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Free Study Guide: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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BELOVED: CHAPTER SUMMARY / PLOT ANALYSIS

NOTE FOR THE READER

Morrison divides Beloved into three books. Each book is divided into sections, which she does not number. The chapter numbers found below are used only for convenience and do not appear in the actual book. Morrison's decision to not number her chapters in a traditional format should be considered for its own artistic importance.

CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES / ANALYSIS

BOOK I

EPIGRAPH 1

"Sixty Million and More."

EPIGRAPH 2

"I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved which was not beloved." (Romans 9:25).

Notes

Morrison's first epigraph refers to the number of slaves killed from the time of the Middle Passage. In naming the number so starkly, not saying anything further about it, Morrison pays testament to the horrendous crime of the slave trade and the genocide it engendered. Through this first brief epitaph, the author reminds her readers of the frightening history of the slaves.

Morrison's second epigraph comes from the New Testament in a letter from St. Paul to the Romans. In the letter, Paul encourages the new Christians in Rome by promising them that they are God's people and will receive God's love through grace. God's promise of love and forgiveness comes even though the new Christians do not deserve to be beloved. The Biblical quote is a fitting beginning for a novel that deals with love and forgiveness. It seems to promise the newly freed slaves that they are also beloved of God.

The epigraph also creates the tone for the opening chapter of the novel, which deals with Beloved, the destructive ghost of Sethe's daughter, who causes problems for Sethe. Although Beloved was never a slave, she was a victim of slavery, for Sethe killed her so she would never have to endure the hardships of slavery like her mother. Even though Sethe is guilty of murder, she can be forgiven; but she will also have to suffer.

The words of Paul in the epigraph are followed by a promise of relief from suffering: "For He will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth." The verse indicates that no one will suffer too long on earth, for the Lord will come back to finish His work and claim his believers.


CHAPTER 1

Summary

When the novel begins in 1873, only Sethe and Denver, her eighteen-year-old daughter, are living in the haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Baby Suggs, the grandmother has died; Sethe's sons, Howard and Buglar, have run away; and the infant Beloved has been murdered by her mother.

Out of the blue, Paul D, "the last of the Sweet Home men," arrives at the house. Sethe has not seen Paul D in eighteen years, since they were both slaves at the Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home. He flirts with Sethe and tells her he has been walking for the entire eighteen years since he saw her last.


Paul D's arrival brings back memories for Sethe. She thinks about the five other African slaves who worked with her at Sweet Home, including her husband (Halle), her mother-in-law (Baby Suggs), and the three Pauls (one of whom is Paul D). Sethe then talks with her guest about the hardships they had to endure at Sweet Home, especially after Schoolteacher, a cruel man, took over the management of the plantation and the slaves. Mr. Garner, the plantation owner, had treated the slaves civilly, but he had died, and now Mrs. Garner was ill as well. Unfortunately, Schoolteacher was called in to help. After his arrival, the slaves rebelled and fled the plantation in order to protest the torture and violence to which he subjected them.

Sethe tells Paul D what happened to her when she escaped from Sweet Home. She was pregnant at the time and had no way of taking care of herself or her children. As a result, she gave the children to a stranger in a wagon. When she was found by the nephews of Schoolteacher, they sucked the milk out of her breasts and then whipped her back so badly that she carries permanent scars. A white girl found her in terrible condition and nursed her back to health. She then helped Sethe deliver her second daughter, whom she later named Beloved. Sethe, however, could not bear to think of the baby growing up in slavery and suffering like her mother; therefore, she slits the baby's throat. She arranges a funeral for the baby, and in the sermon the child is called "Beloved;" the name sticks. When Sethe purchases a headstone for the child, she wants to have "Beloved" engraved on it. In order to pay the engraver, she has sex with him in front of his young son, who wants to learn how to have intercourse.

Paul D is pained to hear Sethe's story. He realizes how much she has changed since he last saw her eighteen years before. He thinks about her back at Sweet Home and remembers her being pregnant every year after she married Halle. He even remembers her being pregnant at the time of their escape. Paul also thinks about the time when Mrs. Garner sold his brother to pay off some debts. He also remembers the arrival of Schoolteacher and how he beat three of the Sweet Home men and "punched the glittering iron out of Sethe's eyes, leaving two open wells that did not reflect firelight."

