A Stamp Paid
Stamp Paid was originally named Joshua, but he renamed himself after he “handed over his wife to his master’s son” and gave in to his wife’s demand that he stay alive and not take revenge. “With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything.” This “debtlessness” does not satisfy him, however, and so he takes to helping runaways across the Ohio River, “helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery.” He is witness to the “Misery” that occurs when the schoolteacher comes to take Sethe back to slavery, and prevents her from killing Denver as well. He is concerned about “truth and forewarning,” and so he shows Paul D a newspaper clipping about Sethe’s arrest. Stamp Paid has second thoughts about his actions after Paul D leaves 124 Bluestone, however, and thinks maybe he does owe the family something. When he returns to the house to try to set things straight with Sethe, he sees Beloved, and it is through Stamp Paid that the community comes to learn of Sethe’s trouble.
There are several signs that seem to indicate that the mysterious stranger who suddenly turns up at 124 Bluestone is the spirit of Sethe’s daughter returned in flesh. She has “new skin, lineless and smooth,” is the same age Sethe’s baby would have been had she lived, and her name is “Beloved,” the same word carved on the baby’s gravestone. She has little memory of where she has been or why she is here, but somehow knows to ask Sethe, “where your diamonds?” and, “your woman she never fix up your hair?” Sethe responds by telling the girl stories that were too painful to recall to anyone else. Beloved devours the stories and cannot take her eyes off of Sethe. She also has an “anger that ruled when Sethe did or thought anything that excluded herself.” She drives away the suspicious Paul D by seducing him, and gets Sethe to eliminate Denver from their games. The way that she begins to punish Sethe for leaving her suggests the ghost is finally taking revenge for her murder, while her sudden disappearance from the house seems supernatural.
Is Beloved really a ghost, however, or is her acceptance in the house a case of mistaken identity? There are hints that she is actually an escapee from a slave ship, where she lost her mother. She tells Denver of where she was before: a dark place with “nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in” until she came up to “the bridge.” Denver interprets this as a picture of the underworld, but it could easily be the hold of a slave ship as well. Beloved’s stream of consciousness chapter-telling of a place with little water or daylight and a “little hill of dead people“-also seems to describe the suffering of a slave hold during the Atlantic passage. Critic Deborah Horvitz offers another interpretation of Beloved’s character in Studies in American Fiction: “she represents the spirit of all the women dragged onto slave ships in Africa and also all Black women in America trying to trace their ancestry back to the mother on the ship attached to them.” Thus Beloved’s descriptions of the ship’s passage reflect the experiences of Sethe’s own mother; her search for “the woman with my face” mirrors Sethe’s loss of her own mother; and Beloved’s abandonment by her mother, who “goes into the water,” resembles the desertion suffered by Sethe’s dead daughter. “As the embodiment of Sethe’s memories,” the critic concludes, “the ghost Beloved enabled her to remember and tell the story of her past, and in so doing shows that between women words used to make and share a story have the power to heal.”
C Edward Bodwin
Edward Bodwin is one of the abolitionist siblings who assist Baby Suggs when she first arrives in Cincinnati. “He’s somebody never turned us down,” Stamp Paid says, and it is primarily Bodwin’s efforts that save Sethe from the gallows after she murders her daughter. He also helps Sethe find a job after she is released from prison. Bodwin’s most distinguishing features are his snow-white hair and his dark velvety mustache, an interesting combination of black and white that leads his enemies to call him a “bleached nigger.” Even when Sethe comes at him with an ice pick, Bodwin chooses not interpret her actions as a personal attack and continues aiding the family by giving Denver a job in his home.
D Miss Bodwin
Miss Bodwin is one of the abolitionist siblings who provide Baby Suggs with a house and a job after she is freed from Sweet Home. She is described as “the whitewoman who loved [Baby Suggs],” and her kindness extends to Sethe and her daughter after Baby Suggs’s death.
Sethe’s second son finally leaves home, presumably to fight in the Civil War, after a mirror shatters simply from his looking at it. Denver remembers fondly how he and Howard would make up “die-witch!” stories. One of the few things Sethe tries to remember is the way her son looked-not the fact that he would not let her near him after his sister’s death, or how he always slept hand-in-hand with his brother after that day.
