Study Guide

Beloved Analysis

  • Tone

    Elegiac; Ominous; Hopeful

    Sniffle, Sniffle

    Don't know what an elegy is? We're here to help. Okay, now that you're the expert, why are we calling Morrison's tone is elegiac? Well, the dedication to the novel gives us our first clue. It's written for the "Sixty Million and More" who died during slavery—definitely an elegy right there.

    Once we've made our way into the novel, pretty much all of the characters are obsessed with the dead. If they're not already dead themselves, that is. Paul D can't forget what he saw at Sweet Home. Sethe can't forget her dead baby. Beloved, when she gets the chance to narrate, just sees dead faces in the water.

    Plus, there's just this overall sense of how things are past and how we can't do much about the past except to remember it. Take a look at the final page of the book:

    By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.

    Beloved. (28.9-10)

    How can you not feel sad just reading that? But in case you're not feeling the waterworks, let's get to analyzing. Morrison's narrator first tells us how everything about Beloved is gone and forgotten, so much so that the only thing left behind is "just weather." Then, once you get the idea that no one in the novel is even remembering the memory of Beloved, the narrator just hits you with the simple reminder—as the last word of the novel—of her name: "Beloved."

    It's kind of like asking for a moment of silence during the middle of a noisy day or attending a silent vigil. Nothing else can be said about Beloved except her name and the fact that she's gone—we think.

    In fact, we're probably ruining the moment for you right now just by analyzing it to death, so let's give our respects and move on.

    Don't Look Behind You

    Of course, Morrison's tone is also pretty ominous. What would you expect from a novel about a baby ghost come back from the dead? It's definitely some bone-chilling stuff. Somewhere between the horrors of slavery and the unknown something that haunts Sethe's house, there's just enough creepy and downright awful stuff going on in this novel to give anyone a case of night terrors.

    Plus, Morrison knows how to build up some serious suspense. It's sorta like the theme song from Jaws: you know something bad is about to happen, but you're not quite sure what it will be.

    Take a look at Denver's thoughts:

    Denver noticed how greedy she was to hear Sethe talk. Now she noticed something more. The questions Beloved asked… How did she know? (6.39-40).

    By staying solely within Denver's consciousness, Morrison shows us know what one of her characters is thinking while withholding information about Beloved. We're sure something is up. We just don't know what.

    Or what about that part when Beloved seduces Paul D, and Paul D is left saying "Red heart. Red heart. Red heart" (11.117). The Shining, anyone? (Can you hear "red rum, red rum" echoing in your head? We know we can.) Maybe Toni Morrison should go into the screenplay business.

    Melting Hearts

    With all this creepiness, it's sometimes easy to forget that Beloved is filled with a whole lot of love and, sometimes, that love really is the warm, fuzzy kind rather than the sharp, stabby kind.

    Think about the reconciliation between Paul D and Denver, or more poignantly, Paul D's reunion with Sethe:

    Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.

    "Sethe," he says, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."

    He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. "You your best thing, Sethe. You are." His holding fingers are holding hers.

    "Me? Me?" (27)

    So what do you think? Is this part uplifting, inspiring, or even—dare we say it—romantic?

    In our softie opinion, you'd have to be made of stone not to feel how sincere and giving Paul D is in this moment. The whole scene is all about Sethe: how she looks, how she treated him, how she feels.

    More than that, it's about how Paul D wants to give Sethe back to herself ("You your best thing") so that she can leave the past behind and move into the future with him. All of the sudden, the possibility that Sethe won't waste away mourning Beloved and the past becomes significantly greater, now that Paul D's back in the picture again. And that's saying something, since Sethe pretty much seemed like a goner before this part of the book.

    So if anyone tries to tell you that Beloved is just a total downer of a book, just show them this scene and go "Nuh uh!" (Sometimes there's nothing more inspiring than being right.)

  • Genre

    Gothic Fiction; Family Drama; Literary Fiction; Coming-of-Age

    Gothic Fiction

    Beloved opens with a ghost slamming the daylights out of the house on 124 Bluestone Road. Ghost stories usually take a little bit of time to build up some suspense, but this novel doesn't pull any punches. With all that slamming and banging—not to mention children rising up from the dead—we're definitely working withgothic fiction. A fine example of American gothic fiction, at that.

    In case you're wondering, there's a pretty easy way to tell American gothic from British gothic. Here's our helpful Shmoop tip for the day: watch out for the castles. See, the Brits have it easy. The whole country is crawling with tumbling-down castles, which are pretty perfect settings for scary novels like The Castle of Otranto or Frankenstein. American gothic novelists, on the other hand, were a bit short on castles. What they lack in tumbled-down turrets, though, they make up for in creepy woods and tumbled-down shacks. Sort of like 124 Bluestone Road, come to think of it.

    Gothic differs from straight-out ghost stories in one very important way: when you're reading it, you're never sure that there are really ghosts. Gothic fiction's really just a big tease. Sure, Beloved could be a ghost. But then again, she could just be a woman with an uncanny ability to read Sethe's mind, right?

    Morrison never lets the reader rest on one conclusion or another—or not for too long, at least. She's pretty happy to mess with our minds while we try to figure out just what on earth is going on.

    Family Drama

    Beloved's not just a gothic novel, though. It's also a good old-fashioned tale about a screwed-up family. Believe us, Sethe's children could probably give the guests on the Jerry Springer Show a run for their money. They've got all sorts of problems: infanticide, hauntings, love triangles, baby daddies and baby mammas, and of course, a baby girl rising from the dead. Need we say more?

    By the way, if you want more historical oomph, check out this rundown on slavery and its effect on slave families.

