Free Study Guide: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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Sethe Suggs is the key protagonist of the novel. She attempts to be a stable mother for her four children, even under the system of slavery, which defines her and her children as property. Sethe suffers from the many crimes inflicted upon her as well as the crimes she has committed due to the violent and oppressive nature of slavery. By the end of the book, Sethe has become a symbol for all black people who have suffered from slavery or racism.


Sethe's main antagonist is the system of slavery and the pain it causes her, both directly and indirectly. Taken from her mother as an infant, she was never nurtured properly. When she has her own children, she does not really know how to care for them, for she has had no role model; but she is determined to do her best and to make sure that her sons and daughters do not endure the miseries of slavery that she has known. In order to keep her children from being returned as slaves to Sweet Home, she tries to murder all four of them and succeeds in killing her oldest daughter. For the rest of the book Sethe is haunted by the memories of her past mistreatment as a slave and by her guilt over killing Beloved. She is made more miserable by her ostracism from the black community and by the presence of Beloved in her life, first as an infant ghost and then as a reincarnated young woman. She is so devoured by Beloved that she literally begins to waste away.


The climax occurs when the women of Sethe's community finally come to her aid and rescue her from Beloved.


Although Sethe's story is truly tragic, at the end of the novel she has some hope. Since Sethe has begun to come to terms with her past, she defeats her antagonist. As a result, the novel ends as a tragic comedy. Although Sethe is still suffering physically, she is relieved that Beloved has finally ceased to haunt her and that the community has finally reached out to her. Sethe is also pleased that Paul D has returned to live with her and nurse her back to health. When he tells her that she is her own best thing, she realizes, for the first time, that she is truly a person in her own right, not just a mother or an ex-slave.


Beloved opens with a description of the house at 124 Bluestone Road, which is supposedly haunted by the ghost of its inhabitant's deceased daughter. Sethe Suggs and Denver, her remaining daughter, live in the house and cope with the disturbances of the ghost. One day, Sethe comes home to find Paul D waiting for her. He is the last of the male slaves to survive after their escape from Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky where Sethe was also a slave eighteen years previously. When Paul D learns about the ghost haunting Sethe's house, he exorcises it. Sethe is so delighted to be rid of the ghost that she invites Paul D to stay with her. Denver, however, is very unhappy, for her ghost sister had been her only friend. She also feels that Paul D is stealing her mother away from her.

Paul D and Sethe spend time talking about the past. Sethe does not know what happened to her husband, Halle, on the day all five of the adult slaves were supposed to run away from Sweet Home. Paul D tells her the last time he saw Halle he had clabber all over his face from the butter churn. He adds that Halle had lost his mind. Sethe then tells Paul D what happened to her on the day she was to run away from Sweet Home. Schoolteacher, the slaveholder, had watched while his nephews took the pregnant Sethe to the barn to abuse her and suck the milk from her breasts. When she told Mrs. Garner, the woman who owned the farm, about what had happened, Sethe was punished by Schoolteacher and his nephews. They whipped Sethe so badly that her back was permanently scarred.

Through memories and storytelling, the lives of Sethe and Paul D are unraveled. Halle, Seth's husband, wanted to buy his mother, Baby Suggs, out of slavery. As a result, he worked extra jobs off the plantation to earn money. When Halle had saved sufficient funds to buy her freedom, Mr. Garner allowed her to leave. Sethe was brought to Sweet Home as a replacement for Baby Suggs. Although all the male slaves were attracted to her, especially Halle and Paul D, Sethe chose Halle to be her husband because of his strength and quiet ways.

When Mr. Garner, the owner of the plantation, died, Mrs. Garner asked her husband's brother-in-law, Schoolteacher, to run the place. Schoolteacher forbid Halle from working off the farm. Without the extra jobs, Halle knew that he would never be able to buy his wife and children out of slavery, as he had planned. Since he had two sons who were old enough to do work, he feared that the cruel Schoolteacher might sell them away from Sweet Home at any time. As a result, Halle decided he and his family needed to escape from the plantation. He discussed his decision with Paul D, Paul A, and Sixo, and they joined him in his planning.