F Paul D
“For a man with an immobile face,” Sethe thinks of Paul D, “it was amazing how ready it was to smile, or blaze or be sorry with you.” Perhaps it is this ability to “produce the feeling you were feeling” that makes him “the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry.” But the cruelty of slavery has left Paul D with a “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.” He is the only man left from Sweet Home; his brothers Paul F and Paul A were sold away or hung, while Sixo was burned and Halle was broken. Paul D is sold from Sweet Home and put into a Georgia prison after trying to kill his new master. He is kept in a hole in the ground and put to work on a chain gang. A hard rain that turns their cells to mud also allows the gang to escape. A tribe of sick Cherokee frees him from his chains and points the way North.
Since then Paul D has wandered around, thinking he could not stay in any one place for more than a couple of months. Seeing Sethe, however, “the closed portion of his head opened like a greased lock,” and he tells her, “We can make a life, girl.” The way he makes people respond to him at the carnival starts to convince even Denver that this might be true. Beloved’s arrival changes things, however. The girl seduces Paul, and his inability to resist her leads him to doubt his manhood. When Sethe explains the newspaper clipping to him, Paul D condemns her, moving quickly “from his shame to hers.” He leaves the house, but his rusted tin has sprung open, making him wonder for the first time “what-all went wrong.” Paul D returns to Sethe after Beloved leaves-but not because of it: “Paul D doesn’t care how It went or even why. He cares about how he left and why.” Their shared history makes it more bearable, and he realizes that “only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.”
Isolated in the house with her mother Sethe, lonely Denver’s only companions are from the past: memories of her brothers, her imaginings of her father, her mother’s stories of Denver’s birth, and the baby ghost that haunts the house. The reader is allowed hints of the kind of bright, happy child Denver might have been had Sethe not isolated the family from the community. But Denver “had taught herself pride in the condemnation Negroes heaped upon them,” and is also proud of her secret knowledge about the ghost. Another way she deals with her isolation is by creating an emerald play world in a section of boxwood bushes. There her imagination “produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out.” The only story Denver wants to hear is the one of her birth; she “hated the stories her mother told that did not concern herself…. The rest was a gleaming, powerful world made more so by Denver’s absence from it.” Thus she feels threatened by Paul D’s arrival, and sobs out her loneliness for the first time in ten years. The idea that he and her mother might form a “twosome” that would make Sethe “look away from her own daughter’s body” is too much to bear. The next day, when the three of them see their shadows holding hands, Sethe thinks it means the three of them might form a family. But Paul D recognizes that Denver has “something she’s expecting and it ain’t me.”
When Beloved appears, it seems to Denver as if this is what she has been waiting for: her sister returned to her in the flesh. Although she loves her mother-the only person left who has not abandoned her-she has uneasy memories about “the thing in Sethe” that could make her harm her children. She begins to transfer her affection to Beloved, who she thinks needs her protection. Thus when Sethe nearly chokes in the clearing, “Denver was alarmed by the harm she thought Beloved planned for Sethe, but felt helpless to thwart it, so unrestricted was her need to love another.” But it soon becomes evident to Denver that Beloved may be more of a danger than Sethe is. “Frightened as she was by the thing in Sethe that could come out, it shamed her to see her mother serving a girl not much older than herself.” She fears losing her mother-being abandoned yet again-and takes steps to support the family that finally result in Sethe’s returning to the community. Denver provides another example of how the rupture of families caused by slavery forces people to survive without the family and community support they should have. As Judith Thurman observes in the New Yorker, Sethe never truly finished delivering Denver, so the girl “will be forced to complete the labor by herself.”
H Amy Denver
Amy Denver is the “whitegirl” who helps Sethe through childbirth shortly after her escape from Sweet Home. Although she is white, she is “trash,” and her situation is not so different from many slaves. She is escaping beatings and indentured servitude-paying off the debt her mother incurred coming to America-and has a place and a thing that symbolize freedom for her. Amy is on her way to Boston in a single-minded pursuit of “carmine velvet” when she finds Sethe lying on the wrong side of the Ohio River. Her “fugitive eyes and her tenderhearted mouth” lead Sethe to trust her, and with Amy’s encouragement she gets up and crosses the river to freedom. Amy’s “good hands” help bring Sethe’s baby into the world, and Sethe names the girl Denver in her memory.
