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Free Study Guide: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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In Beloved, Toni Morrison weaves the main theme around the history of slavery in the U.S. Although slave history is covered in textbooks, it is most often presented from the point of view of white males. The intimate lives of slave people are rarely discussed, for the historian has no insight into this side of slavery. Since slaves seldom knew how to read or write, there are no written accounts of their history; instead, the ex-slaves and their descendants passed down the tales of slavery through storytelling, which have been largely ignored in history books. In this novel, Morrison gives slave history from the perspective of ex-slaves, especially from the point of view of Sethe.

The key theme of the novel is the need for people, particularly ex-slaves, to deal with their painful pasts in order to heal themselves. To develop this theme, Morrison tells the story of Sethe, a female ex-slave, who kills her child in order to save her from the misery of slavery that she has endured. Although she does not spend much time in jail for her crime, she spends most of her life paying for the murder. She is ostracized by the community, haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter, and driven by the painful memories of what she has endured as a slave and inflicted on her children. Lacking mother love herself, Sethe sets out to heal her wounds by being a perfect mother. Unfortunately, slavery defines Sethe and her children as property, which carries a price tag. As a result, Sethe cannot raise and nurture her own offspring, for she is needed to do back breaking labor on the plantation. When she and the children escape from Sweet Home, she can still not nurture or love them properly, for she has no knowledge or experiences with child raising. She thinks that in trying to kill them she is caring for them, for she believes that the afterlife has to be better than a return to slavery for them.

Throughout the novel, Sethe defines herself by her relationship with her children. As a result, she is filled with a sense of failure. Her oldest daughter comes back as a ghost to haunt and torment her. Her two sons leave home after Baby Suggs dies, for they do not trust Sethe. Her youngest daughter fears her, for Denver believes she is capable of killing again. Sethe must deal with her past in order to understand her relationship with her children. She must come to terms the horror and pain of what she has endured as a slave child and a slave adult. The presence of Paul D in her life helps her face the past. When he returns to nurse Sethe back to health, he gives her a future by telling her that she alone is her own best thing - not her children or her past. As a result, Sethe begins to put her history behind her and look to a future with Paul D.

Morrison provides Sethe's healing process to her readers as a model of healing for the nation. She seems to recognize that the U.S. is, much like Sethe, trying to bury the traumas of the past, not giving them voice and a chance for healing. America does not like to acknowledge the truth about slavery. Americans do not like to think about slave women who were continuously raped and abused by the white slave owners, about slave children who were not permitted to be raised by their parents, or about runaway slaves who were burned alive at the stake or lynched and left to rot on the ropes that killed them. The nation is also like Sethe's community, which abandoned her when she was most in need of help and treated her action as a mental aberration rather than a predictable result of her trauma; they chose to label her as immoral and insane rather than blaming the sickness and immorality of the system of slavery that produced her violence. Still today, much of white America labels the black populace as lesser human beings. The novel clearly makes the reader think about the past and deal with it. Although Beloved is painful, it can also be healing.


Since the novel is filled with early black dialect and idioms, the book is sometime difficult to follow or understand. Listed below are definitions of some of the obscure vocabulary and idioms, in alphabetical order:

  • bit - a piece of iron put in a slave's mouth to keep him from talking

  • bloody side of the Ohio River - reference to Kentucky, the slave side of the river

  • brine in the barrel - an early method of preserving fish and meat with salt

  • buffalo men - men with dark, wiry hair, especially blacks

  • chamomile sap - the medicinal, sweet-smelling juice from an herb

  • chippy - a young prostitute

  • chokecherry - a common shrub that bears red berries

  • clabber - thickened milk or cream

  • coffle - a line of chained slaves

  • cold house - a darkened store room used for holding meats and dairy products away from heat

  • comfrey - a herb used to make tea

  • croaker sack - burlap bag

  • dropsy - a sickness caused by excessive accumulation of fluid

  • faggot - a small bundle of wood, usually used to start a fire

  • fixing ceremony - preparing a body for burial

  • foal - a crude term that whites used to refer to the birth of a black baby

  • four o'clocks - flowers that open in the morning and close at night

  • Fugitive Bill - a bill that required a free state to return a slave to his/her rightful owner

  • gone to glory - gone to heaven after dying

  • haint - a ghost

  • half peck - a dry measurement equal to four quarts

  • horehound - a type of candy

  • huckleberries - wild blueberries

  • hutch - shanty or lean-to

  • in deep water - in trouble

  • juba - an African dance

  • keeping room - a parlor

  • let water - urinate

  • lisle - a good quality cotton fabric

  • normal school - an advanced school that prepare teachers for their profession

  • pass air - burp

  • pateroller - mispronunciation of patroller or slave catcher

  • pickaninnies - a crude term used by white to describe black children

  • pike - turnpike or highway

  • press - a wardrobe used to hold hanging clothes before closets were built in houses

  • privy - outdoor toilet

  • rendered fat - pork fat that has been cooked and hardened into lard

  • rind - a piece of pork skin used as seasoning while cooking vegetables

  • rue - a bitter herb, often used in literature to symbolize regret

  • sassafras - a spice taken from the bark of a laurel tree

  • setting-up - staying up all night to watch over the body of someone who has died

  • skin voting - the privilege of voting if you had white skin; blacks could not vote

  • Society of Friends - another name for Quakers, who were usually abolitionists

  • slop jar - indoor pot used as a toilet, especially at night

  • stud his boys - use males slaves as breeders

  • sugar teat - an early form of the pacifier made by placing sugar inside a piece of cloth

  • talking sheets - members of the Ku Klux Klan

  • walking man - an unmarried man who did not want to settle down

  • way station - a stopping place for travelers, especially wandering blacks

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