Since Beloved continually dips into the mind of one character or another, it's not surprising that we figure out how to tell characters apart by listening in on their thoughts.
Take Baby Suggs. We know that before Baby Suggs arrives at 124, she's a pretty negative person who doesn't think the freedom Halle bought for her is really worth much. How? Thought her thoughts—via our limited third person narrator:
Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye [...] "God take what He would," she said. And He did, and He did, and He did and then gave her Halle who gave her freedom when it didn't mean a thing. (2)
Of course, other people know and think of her differently; especially once she gets to 124 (and before Sethe kills her daughter). In fact, she's a woman the townspeople come to envy because she's so much the center of everything:
124, rocking with laughter, goodwill and food for ninety, made them angry. Too much, they thought. Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy? Why is she and hers always the center of things? How come she always knows exactly what to do and when? Giving advice; passing messages; healing the sick, hiding fugitives, loving, cooking, cooking, loving, preaching, singing, dancing and loving everybody like it was her job and hers alone. (15.137)
Thanks to all the various thoughts and opinions of both Baby Suggs and the other characters in the novel, what we get is an incredibly complicated portrait of who Baby Suggs is. Depressed and hopeless on one hand; positive, generous, and ebullient on the other.
In fact, you can think of all the characters in the book as composite portraits produced from multiple perspectives. There isn't just one way to view a character precisely because the characters view each other in so many different ways.
You'd think that a community of former slaves would be pretty set on celebrating equality, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be wrong. As Morrison shows us, there's always an in crowd and there are always outsiders. Who falls where? Like high school, that depends a lot on what the person has and who they hang out with.
Let's look at Baby Suggs for an example of how social status operates in the novel. Baby Suggs has all sorts of indicators of well-being: she has a name that she chose for herself; a rented house "with two floors and a well from the Bodwins"; and, most important, "free papers folded between her breasts (driven by the very man who had been her master, who also paid her resettlement fee—name of Garner)" (15.137).
You'd think that, with all that Baby Suggs has, she'd be queen bee of the community. And she kind of is. Remember, even though 124 is on the outskirts of town, everyone and everything passes through 124 and Baby Suggs. Before the incident, she's everyone's go-to person.
But maybe because Baby Suggs doesn't engage in gossip—"Talk was low and to the point—for Baby Suggs, holy, didn't approve of extra" (9.87)—and because 124 is on the edge of town, Baby Suggs isn't the same kind of queen bee that, for example, Ella is. People feel jealous of Baby Suggs' personal wealth—especially those free papers.
So sure, Baby Suggs's financial status and personal freedom puts her above the rest of the town, but maybe too far above (at least in the eyes of the townspeople). Enough so that Baby Suggs senses it the day of the big party: "Nothing seemed amiss—yet the smell of disapproval was sharp" (15.138). And enough so that, when schoolteacher and his gang come calling, no one in town bothers to warn Baby Suggs and Sethe.
Ella is a tough, "practical woman" who has the power to "[convince] the others that rescue [is] in order" when they hear about Beloved and Sethe (26.256). She lives in town like everyone else, and she comes from some seriously harrowing experiences:
Her puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son, whom she called "the lowest yet." It was "the lowest yet" who gave her a disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities. A killing, a kidnap, a rape—whatever, she listened and nodded. Nothing compared to "the lowest yet." (26.256)
The fact that she "measure[s] all atrocities" against her own only to find that they fall short in comparison makes Ella a little like a mean girl. She feels and acts superior to everyone else because she's so much prettier, richer, or in this case, more traumatized.
And that might be the real clue to what stands for social currency in this little free town of ex- and fugitive slaves: the more willing you are to use your experiences as a way to judge others, the more other people will be forced to accept you.
None of that means Ella is loved; in fact, we find out that "[n]obody loved her and she wouldn't have liked it if they had" (26.256). It does mean, though, that people respect and listen to her—and that, Shmoopers, is the sign that she's at the top of the social heap in little Cincinnati.
We've got to confess, this is our favorite mode of characterization in Beloved. Why? Because we've got humans and... not-so-humans.
Basically, there are all of the characters in the novel—and then there's Beloved. Is she a ghost? A bloated and strangely silent woman? A witch? A dead baby brought back to life? Is her body her own? Or does it belong to that woman who drowned under the bridge?
Whoever—or whatever—Beloved is, she forces all the other characters to question who they are and what they believe in, at the most basic level. The clearest example is when Paul D confronts Sethe with the news clipping Stamp Paid shows him. You know, the one about that day when Sethe killed her baby girl.
Granted, neither Paul D nor Sethe have consciously made the connection that the baby girl and Beloved are one and the same person—at least, not yet—but it's clear that the memory of Sethe's baby girl Beloved still haunts people in the community. So much so that Paul D calls Sethe's love "too thick" (to which Sethe replies: "'Thin love ain't love at all'") and reminds her to act like a human being, not an animal: "'You got two feet, Sethe, not four'" (18.164-165).
See? The teen version of Beloved doesn't even need to be the topic of conversation to cause a fight (even though, freakily enough, Paul D feels Beloved looking down on him through the floorboards when he's fighting with Sethe). Her dead baby self—in the form of a news clipping no less—is more than enough to stir up trouble.
And, of course, Beloved in her back-from-the-dead form gets the townswomen to really rise up out of minor character status and show their stuff. Lines, especially for Ella, are drawn between human and not-human, this world and that world:
"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," and nobody needed more; nobody needed a grown-up evil sitting at the table with a grudge. As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place—shaking stuff, crying, smashing and such—Ella respected it. But if it took flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn't mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this [Beloved] was an invasion. (26.257)
All of the sudden, we have women like Ella and Lady Jones coming out of the woodwork to help Denver and Sethe. They become one mega-character that moves as a "company," unified against a common foe despite profound differences:
Some brought what they could and what they believed would work. Stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their necks, lying in the space between their breasts. Others brought Christian faith—as shield and sword. Most brought a little of both. They had no idea what they would do once they got there. They just started out, walked down Bluestone Road and came together at the agreed-upon time […] So thirty women made up that company and walked slowly, slowly toward 124. (26.257)
Pretty amazing, right? That's the power of Beloved: so feared and hated that it takes a whole company of women to run her out.
Then there's the masculine half of the book. In a novel that explores the consciousnesses of former slaves, it's inevitable that we have to deal with all that rhetoric about how to define "man" and "human."
Morrison doesn't blatantly use the kind of language that used to dot our fine ol' Constitution—stuff like: black men equal 3/5 of a man and black women equal, um, nothing. She's too much of an artist for that. But she alludes to it, especially when Paul D wonders about his (hu)manhood:
He grew up thinking that, of all the Blacks in Kentucky, only the five of them were men. Allowed, encouraged to correct Garner, even defy him […] Was that it? Is that where the manhood lay? In the naming done by a whiteman who was supposed to know? Who gave them the privilege not of working but of deciding how to? No. In their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believedand trusted, but most of all they were listened to. (13.125)
There isn't a question about what Paul D is in our minds (or, finally, in his): he's clearly a human being and a man. But because of the laws that allowed for slavery, the whole type of being concept becomes a major topic for Paul D and the whole book.
We have one word for that: deep.