    Literary Fiction

    The way that Morrison writes about all those family problems is why we can call Beloved literary fiction.

    We know, we know, it's a weird category. After all, isn't all fiction literary? Well, yes. But no.

    Here at Shmoop, we've got a special section for authors who've won so many awards that they have to rent extra storage space for all their medals. And calling it "Really, Really Prestigious and Well-Respected Fiction That Your Teachers Are Probably Going to Make You Read and Well They Should" just sounds strange. Hence, "literary fiction."

    It's not just about awards, though. Morrison shares a common thread with all those lesser known "serious" writers: the drive to make their literature speak to our higher senses and sensibilities. Literary fiction writers want us to think about "the big idea," "the greater significance"—all those concepts that would make for a great thesis statement on your next essay.

    In other words, these writers might use major family drama or the presence of ghosts in their stories, but they are not just about shock value. And how do they get you to think these big, important thoughts? Well, you can find it in the way they use different narrative techniques or how they experiment with words or describe a scene.

    Another way to tell? If it's difficult to read and understand, you can probably bet that it's "literary fiction."

    Historical Fiction

    Beloved definitely isn't the same type of historical fiction as, say, Margaret Mitchell's famous 1936 novel Gone With the Wind. After all, we don't get all these lush details about the way people dressed or what their columns and buttresses looked like back in the 1800s.

    What we do get, though, is historical context. If Gone With the Wind was about a romance set during the U.S. Civil War, then Beloved is about how romance (and a lot of other things) goes awry both during and after the Civil War for ex-slaves.

    To be more specific, Beloved is a novel that can't exist without two very important historical markers: the actual story of fugitive slave Margaret Garner and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (check out "Setting" for more on that). Those two historical made it possible for Morrison to even dream about characters like Beloved, Sethe, and Denver. So, if you ask us, that makes Beloved about as historical as you can get.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Beloved herself for a deeper look, but suffice it to say that words packs a lot of punch.

    Whose beloved is beloved? Who does Beloved belong to? We've got lots of contenders in this novel, but Beloved's got some ideas of her own, too. And that's where all the problems start.

    Plus, we're pretty sure Morrison got the title straight from the Bible. Check out "What's Up With the Epigraph?" for more on that.

  • 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?

    Not exactly.


    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.

  • Setting

    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.

    Fancy, right?

    Haunted House

    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.

    Party House

    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

    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?

    The Slaves

    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.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?


    Let's start by talking about the dedication:

    Sixty Million and more

    The sixty million to whom Morrison dedicates Beloved refers to the estimated number of black people who died during the Atlantic slave trade.

    But what about that "and more?" Well, maybe Morrison might have an even broader dedication in mind. After all, Beloved is about the after-effects of slavery. Every character in the novel seems to be scarred in one way or another by the brutality of this particular period of American history. So even if they aren't part of the sixty million, they're still victims of suffering and intense brutality.

    A lot of bigwig professors argue that Morrison's dedication is reminiscent of the tallying of the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Some critics even go so far as to suggest that Morrison is pretty much saying to the Jews, "More blacks died from slavery than Jews from the Holocaust."

    We're not on Team Criticize Morrison, but we do think pairing slavery to the Holocaust can lead you to some pretty big questions: How do we determine how important any given historical event is? Can something as traumatic as slavery (or the Holocaust) ever be measured? And, most importantly, how do we remember the dead?


    While you're chewing on all those big ideas, we'll move onto the epigraph.

    I will call them my people,
    which were not my people;
    and her beloved,
    which was not beloved.

    Morrison's quoting the New Testament here; the King James translation of Romans 9:25, to be specific. And when we say quoting, we mean quoting—word for word.

    For those of you who could use a little refresher on your biblical history, in Romans, the apostle Paul is writing a letter to—you guessed it!—the Romans. He's talking about God's love, which he wants to suggest is for everyone, especially those people who seem excluded.

    If that doesn't make the connection to Beloved obvious enough, there's that whole bit about "her beloved/which was not beloved." We're guessing it would be pretty safe to say that Morrison's title comes from these lines. But we're also guessing that Paul wasn't thinking about a dead baby girl coming back to life when he wrote those words.

    So why would Morrison find inspiration in this Biblical passage for her title character?

    On one hand, you can read Morrison's use of the Bible simply. In the letter to the Romans, Paul refers to the idea that God has always loved Gentiles (non-Jews) and Jews alike. Maybe Morrison is suggesting that God's love isn't just for Gentiles and Jews—it's also for those blacks who were condemned to slavery.

    But before you totally go all in on that interpretation, you might want to consider the fact that Morrison's really not a simple writer. She's far more interested in getting you to ask hard questions.

    For example, since Beloved is really about Sethe's love for her children (specifically, the daughter she killed), does that make a mother's love as great as God's love? And if so, wouldn't that mean Morrison is kind of making Sethe equal to God?

    Or how about this: if Beloved shows how a mother's love can be murderous, what does that say about God's love? Can it be just as destructive as Sethe's love? And can Beloved ultimately only find peace with God and the afterlife because of slavery?

    A lot to think about, right? Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    P.S. If you're feeling like you want to dive deeper into the epigraph, take a look at all the commentary on Romans 9:25.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (9) Mount Everest

    The only reason we didn't ramp it all the way up to a 10 is because Beloved is so out there and creepy that it's a page-turner no matter how tough it is.

    Why is so complex? For starters, every word means something deep; every random object is a symbol or metaphor for something. In other words, it's stuff that your English teachers go gaga over. And—you guessed it—the ideas match the writing.

    If you're a little scared of that Mount Everest rating, that's natural, but don't let that stop you from scaling the mountain. The payoff is huge. Your brain will definitely thank you.

