Beloved Book summary
Beloved is a post-modernist novel set in the Reconstruction Era that followed the end of the civil war in 1855. The main action of the novel occurs before the end of slavery, and it focuses on the Fugitive Slave Act. This law allowed Southern slave masters to come north and retrieve the slaves that had escaped from the south.
The events described in the book are fictitious, but Morrison was inspired by the true account of Margaret Garner. She was a slave who escaped from her master in 1856, though her freedom was short-lived as she was quickly found by Slave Catchers. However, Margaret decided to kill her two-year-old daughter rather than have her become a slave. Unlike Sethe, Margaret was taken back to be a slave.
Beloved is a novel that explores the power of memory and history. It seeks to remind the readers about the terrible conditions that slaves had to withstand during that period, and is considered by many to be one of the most powerful commentaries about America's legacy of slavery.
Beloved begins with the description of a weathered house, 124, on the edge of Cincinnati, occupied by an ex-slave called Sethe, and her young daughter, Denver. Sethe has lived in the house for eighteen years now, and though there had been other members in her family, they have now either died or passed away. The house is haunted by a ghost, and Sethe believes that it is the ghost of her child that had died in the house. She finds Paul D seated outside her house as she is returning home. Paul D had been a slave with Sethe on Sweet Home, a plantation run by gentle slave owners, Mr. and Mrs. Garner. Sethe gladly invites Paul D into the house, and he immediately notes the presence of a malicious spirit, but she assures him that the ghost is just sad. Throughout the book, we learn about Paul D and Sethe's history in bits and pieces.
Sethe was brought to Sweet Home as a young girl, and she had been the only female slave among a dozen other male slaves that included Paul D. Mr. Garner had prided himself on the quality of his slaves and had fondly referred to them as Sweet Home Men. He had allowed Sethe to make her own choice of a partner from among the slaves, and the men had all respectfully waited for her to do so. Sethe chose Halle from among the sweet home men because Halle had rented himself on the weekends to save up enough money to buy her freedom. His mother, Baby Suggs, had an injured hip which made it difficult for her to work, and so Halle had done all he could to save his mother from the arduous labor of a slave's life. Sethe remembers the day she had made her choice, but her expectations were dashed when Mrs. Garner laughed at Sethe's question about her marriage to Halle. Mrs. Garner hadn't believed that slaves needed to have a wedding ceremony, so Halle and Sethe had consummated their marriage in a corn field. Sethe had two boys, and two girls with Halle but things at Sweet Home began to change with the death of Mr. Garner. He was replaced by a much crueler slave master, Schoolteacher, who treated the slaves more like animals than people. Sethe and the other slaves began to plan an escape, but this plan became complicated with Sethe's pregnancy. Paul D went on with his plan to escape, but he was captured by Schoolteacher, who decided to spare Paul D but burned alive another slave, Sixo.
Paul D was brought back to the plantation in chains, and he learned that Sethe had managed to have her children escape. Unbeknownst to Paul D, Sethe was then taken into the barn by the Schoolteacher's nephews, and they took her breastmilk. Halle had been hiding in the barn at the time, and he helplessly watched as Sethe was mistreated. The last time Paul D had seen Halle, he had been sitting next to a churn with butter smeared all over his face and a vacant look in his eyes. Sethe had been warned not to disclose anything about her mistreatment, but she had told Mrs. Garner. The white boys whipped her for telling on them, and finally, Sethe decided to risk it all by escaping. She managed to escape, but her injuries and pregnancy did not let her get too far. A white indentured slave, Amy, found Sethe in the forest and helped her. She helped Sethe deliver her baby, whom Sethe had named after Amy's middle name, Denver. Sethe and her baby were then brought to 124 by a man named Stamp Paid. Baby Suggs welcomed her daughter-in-law, and Sethe was reunited with all her children.
Baby Suggs waits for Halle's arrival and has an ill feeling when her neighbors grow jealous over the large feast that she organizes for the reunification of her family. The following day, 124 is visited by four horsemen including Schoolteacher, one of his nephews, a slave catcher, and the sheriff. They come intending to retrieve Sethe but are left dumbstruck when they find that Sethe has killed her baby with a saw as she doesn't want her children to grow up as slaves. Schoolteacher thinks that Sethe has gone wild and that there is no point in taking her back to the farm. He leaves her, but Sethe is taken to prison along with her infant. She sleeps with an artisan to etch her baby's tombstone, and the man only writes the word, Beloved. She feels that the word is enough of a reply for all the neighbors that now hate her for her actions. Baby Suggs had been a quasi-religious figure in the community, but she stops her services after Sethe's incident and takes to bed. She dies soon afterward, leaving Sethe with her children, but her sons don't stay too long as they are discomforted by the presence of the ghost. Denver remains with her mother, but she misses her siblings and hates being alone. She hates her loneliness so much that she begins to like the presence of the ghost.
Denver doesn't like Paul D's presence as she feels alienated by Sethe's shared past with him. Sethe and Paul D sleep with each other, and Paul D chases away the ghost when it protests their being together. He then insists that Sethe and Denver make room for him in their life, and Sethe gladly does so. They go out to a carnival as a family, but upon their return, they find a strange woman seated outside 124. She introduces herself as Beloved and appears to be sick. Sethe and Denver feel strangely connected to her, and welcome her into their lives. Beloved spends the first few days sleeping, and then she begins to take all of Sethe's attention. Beloved hates Paul D's presence in the house, and eventually drives him out of the house so that he begins to sleep in the cold house. She takes pleasure in hearing stories of Sethe and Denver's past, and she also happens to know many details about their past. Denver is convinced that Beloved is the spirit of her dead sister, while Sethe reaches the same conclusion after finding a scar on Beloved's chin that mirrors the wound she made on her child when the Schoolteacher had come to 124.
Paul D learns about Sethe's murder of her own child and confronts her with the information. She tells him the truth, and Paul D cannot bring himself to remain with Sethe. He leaves the home, and Beloved takes over Sethe's life. Sethe and Beloved become immensely intertwined with one another, and Sethe stops leaving home for work. Sethe grows weaker each day, and Denver decides that she needs to go out to get help. The community members aid Denver by giving her food, and upon learning about Beloved, the community women come out to exorcise her. Beloved appears to the women of the community in the form of a pregnant woman, and she flees when she thinks that Denver and Sethe have abandoned her. Denver begins to work, and study, while Paul D returns to 124 to take care of Sethe.
Magical Realism, African American Literature, Postmodernism
Alfred A. Knopf Inc.