Ella is a practical woman who had “been beaten every way but down.” Ella and her husband John are part of the Underground Railroad, picking up fugitives after Stamp Paid ferries them across the river. She is friendly with Sethe until the attempt on the children, because “she understood Sethe’s rages in the shed twenty years ago, but not her reaction to it.” Ella’s disapproval of Sethe’s proud isolation leads her to ignore Paul D’s need for shelter, when she would usually offer to help any black man in need. But when news comes that Sethe’s dead daughter is beating her, “it was Ella more than anyone who convinced the others that rescue was in order.”
J Mrs. Lillian Garner
Although Mrs. Garner and her husband seem fairly benevolent owners, their attitudes betray how slavery dehumanizes its victims, no matter how kindly the slaves are treated. When Sethe asks Mrs. Garner if her marriage to Halle means a wedding, the woman laughs and pats Sethe on the head as if she were a pet. She calls Baby Suggs “Jenny,” assuming that the name on the slave papers is what she calls herself. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Garner brings in her schoolteacher brother-in-law to run the farm-not because they need the help, but because she does not want to be the only white person there. She becomes ill with a tumor in her throat, and is thus too weak to intervene when the schoolteacher’s methods turn severe.
K Mr. Garner
Mr. Garner allows his slaves more privileges than most owners do: they are encouraged to think for themselves, suggest and implement improvements to the farm, and even handle guns. He claims he has the only “nigger men” in Kentucky and is proud because it shows he is “tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men.” When he delivers Baby Suggs to the Baldwins, having allowed her son Halle to purchase her freedom, he brags that she never went hungry or received a beating under his care. But his kindness cannot cover the inherent evil of slavery. As Baby Suggs thinks, “You got my boy and I’m all broke down. You be renting him out to pay for me way after I’m gone to Glory.” Garner dies of a stroke, which Sixo says was caused by a jealous neighbor.
Sethe’s oldest child leaves home, presumably to fight in the Civil War, after two tiny handprints appear in a cake. Denver remembers fondly how he and his brother would make up “die-witch!” stories and let her have the whole top of the bed. Howard “had a head shape nobody could forget,” and it is one of the few things Sethe can remember about him: otherwise, she might recall how he never let her touch him after his sister’s death, or how he always slept hand-in-hand with his brother after that day.
M Lady Jones
Lady Jones is a light-skinned black with “gray eyes and yellow woolly hair” that make her the focus of envy and hatred within the black community. Because of her light skin she has received privileges, including being picked to receive schooling in Pennsylvania, “and she paid it back by teaching the unpicked.” Denver is one of the unpicked, and she attends Lady Jones’s school until a fellow student reminds her of her family’s shame. Thus it is Lady Jones whom Denver turns to for help feeding the family, and it is Lady Jones’s kind “Oh, baby” that “inaugurated [Denver’s] life in the world as a woman.”
N Nelson Lord
Nelson Lord is in Denver’s class with Lady Jones. He is “a boy as smart as she was,” but it is his question about her family history that leads her to leave school and begin a period of silence. When Denver takes steps to save the family, however, it is Nelson’s words that open her mind to the idea of having a self to preserve. At the end of the novel, it is implied that he is courting Denver.
The schoolteacher is Mr. Garner’s sister’s husband, and perhaps provides the best example of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The schoolteacher comes to oversee Sweet Home after Mr. Garner’s death. He sees the opportunity as one for studying the slaves, whom he considers no different than animals. Sethe says she thinks it was the schoolteacher’s questions “that tore Sixo up … for all time,” and his listing of her “animal characteristics” strengthens her resolve to resist capture: “No one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper,” Sethe says in explaining her actions to Beloved. The schoolteacher teaches his nephews that the slaves are like animals, but he fails to prevent them from “mishandling” them and so there is “nothing there to claim” when they discover Sethe and her children in Cincinnati.
Sethe has “iron eyes and a backbone to match.” Slavery, however, has “punched the glittering iron out of Sethe’s eyes, leaving two open wells” that reflect the emptiness in her soul. She has spent all of her efforts “not on avoiding pain but on getting through it as quickly as possible.” She avoids planning anything, because “the one set of plans she made-getting away from Sweet Home-went awry so completely she never dared life by making more.” So instead of counting on family or community to aid her, Sethe creates a small, insulated world in which her only goals are to escape memories of the past and protect the one child she has left. By herself, she can face anything: she is “the one who never looked away,” who can watch a man get stomped to death or repair a pet dog with a dislocated eye and two broken legs.