As Sethe and Paul D talk, the ghost that haunts the house begins to make things tremble. Paul D yells at the ghost to "hush up." He then grabs the table and swings it around the room while warning the ghost that Sethe has had enough to suffer without enduring ghostly antics. The ghost suddenly disappears.

Sethe and Paul D go upstairs to her bedroom. Denver, left alone downstairs, feels like an outcast. She opens the jar of jelly and pulls the blackened top off a biscuit. She thinks about her brothers and realizes how much she misses them. She also thinks about Baby Suggs and remembers how she used to talk with her. She then thinks about Paul D and feels angry. She resents that he has chased away the ghost of her dead older sister, for it was the only company she had in the house. As Denver eats her biscuits and jelly, she feels miserable.

Notes

Morrison begins the novel in the middle of things, without clarifying everything that is taking place. She simply reveals that there is a ghost haunting the house at 124 Bluestone Road. She tells how the ghost has the power to make mirrors shatter and leave its handprints on a cake; but she does not, at this point in the novel, explain why the ghost is haunting the house.

Morrison's technique of delaying full narrative explanations accomplishes several things. First, the delay builds suspense in the reader. More importantly, the technique plunges the reader into a world where everything is not known, where explanations do not come easily, and where the significance of present realities lies in a past that has been long since buried. In reality, the narration is intentionally structured as an imitation of the psychological mechanism of repression. When people go through trauma, they repress the details as a defense mechanism against the pain. It is obvious that Sethe has tried to repress the details of her traumatic life. Even when she talks to Paul D about her past, she does not go into a great depth of explanation; it is simply too painful at this point in time. As the novel progresses, however, more and more details of Sethe's life will unfold.

Freud believed that everything that is repressed must eventually emerge in order for healing to occur. In the novel, the repressed traumatic experiences of the ex-slaves come out slowly as the characters tell the stories of their past over and over. In each telling, something more is revealed, with more details being added. The more they talk about their past sufferings, the more they are healed. The reader is the recipient of the stories and a witness of the healing.

In this first chapter, a large portion of the information of the entire novel is introduced. Much of it is very vague, like the information on Sethe's husband, Halle; much of it is painful, like Sethe's rape and beating; and much of it is too horrible for the reader to fully digest, especially the information about Beloved's death. At this point, it is not really clear that Sethe murdered the child, but vague hints are given. As the characters come back to the events revealed in this first chapter, the reader will gain greater insight and understanding into why all the events occurred.

Three of the main characters are introduced in this first chapter. Besides Sethe, Morrison presents Paul D in this first chapter and indicates he is a troubled man. One of Paul D's problems has to do with his manhood. Lacking access to a culture that provided him with rituals of transition from boyhood to adulthood and living under a system of slavery, Paul D was deprived of properly growing into manhood. As a result, he lacks certainty and dignity. He feels that he is not truly an individual, for he still sees himself as a slave.

The third main character of the novel, Denver, is also introduced in this section. Denver is Sethe's youngest daughter. The two of them live in the haunted house by themselves. It is clear that Denver feels very lonely. She misses her brothers who have run away and resents that Paul D has driven the ghost away, for it has been company for her. It is also clear that Denver is jealous about Paul's presence, for he takes Sethe away from her.

It is important to note that some critics have given significance to the numbers in this first chapter of the book. 124, the street number of Sethe's house on Bluestone, adds up to seven. The word "beloved" that is carved on the baby's tombstone also contains seven letters. In the Bible, seven is considered to be a special number. God created the world in seven days. As a result, the seventh day became the Sabbath, and most religious celebrations, such as the feast of the Passover, lasted seven days.

Colors are also important in this first chapter. The house is on Bluestone Drive, but its colors are gray and white. Also the stairs that lead to Sethe's bedroom are white. In contrast to the light colors, Sethe, Paul D, and Denver are all dark-skinned. Later the color red will become important as it is associated with Beloved.


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