What’s Up With the Ending?
At the end of Beloved, Paul D and Sethe seem like they're about to start a new life together. Denver's employed in town and preparing for grand things like college. And Beloved, well, Beloved's nowhere to be seen—a huge relief to everyone in town.
So everything's good right? Happiness and sunshine and flowers all around?
For starters, we can't say for sure that Paul D and Sethe are going to have their "happily ever after." After Paul D says some of the sweetest words a man has ever uttered to a woman in literary history ("'You your best thing, Sethe. You are.'"), Sethe's response is a confused, unbelieving "'Me? Me?'" (27.273).
And that's where their story ends. With a question mark—literally.
Bottom line: we can't jump to any conclusions about the romantic future of this couple. But things do seem highly promising, especially for Paul D, who appears to be pretty well healed from his traumatic past. He's finally figured out a way to apply his memories to his (and Sethe's) future without falling into his usual pit of negativity. He uses Sixo's words as a guide to appreciating the woman before him, right now—Sethe:
"She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces that I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." (27.272)
Instead of forgetting about the past, Paul D's using the past to move through the present and into the future. That's a huge difference from a few chapters earlier, when Paul D was pretty much circling the drain, drinking and homeless.
What About Beloved?
But Paul D and Sethe's story isn't actually the end of the novel. And that brings us to our second point about why the ending isn't all unicorns and sunbeams. Just in case you were getting too comfortable with the thought of a bright future, Morrison throws us a curveball with one last section in the novel. And believe us, it's a strange one:
It was not a story to pass on. (28.3)
Wait a second. Didn't we just finish reading the whole story of Sethe and Beloved and Denver and Paul D? Wasn't that story... passed on? We sure didn't make it up ourselves. And in case we're tempted to overlook that little sentence, the narrator repeats it. Three times.
So what in the world is the narrator talking about now? Well, we've got a few hunches:
For starters, the last section seems to be about Beloved. Or at least the figure that Sethe and Denver once called Beloved. The narrator reminds us that, soon after Beloved disappeared, "everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name" (28.2).
Beloved can't actually be called beloved anymore because no one even remembers her enough to love her. Instead, she becomes this nameless presence that's just there. She's not even really haunting anybody, because there's no one who's even willing to think of her as a ghost. Maybe that's why she disappears from the rest of the novel. It can't really be a ghost story anymore if no one believes in ghosts.
Okay, so the narrator's probably talking about the-baby-girl-ghost-who-used-to-be-called-Beloved. But why can't her story be told? Haven't we already heard it?
Well, sort of. Think back to Chapter 22 when Beloved was narrating her own story. Beloved seemed to have lots of memories that don't fit into Sethe's or Denver's, a lot of memories that recall a ship at sea with a group of suffering slaves and dead faces.
Here's just a reminder:
The man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked […] the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink we have none" (22.210)
Beloved is remembering the Middle Passage—the journey from Africa to the Americas that slaves were forced to make. But wait—that's impossible!, you say. Well, yes and no.
Another way to look at Beloved's story is that it's actually lots of stories. And if that's the case, then maybe our narrator is telling us that we'll never know Beloved's whole story. And more importantly, there isn't just "a story to pass on"; there are many stories to pass on. Many stories that—like Beloved—have been forgotten, maybe because of how difficult they are for our collective, national conscience andconsciousness.
But don't just take our word for it. Here's the author herself on Beloved:
"I thought, this has got to be the least read of all the books I'd written because it is about something that the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember. I mean, it's national amnesia." (source)
Morrison makes a good point. Who wouldn't rather read about sunshine and rainbows than a story about pain, horror, and death. Beloved isn't easy to swallow, that's for sure.