  • Writing Style

    Simple is as simple does… Right?

    If we're handing out awards for novels that are difficult to read—which, by the way, we're notBeloved might just walk away with the grand prize. But you know what? It's not because the language is all that complicated. In fact, as contemporary novelists go, Toni Morrison is pretty streamlined.

    Check out a few of Morrison's sentences to get an idea of what we mean:

    They were not holding hands, but their shadows were. (4.58)

    Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother's milk. (19.1)

    See? Nice, short sentences. Nice, short words. Nothing too complicated, right? So what's all the fuss about?

    "Write with All Your Senses!"

    Well, Morrison's phrasing may be simple, but it sure packs a punch.

    Check out the first sentences we quoted above. Like a lot of Morrison's language, it's pretty sensory. We can almost see how Paul D and Sethe and Denver look as they walk down the road.

    On top of that, it's we've got some major symbolism going on. The touching shadows could symbolize their growing connection to each other, right? But wait! The fact that it's their shadows touching (not their bodies) suggests that maybe the growing relationship is just an illusion. After all, shadows have no substance.

    Morrison's playing between two possibilities here, and this sentence captures them both: Are they a new, happy family? Or is the idea of a happy family all a dream?

    Speaking of sensory language, check out that second sentence we quoted.

    Talk about a sisterly bond. We know, we know. You've seen those movies where kids cut their hands and share blood. It's all very charming. But this—Denver drinking Beloved's blood along with her mother's milk? That's a whole new ballgame.

    Morrison's use of the words "right along" ups the shock value of Denver drinking Beloved's blood. It's the kind of down-to-earth language that makes you appreciate at face value the image of an infant nursing on a bloody breast. Morrison is being upfront and in your face rather than tricky and obscure.

    What's a Meta For?

    Of course, Morrison's style isn't all straightforward. Think about Paul D, for example, whose imagination is so rich that he thinks of himself in terms of metaphors. Why? Well, metaphors can help express an idea or feeling in a compact image. Think of it as a shortcut for writers; they don't have to use long, winding sentences to relay a thought if they can use an object to represent that thought.

    As for Paul D, our educated guess is that he's also using that shortcut for himself: those metaphors help him cope with and understand the various traumatic episodes in his life without having to talk or think about them in a totally unrepressed, logical way.

    The Tin Box Heart

    Example? Of course.

    How about all those references to Paul D's "tin box" heart? If the tin box heart reminds you of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, you might be on to something. Like the Tin Man's search for a real heart, Paul D's progress through the novel is a lot like the gradual uncovering of his actual "heart" (a metaphor itself!) or his ability to feel emotional experiences again.

    Paul D, though, has to contend with Beloved first:

    "Beloved." He said it, but she did not go. She moved closer with a footfall he didn't hear and he didn't hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didn't know. (11.117)

    See what Morrison is able to do with the whole tin box metaphor here? Instead of explaining how Paul D's encounter with Beloved makes him start to feel all sorts of strange emotions again, she just describes the way the tobacco tin is giving way.

    The metaphor also allows Morrison to lead us to an approximate feeling or interpretation. It's not like we can really claim for sure: "the tin box equals Paul D's heart!" Morrison gives us a specific image—the rusty tobacco tin box opening—without giving us a specific meaning. Instead, the image points to a more general feeling or idea about what's happening to Paul D at this moment.

    What feelings are those? (1) Paul D's opening up to some pretty strong feelings inside himself; (2) He will never be the same; and (3) The rest of the book will reveal how Paul D transforms into an "open" character.

    Before we move on, a final thought on Paul D and his whole tin box deal: if Paul D's "heart" is an object, then that kind of means Paul D is an object himself. That means that he may not view himself as human as much as something that other people can use. How could he? Since Sweet Home, he's seen told that he's only partially human in the eyes of all the white landowners he's met.

    Maybe that's why it's so easy for Beloved to move him all over the house (and even have sex with him) without his input. Not to excuse Paul D completely, but by linking Paul D to a metaphoric object, Morrison allows us to sympathize with the guy, even though we probably aren't all that excited about his actions.

    After all, if he can't even control his heart, how can he control his actions?

    The Impressionist

    Beloved's narrations are on a whole different level stylistically: they're about as close to imagistic play as Morrison gets in the book. Translation: a bunch of images get all mixed together in order to create an overall mood or feel.

    How does Morrison's writing style get you to feel so gloomy about Beloved? With those non-punctuated sentences that feel more like poetry than prose. Here's a classic sampling of Chapter 22:

    some who eat nasty themselves I do not eat we have none at night I cannot see the dead man on my face daylight comes through the cracks and I can see his locked eyes I am not big small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in if we had more to drink we could make tears (22.210)

    How do we attack this style of writing? Well, first things first—no attacking.

    Instead, think of this section like a really intense session of flow yoga. Try to go through the motions of reading it over and over again without stopping (except for a few occasional, breathy pauses). The more you get sucked into the smooth, natural rhythm of Beloved's speech, the more you might feel the lull of a ship undergoing the arduous journey of the Middle Passage. And that's more or less the setting for Beloved's memories at this point.

    We can also think of Morrison's writing like an impressionist painting. If you read Chapter 22 not for its details but for its overall feel, you'll get what amounts to a Monet painting: an impression of the overall scene. And that can be pretty valuable.

    The Unconscious Historian

    As you read Chapter 22, think about how Beloved's narration is like a repository for the broader historical memories of the Middle Passage. Which, by the way, Beloved—the baby girl—could have never been through to actually remember.

