Beloved (novel): Wikis


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1st edition cover
Author Toni Morrison
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Postmodernism/ Contemporary Literature
Publisher Alfred Knopf
Publication date January, 1987
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 324 pp
ISBN 1-58060-120-0

Beloved (1987) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The novel, her fifth, is loosely based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner, about whom Morrison later wrote in the opera Margaret Garner (2005). The book's epigraph reads: "Sixty Million and more," by which Morrison refers to the estimated number of slaves who died in the slave trade.

In 1998 the novel was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.

A survey of writers and literary critics conducted by The New York Times found Beloved the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years; it garnered 15 of 125 votes, finishing ahead of Don DeLillo's Underworld (11 votes), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (8) and John Updike's Rabbit series (8).[1] The results appeared in The New York Times Book Review on May 21, 2006.[2]

Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[3]


Plot summary

In this novel, Morrison paints a somber picture of the brutal effects of slavery. The 'Sixty million and more' it is dedicated to are all those affected by slavery, reinforcing her major theme of slavery's generational repercusions. The effects of slavery on the self are inherited as a kind of intrinsic torment. It examines both the mental and physical trauma caused by slavery. The book follows the story of Sethe (pronounced "Seth-uh") and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery.

124 Bluestone, the house they inhabit, is haunted; a poltergeist visits there with an alarming regularity. Because of this, Sethe's youngest daughter, Denver, has no friends and is extremely shy. Howard and Buglar, Sethe's sons, run away from home by the time they are thirteen because of the ghost's persistent torment. Shortly afterward, Baby Suggs, the mother of Sethe's husband Halle, dies in her bed.

Paul D, one of the slaves from Sweet Home, the plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle, he, and many other slaves had worked in and either been freed or run away from, arrives at 124. He tries to bring a sense of reality into the house. He also tries to make the family move forward in time and leave the past behind. In doing so, he forces out the ghost of Beloved. At first, he seems to be successful, because he leads the family to a carnival, out of the house for the first time in years. However, on their way back, they encounter a young woman sitting in front of the house. She has distinct features of a baby and calls herself Beloved. Denver recognizes right away that she must be a reincarnation of her sister Beloved. Paul D, suspicious of her, warns Sethe, but charmed by the young woman, Sethe ignores him. Paul D finds himself being gradually forced out of Sethe's home by a supernatural presence. When he is finally made to sleep in a shed outside, he is cornered by Beloved, who has put a spell on him for this purpose. She burrows into his mind and his heart, forcing him to have sex with her, while flooding his consciousness with horrific memories from his past. Paul D, overwhelmed with guilt after the incident, attempts to tell Sethe, but cannot and instead tells her he wants her pregnant. Sethe is humored and elated by his wishes, and Paul D finds the power to resist Beloved and her influence over him. However, when he tells his friends at work about his plans to start a new family, they react negatively and fearfully. Stamp Paid then reveals to Paul D the reason for the community's rejection of Sethe. When Paul D asks Sethe about it, she tells him what happened all those years ago. After escaping from Sweet Home and making it to her mother-in-law's home where her children are waiting, Sethe is found by her master, schoolteacher, who attempts to reclaim Sethe and her children. In a heightened panic, Sethe grabs her children, runs into the tool shed and tries to kill them all, succeeding only with her oldest daughter. Sethe explains to Paul D her reasoning for doing it, stating she was "trying to put my babies where they would be safe." However, the revelation is too much for Paul D, who later leaves the house for good. Without Paul D, the sense of reality and moving time disappears.

Sethe comes to believe that the girl is the daughter Sethe murdered by slitting her throat with a handsaw when the child was only two years old, and whose tombstone reads only "Beloved". Upon this realization, Sethe begins to spend carelessly and spoil Beloved out of guilt. Beloved recognizes her mother's guilt and becomes angry and more demanding, throwing hellish tantrums when she doesn't get her way. Beloved's presence consumes Sethe's life to the point where she becomes depleted and even sacrifices her own need for eating, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger. In the climax of the novel Denver, the youngest daughter, reaches out and searches for help from the black community. People arrive at 124 to exorcize Beloved. However, while Sethe is confused and has a "rememory" of schoolteacher coming again, Beloved disappears.

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, which Morrison pushes to the edge of questioning the idea of being human and of being a mother. She explores the effects on the characters, Paul D and Sethe, of trying to repress—and then coming to terms with—the painful memories of their past.

At the outset, the reader is led to assume Beloved is a supernatural, incarnate form of Sethe's murdered daughter. Later, Stamp Paid reveals the story of "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 possibility that Beloved is the murdered child is supported by the fact that she sings a song known only to Sethe and her children; elsewhere, she speaks of Sethe's earrings without having seen them. However, the characters have a psychological need for Beloved to be that dead child returned: Sethe can assuage her guilt over the death of her child, and Denver has a sister/playmate. Toni Morrison's intention (revealed in interviews) was to compel the reader to become active rather than passive and work to discover what is going on.

Major themes

Beloved is a novel based on the impact of slavery and of the emancipation of slaves on individual black people. The major theme of this novel is the relation between a community and one's identity. Why does the mother who murdered her daughter insist on living in the haunted house where the crime is committed? What is the relation between Sweet Home, the black community and the haunted house? How do they contribute or undermine one's identity as an individual person? One cannot get away without confronting these questions after this novel. Here are some general themes of 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. 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. Readers can 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, in Sethe's mind, 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". The strength of her love leads her almost to the point of death as she allows Beloved complete freedom to destroy her household and relationships; the roles of mother and daughter are completely reversed. "Was it past bedtime, the light no good for sewing? Beloved didn't move, said, 'Do it', and Sethe complied".