Paul D’s arrival changes things for Sethe, adding “something she wanted to count on but was scared to.” His stories also give Sethe “new pictures and old rememories that broke her heart.” Even so, she eventually decides she wants him to stay because he makes her story “bearable because it was his as well.” When Paul D discovers the truth behind her escape from the schoolteacher, however, he moves out. Sethe “despised herself for having been so trusting,” but soon forgets this trouble when she determines that Beloved is really the ghost of her dead baby daughter. She can forget everything, now, Sethe thinks: “I don’t have to remember nothing. I don’t even have to explain. She understands it all.” Sethe devotes herself to Beloved, cutting Denver out of their games, and subjecting herself to the growing girl’s whims. When Denver tells Janey Wagon about their problems, Janey thinks that “Sethe had lost her wits, finally, as Janey knew she would-trying to do it all alone with her nose in the air.” But is it insanity or fear of yet again losing her “best thing” that causes Sethe to attack Mr. Bodwin? In the aftermath, with Beloved gone and Denver growing up, Sethe seems to have given up. She retreats to Baby Suggs’s bed, just wanting to rest. But Paul D recognizes, even if she doesn’t, that “you your best thing, Sethe,” and promises her that together they can build “some kind of tomorrow.”
One of the Sweet Home men, Sixo is “indigo with a flame-red tongue.” His dark color, his nighttime dancing, his folk knowledge, and his “knowing tales” indicate he is probably a first-generation slave brought over from Africa. He maintains a relationship with Patsy the “Thirty-Mile Woman” despite the distance and difficulties that keep them apart. After the schoolteacher arrives, his questions “[tear] Sixo up” and he stops speaking English because there “was no future in it.” Sixo is captured shortly after the group escape attempt, and his wild singing convinces the schoolteacher, “this one will never be suitable.” They tie him to a tree and light a fire at his feet, but have to shoot him to stop his laughter and singing. Sixo laughs because he has beaten the white men by fathering a child with the Thirty-Mile Woman (“Seven-O!”), while his song is a “hatred so loose it was juba.”
R Baby Suggs
Baby Suggs’s life serves as an illustration of how slavery separates families: “Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” Although her bill of sale says her name is “Jenny Whitlow,” she claims the name “Baby Suggs,” given to her by a “husband” who escaped and left her when he had the chance. Halle is the only one of her eight children she sees grow to adulthood, and this leads her to say: “A man ain’t nothing but a man. But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.” After Halle buys her freedom, Baby Suggs turns the house on Bluestone Road into a place where friends and strangers can meet, refresh themselves, and talk. She also preaches in a nearby field, “offering up to [people] her great big heart.” When Sethe attempts to murder her grandchildren rather than see them returned to slavery, Baby Suggs “could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice. One or the other might have saved her, but beaten up by the claims of both, she went to bed.” She remains in bed, contemplating the harmlessness of colors, until she dies, her great heart finally quitting.
S Halle Suggs
Halle is the youngest of Baby Suggs’s eight children, and the only one she has been able to see grow to adulthood. He rented himself out on Sundays to buy his mother’s freedom, and Paul D figures that strong love is why Sethe chose Halle out of all the Sweet Home men. Sethe similarly remembers a tender care that “suggested a family relationship rather than a man’s laying claim.” Halle does not appear when it is time to escape Sweet Home, however, and Sethe thinks he is dead-better that than believing he abandoned her and their children. Paul D reveals that he saw Halle alive, however, but empty-eyed and with butter smeared on his face. He pieces together that the final straw for Halle must have been witnessing the attack on Sethe that stole her milk. Baby Suggs claims that she felt Halle die-in 1855, on the same day that Denver was born.
T Janey Wagon
Janey Wagon has worked at the Bodwins’ since she was fourteen, and helps Denver find a job when she comes asking for help. It is interesting to note the change in Janey’s attitude over her years with the Bodwins. When Baby Suggs first visits, young Janey tells her to “eat all you want; it’s ours,” implying that she feels she is part of the household. Her attitude is a little different some twenty years on, however. Although she says of her employers that she “wouldn’t trade them for another pair,” she is concerned that the Bodwins want “all my days and nights too,” not recognizing that she is her own person, with a life apart from their house.