Study Guide

Beloved Memory and the Past

By Toni Morrison

Memory and the Past

Chapter 3
Denver

"Anything dead coming back to life hurts." (3.65)

Leave it to Amy Denver to encapsulate Beloved in seven words. This quotation should leave you with the word foreshadowing flashing in your brain in Broadway-style lights.

Sethe

"I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened." (3.88)

Here we get the first significant moment in which Sethe uses the word "rememory" to mean "memory." Why "rememory"? Well, you could think of "re" as an emphasis on a memory's replayed or reimagined nature—it's something that's being recalled again. See what we mean? We can't even explain it without using a bunch of words that use "re-" as a prefix. Oh, language. You are so sneaky.

Chapter 7
Sethe

But her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day. (7.79)

Typical Sethe—totally immersed in and obsessed with the past.

Chapter 19
Stamp Paid

Deeper and more painful than his belated concern for Denver or Sethe, scorching his soul like a silver dollar in a fool's pocket, was the memory of Baby Suggs—the mountain to his sky. It was the memory of her and the honor that was her due that made him walk straight-necked into the yard of 124, although he heard its voices from the road. (19.4)

Stamp's quick to correct himself when he thinks of the past and Baby Suggs. That's a lot different from Paul D and Sethe. Maybe it's Stamp's age and experience?

Chapter 26
Mr. and Miss Bodwin

Perhaps it was his destination that turned his thoughts to time—the way it dripped or ran. He had not seen the house for thirty years. Not the butternut in front, the stream at the rear nor the block house in between. Not even the meadow across the road. Very few of the interior details did he remember because he was three years old when his family moved into town. But he did remember that the cooking was done behind the house, the well was forbidden to play near, and that women died there: his mother, grandmother, an aunt and an older sister before he was born. (26.138)

Why does Mr. Bodwin remember 124 Bluestone Road with such great fondness when so many women in his family died there? What's the appeal?

Chapter 28

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)

Wow. What an ending. All along, Beloved's existence in the book has fostered a bunch of questions: whether she's Sethe's dead baby girl; whether she's evil; whether she still lives on at the end. Morrison now takes all those "whethers" out and replaces it with "just weather"—something simple, factual, natural. Just like Beloved herself—whatever she is.

They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn't remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn't said anything at all. So, in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise. (28.4)

Doesn't seem fair, does it? Beloved's story isn't even in Beloved's control since "they" are the ones to make up their tales (i.e., fabricate, embellish, lie even). And once they've put Beloved through the vicious gossip mill, they just up and forget her like she never even existed. We figure remembering is unwise not just because people can't keep the story straight, but because the act of remembering seems to do so much damage as well—in this case, to Beloved.

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. (28.2)

Cue the tears. Also: Is a person only lost if someone else is looking to find that person? Is it possible that whether you're lost or found depends on how much other people remember (and care about) you?

It was not a story to pass on […] It was not a story to pass on […] This is not a story to pass on. (28.3, 28.5, 28.7)

We're pretty sure you've picked up on the change from "it was not" to "this is not." So what does "this" refer to? The very last chapter of the book (which details Beloved's "afterlife")? Or the book Beloved itself? Or something totally different? Take a look at "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on these lines.

Sethe

"You disremember everything? I never knew my mother neither, but I saw her a couple of times. Did you never see yours? What kind of whites was they? You don't remember none?"

Beloved, scratching the back of her hand, would say she remembered a woman who was hers, and she remembered being snatched away from her. Other than that, the clearest memory she had, the one she repeated, was the bridge—standing on the bridge looking down. And she knew one whiteman. (12.3-4)

Usually, Beloved is the one asking Sethe a bunch of questions. But here, it's the opposite. And what do we get? An enigma, sure, but also a possible alternative explanation of Beloved's origins. Compare this account with Stamp Paid's suggestion that Beloved is a runaway girl who was locked up in a house by a whiteman (25.87). Beloved: dead girl alive or runaway slave?