Sethe Suggs is a strong woman who lives under an oppressive cultural and social system that does not permit her to be nurtured or to nurture others reliably. Sethe was hurt severely by her mother's inability to care for her because of the slave environment in which they lived; taken from her mother as an infant, she only saw her a few times in her life. As a result, she has pitifully few bits and pieces of memory of her mother. As an adult, Sethe understands that her mother was constrained by slavery and, therefore, literally unable to tend to her. As a child, however, she could not understand the lack of attention she received from her mother. She felt only abandonment and loss. Even as an adult, Sethe still hurts from her lack of a true mother.
Sethe responded to her own mother's abandonment by wanting to be a reliable and nurturing mother herself. Unfortunately, slavery would not allow her to succeed. She could not nurture her children as infants because they were taken from her so that Sethe would be free to do slave labor. Additionally, Sethe was separated from other women who could have advised her on caring for her children. She knew, however, that her mother's milk was vitally important to her children; it was the one reliable source of nurturing for them. It was also the only thing that she could give her sons and daughters, for she had no money of her own to buy things for them. When her milk was brutally stolen by Schoolteacher's nephews, she felt robbed of her ability to be a mother and nurture her child.
Sethe understands the horrors of slavery in its most intimate violations--the violations of family trust between mother and child. She also understands the violation of being treated as an animal and is determined that her own children will not endure the treatment she has received at the hands of white slaveholders. Since she believed that the next world would be a safer place than this one, she tried to kill all her children rather than seeing them grow up in slavery. Even though she believed she was acting reasonably and in good faith, she also knew that she had no right to take her baby's life. As a result, she is haunted by guilt throughout the novel.
Sethe's recovery involves her facing and dealing with the past. When
she tries to leave it behind without confronting it, the past comes back
to her embodied and demanding in the form of Beloved. Even then, she tries
to forget the past and make up for it, instead of grieving, accepting,
and working through it. She tries to give up herself in order to give
everything to the child she injured. In the end, she is able to accept
herself and take a path toward wholeness.
Baby Suggs, the mother of Halle and the mother-in-law of Sethe, lived sixty years in slavery and lost eight children to it. She tried to stop loving her children, but that proved to be impossible. Once she is bought out of slavery by Halle, she helps other ex-slaves claim freedom by running a way station to support their needs and by preaching to them about the necessity of loving themselves. Baby Suggs is a nurturing soul. Although she had never seen the children of Halle and Sethe, she accepts and nurtures them once they arrive on her doorstep. In a like manner, she greets Sethe and her newborn infant warmly and offers them support and a home.
Baby Suggs is literally destroyed by Sethe's actions in the shed. Horrified
over the murder, she struggles with the impossible choice between condemning
a woman who killed her child to save it from slavery and agreeing with
that woman's actions. Overcome with a sense of loss, she simply gives
up her will to live and dies about a month after her granddaughter's murder.
Paul D is one of the most touching men to be depicted in literature. He longs to love big, but is constrained by slavery and its emasculating effects. Although he is filled with passion and emotion, he has difficulty expressing his true feelings. Throughout his life, Paul D endures loss after loss of loved ones. He never even knows his parents. He longs for Sethe to be his wife during their days of slavery, but looses her to Halle. Then he watches as all of his friends perish after their escape from the plantation.
Throughout the novel, Paul D struggles with the problem of defining his manhood. As a slave, he was treated as property that could be bought and sold on a whim, much live livestock. Mr. Garner, however, told him that he was a man, giving him hope. As a result, he believed that he would be able to protect and provide for loved ones and to have self-determination. Then Schoolteacher arrived to be his slaveholder and stripped Paul D of all human dignity. When he escapes from Sweet Home, he has no idea how to be a man and, thus, wanders aimlessly for years.
Paul D finds models in slave men who found ways to express themselves in ways that the slave owners could not take away. He cherishes the lessons he learned from Sixo, who was fortunate enough to retain the healing rituals of his African culture, who never accepted the slave holder's truth as reality, who refused to speak even the slave holder's language, and who loved a woman who was a friend of his mind. One of his strongest memories is the picture of Sixo laughing in the faces of his captors as they burned him to death. Paul D also admires Halle, who worked his heart out to free his mother.
Through eighteen years of wandering, Paul D never finds himself or anyone
to truly love. Seeking to come to terms with his past, he arrives unannounced
at 124 Bluestone, seeking Sethe. He wins her heart by exorcising the infant
ghost. As a result, she asks him to stay with her permanently. When Paul
D learns about Sethe murdering her daughter, he cannot accept the truth.
After Sethe confirms what she has done and tries to explain why, Paul
D chooses to leave her. His decision makes him miserable, and he drinks
away the pain. In the end, he hears about Sethe's declining health and
returns to help her. At the end of the novel, he convinces her that she
is her own best thing. By loving and accepting her, he also heals himself.
Denver Suggs, Sethe's younger daughter born in a boat between slavery
and freedom, is a resilient character. Deprived of her mother's love and
attention because Sethe was so wounded by the past, Denver lived the first
eighteen years of her life alone and lonely. Ostracized by the community
because of the actions of Sethe, she never had playmates; instead, she
made friends with her ghost sister. She also lived in constant fear that
her mother might murder her, just as she had Beloved. When her mother
is nearly swallowed up by Beloved (the flesh and blood symbol of the past),
Denver steps off the edge of the only world she has ever known. For the
first time in her life, she goes out into the community alone and dares
to ask for help for Sethe. In this act, Denver sets into motion the reunion
of the fractured community and the healing of herself and her relationship
with her mother.
Beloved becomes the symbol for the collective pain of the black community that has suffered the horrors and pain of slavery and racism and then been tossed aside and forgotten. Beloved, first an infant ghost and then a reincarnated young woman, comes back to haunt the mother who murdered her. Because she was deprived of nurturing as an infant and feels betrayed by her mother, she has a bottomless need for love. When she returns to live at 124 Bluestone, she attempts to possess Sethe for her very own and almost devours her in the process. She is so demanding of her mother's emotions that Sethe has nothing left over for Denver or herself.
During the course of the novel, Beloved is something different to everyone
who comes into contact with her. For Sethe, she represents a chance for
her to redeem her past actions. For Denver, she provides friendship and
a break from her lonely, isolated existence. For Paul D, she becomes a
lover that opens his heart. For the community, she is an embodiment of
all the infants and children who were cast away from the slave ships and
from slave mothers who could not hold onto them.