Beloved is Nobel Prize Laureate, Toni Morrison’s, Pulitzer-prize-winning masterpiece. A look at rural America and black slavery, it examines both family and new-found freedom. The focus of Beloved is the price of freedom and the aftermath of acquiring it, how the scars of slavery run deep and how the trauma can leave everlasting effects on its past victims. A blend of historical fiction and magical realism, this novel is as powerful as it is haunting.
In 1800s America, 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati, is a house that holds many secrets and that many fear. Denver dwells here, with her former-slave mother Sethe and, until eight years ago, her paternal grandmother, Baby Suggs. 124 is thought to be ill-omened, haunted by the spirit of Sethe’s first-born daughter, whose throat was slit before the age of two. At the infant’s funeral, a grieving Sethe mistook the preacher’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ to be a reference to her late daughter and subsequently attempted to have it engraved on the headstone. Sethe’s lack of funds caused her to strike a deal with the engraver which saw her exchange ten minutes of sexual favours for seven letters upon the headstone, she chose ‘B-e-l-o-v-e-d’.
The hauntings from the deceased child have already caused her brothers to flee the family home. However, Denver doesn’t seem to express any concern.
The initial focus of the narrative is the arrival of Paul D., a former slave who worked on the plantation of Sweet Home with Sethe, Baby Suggs and Halle (the son of Baby Suggs and father of Sethe’s children). Paul D. has come to 124 to visit Baby Suggs, unknowing that she has since passed away. He warmly greets Sethe and after a brief re-acquaintance, the two start an intimate relationship. This is met with disapproval by the spirit who tries to disturb the two, shaking the house. Despite this, Paul D. manages to successfully ward the displeased spirit off.
After a rocky interlude between Paul D. and Denver, who is uncomfortable with a new father figure, a new nuclear family starts to emerge. Paul D. reintroduces Sethe and Denver to the local community, taking them to a carnival, something the reclusive Sethe would not usually attend. Upon their return, they stumble across a woman near the steps of 124: she has walked out of a nearby stream and slept against the stump of a tree. Appearing to be afflicted with illness, they invite her inside. This woman evokes a strange feeling in Sethe and as they tend to her, she discloses her name: Beloved.
A turning point in the book is in Chapter 16 when Morrison describes how Sethe attempted, and in one case succeeded, to kill her child. What does this suggest about Sethe’s frame of mind and the trauma of slavery? How does your interpretation of this part of the narrative change upon learning that this was based on a true account?
During the latter part of the book, Denver expresses great affection for her father, Halle, despite never having met him. Why do you think she has such a tie to him? Is it because of her attachment to Grandma ‘Baby’ Suggs and the way in which she told stories of him? Denver also has a fairy-tale-like hope that her father will suddenly arrive at the door one day and that she will be reunited. What does this suggest about her optimism and her childlike nature?
How do you think the acts of brutalisation of Sethe at Sweet Home affected her mental state, in particular the robbing of her breast milk? How was this significant to Sethe and her partner Halle?
What do you think the being known as ‘Beloved’ truly was? The embodiment of Sethe’s daughter? An evil spirit? Or something else? Why do you think it clung to Sethe so intensely?
What does the absence of Howard and Buglar suggest about them and their attachments to family? Why do you think Morrison chose to limit the presence of male characters in the novel? Do you think she intended to create a novel that primarily examined the female experience of slavery and could this be why she used Baby Suggs and Sethe to represent different age groups?
Does the knowledge that Morrison based part of the story on a true event impact upon its power?
‘White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood.’ What does Morrison try to convey with these lines and how do they fit with the actions of the white characters in the novel?
Why do you think Stamps Paid feels a need to oversee Sethe and the family at 124? Is it due to a bond with Baby Suggs or do you think he feels it is part of his duty as a member of the community and as the one who aided Sethe in her journey? Beloved-Discussion-Questions.pdf
Denver notices that Sethe is struggling to accommodate all of Beloved’s demands. Since becoming devoted to Beloved, Sethe was spending too much time with her and neglecting her job — leading to her subsequent dismissal. Now, with no source of income, the family don’t have sufficient food, with Sethe often going hungry, sacrificing any food to please Beloved. As a means to support her now-frail and weakening mother, Denver tries to acquire a job. She is instead given food donations by the local community, though is eventually able to get an evening job to provide some income. Denver’s actions and interactions with the local community cause Beloved’s presence to be known and with it rumours of her identity and nature. A mob of local church-going women band together and approach 124 to get a better understanding of what dwells in the house and to save the supposedly deprived Sethe. Chanting as they go, their voices catch the attention of Sethe and a naked Beloved. As both make their appearance on the porch, Mr Bodwin arrives at the house to pick up Denver for work. Sethe, who has been drawn to the porch by the church-goers’ singing, mistakes Mr Bodwin for Schoolteacher, the sinister slave owner, and rushes to attack him with an ice pick. As the crowd restrains the deluded Sethe, they look back at the porch to find that Beloved has disappeared.
Following the incident, Sethe takes to Baby Suggs’ old bed. Denver undertakes more work and seems more content since Beloved’s departure. Paul D. pays a visit to the bed-ridden Sethe and tries to comfort her.
Morrison based the premise of Beloved on the real life of American slave, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garner who also lived in the 1800s. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, becoming the first black female to be a recipient of this prestigious award. Toni Morrison talks about her writing in an interview for Granta, the full transcript of which can be found here.
You can find out more about the Nobel Prize for Literature here.