Sethe delivered three babies at Sweet Home, two sons and a daughter. By the time of the escape, she was six months pregnant with a fourth child; but she still planned to run with the men, for she was determined that all of her children would not endure slavery. Unfortunately, things went terribly wrong on the day of the escape. Halle was stopped before he could get away from Sweet Home. Paul A disappeared from the plantation; later, however, he was lynched, and his body was mutilated beyond recognition. Paul D and Sixo escaped and met Sixo's lover, Thirty-Mile Woman, at the creek, as planned; but the two men were soon caught by Schoolteacher and other men from the neighborhood. When Sixo saw a rifle being pointed at him, he ran at it and grabbed its end. As a result, Sixo was hit over the head with the rifle and tied to a tree to be burned alive. As the flames surrounded him, Sixo laughed and called out "Seven-O," the name he had given his unborn child that Thirty-Mile Woman was carrying. His captors, antagonized by his actions, shot him to death. The captured Paul D was then taken back to Sweet Home, where he was shackled. He also had a bit placed in his mouth so he could not speak.

On the day of the escape, Sethe was in pain from being brutalized by the nephews and then whipped; however, she was still determined to escape from the plantation. In preparation, she sent her daughter and two sons ahead of her to the home of Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law. Then Sethe left herself. Nobody was paying much attention to her, for they thought it would be impossible for her to leave because of her condition. It has hard for Sethe to walk, because of the horrible wounds on her back and the heaviness of her pregnancy; but she pushed herself onward towards her children. She finally collapsed near the Ohio River, which ran between Kentucky (a slave state) and Ohio (a free state). A run-away indentured servant, Amy Denver, found her, nursed her, and helped her deliver her fourth child, whom Sethe named Denver in honor of Amy. Stamp Paid, a member of the Underground Railroad, found Sethe and took her and the newborn baby across the river to freedom. Carrying the tiny infant, Sethe finally arrived at the Cincinnati home of her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, who greeted her warmly even though they had never met. Sethe was delighted to be reunited with her other three children.

Sethe lived happily in a thriving black community for eighteen days. Then Schoolteacher showed up to reclaim her and her children. When she saw the horses approaching and recognized Schoolteacher's hat, Sethe gathered all her children and ran to the empty wood shed. She intended to kill all her children and then herself to keep them from being returned to the misery of slavery. She only had time to kill her oldest daughter before her other children were rescued by Stamp Paid. Clutching her infant daughter to her breast, Sethe was arrested and jailed; but because she was a nursing mother, she was not held for long. When she returned to 124 Bluestone, Sethe found that Baby Suggs, distraught by the happenings in the woodshed, had given up preaching and lost her will to live. She also learned that the black community totally ostracized her and her children. In fact, they will not speak to her for eighteen years.

When Baby Suggs died about a month after the murder, Sethe's sons, fearing her, go away, leaving Sethe and Denver alone in the house. Before long, however, the infant ghost of Beloved, Sethe's dead daughter, came to live with them and haunt them. The baby ghost stayed until Paul D arrived, some eighteen years later. In the interim, Denver, who had no playmates or siblings at home, thought of the ghost of her dead sister as her best friend. Sethe merely tolerated the ghost, but its presence constantly reminded her of what she had done.

When Paul D showed up at 124 Bluestone, he told Sethe all about his past. After the failed escape from Sweet Home, Paul D was sold to a plantation further south. He attempted to escape from there and was caught and sent to a work prison in Alfred, Georgia. At the prison, he was forced to live in underground darkness, to be chained at all times, to perform oral sex on the prison guards, and to work in a quarry. When a storm flooded the underground cubicles where the prisoners were kept, the entire chain gang dug through the mud and escaped together. They ran until they came upon a camp of sick Cherokee Indians, who helped them. Paul D stayed with them the longest, for he no place to go and no person to take him in. He finally decided to travel north and reached Wilmington, Delaware, where he met a woman weaver who took him in. He stayed with her as her lover for three years and then moved on. During the Civil War, he worked in the death fields, sorting the dead from the wounded. He was then sent to work in a foundry, until the Civil War ended. After the war, he wandered for several years until he decided to find Sethe. When he arrived at 124 Bluestone and chased the baby ghost away, Sethe asked him to stay with her.