    Beloved's character lacks the typical boundaries of a real, human character like Sethe or Paul D, both of whom are bounded by space (Sweet Home and 124) and time (the 1850s and the 1870s). Beloved, on the other hand, allows Morrison all sorts of poetic license. She can turn Beloved into this almost mythical being who can recall experiences and memories far beyond the grasp of a real baby girl in the 1850s or a young adult in the1870s.

    To capture that feeling of unboundedness in Beloved's consciousness, Morrison uses those long, unpunctuated (and therefore unending) "sentences" so that a historical consciousness—one full of tragedy, death, brutality and loss—can start to seep into our understanding of Beloved's fixation on and need for Sethe.

    Some Final Thoughts

    Here's our final Shmoop takeaway on Morrison's style: it can change quite a bit, but for good reasons. Her stylistic experiments aren't just there to trip you up; they help you get a solid feel for each of her characters and how they think.

    Also, it's just straight up beautiful:

    There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.


  • Houses

    Owning a house—the American dream. A white picket fence, a perfectly manicured garden, a backyard with a swingset for the kids. Oh, but don't forget about the mortgage, electricity bills, flooding in the basement, repairing the leaky roof… yeah.

    On a basic, what-does-this-mean-for-the-plot level, houses signify responsibility—a lot of it. That's why you can practically see Mr. Bodwin shaking his head in despair after the whole incident with Sethe, the townswomen, and Beloved. If you're a homeowner like he is, you're thinking about your property value.

    Mrs. Garner's in a similar situation. Sweet Home is being rented out to a family run amok—after schoolteacher arrives and turns the whole plantation upside down, that is. See what we mean? Houses need managing. You can't just turn it over to anyone.

    Slave House

    But you know what they say: "With great power comes great responsibility." The white homeowners have power, and the responsibility comes along with it. Houses are a form of responsibility the ex-slaves in this book never really get to enjoy—except for Baby Suggs in her happy phase. (Take a look at our discussion of "Setting" for more on slaves and home-ownership.)

    Houses mean permanence, and permanence—if you're an ex-slave—isn't always a good thing. Here's Sethe, giving Denver her take on Sweet Home:

    Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It's never going away. Even if the whole farm—every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.

    Sethe's not so chipper here, and for good reason. Houses are connected to memories—as in bad memories that don't disappear. No wonder Sethe goes on and warns Denver never to go back to that place or house:

    So, Denver, you can't never go there. Never. Because even though it's all over-over and done with—it's going to always be there waiting for you. That's how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what. (3.90)

  • The Hat


    Yeah, that's right, a hat is making us go ick. Specifically, the "black hat wide-brimmed" (26.145), worn by schoolteacher and Mr. Bodwin. The hat isn't just a handy accessory that keeps your skin from turning into the surface of a wrinkly, burned prune. In Beloved, it also means status, power, and—you guessed it—evil.

    But here's the thing. The hat is really only important to Sethe. She's the one to see the shadow of the hat first, before she even sees schoolteacher entering Baby Suggs's yard. It's the hat that propels her to take her kids into the shed and attempt to kill them—she knows it means trouble. The hat also drives her into a wild frenzy at the end of the book because she just can't let go of her negative associations with this creepy accessory.

    Sethe knows what real slaves knew back then: the hat was an accessory typically worn by slavemasters, not by slaves. (Slaves, by the way, usually wore headwraps to cover their hair. Here's why.)

  • Trees

    Trees: you can climb them, pick fruit off them, chop them down for wood, or just gaze at them admiringly. And they serve just as many symbolic purposes, too.

    Paul D thinks that "trees [are] inviting; things you could trust and be near; talk to if you wanted to as he frequently did since way back when he took the midday meal in the fields of Sweet Home" (2.4). Sure they are—for him. Trees, to Paul D, become signs of a second life, a second chancel like when the Cherokee direct him to follow the blossoming trees all the way up to Cincinnati and 124 (10.31-34).

    For Denver, trees—or more specifically, bushes—signal a safe place, like her "five boxwood bushes, planted in a ring" (3.1), a place where "Denver's imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out" (3.3).

    Sounding pretty good, right? Not so fast. Trees have a totally different meaning for Sethe, whose back Amy Denver calls a "chokecherry tree" (1.153). Her "tree" is more a sign of the past—and not a very pleasant one. Actual trees also bring up some pretty dark thoughts for her, like the whole dead-man—Oh! Is that Paul A?—hanging-from-a-tree thing (19.217).

    So yeah—still think trees are inviting?

  • Water Imagery


    Water is never just water, is it? And in a Toni Morrison novel, it's definitely not just water.

    Remember when Beloved walks fully dressed out of the water and Sethe runs to the side of the house to release what seems like gallons of water from her bladder? Yeah, that's about as clear a (figurative) (re)birth scene as you can get. In fact, Morrison pretty much lays it out for us:

    But there was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb and there was no stopping now. (5.5)

    In case you missed it the first time around, our narrator shoves the water-breaking image right in our face. But who's being reborn? Beloved? And is she being reborn literally or figuratively? Good luck parsing that one out.

    Water also loves to signify baptism and all the "good" things that come along with it, like redemption. Beloved gives us her take on a little baptismal moment:

    I am standing in the rain falling the others are taken I am not taken I am falling like the rain is I watch him eat inside I am crouching to keep from falling with the rain I am going to be in pieces he hurts where I sleep he puts his finger there I drop the food and break into pieces she took my face away (22.7)

    Okay, so maybe feeling saved or not being "taken" isn't all that great a feeling. After all, this isn't a real baptism. But it does put into question the idea that life is sacred. Here, living and being saved means that Beloved is just vulnerable to other forms of attack—in this case, molestation (or worse).

