Sethe, an escaped slave, is the main character of the novel. Her major role in life is that of mother; her children are everything to her. Sethe experiences the brutality of slavery firsthand, being beaten and dehumanized. In a culture of servitude, where family relationships don't matter to the slave owners, Sethe feels blessed that all four of her children have the same father. Sethe is a strong woman. On her own she manages to get her children safely to Cincinnati, where they will be free. When their freedom is threatened, she will do anything to keep her children from having to live through the horrors she has endured. Out of love she makes the "rough choice" to kill them. She manages to kill one of her children and is sent to jail. Freed from jail, she is alienated from her community. She tries to keep memories of the past at bay, but, with the help of others, including the ghost of her dead child, she finally faces those memories. She accepts the past and moves toward the future. Sethe is a symbol of motherhood in its most profound form. By killing her child, she "saved" it from a life of servitude and despair.
Beloved is murdered by her mother when their former master comes to reclaim them after they escape slavery. At first, she haunts the family as the ghost of a baby, playing planks that gradually become more serious. Later, she returns in the form of an 18-year-old woman to manipulate her mother and sister and to drive away her mother's new lover. Her disturbing and demanding presence forces them to face the memories of their past. She is eventually driven out of their lives.
Denver, Sethe's youngest child, is an innocent victim of the events of the novel. She spends her childhood isolated from the outside community because her mother killed her older sister and the tragedy caused their neighbors to shun them. She becomes a teenager constantly searching for her own identity. At the same time, she craves attention from her mother and Beloved. Learning what her mother has done, she lives in constant fear that her mother will kill her too. She dreams about her father coming to live with them and is resentful when Paul D moves in. Throughout the novel Denver becomes more independent. At one point she becomes the caregiver for both Beloved and her mother. Desperate, she summons the courage to leave the house to ask community members for help. It is then that she feels herself become a woman. When Beloved is driven out for good, Denver finds a job and begins to prepare to go to college.
Paul D is a fellow slave at Sweet Home farm when he meets Sethe. When she chooses Halle, Paul D and the other men still fantasize about her. Paul D is caught, trying to escape, and taken back to the farm in chains. He is sold and attempts to kill his new owner. Forced to work on a prison chain gang, he is miraculously able to escape to the North. For years he wanders around, never putting down roots, and not wanting to. Finally, he ends up in Cincinnati, at Sethe's home. Paul D and Sethe are lovers until Beloved begins to control him and he is tormented by her. When he finds out that Sethe murdered her own child, he is appalled, compares her to an animal, and leaves her. Slowly, he comes to terms with his own and Sethe's past and determines to make a future with her.
At the beginning of the novel, Baby Suggs is dead. The reader learns about her through flashbacks. During her time as a slave, she became crippled and was only allowed to raise one of her eight children, all of whom had different fathers. Baby Suggs was the matriarch of the family whose freedom was bought by her devoted son, Halle. She asserted her newfound freedom and independence by taking her husband's name. Baby Suggs welcomed Sethe and the children into her home and became a stabilizing force for them. She was also prominent in the community, holding gatherings in the Clearing, teaching them to love themselves. After Sethe killed her daughter in the woodshed, Baby Suggs slowly died, believing that white people were bad luck.
Where to begin?
Beloved is the sun, the moon, the stars… in other words, she's everything in this book. Without Beloved, the story would lack a core and a structure—without her, we have no plot. And to top it off, she's also the character that compels Denver and Sethe to face themselves. Kind of a biggie. Add the title to the mix, and you know this girl's a big deal.
It's a strange name, yes. It's also really morbid, considering its origin. Yep, it's the word that was engraved on her headstone, and it comes from that generic invocation of the funeral service prayer that you've probably heard before: "Dearly Beloved, We are gathered here today…"
So wait, did Beloved go unnamed until her death? Or is Sethe, for whatever reason, just unwilling to use her real name?
If you really want to speculate about how Beloved gets her name, we have to take one other possibility into account. In Chapter 5, when Beloved first shows up at 124, she tells Paul D that her name is "Beloved." Hmmm. Is it possible that Beloved names herself?
What implications would that have?
Well, it's kind of up there up there with Ron Artest deciding to change his name to Metta World Peace. It's a self-empowering act that can fundamentally change how we view this enigmatic girl. How would you think differently of her if you knew she'd chosen her own name? Would she be stronger? Creepier? More mysterious?
Our Beloved Epigraph
Then there's the "Epigraph." And the onion is peeled even more. Let's take a look:
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
If those last two lines don't sum up the meaning of Beloved's name, we don't know what does. Why? (1) It's totally weird, contradictory, confusing, and mysterious. And (2) Beloved is literally Sethe's beloved, but she ends up not beloved—because, you know, Sethe kills her.