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 the 1856 murder by Margaret Garner of 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 after she discovered it while helping edit a scrapbook on black history. 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 Middle Passage is referenced along with the Underground Railway in many parts of the novel; the 'Sixty Million and More' to whom Morrison dedicates the novel may refer to the many who died during the Middle Passage. The entire concept of slavery described in the novel i.e. Paul D's confinement in Georgia, ideas such as the "bit" and the legislature described are all based on history.

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


The only significantly developed male character is Paul D, described as "the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could cry and tell him things they only told each other". He is, however, emotionally crippled. During his service in a chain-gang, his hands uncontrollably shake until he can learn to trap his emotions and lock them away. It takes Beloved and her audacious seduction to release him and to free the "red heart" he's imprisoned in the "rusted tobacco tin" of his memories. Paul D is the only male character against whom the women's strengths are tested and contrasted. Nearly all the other men in the story are oppressors or comparatively lightly sketched. Paul D cannot cope with Sethe's murder of her children—even though he knows it was an extreme act of love—and leaves, but returns to "put his story next to hers", a display of his courage and mature love, if crippled by his slavery ordeal. Leaving the readers without ultimate answers, Toni Morrison concludes on a hopeful note, as Paul D convinces Sethe that she herself is her own "best thing."

Mother-daughter relationships

The maternal bonds that connect Sethe to her children inhibit her own individuation and prevent the development of her self. Sethe develops a dangerous maternal passion that results in the murder of one daughter, her own “best self,” and the estrangement of the surviving daughter from the black community, both in an attempt to salvage her “fantasy of the future,” her children, from a life in slavery. However, Sethe fails to recognize her daughter Denver’s need for interaction with this community in order to enter into womanhood. Denver finally succeeds at the end of the novel in establishing her own self and embarking on her individuation with the help of Beloved. Contrary to Denver, Sethe only reaches individuation after Beloved’s exorcism, at which point Sethe can fully accept the first relationship that is completely “for her,” her relationship with Paul D. This relationship relieves Sethe from the ensuing destruction of her self that resulted from the maternal bonds controlling her life.[4] Beloved and Sethe are both very much emotionally impaired as a result of Sethe’s previous enslavement. Slavery creates a situation where a mother is separated from her child, which has devastating consequences for both parties. Often, mothers do not know themselves to be anything except a mother, so when they are unable to provide maternal care for their children, or their children are taken away from them, they feel a lost sense of self. Similarly, when a child is separated from his or her mother, he or she loses the familial identity associated with mother-child relationships. Sethe was never able to see her mother’s true face (because her smile was distorted from having spent too much time “with the bit”) so she wasn’t able to connect with her own mother, and therefore does not know how to connect to her own children, even though she longs to. Furthermore, the earliest need a child has is related to the mother: the baby needs milk from the mother. Sethe is traumatized by the experience of having her milk stolen because it means she cannot form the symbolic bond between herself and her daughter.[5]

Psychological impact of slavery

Because of the painful nature of the experiences of slavery, most slaves repressed these memories in an attempt to leave behind a horrific past. This repression and dissociation from the past causes a fragmentation of the self and a loss of true identity. Sethe, Paul D. and Denver all experience this loss of self, which could only be remedied by the acceptance of the past and the memory of their original identities. In a way Beloved serves to open these characters up to their repressed memories, eventually causing the reintegration of their selves.[6] Slavery splits a person into a fragmented figure. The identity, consisting of painful memories and unspeakable past, denied and kept at bay, becomes a ‘self that is no self.’ To heal and humanise, one must constitute it in a language, reorganize the painful events and retell the painful memories. As a result of suffering, the ‘self’, subject to a violent practice of making and unmaking, once acknowledged by an audience becomes real. Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs who all fall short of such realization, are unable to ‘remake’ their ‘selves’ by trying to keep their pasts at bay. The 'self' is located in a word, defined by others. The power lies in the audience, or more precisely, in the word - once the word changes, so does the identity. All of the characters in Beloved face the challenge of an unmade 'self', composed of their 'rememories' and defined by perceptions and language. The barrier that keeps them from 'remaking' of the 'self' is the desire for an 'uncomplicated past' and the fear that remembering will lead them to 'a place they couldn't get back from'.[7]

Film adaptation

In 1998, the novel was made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey.


The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.

Beloved received the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, which is named for an editor of Publishers Weekly. In accepting the award on October 12, 1988, Morrison observed that “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.” Inspired by her remarks, the Toni Morrison Society has now begun to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. The New York Times reported July 28, 2008, that the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26 on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States.

External links


  1. ^ In Search of the Best - New York Times
  2. ^ What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?, The New York Times May 21, 2006
  3. ^ Beloved - ALL-TIME 100 Novels - TIME
  4. ^ Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women’s Individuation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review, Vol. 25, No. 1. Indiana State University: Indiana, Spring 1992.
  5. ^ Schapiro, Barbara. “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Contemporary Literature 32; 2. University of Wisconsin Press (1991). 194-210
  6. ^ Koolish, Lynda. “‘To be Loved and Cry Shame’: A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” MELUS 26:4 (2001): 169-195.)
  7. ^ Boudreau, Kristen. "Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 447-465.
Preceded by
A Summons to Memphis
by Peter Taylor
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Succeeded by
Breathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler

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