    Yep, water can take on other, darker meanings. It signals literal death, especially the deaths of all those who drowned on the Middle Passage.

    P.S. Do you think water picks up on Beloved's fluid nature and her general lack of boundaries? Even the way she speaks is fluid—see ya later, punctuation.

  • The Red Heart and The Pink Flecks

    All you need to know about the red heart is in the one OMG-no-they-didn't scene between Paul D and Beloved:

    "Beloved." He said it, but she did not go. She moved closer with a footfall he didn't hear and he didn't hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didn't know it. What he knew was that when he reached the inside part he was saying, "Red heart. Red heart," over and over again. Softly and then so loud it woke Denver, then Paul D himself. "Red heart. Red heart. Red heart." (11.33)

    It's pretty tempting to say that the red heart represents love, passion, life—something like that. And yeah, it kind of does mean all of those things, but it's also got a gothy feel to it, don't you think? Sure, sex with Beloved kind of reawakens Paul D's dormant emotional side, but he pretty much had to cross over to the dark side to get that feeling back.

    Let's put it this way: if you believe that Beloved is a zombie-ish creature, Paul D basically has sex with a dead girl. And as he says "red heart" over and over again, he's more or less following the rhythm of sex (which is also probably why Denver wakes up from her spying spot). So the "red heart" may reaffirm life and all that jazz, but it can also only be experienced as an encounter with death and the past—both of which Beloved represents.

    Which leads us to Sethe's own visions of red. Or actually, pink—pink flecks and chips on Beloved's headstone, to be exact.

    You might notice that Sethe can't help but recall those pink flecks in the headstone every time she thinks of her dead baby girl. No small wonder, considering she was holding the baby when she saw "red baby blood" (3.107). The two—baby blood and pink-flecked headstone—go hand in hand. If the blood of a dying baby is vital, fresh and, therefore, bright red, it makes sense that the lighter shade of red—pink—comes to represent the trace of the dead baby, completely gone.

    Plus, it's kind of morbid to have a pink headstone decorating baby Beloved's grave, don't you think? It's like a twisted version of a pink nursery for a living baby girl.

    All in all: creepy.

  • The Tobacco Tin Box

    Paul D isn't an easy man to get to know. (Although if you want to try, take a look at our "Character Analysis" section.) How do we know that? Because he keeps going on and on about his tobacco tin box self, which—in male-speak—basically means he's a hard, self-contained, cold, detached, and unable to commit to a woman. Long enough list for you?

    The tin box signals privacy and secrecy. But not in a safe-feeling way. Boxes, in general, aren't a happy place for Paul D if you consider that he was locked up in a box when he was on the chain gang. Just like the coffin-box Paul D experienced in Alfred, Georgia, the tin box isn't even a thing Paul D can open by himself: to get at his real self, he needs the women around him—both Beloved and Sethe—to show him who he can be.

    It's easy to credit Beloved for opening Paul D up (yep, through sex), but we've got to give some props to Sethe, who starts the whole process:

    By the time he got to Ohio, then then to Cincinnati, then to Halle Suggs' mother's house, he thought he had seen and felt it all. Even now as he put back the window frame he had smashed, he could not account for the pleasure in his surprise at seeing Halle's wife alive, barefoot with uncovered hair—walking around the corner of the house with her shoes and stockings in her hands. The closed portion of his head opened like a greased lock. (3.119)

    Sure, he doesn't actually mention the tin box. But Morrison probably just thinks you're smart enough to figure out that the "greased lock" is an indirect reference to our symbol.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Narrative voice is a tricky beast in Beloved. For starters, Morrison doesn't stick to just one narrative style. She'd rather make you aware of how diverse her characters are—translation: she'd rather make you work. To top it off, she switches between the different styles often and without warning. Sometimes she's so subtle that you might have a tough time noticing that anything's changed at all—until you suddenly realize that you're in some other character's head.

    In a nutshell, Beloved breaks down into three narrative perspectives: third person omniscient, third person limited omniscient, and straight-up first person. But the majority of book goes back and forth between third person omniscient and third person limited omniscient. Let's take a closer look.

    Oh, and buckle your seatbelts—you're in for a wild ride.

    Shift it up

    We'll start with a typical example of the shift between the two main styles. Our omniscient third person narrator begins with a description of 124:

    124 was spiteful. Full of baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. (1.1)

    We call this third person narrator "omniscient" because she seems to know everything about the house, Sethe, and Denver to such a degree that we can't argue about it; we can only accept the narrator's information as a given fact. More to the point, the narrator speaks like she's outside of the scene, which gives her a better perspective.

    Then, all of the sudden, we're no longer seeing things from the omniscient narrator's distant view. Instead, we shift right over to a third person narrator with Baby Suggs' limited perspective—i.e., the narrators knows everything, but only about Baby Suggs.

    Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn't the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn't like the one on Bluestone Road. (1.3)

    We no longer have the advantage of seeing things through the omniscient narrator's all-knowing super-wide lens. But being limited to one character's consciousness means we get to know the character in a more intimate way while still enjoying some of that broad truthiness that third-person narration can give us.

    Bringing Out (All) the Voices

    We can't be sure of Morrison's objectives, but we'd wager that flitting between third person omniscient and third person limited was an intentional move on her part.

    The technique allows Morrison to float in and out of the minds and stories of a wide range of characters. It's how we get to know our main characters and even how we come to understand the deeper backstories of minor characters like Lady Jones and Ella.

    The overall mood of Beloved is more communal this way than if Morrison just stuck with a distant omniscient narrator or used a (more limiting) first-person narrator all the way through. The resulting feeling of a shared story is super important considering so much of African-American literature comes from a tradition of oral storytelling—storytelling as a way of building community.

