Beloved (novel)

Beloved (novel)

infobox Book |
name = Beloved
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Toni Morrison
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Modernist Novel
publisher = Alfred Knopf
release_date = January, 1987
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
pages = 324 pp
isbn = ISBN 1-58060-120-0

Beloved is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The novel, her fifth, is loosely based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner, about whom Morrison later wrote in the opera "Margaret Garner" (2005). The book's epigraph reads: "Sixty Million and more," by which Morrison refers to the estimated number of slaves who died in the slave trade. More specifically, she refers to the Middle Passage.

In 1998 the novel was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.

A survey of eminent authors and critics conducted by "The New York Times" found "Beloved" the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years; it garnered 15 of 125 votes, finishing ahead of Don DeLillo's "Underworld" (11 votes), Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" (8) and John Updike's "Rabbit" series (8). [ [ In Search of the Best - New York Times ] ] The results appeared in "The New York Times Book Review" on May 21, 2006. [ [ What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?] , "The New York Times" May 21, 2006]

Time Magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". [ [,24459,beloved,00.html Beloved - ALL-TIME 100 Novels - TIME ] ]

Plot summary

In this novel, Morrison paints a somber picture of the brutal effects of slavery. It examines both the mental and physical trauma caused by slavery as well as its effect on survivors. The book follows the story of Sethe (pronounced "Seth-uh") and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery.

124, the house they inhabit, is apparently haunted, for poltergeist events occur there with an alarming regularity. Because of this, Denver has no friends and is extremely shy. Howard and Buglar, Sethe's sons, run away from home by the time they are thirteen. One day, a young lady shows up at their house, saying that her name is "Beloved." Sethe comes to believe that the girl is another of her daughters, whom Sethe murdered by slitting her throat with a handsaw when the child was only two years old to save her from a life of slavery, and whose tombstone reads only "Beloved". Beloved's presence consumes Sethe to the point where she ignores her other daughter and even her own needs, while Beloved becomes more and more demanding. Sethe's lover Paul D. and her friend Stamp Paid know that Beloved is evil, but do nothing out of fear.

The novel follows in the tradition of slave narratives, but also confronts the more painful and taboo aspects of slavery, such as sexual abuse and violence, which Morrison feels were avoided in the traditional narratives. In the novel, she explores the effects on the characters, Paul D and Sethe, of trying to repress—and then coming to terms with—the painful memories of their past.

At the outset, the reader is led to assume Beloved is a supernatural, incarnate form of Sethe's murdered daughter. Later, Stamp Paid reveals the story of "a girl locked up by a white man over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that's her". Both are supportable by the text. The concept that Beloved is the reincarnated child is supported by what would seem evidentiary revelations; she sings a song known only to Sethe and her children, and she speaks of Sethe's earrings without having seen them. However, the characters have a psychological need for Beloved to be that dead child returned. Sethe can assuage her guilt over the death of her child, and Denver has a sister/ playmate. Toni Morrison's intention (revealed in interviews) was to compel the reader to become active rather than passive -- working to discover what is going on. Thus, the emphasis is on interpretation rather than on the actual words in the narrative.

Major themes

"Beloved" is a novel based on the impact of slavery and of the emancipation of slaves on individual black people. There are several themes that remain central to the novel:


One of the central themes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the construction of one’s identity. The novel depicts the lives of several ex- slaves and exposes the oppression and devastating consequences slavery had and continues to have on their lives. Once free, the slaves attempt to reclaim their individual identities and collective humanity, but the effects of slavery still taint and haunt them, preventing them from being able to live in and enjoy the present or think about the future. Morrison states, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” (111). The novel illustrates the characters’ immense struggle to obtain a true sense of self and self- worth, a process that can only be successful if done both individually and on a collective level.

