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Beloved is a 1987 novel by Toni Morrison about the legacy of slavery. It won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. The novel is loosely based on the life and legal case of Margaret Garner whom Morrison later wrote about again in the opera of the same name.

Plot of Beloved

The book follows the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery. One day, a young lady shows up at their house, saying that her name is "Beloved." Sethe comes to believe that the girl is another of her daughters, whom Sethe killed when she was only two years old to save her from a life of slavery, and whose tombstone reads "Beloved." Beloved's return consumes Sethe to the point where she ignores her other children and even her own needs, while Beloved becomes more and more demanding.

The novel follows in the tradition of slave narratives, but also confronts the more painful and taboo aspects of slavery, such as sexual abuse and violence. Morrison feels these issues were avoided in the traditional slave narratives. In the novel, Beloved, she explores the effects on the characters, Paul D and Sethe, of trying to repress - and then come to terms with - the painful memories of their past.

Beloved's Themes

Beloved is a novel based on the impact of the slavery and of the emancipation of slaves on individual black people. There are several themes that remain central to the novel:


The concept of motherhood within Beloved is as an overarching and overwhelming love that can conquer all, strongly typified within the novel by the character Sethe, whose very name is the feminine of "Seth"- the Biblical 'father of the world'. This can also be seen within Morrison's other works and has led to her sometimes being cited as a feminist writer. The feminine capacity for love is maximal: "It hurt her when mosquitoes bit her baby". Further, Sethe's escape from the slave plantation (ironically named 'Sweet Home') stems from her desire to keep the "mother of her children alive" and not from any personal survival instinct. Sethe's maternal instincts almost lead to her own destruction. We can here assume the interpretation that Beloved is a wrathful character looking to wreak revenge on Sethe for killing her, despite the fact that the murder was an entirely loving act. Sethe's guilt at Beloved's death means that she is willing to "give up her life, every minute, hour and second of it, to take back just one of Beloved's tears". Further, toward the end of the novel, "Beloved didn't move, said, 'Do it', and Sethe complied". The strength of her love leads her almost to the point of death as she allows Beloved to take her revenge.---


Toni Morrison wrote Beloved on a foundation of historical events. The most significant event within the novel--the "Misery", or Sethe's murder of Beloved--is based on an actual historical event. In 1856, Margaret Garner murdered her children to prevent them from being recaptured and taken back into slavery with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Morrison admits to "an obsession" with this account. The novel itself can be seen as the reworking of fact into something with a very emotional central message. History is woven throughout the novel. The entire concept of the slavery described in the novel: Paul D's confinement in Alabama, ideas such as the "bit" and the legislature described are all based on history. This gives the novel a powerful impact.

Beloved's appearance reawakens memories of slavery among the other characters, and they are forced to deal with their past instead of trying to repress their memories. Reincarnation and rebirth are also themes in this novel.


Again, the concept of manhood is important within Beloved. Paul D is the only developed example of a male character, and is "the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry". He is, however, emotionally crippled and is forced to keep his emotions locked inside a "tobacco tin"- a metaphor for the way in which he must control his feelings to survive. During the chain-gang period, his hands uncontrollably shake until he can learn to trap his emotions and effectively lock them away. It takes Beloved to release him, shown by the uncontrolled repetition of "Red Heart. Red Heart..." Within the novel, the male is significantly weaker than the female. Paul D cannot cope with the extreme demonstration of love exemplified by Sethe's murder of Beloved and leaves.


Many of the areas of the novel, but particularly the monologues, are ambiguous. At times, the prose breaks down so far as to make it unintelligible who is being spoken to, or about what. The most strongly ambiguous character within the novel is Beloved herself. There are two potential interpretations of her character. The first is of her as the displaced child ghost in an adult body. The second is of her as, as Stamp Paid puts it, "a girl locked up by a white man over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that's her". Both are supportable by the text. The concept that Beloved is the re-incarnated child is supported by her knowledge of the song that "nobody knows but me and my children" and her knowledge of Sethe's earrings but it is also true that the characters have a psychological need for Beloved- Sethe can assuage her guilt over the death of her child, and Denver gains a playmate, or even more. This is an important narrative technique. The reader is forced to be active rather than passive, and is made to work to discover what is going on. The emphasis is on interpretation rather than on what the author says. (cf. Roland Barthes, 'the death of the author')



  1. Žižek, S. (2000) The Fragile Absolute, or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For, London and New York: Verso. p. 152-6