    And that's what Beloved—both book and title character—is ultimately about.

    Let's Get First Personal

    Of course, Morrison doesn't just to stick to a range of third person narrators. The last thing she would want would be for you to get too comfortable.

    Which might be why we get Part 2, Chapters 20-23—also known as first person takeover. Instead of our trusty third-person narrator, a chorus of first person narrators suddenly greet us. Sure, we can figure out that the narrators are Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, but it's not easy. None of these women name themselves, and they switch back and forth without so much as a warning.
    It's massively tough to figure out who's talking, and once we get a handle on whose mind we're following, we still have to figure out what on earth they're saying. Don't worry if you get confused in these sections; we have a hunch that's exactly the effect Morrison's going for.

    This segment of the novel tends to be the part that folks like literary critics (and, um, teachers) rave about. Here's a helpful Shmoop tip: whenever things seem way stranger than they need to be, chances are the smarty pants of the world are going to go gaga over it. Don't worry, though. Your friendly Shmoop team is here to help.

    The Holy Female Trifecta

    First in our string of tough-to-follow, we have a chapter completely devoted to Sethe's first-person perspective. It begins: "Beloved, she my daughter. She mine" (20.1). We're pretty sure Sethe is speaking, because who else could be Beloved's mother?

    Then Chapter 21 comes along and, sure enough, we have another speaker, Denver: "Beloved is my sister" (21.1). Same deal as Chapter 20: the speaker's relationship to Beloved helps us identify her.

    That leaves us with Chapter 22, which—you guessed it—showcases Beloved's dazzling (or dizzying, depending on your perspective) voice: "I am Beloved and she is mine" (22.1). The "she" probably refers to Sethe, although if you feel like "she" could mean "herself" or Beloved's self, don't let us stop you from making that argument.

    Chapter 22 shows us pretty clearly how much Beloved melds (or wants to meld) with Sethe—so much so that they might as well be speaking with one voice or occupying one body. And you can be sure we're not the first ones to think that Beloved is a little like bodysnatcher, or at the very least, a little stalker-ish.

    La pièce de résistance

    And then we get to Chapter 23.

    You'll like this chapter because it's super-short. You'll hate this chapter because it can be totally baffling. You're probably thinking it looks more like poetry than prose, right?

    Think of Chapter 23 like the beginning of a chorus. Before it begins, we hear three soloists, all thinking through what it means for Beloved to be part of the family (read: Chapters 20-22). Then, in Chapter 23, the voices all join together. And that's when things get confusing. (But we're supposed to be confused, remember?)

    Beloved's Do-Over

    The chapter starts out simply enough. You have Beloved as your first person guide. You might notice, too, that her words sound awfully familiar. If you spotted that, then pat yourself on the back because you're right on—her words are like a repetition of the words in Chapter 22 (which she also narrated).

    The difference? She's actually starting to make sense.

    Instead of speaking in phrases and unpunctuated sentences, Beloved's giving you something very close to a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. She's still talking about Sethe, only she's filled in all the spaces from the chapter before.

    (And, by the way, this section of the chapter is how we can sort of understand what she's saying in part of the previous chapter. It's like we're being forced to read backwards.)

    Why does she do this? Or, rather, why does Morrison decide to let Beloved tell a part of her story twice, in two different ways?

    Some Theories

    Chapters 22 and 23 give Beloved an opportunity to retell her story both as a child first coming into language and then as a person who has finally mastered language. This split mirrors Beloved's role as two different characters in the novel: (1) a baby girl who never got to grow up and (2) the young adult who appears one day at 124. So maybe she gets two chances to "speak" because she's both of those characters in one body.

    Or could it be that she gets two chances because her story is just that important? We hardly ever hear from her except in these chapters. It's so easy to see Beloved as this evil succubus-like character because of the whole seduction of Paul D and her obsession with Sethe, so maybe it's good for us to hear her side of the story.

    And behind door #3: Maybe we can think of Beloved's double narration as a form of "rememory," the word that gets tossed around in the novel every time you think they should be saying "memory" or "remember." Chapter 22 is like the memory itself, getting recalled in the most primal and impressionistic way—you know, like a bad dream in all its broken-up, recollected pieces.

    Then the beginning of Chapter 23 arrives as a form of rememory—a second retelling of the memory, one that makes more sense because it's been thought through a little more, but one that's also less immediate and dramatic because it's in all these tidy, logical sentences.

    Go ahead—compare the two for yourself. Here's Beloved at the beginning of Chapter 22:

    I see her take flowers away from leaves she puts them in a round basket the leaves are not for her she fills the basket she opens the grass I would help her but the clouds are in the way. (22.1)

    And here's Beloved again, at the beginning of Chapter 23:

    Sethe is the one that picked flowers, yellow flowers in the place before the crouching. Took them away from their green leaves. They are on the quilt now where we sleep. (23.1)

    Okay, sure. Beloved's still pretty cryptic in Chapter 23 (for example, "in the place before the crouching"), but hey, at least she specifically identifies who and what she's talking about.

    At the same time, those sentences in Chapter 23 don't have the same kind of open-ended, ethereal quality that the Chapter 22 sentences have with their lack of periods and extra spaces. That's why we kind of feel like Chapter 22 is the breathier, more poetic sibling of Chapter 23.

    But enough about us. You can probably come up with a few more ideas on your own about why Beloved gets two narrative takes. That's the beauty of the novel: you've got a lot of room for interpretation.

