Study Guide

Beloved Themes

  • The Home

    If your idea of home is, say, a cozy three-bedroom with a yard, a spouse, and 2.5 kids, let's just say 124 Bluestone Road won't be your kind of home. Why? Because "home" in Beloved is a haunted concept.

    In addition to the haunted house that is 124, Beloved is about the after-effects of slavery in a community of free slaves. That means the notion of home becomes an ideal that is finally in reach yet still unattainable for most of the ex-slaves. A lot of the characters in the book are still contending with the recent past, when slaves were refused the right to own a house, among other things.

    In case property ownership wasn't enough of a sticking point, think about the one place in the novel that's actually called "home," Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation that's anything but "sweet." Bottom line: don't go looking for comfort in the homes of Beloved.

    Questions About The Home

    1. 124 Bluestone Road is actually a house that the Bodwins rent to Baby Suggs (and, later, to Sethe). How does renting affect the way Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Denver "make their home"? Does it affect the way they view 124 Bluestone?
    2. How does Sweet Home compare to 124 Bluestone Road?
    3. Why might the address to the house on Bluestone Road be the numbers "124"?

    Chew on This

    In Beloved, "home" is a space for women, not for men. To become part of the home, men need to learn how to get in touch with their feminine side.

    "A house is not a home." That pretty much sums up 124 for you.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Being a man is anything but simple in Beloved. Our leading men have some complicated relationships with women and with themselves. In order to prove their masculinity, men want to own things. So not owning anything—including themselves—leaves the male slave vulnerable to some pretty serious psych issues. Oh, and to baby girls who've come back from the dead.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Why does Paul D feel like he's less of a man compared to Halle and Sixo?
    2. Do the women in Beloved think a man is only manly if he can lay claim to something or someone? What do the women think manliness is all about?
    3. How do men express love for each other in Beloved?

    Chew on This

    In Beloved, a man is only worth something if he's "claimed" by someone else—a mother, a wife, a child, or a friend. Otherwise, he just won't have a meaningful life.

    In Beloved, a real man is someone who resists authority and does his own thing.

  • Love

    If you're looking for a sweet romance in Beloved, good luck. Sure, there's a major relationship in the book that seems to end happily, but for the most part, love is just really messy. And by messy, we mean colossally chaotic. For starters, love can literally kill in this book. Oh, and it can make good men go insane and brings babies back from the dead. If you want a sweet, cuddly type of love, we suggest you get a teddy bear. If you want to read about the kind of love that will make you shake, shiver, and cry, then Beloved is for you.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is Sethe justified in killing her baby girl? Is her love "too thick"?
    2. Why do all three women—Sethe, Beloved and Denver—feel the need to say, "she is mine"?
    3. Beloved obsesses about Sethe's face and smile, while Denver needs Beloved to look and smile at her. Why is a smiling face such an important sign of love for them?

    Chew on This

    In Beloved, feeling loved is a lot like being possessed by another person.

    Sethe and Beloved both need to realize that real love means letting the other person go free.

  • Slavery

    Toni Morrison doesn't hold back when talking about slavery. In Beloved, we get all sides. For starters, there's the outright brutality and abuse of the system. That's the part we can all agree on. Then there are the grey areas. Examples? Beloved is full of 'em: a white slaveowner who treats his slaves as "real men"; a fugitive slave who kills her daughter so her daughter won't be caught by slavecatchers; a handful of white people who go above and beyond to help of fugitive slaves. Is there room for moral fuzziness on the topic of slavery? In Beloved there sure is.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. Is Mr. Garner a good guy or is he as bad a slavemaster as schoolteacher?
    2. How does slavery affect the male ex-slaves differently from the female ex-slaves in the book?
    3. What do abolitionists like the Bodwins get out of their work on behalf of slaves?
    4. What role does the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 play in Beloved?

    Chew on This

    In Beloved, it's impossible for a white person—no matter how well-intentioned—to truly understand the effects of slavery

    Beloved's "memories" of the Middle Passage are meant to instill in us a collective memory.

  • Family

    Slavery and families just don't go hand-in-hand. See, slaveowners weren't in the business of helping slave parents and kids stay together unless it somehow benefited the slaveowners, too. Beloved is full of broken families, orphans, and dysfunctional relationships. Do the slaves form new kinds of families? Or are they left to fend for themselves?

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Sethe's mothering impact Denver?
    2. Why can't Sethe, Paul D, and Denver stay together once Beloved enters the picture?
    3. Are Beloved and Sethe really family? How about Paul D and Denver? How do we define family in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Sethe's sacrifice was just an attempt to protect her family.

    In Beloved, family has nothing to do with blood relations.

  • Memory and the Past

    The past conjures up all sorts of little nasties in Beloved. Oh, and it also conjures up actual dead people. Why? Well, in part because no one can leave the past and all its traumas behind. You might say that the past is a little like a vampire that sucks the lifeblood out of some of our major characters—and not in a sexy, Robert Pattinson, kind of way. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. To forget the past is a big no-no for Morrison; that would be like forgetting that slavery existed at all. Instead, through her characters, our author urges us to maintain a collective memory of this dark period of American history.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why does Morrison use terms like "rememory" and "disremember"? Why not just stick with the standards?
    2. How is Beloved's sense of the past different from Sethe's and Denver's?
    3. How does Paul D deal with the past throughout the novel?

    Chew on This

    In Beloved, the past isn't just one thing—it's more like a collection of stories that changes with each person's telling.

    Forgetting Beloved is about as bad as Sethe's killing of her baby girl.

  • The Supernatural

    Beloved can be spooky, sure. But the spookiness carries more than just shock value. The supernatural elements of the novel—ghosts! risen babies! spells!—usually have to do with the past making itself known in the present. Especially when the present is looking like it's about to head off happily into the future.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Is Beloved Sethe's baby girl, back from the dead; or is she a runaway slave?
    2. Why does Beloved appear on 124's porch on the day Sethe, Paul D, and Denver go to the carnival? Is there any significance to that day?
    3. Other than Beloved, what characters have a supernatural feel to them?

    Chew on This

    Beloved isn't actually Sethe's daughter come back to life. Sethe's just projecting her past onto a poor, runaway slave who's suffering from amnesia.

    Beloved returns from the dead because Sethe refuses to let go of the past.

  • Community

    With all the crazy, dysfunctional family drama going on in Beloved, it's no wonder communities play such a big role. These people need another support group. Sure, there's still all the pettiness that marks a typical Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives. But communities—especially for this group of ex-slaves—are as necessary as blood: they are what Morrison's characters fall back on when they're in trouble. Without a community, there's definitely no surviving slavery and its after effects.

    Questions About Community

    1. How is Baby Suggs's "congregation" different from that of an actual church? What does she teach her community of followers?
    2. How is the community of Sethe and her daughters different from the community of the townswomen?
    3. What binds the community of Cincinnati together in Beloved?

    Chew on This

    The community in Beloved needs an outcast to band together against.

    There's no real community in Beloved. Everyone is out for themselves.