Just as Sethe and Paul are beginning to feel hopeful about a future together, a stranger arrives at the house; she says her name is Beloved. She has no memory of a past life and wears a black silk dress. Denver soon realizes that she is the ghost of her dead sister, come back in the flesh. The lonely Denver loves her, enjoys her company, and protects her from Sethe, whom Denver feels will kill again. Unfortunately for Denver, Beloved only cares about Sethe, whom she wants to possess as her own. When she sees Paul D kissing Sethe, Beloved is upset and silently drives a wedge between the two of them. Before long Paul D, not really knowing why, is sleeping in the cold house. Beloved finds him there and tries to seduce him. When he resists, her temptations grow even stronger, until he can refuse no more. Paul D feels extremely guilty about having sex with Beloved, for he knows he cares about Sethe and wants to create a future with her. When he realizes that Beloved has a power over him, he decides he must tell Sethe what is happening and seek her assistance. In the end, he cannot confess to her; instead, he tells her he wants her to have his baby. That night, Sethe tells him to sleep in her bed with her, where he belongs.

Stamp Paid decides he should tell Paul D about Sethe's murder of her child. He shows Paul D a worn newspaper clipping that describes what happened in the shed. Paul D cannot believe it and confronts Sethe about it when he goes home. She tries to explain what motivated her to kill her daughter. She tells Paul D that she felt her children would be better off in the afterlife that in slavery; but Paul D is appalled. Before he leaves the house for good, he tells her she acted like an animal. His accusation greatly pained Sethe, for the white people had always talked about the slaves in animal terms and treated them like animals as well.

Both Beloved and Denver are delighted that Paul D has left 124 Bluestone. One day, shortly after his departure, the girls convince Sethe to take them ice-skating. After they return home, Sethe puts them to bed later. As she looks at them and sees their similarities, she finally accepts that Beloved is her dead daughter come back to her. At first she is delighted at the thought of having her daughter restored to her; before long, however, she realizes that Beloved is "chewing and swallowing" and her. As Beloved demands more and more of her mother, Sethe cannot function; all she can think about is making Beloved understand why she was murdered. She is so distracted at her job at the restaurant that Sawyer fires her. With no money coming in and no friends to help, the family has little to eat. Ironically, as Sethe grows thinner and weaker, Beloved grows larger, as if she were literally devouring her mother.

When Denver realizes what is happening, she turns her allegiance from Beloved to Sethe. She also goes out by herself for the first time ever, for she knows that she has to find help for her mother. She walks to the house of Lady Jones, where she used to go for her lessons. Denver tells her that Sethe is sick and not working and that here is no food in the house. Encouraged by Lady Jones, the black women in the community decide to help Sethe and Denver. They begin to regularly leave food for the family outside in the yard, along with their names. Denver always returns the dishes in which the food was delivered; in so doing, she finally meets the women of the community. She then becomes brave enough to go the Bodwins' house to ask them for work. When she is greeted there by a kind black lady, named Janey Wagon, Denver tells her what is happening at 124 Bluestone. Janey spreads the news in the community that Sethe is being haunted by her dead daughter. The women organize a rescue party to save Sethe. On the day they arrive at her house, Sethe listens to their singing and feels a wonderful sense of baptism in the sound. Beloved departs from the house the same day.

After Beloved's disappearance, Paul D runs into Denver in town. She tells him Sethe is doing very badly and will probably die. Paul D goes out to see Sethe and finds her in Baby Suggs' bed singing a lullaby. He tells her he will stay with her at night while Denver stays with her during the day. When he offers to give her a bath, Sethe asks him if he is going to count her feet, a reference to the fact that he had called her an animal. Paul D assures her that he only wants to take care of her. He also tells her that she is her own best thing.

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