    Let's Go Greek

    But okay—what about the rest of Chapter 23? The part where, all of the sudden, a bunch of voices start to break into verse? This is the part that sounds and looks a lot like an old-school Greek chorus.

    The only thing is, this Greek chorus starts out more like an intimate conversation between two people. First, it's Sethe and Beloved, basically avowing their love for and memory of each other: "You came back because of me?/ Yes./ You rememory me?/ Yes. I remember you" (23.4-7).

    Then it's Denver and Beloved (although, if you ask us, this conversation seems pretty one-sided): "We played by the creek./ I was there in the water./ In the quiet time, we played./ The clouds were noisy and in the way./ When I needed you, you came to be with me./ I needed her face to smile" (23.30-35).

    Note: Sethe and Beloved sound like their typical, codependent selves. It's all about "you" and "me." But Denver sounds more like a little sister tagging along after a totally self- (and Sethe-) obsessed older sister. Denver thinks and talks in terms of a "we," while Beloved talks and thinks in terms of herself. Sucks to be Denver, right?

    And, then, the big finale:

    You are my sister
    You are my daughter
    You are my face; you are me
    I have found you again; you have come back to me
    You are my Beloved
    You are mine
    You are mine
    You are mine.

    See what we mean by confusing? We could guess that this passage has Denver, Sethe, and Beloved speaking to each other in turns, but we can't know for sure.

    The Big Picture

    Looking back at that quotation, you'll see that there aren't any quotation marks. Also, it shifts between perspectives really, really quickly. That could mean a couple of things:

    (1) By the time the women in 124 have spent all this energy and emotion coming to terms with Beloved's identity, they're exhausted. They're so wrapped up in each other that they don't have the energy to narrate a whole section on their own. That's why each of the women is speaking in fragmented phrases.

    (2) Morrison's trying to build something like a collective voice here. If it works, she has allowed the novel to do what Beloved has always wanted to do: "join" the voices and the minds of Sethe and Denver with Beloved. It's all one, big, warm, melty, metaphysical, lovefest.

    Beloved, the Musical

    Formally, this section reminds us of the types of call-and-response music that play a big part in the cultural traditions of Black America. Call-and-response music works in pretty much exactly the way that you'd expect it to: one voice says something, and the other voices respond by repeating it or speaking back to it. When Morrison allows her characters to repeat "You are mine/ You are mine/ You are mine," she invokes this tradition pretty clearly.

    Thinking about this passage in relation to music allows us to see how it relates to other parts of the novel, too. After all, Sethe and Paul D talk about how their "signal" to run away from Sweet Home was supposed to be "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," a traditional spiritual.

    And let's not forget about those singing, screaming, dead-chicken-carrying women at the end of the novel. If it takes something like music to bring Sethe, Denver and Beloved together, then it also takes music to rip them apart.

    The Return to Oz

    You can breathe a sigh of relief, though—Morrison doesn't let us wallow in faceless voices forever. The novel snaps right back to a third-person omniscient narrative voice in the final few chapters. It's a bit of a shock, we know. After all of that crazy echoing "You are mine"s, we suddenly get this: "It was a tiny church no bigger than a rich man's parlor" (24.218).

    In other words, we're back in the land of the all-knowing narrator. And that's how the book ends: with the gentle guidance of a narrator floating above everything, from a distance.


    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Falling under the Shadow of the Dark Power

      Just when we thought the "dark power" of slavery was over (after all, it is 1874), we learn that things don't end nearly as quickly as we'd like them to. Sethe once killed her first baby girl when she was attempting to escape slave catchers. Now, Sethe and Denver live in a house haunted by what seems to be a violent ghost-baby. When it does disappear, a strange new woman shows up in its place. A woman who goes by the name of Sethe's dead baby, Beloved. Dun dun dun.

      Maybe the Dark Power's Actually Not All That Bad…

      Soon after Sethe and Denver take Beloved in, they realize that she makes each of their lives better. Denver's not alone anymore. She has a sister to love. Sethe finds comfort in Beloved's interest in Sethe. Sure, Paul D's not so happy, but who really cares what men have to say, anyway? Not Sethe or Denver. And certainly not Beloved.

      Whoops. We Spoke Too Soon. The Dark Power is Very, Very Bad.

      Just when we thought that life at 124 was finally shaping up, it gets very, very, very bad. Beloved takes control of the women at 124. She's so needy that she might as well be a vampire sucking the life out of Sethe. And if Denver's collateral damage, well, that's just too bad. Denver and Sethe give Beloved everything. When there's nothing left to give, things start to turn ugly among the three of them.

      Miraculous Salvation

      There's supposed to be an angel descending to heal all wrongs, right? Isn't that what miracles are all about? Well, not really. In this novel, at least, the miraculous is figuring out how to come to terms with yourself. Denver figures out that she needs to go out into the world in order to save herself and the family. Meanwhile, the women of the town finally realize that they can't be jerks to Sethe forever. They band together and help drive out Beloved (along with Mr. Bodwin's presence). Even Paul D figures out his own demons enough to return to Sethe. There's no heavenly chorus at the end of this novel. But there is a chorus of women. And really, isn't that about the same thing?

    • Plot Analysis


      Three's Company

      Sethe and Denver live at 124 Bluestone with a Poltergeist-y presence (whom Sethe thinks is her dead baby daughter) until Paul D, an old friend of Sethe, arrives and, very quickly, moves in. Just as quickly, the baby ghost seems to disappear. Paul D: the all-natural ghost buster! At least, that's what they think…

      Rising Action

      I'm Ba-ack

      One day, as Sethe, Denver, and Paul D return from the carnival, they spot a young woman sitting on the tree stump outside of 124. The girl clearly needs a place to stay; plus, she'd be a swell companion for young Denver. Oh! And by the way, her name's Beloved, the same name Sethe more or less gave to her dead baby girl. What a coincidence. Let's have her live with us! Great idea, right? Well, yes, if you happen to be writing a novel in need of some serious drama.