The former slaves try to integrate themselves into a racist present in which they are not welcomed. They feel subordinate to the white race and need unity to empower and inspire themselves to become autonomous, powerful individuals, able to acknowledge their own self worth. Morrison offers, “Nobody could make it alone… You could be lost forever, if there wasn’t nobody to show you the way.” (159). Denver is one example of this. Isolated in 124 her whole life, Beloved’s presence finally necessitates that she leaves the house and assimilate into the community. Upon doing so, she embarks upon the process of individuation, in which she establishes a sense of self and ultimately, becomes a woman. While this process takes place individually, it requires the bonds of womanhood and encouragement of the community. Similarly, Sethe lacks a sense of individuality until the end of the novel. She lives in isolation, isolating herself both physically from the community and psychologically from acknowledging any role other than that of mother. Morrison shows the painful, detrimental side of mothering through such, showing its ability to stunt or even eliminate a woman’s individuation. Slavery denied Sethe the natural cycles of maternal bonding, causing her to take her role as mother to an extreme, even grotesque length. Sethe constructs the idea that her children are her best parts and it is from that idea that she creates her identity. Without the help of the community, Paul D, and finally Stamp Paid, Sethe would never be able to recognize herself as an entity separate from her children or acknowledge that her sole purpose in life was not to be a mother. At the end of the novel, Paul D tells Sethe, “’You your best thing Sethe, You are.’” (322). Morrison shows that one’s identity is crucial to his success and happiness in life and a person can only conceptualize himself as a separate entity through both collective and individual efforts.


The concept of motherhood within "Beloved" is as an overarching and overwhelming love that can conquer all, strongly typified within the novel by the character Sethe, whose very name is the feminine of "Seth"- the Biblical 'father of the world'. This can also be seen within Morrison's other works and has led to her sometimes being cited as a feminist writer. The feminine capacity for love is maximal: "It hurt her when mosquitoes bit her baby". Further, Sethe's escape from the slave plantation (ironically named 'Sweet Home') stems from her desire to keep the "mother of her children alive" and not from any personal survival instinct. Sethe's maternal instincts almost lead to her own destruction. Readers can assume the interpretation that Beloved is a wrathful character looking to wreak revenge on Sethe for killing her, despite the fact that the murder was, in Sethe's mind, an entirely loving act. Sethe's guilt at Beloved's death means that she is willing to "give up her life, every minute, hour and second of it, to take back just one of Beloved's tears". The strength of her love leads her almost to the point of death as she allows Beloved complete freedom to destroy her household and relationships; the roles of mother and daughter are completely reversed. "Was it past bedtime, the light no good for sewing? Beloved didn't move, said, 'Do it', and Sethe complied".


Toni Morrison wrote "Beloved" on a foundation of historical events. The most significant event within the novel--the "Misery", or Sethe's murder of Beloved--is based on the 1856 murder by Margaret Garner of her children to prevent them from being recaptured and taken back into slavery with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Morrison admits to "an obsession" with this account after she discovered it while helping edit a scrapbook on black history. The novel itself can be seen as the reworking of fact into something with a very emotional central message. History is woven throughout the novel. The Middle Passage is referenced along with the Underground Railway in many parts of the novel; the 'Sixty Million and More' to whom Morrison dedicates the novel may refer to the many who died during the Middle Passage. The entire concept of the slavery described in the novel: Paul D's confinement in Georgia, ideas such as the "bit" and the legislature described are all based on history. This gives the novel a powerful impact.

Beloved's appearance reawakens memories of slavery among the other characters, and they are forced to deal with their past instead of trying to repress their memories. Reincarnation and rebirth are also themes in this novel.


The only significantly developed male character is Paul D, described as "the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could cry and tell him things they only told each other". He is, however, emotionally crippled. During his service in a chain-gang, his hands uncontrollably shake until he can learn to trap his emotions and lock them away. It takes Beloved and her audacious seduction to release him and to free the "red heart" he's imprisoned in the "rusted tobacco tin" of his memories. Paul D is the only male character against whom the women's strengths are tested and contrasted. Nearly all the other men in the story are oppressors or comparatively lightly sketched. Paul D cannot cope with Sethe's murder of Beloved -- even though he knows it was an extreme act of love -- and leaves, but returns to "put his story next to hers", a display of his courage and mature love, if crippled by his slavery ordeal. Leaving the readers without ultimate answers, Toni Morrison concludes on a hopeful note, as Paul D convinces Sethe that she herself is her own "best thing."

