Sethe in the barn and violate her, stealing the milk her body is storing for her infant daughter. Unbeknownst to Sethe, Halle is watching the event from a loft above her, where he lies frozen with horror. Afterward, Halle goes mad: Paul D sees him sitting by a churn with butter slathered all over his face. Paul D, meanwhile, is forced to suffer the indignity of wearing an iron bit in his mouth.
When schoolteacher finds out that Sethe has reported his and his nephews' misdeeds to Mrs. Garner, he has her whipped severely, despite the fact that she is pregnant. Swollen and scarred, Sethe nevertheless runs away, but along the way she collapses from exhaustion in a forest. A white girl, Amy Denver, finds her and nurses her back to health. When Amy later helps Sethe deliver her baby in a boat, Sethe names this second daughter Denver after the girl who helped her. Sethe receives further help from Stamp Paid, who rows her across the Ohio River to Baby Suggs's house. Baby Suggs cleans Sethe up before allowing her to see her three older children.
Sethe spends twenty-eight wonderful days in Cincinnati, where Baby Suggs serves as an unofficial preacher to the black community. On the last day, however, schoolteacher comes for Sethe to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. Rather than surrender her children to a life of dehumanizing slavery, she flees with them to the woodshed and tries to kill them. Only the third child, her older daughter, dies, her throat having been cut with a handsaw by Sethe. Sethe later arranges for the baby's headstone to be carved with the word “Beloved.” The sheriff takes Sethe and Denver to jail, but a group of white abolitionists, led by the Bodwins, fights for her release. Sethe returns to the house at 124, where Baby Suggs has sunk into a deep depression. The community shuns the house, and the family continues to live in isolation.
Meanwhile, Paul D has endured torturous experiences in a chain gang in Georgia, where he was sent after trying to kill Brandywine, a slave owner to whom he was sold by schoolteacher. His traumatic experiences have caused him to lock away his memories, emotions, and ability to love in the “tin tobacco box” of his heart. One day, a fortuitous rainstorm allows Paul D and the other chain gang members to escape. He travels northward by following the blossoming spring flowers. Years later, he ends up on Sethe's porch in Cincinnati.
Paul D's arrival at 124 commences the series of events taking place in the present time frame. Prior to moving in, Paul D chases the house's resident ghost away, which makes the already lonely Denver resent him from the start. Sethe and Paul D look forward to a promising future together, until one day, on their way home from a carnival, they encounter a strange young woman sleeping near the steps of 124. Most of the characters believe that the woman—who calls herself Beloved—is the embodied spirit of Sethe's dead daughter, and the novel provides a wealth of evidence supporting this interpretation. Denver develops an obsessive attachment to Beloved, and Beloved's attachment to Sethe is equally if not more intense. Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and Beloved controls Paul D by moving him around the house like a rag doll and by seducing him against his will.
When Paul D learns the story of Sethe's “rough choice”—her infanticide—he leaves 124 and begins sleeping in the basement of the local church. In his absence, Sethe and Beloved's relationship becomes more intense and exclusive. Beloved grows increasingly abusive, manipulative, and parasitic, and Sethe is obsessed with satisfying Beloved's demands and making her understand why she murdered her. Worried by the way her mother is wasting away, Denver leaves the premises of 124 for the first time in twelve years in order to seek help from Lady Jones, her former teacher. The community provides the family with food and eventually organizes under the leadership of Ella, a woman who had worked on the Underground Railroad and helped with Sethe's escape, in order to exorcise Beloved from 124. When they arrive at Sethe's house, they see Sethe on the porch with Beloved, who stands smiling at them, naked and pregnant. Mr. Bodwin, who has come to 124 to take Denver to her new job, arrives at the house. Mistaking him for schoolteacher, Sethe runs at Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick. She is restrained, but in the confusion Beloved disappears, never to return.
Afterward, Paul D comes back to Sethe, who has retreated to Baby Suggs's bed to die. Mourning Beloved, Sethe laments, “She was my best thing.” But Paul D replies, “You your best thing, Sethe.” The novel then ends with a warning that “[t]his is not a story to pass on.” The town, and even the residents of 124, have forgotten Beloved “[l]ike an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep.”
The Color Red
Colors from the red part of the spectrum (including orange and pink) recur throughout Beloved, although the meaning of these red objects varies. Amy Denver's red velvet, for example, is an image of hope and a brighter future, while Paul D's “red heart” represents feeling and emotion. Overall, red seems to connote vitality and the visceral nature of human existence. Yet, in Beloved, vitality often goes hand in hand with mortality, and red images simultaneously refer to life and death, to presence and absence. For example, the red roses that line the road to the carnival serve to herald the carnival's arrival in town and announce the beginning of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D's new life together; yet they also stink of death. The red rooster signifies manhood to Paul D, but it is a manhood that Paul D himself has been denied. The story of Amy's search for carmine velvet seems especially poignant because we sense the futility of her dream. Sethe's memory is awash with the red of her daughter's blood and the pink mineral of her gravestone, both of which have been bought at a dear price. It also represent life and pain.
In the world of Beloved, trees serve primarily as sources of healing, comfort, and life. Denver's “emerald closet” of boxwood bushes functions as a place of solitude and repose for her. The beautiful trees of Sweet Home mask the true horror of the plantation in Sethe's memory. Paul D finds his freedom by following flowering trees to the North, and Sethe finds hers by escaping through a forest. By imagining the scars on Sethe's back as a “chokecherry tree,” Amy Denver sublimates a site of trauma and brutality into one of beauty and growth. But as the sites of lynchings and of Sixo's death by burning, however, trees reveal a connection with a darker side of humanity as well.
An alternative reading could suggest that the motif of trees symbolize oppression within the novel. For example, the 'chokecherry tree', although being used as a means of hope and to overcome the unjust treatment Sethe endured, also represents the horrific beating itself. In this way trees can be linked to suffering.
Symbolic of rebirth and a baptism