      She Did What?!

      Stamp Paid tells Paul D about how Sethe killed her baby daughter way back when, which of course is a huge dealbreaker for Paul D—so he leaves. But what makes this part of the book the climax is the fight between Paul D and Sethe; especially the part when Paul D basically calls Sethe an animal. His putdown is so brutal that we dare you not to gasp while you're reading it. It's so bad that you just know it has to be the breaking point for the relationship (and the novel).

      Falling Action

      And Then There Were Three (Again)

      Sethe, Denver and Beloved seem completely happy without Paul D when, in fact, Sethe and Beloved are locked in a death-spiral of obsessive love. Meanwhile, Denver's left out and starving (as are Sethe and Beloved: 124 may be full of love, but love can't feed the body). It doesn't take much to figure out that things are getting bad and fast, so Denver heads out on her own to save the family by finding herself a job.

      You'd think that would which you'd think would be the resolution, but no, not in this book. Denver's job just brings her boss Mr. Bodwin to the final action scene, when Sethe goes crazy with an ice pick on Mr. Bodwin. That's when you know you're more or less close to the end of the book because what else can possibly happen except the resolution?



      You didn't actually think Beloved was going to stick around for real at 124 did you? No way, not with a white man coming around the bend toward them. Beloved sees Mr. Bodwin as the second coming of Sethe-the-baby-killer so she disappears and is never seen again (at least, not by any of our main characters). Is she or isn't she a ghost? That, we never know for sure (because Morrison novels never have tidy endings). But we do find out what happens to the other characters: Paul D returns to Sethe and Denver's a working woman with hopes for college one day. And that's about as happy an ending as you're going to get from Toni Morrison.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Sethe and Denver are just about to start a new life with Paul D when Beloved appears on their doorstep. Their house isn't haunted anymore… or is it?

      Act II

      Things are heating up at 124 and not in a good way. Beloved's become one of the family, while Paul D's slowly getting cast out of the house. Not to mention, Beloved's worked her way into Paul D, if you catch our drift. Things really come to a head, though, when Paul D finds out about Sethe's bloody past and, as a result, leaves. Their split is about as far from a resolution as you can get in the book.

      Act III

      Little girls grow up. Ghosts are banished. Even people who didn't believe in love learn how to love (and live) again. In other words, it's almost a happy ending. Except, maybe, for Beloved, who may or may not be a spirit in the woods behind 124.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Cinematic

      • Paul D's tobacco tin box of a heart reminds us of the Tin Man in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
      • Paul D saying "Red heart. Red heart. Red heart" (11.117) reminds us of the phrase "Red rum red rum" from The Shining (1980).
      • Amy Denver sings "Lady Button-Eyes," a poem by Eugene Field, to Sethe (8.80-81).

      Musical References

      • "Sis Joe"—railroad work song: "Little rice, little bean,/No meant in between./Hard word ain't easy,/Dry bread ain't greasy." (3.40)
      • "Trouble in Mind"—railroad work song: "Lay my head on the railroad line,/ Train come along, pacify my mind/ If I had my weight in lime,/ I'd whip my captain till he went stone blind./ Five-cent nickel,/ Ten-cent dime,/ Busting rocks is busting time." (3.40)
      • "Storm upon the Waters"—spiritual: "He couldn't go back to 'Storm upon the Waters' that they sang under the trees of Sweet Home, so he contented himself with mmmmmmmmm, throwing in a line if one occurred to him, and what occurred over and over was 'Bare feet and chamomile sap,/Took off my shoes; took off my hat.'" (3.40)
      • "Down by the Riverside"—spiritual: "Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don't study war no more. Lay all that mess down. Sword and shield." (9.86)

      Biblical References

      • Romans 9:25. Check out "What's up With the Epigraph?"
      • When Stamp Paid feeds baby Denver some blackberries (15.136), we think of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:3-3:7).
      • On the day of baby Beloved's death, Baby Suggs holds a party and ends up having enough food for the entire town (15.136-137).
      • Kind of like the fishes and loaves parable (Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-9; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15).
      • The "tree" that schoolteacher makes when he whips Sethe's back (1.17-18; 2.21-22; 8.79) is reminiscent of the tree of knowledge and evil (Genesis 2-4).
      • "She is mine" (22.210; 23.214) is from Song of Solomon 2-6.
      • Sethe, Denver, and the "holy ghost" Beloved might symbolize the Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:19).
      • "When the four horsemen came—schoolteacher, one nephew, one slave catcher and a sheriff—the house on Bluestone Road was so quiet they thought they were too late" (16.148). Sounds like the Four Horsemen (Revelations 6).
      • "If he trembled like Lot's wife and felt some womanish need to see the nature of the sin behind him; feel a sympathy, perhaps, for the cursing cursed, or want to hold it in his arms out of respect for the connection between them, he too would be lost" (11.117). This is a shout-out to Lot's wife (Genesis 19).
      • "'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" (26.128). It makes us think of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:34).

      Historical References

      • Margaret Garner (Chapter 16; the Garners)
      • The Middle Passage (Chapter 22, and throughout)
      • The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (Chapter 16)
      • Buffalo Solders; "The Cherokee saw the chains and went away. When they returned each carried a handful of small axes. Two children followed with a pot of mush cooling and thinning in the rain. Buffalo men, they called them, and talked slowly to the prisoners scooping mush and tapping away at their chains" (10.29-30).