Mother-Daughter Relationships

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the maternal bonds that connect Sethe to her children inhibit her own individuation and prevent the development of her Self. Sethe develops a dangerous maternal passion that results in the murder of one daughter, her own “best self,” and the estrangement of the surviving daughter from the black community, both in an attempt to salvage her “fantasy of the future,” her children, from a life in slavery. However, Sethe fails to recognize her daughter Denver’s need for interaction with this community in order to enter into womanhood. Denver finally succeeds at the end of the novel in establishing her own Self and embarking on her individuation with the help of Beloved. Contrary to Denver, Sethe only reaches individuation after Beloved’s exorcism, at which point Sethe can fully accept the first relationship that is completely “for her,” her relationship with Paul D. This relationship relieved Sethe from the ensuing destruction of her Self that resulted from the maternal bonds controlling her life. [Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women’s Individuation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review, Vol. 25, No. 1. Indiana State University: Indiana, Spring 1992.)] Beloved and Sethe are both very much emotionally impaired as a result of Sethe’s previous enslavement. Slavery creates a situation where a mother is separated from her child, which has devastating consequences for both parties. Oftentimes, Mothers do not know themselves to be anything except a mother, so when they are unable to provide maternal care for their children, or their children are taken away from them, they feel a lost sense of self. Similarly, when a child is separated from his or her mother, he or she loses the familial identity associated with mother-child relationships. Sethe was never able to see her mother’s true face (because her smile was distorted from having spent too much time “with the bit”) so she wasn’t able to connect with her own mother, and therefore does not know how to connect to her own children, even though she longs to. Furthermore, the earliest needs a child has is related to the mother: the baby needs milk from the mother. Sethe is traumatized by the experience of having her milk stolen because it means she cannot form the symbolic bond between herself and her daughter. [ Schapiro, Barbara. “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Contemporary Literature 32; 2. University of Wisconsin Press (1991). 194-210]

Psychological Implications of Slavery

Because of the painful nature of the experiences of slavery, most slaves repressed these memories in an attempt to leave behind a horrific past. This repression and dissociation from the past causes a fragmentation of the self and a loss of true identity. Sethe, Paul D., and Denver all experience this loss of self, which could only be remedied by the acceptance of the past and the memory of their original identities. In a way Beloved serves to open these characters up to their repressed memories, eventually causing the reintegration of their selves. [Koolish, Lynda. “‘To be Loved and Cry Shame’: A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” MELUS 26:4 (2001): 169-195.)] Slavery splits a person into a fragmented figure. The identity, consisting of painful memories and unspeakable past, denied and kept at bay, becomes a ‘self that is no self.’ To heal and humanize, one must constitute it in a language, reorganize the painful events and retell the painful memories. As a result of suffering, the ‘self’, subject to a violent practice of making and unmaking, once acknowledged by an audience becomes real. Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs who all fall short of such realization, are unable to ‘remake’ their ‘selves’ by trying to keep their pasts at bay. The 'self' is located in a word, defined by others. Paul D's identity shifts from a Sweet Home Man to a slave when the schoolteacher takes over the plantation. The power lies in the audience, or more precisely, in the word - once the word changes, so does the identity. All of the characters in Beloved face the challenge of an unmade 'self', composed of their 'rememories' and defined by perceptions and language. The barrier that keeps them from 'remaking' of the 'self' is the desire for an 'uncomplicated past' and the fear that remembering will lead them to 'a place they couldn't get back from'. [Baudreau, Kristen. "Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 447-465.]

Film adaptation

In 1998, the novel was made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey.


"Beloved" received the [ Frederic G. Melcher Book Award] , which is named for an editor of Publishers Weekly. In accepting the award on October 12, 1988, Morrison [ observed that] “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.” Inspired by her remarks, the Toni Morrison Society has now begun to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. The New York Times [ reported] July 28, 2008, that the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26 on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to this country.


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