by Toni Morrison
Where It All Goes Down
Beloved may cover a lot of emotional ground, but it also covers a lot of honest-to-goodness physical ground. Sure, most of the novel is set within one tiny house at the end of a country road, but its characters have taken very long (and, sometimes, very strange) paths to get there.
Place isn't something to take lightly in this novel. For one thing, it wasn't too long ago when the state in which a black person lived determined whether or not he or she was a slave or a free person. Before the Civil War, Kentucky (where Sethe and Paul D spent their early years) was a slave state. Ohio (where 124 Bluestone Road sits) was a free state. And, as you can guess, there's a world of difference between the two.
Want a timeline to straighten this whole slave state/free state thing out? Here you go.
124 Bluestone Road (1850s and 1874)
Before we get carried away, let's start small. And since the novel opens at 124 Bluestone Road, we'll do the same.
124 Bluestone Road is at the edge of the world. Well, at least it's at the edge of Cincinnati; but it sure feels like the edge of the world. The house is located at the end of the road, without any other houses around it. Bates Motel, anyone?
As if its location weren't spooky enough, it's also kind of a living thing. Sort of Amityville-ish, only without so many murders. Think about it. Each section of the novel begins with some personified description of the house.
• 124 was spiteful (1.1).
• 124 was loud (18.1).
• 124 was quiet (24.1).
You can almost track the course of the novel—and the characters in it—just by knowing what's going on with the house itself.
124's Feminine Side
Why is the house such a good barometer for the novel? Well, it's a bit more than just a shack alongside the road. When Baby Suggs moves to 124, it already has a decent amount of history of its own. Mr. Bodwin, who owns 124, remembers that "women died there: his mother, grandmother, an aunt and an older sister before he was born" (26.259).
That means we've got a house that's especially tuned to female vibes. In fact, you can argue that the house is more or less female, animated as it is by all the women who have lived there. And in case that's not enough, don't forget that one specific female possesses the house: the ghost of Sethe's first daughter, a.k.a. Beloved.
And it does seem like the house's moods follow the arc of Beloved's presence at 124: from the "spiteful" baby ghost who likes to get Poltergeist-y on the house; to the "loud" fighting between Sethe and Beloved; to the "quiet" absence after Beloved leaves.
However you view 124, one thing is pretty clear: the house is flat-out haunted.
But as Toni Morrison points out in an interview with NPR, "haunted" doesn't have to mean "spooky"; in fact, to her, a haunting can be a "pleasant haunting," a state of "being alert. If you are really alert, then you see the life that exists beyond the life that exists on top" (source).
So maybe the attraction of 124 is that it puts its inhabitants in touch with a more (super)natural world. It is flanked by the woods, which seem to be both a place of mystery (it's where Beloved's spirit is supposed to be located at the end of the novel) and a place of earthly, spiritual refuge (remember the sylvan gatherings at the Clearing?). 124 is like the gateway to your most natural, intuitive self.
Plus, as Denver tells Paul D, the ghost that resides at 124 feels merely "[l]onely and rebuked" (1.13). Nothing to be scared of. The ghost might also just be wishing things were more like that day at 124 before Sethe killed her baby girl and before Baby Suggs decided to withdraw from society.
The fact that Baby Suggs could throw a party at 124 gives us a glimpse of the other side of the house, the side that once made it a gathering place and "way station, where messages came and then their senders" (7.65). Precisely because it's on the edge of town, 124 used to be the spot where everyone passed on their way in and out of town. Plus, Baby Suggs was such a welcoming presence (before Sethe) that she turned 124 into the perfect pitstop for weary souls.
Yep, 124 was once the place to be.
And that's part of what makes the ending so interesting. It feels like Sethe and Paul D will remain together at 124, but we know better. The Bodwins are putting the house up for sale, a reminder that, as much as 124 seems to belong to this family of ex-slaves, there's no such thing as "home" if they don't actually hold the deed to the property.
Remember: it's still the 1870s, just after the Civil War. Even though slaves have technically been freed, we're a lo-ong way from black home ownership. The fate of Sethe, Paul D and Denver—as well as 124—is still up in the air.
P.S. Want a refresher on those post-war years? Check it out.
Sweet Home, Kentucky (1850s)
Sweet Home pretty much the opposite of 124. No spirits, no hauntings, no crazy. In fact, on the surface, it seems exactly like its name: a sweet home, with a lovely little Mr. and Mrs. presiding over it.
The Garners are like your fantasy slaveowners: they're kind; they treat their slaves like real human beings; and you get the feeling that, if Mr. Garner hadn't died, he might have emancipated the Sweet Home crew.
Oh wait—not at all.
The Garners may be cool at first glance, but just like Sweet Home, there's more than meets the eye. Like Halle points out to Sethe, "[Baby Suggs] worked [at Sweet Home] for ten years. If she worked another ten you think she would've made it out? I pay [Mr. Garner] for her last years and in return he got you, me and three more coming up" (19.196).
Maybe they're better than your average slaveowner, but these are still white people who own black people. No matter how you slice it, it's not good.
And, of course, once schoolteacher shows up at Sweet Home, things don't turn out sweet at all. We have Paul A's beating, the gang rape of Sethe, and Paul A's eventual death by hanging. Not to mention Sixo's murder, Paul D's sale to some really bad people, and Halle's clear insanity after witnessing Sethe's rape.
All of which drives home two points: Sweet Home is neither sweet nor a home. How could it be, considering that Sethe and Paul D were there during the 1850s, the peak of slavery in America?
But that doesn't mean the ex-slaves hate Sweet Home. In fact, they have a pretty complicated relationship with this place that was somehow able to foster both good and evil. Here's Sethe, for example, recalling the seductive beauty of the plantation:
[A]nd suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too […] Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. (1.18)
Likewise, when Paul D thinks of Sweet Home, he thinks of it as a place full of the "perfumed things that honeybees love" (22.52).
All of Sweet Home's associations, beautiful and otherwise, are made possible by the slave system in the American South. Beloved may be set toward the end of slavery, but the novel makes it awfully clear that the last few years of slavery weren't any nicer than the first several decades. Believe us, there's a reason why people call it the darkest chapter in American history. In fact, our good buddies on the Shmoop History team have done quite a bit of thinking on the subject, just for your benefit.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Okay, we've gotten to the point where you're thinking: oh, Ohio, back then you must have been like heaven compared to Kentucky. And for plenty of ex-slaves, Ohio was probably the place to be. But for a fugitive slave like Sethe and her kids—slaves who had the guts to hightail it out of whatever slave state they were in—things were a little different.
Those compassionate souls in Congress decided, in the year of 1850, to strengthen the rights of slaveowners in slave states by allowing them to cross into free states and haul their escaped slaves back to their plantations (or worse). Because, you know, those poor slaveowners, losing all their labor and capital (i.e., slaves) to neighboring free states—someone needed to think about them, right?
(Yeah, we're feeling snarky today.)
Don't believe us? Read it for yourself.
Basically, that's how Morrison is able to get us to that infamous flashback scene in which Sethe slits her daughter's throat. Compliments of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, schoolteacher and his gang are able to go after Sethe, even in Ohio, and scare her so much that she becomes desperate enough to kill her child.
There's the force of history for you.