Beloved seems to personify the plight of the outcast in search of love and community. If the epigraph is all about how inclusive God's love is (check out "What's Up With the Epigraph?" for more on that), then the jury is still out on whether or not that kind of love is actually possible in Beloved's world.
After all, the girl's name is composed of two words—be and loved—which sort of sounds like a command, right? And why would being loved need to be a command unless love isn't all that natural to the little community of Cincinnati?
Historical Memory, Coming at You
So Beloved is there right from the epigraph, and she's sure still there in the ending. The ending of the novel is all about a lonely spirit wandering around the woods. Whoever Beloved is (a ghost? a runaway girl? a zombie?), if that is her running around in the woods behind 124, she's basically alone and—worse—forgotten.
All of which begs the question: how do we deal with the memory and story of Beloved? And looking at the bigger picture, how do we deal with other memories and stories as traumatic as Beloved's?
In the last chapter, we read the words "It was not a story to pass on" are repeated (and passed on) until they become "This was not a story to pass on" (28.274-275). Even if you don't want to pass a story on, something is getting passed on whether you like it or not—even if it's the command not to pass the story on.
And if you try to repress that story, well, it may just come back to haunt you. Just like Beloved.
Baby Ghost or Runaway Slave?
Who—or what¬—is Beloved? Well, that depends on who you ask. Most scholars will go ahead and say that Beloved is the dead baby ghost. After all, the narrator tells the story as if Beloved is a ghost come back from the dead. It's suspicious, for instance, that she seems to know about Sethe's diamond earrings, that she's so obsessed about seeing Sethe's face (8.75), and that she knows the song Sethe used to sing to her baby girl (19.176).
Plus, there's the way Beloved acts. For example, she walks around the house like she's sick, but she doesn't look sick (5.56); especially her skin, which is so smooth it's "like new" (5.50) (baby-skin new?). And we can't ignore the larger feel of the book. The story kind of loses its supernatural appeal if you think of Beloved as just a random runaway girl, right?
But that's exactly what some other scholars think: that Beloved is an amnesiac runaway on whom Sethe projects the identity of her dead baby girl.
What evidence do we have to support that theory? Well, we have the word of Stamp Paid. This guy tells Paul D that Beloved is the runaway girl who had been kept captive by a white man in a nearby house (25.235). Stamp's story doesn't explain everything, but it does just enough to lead us to doubt Sethe's belief that Beloved is her Beloved. Maybe it's just a coincidence.
And you know what? There's actually a third possibility, too. (And probably a fourth, fifth, sixth, and zillionth. This is Morrison, after all). Could it be that Beloved is that runaway girl who, once she finds herself at 124, gets possessed by the dead baby ghost? That idea allows us to combine the first two theories, and allows the book to retain its ultra-creepy factor. Win-win-win.
Out to Get Sethe?
It's pretty easy to think of Beloved as—at the very least—a hateful little thing. In the very first paragraph, 124 is described as a house that's "spiteful. Full of baby's venom" (1.1). If you buy the idea that Beloved is that baby ghost, then that makes her venomous and spiteful. Not the nicest descriptive words. Plus, she does seduce Paul D—again, she's not winning any points there.
But if Beloved wanted to exact revenge on Sethe through her seduction of Paul D, it fails pretty miserably. Not only does Paul D not leave 124 (that is, not until he hears about Sethe's past), Sethe doesn't even know what's going on. She's clueless about Beloved's whole seduction, even when Beloved looks pregnant at the end of the book.
Maybe, just maybe, Beloved wants to be Sethe. Maybe she goes after Paul D not because she wants him out of the way, but because she wants to be like Sethe.
Take a look at Chapter 22, which Beloved narrates. Here's what goes down in the first paragraph:
I am not separate from [Sethe] there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too (22.1).
"Her face is my own"? "I am not separate from her"? Talk about a lack of boundaries.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
But there's more to it than just that. For instance, how it's possible for Beloved to be "where [Sethe's] face is and to be looking at it too"?
Go stand in front of mirror. What do you see? You looking at you, right? Well, maybe that's what Beloved wants: to be in Sethe's place but in front of a mirror—Beloved looking at herself through Sethe.
You might be thinking, "Why would she want that? Why not just get her own mirror and look at herself?" Fair questions. But have you ever heard of little duckies "imprinting" on their mama ducks? The idea is that a baby duck will follow and imitate whoever it sees first. The mama duck leaves an "imprint" on the baby duck's brain of what a duck is all about. Maybe Beloved needs Sethe like a baby duck needs someone—preferably a mama duck—to model what it means to be a duck.
Too many ducks? Let's put it this way. Beloved wants what any infant or kid (or heck, even an adult) wants: a mother she can see as her mother; a mother who loves her enough to give her a head start on an identity and a place to belong to.
Is she asking for too much?Beloved's Timeline