A Part I
In Beloved, Toni Morrison chronicles the hardships Sethe and her family endure before, during, and after the American Civil War. The novel opens with a description of the “spiteful” atmosphere of 124 Bluestone Road in rural Ohio in 1873, where Sethe, her daughter Denver, and a troublesome spirit live. They are soon joined by two others: Paul D., who knew Sethe from their years as slaves on a Kentucky plantation, and a strange woman who calls herself Beloved. All quickly become caught up in conflicts that have their roots in the past, which Morrison reveals to the reader in the fragmented flashbacks of Sethe’s memory. The novel’s complex interweaving of past and present produce a compelling portrait of a black family’s struggle with the devastating and inescapable effects of slavery.
Paul D. Garner comes to Ohio looking for Sethe, who, while pregnant, had escaped Sweet Home eighteen years ago after sending her baby girl and two sons ahead to her mother-in-law’s house on Bluestone Road. He meets Denver, a teenaged girl consumed with a loneliness that “wore her out” after her brothers ran off and her grandmother died. As they reminisce about the past, Sethe shows Paul her back covered with scars that resemble a tree with many branches. After he responds sympathetically, the spirit begins to shake the house. When Paul smashes everything in the house, the spirit flees. Paul decides to stay and share Sethe’s bed, which upsets Denver who wants all of her mother’s attention.
On their way home from a carnival, Sethe, Denver, and Paul find a sickly but well-dressed young woman named Beloved sitting near the steps of the house. They take her in and nurse her back to health. Denver feels a special patience with and possessiveness of this young woman whose illness seems to have erased the memory of her past. As she recovers, Beloved hovers around Sethe “like a familiar,” her eyes displaying a “bottomless longing.” Soon, against his will and in secret, Paul begins to have sex with Beloved after she comes to him one night.
One day Sethe takes Denver and Beloved with her to the Clearing in the woods, where Baby Suggs often preached and offered solace to black men, women, and children. In the Clearing, Sethe senses a strange connection between Beloved and her daughter, also named Beloved, who died soon after Denver’s birth. Sethe has told Denver only part of the story of her birth and the surrounding events in order to shield her daughter from the past. She tells Denver that when she ran away from Sweet Home, a white girl named Amy, also on the run, aided her delivery. Then a black man named Stamp Paid helped her get to Baby Suggs’ home where she was reunited with her children. When the schoolteacher, Sweet Home’s cruel overseer, found her there, she chose jail rather than a return to a life of slavery.
When Denver was seven, she suspected but refused to hear the complete truth about her dead sister and so encased herself in a silence “too solid for penetration” for the next two years. Sethe had left out of the story the details about how Beloved died. Soon after Sethe arrived at Baby Suggs’ she saw the schoolteacher arrive on horseback with the sheriff, one of schoolteacher’s nephews (who had been especially cruel to her), and a slave catcher. Inside the shed at the back of the house the men found Sethe and her children, whom she had just tried to kill so they would not have to return to Sweet Home. She succeeded in killing only one of her children, Beloved, before Stamp Paid was able to stop her.
Sethe tells the full story to Paul, including the details of what she suffered under the control of the schoolteacher at Sweet Home, after Stamp Paid shows him a newspaper clipping about the event, which he calls “the Misery.” She tries to explain to Paul that her great love for her children prompted her need to kill them so they would not have to suffer the horrors of slavery that she endured. Yet her story shocks Paul who insists, “your love is too thick. … There could have been a way. Some other way. … You got two feet, Sethe, not four.” A distance immediately springs up between them, and Paul moves out.
B Part II
Stamp feels “uneasy” ever since he told Paul about “the Misery.” Since that time, Sethe and Denver have been ostracized from the black community, due partly to the infanticide, but also to Sethe’s proud refusal to ask for help. When Stamp tries to visit Sethe, he hears “loud, urgent [voices], all speaking at once” coming from the house. He determines they are the voices of the suffering ghosts of blacks who have been killed by whites. No one comes to the door when Stamp knocks on it. After Paul left Bluestone Road, certain incidents prompted Sethe to determine that Beloved was the reincarnation of the daughter she lost, which initially fills her with joy and a sense of peace. She decides to cut herself off from the outside world that Paul had introduced her to and then closed off, and focus instead on her daughters and her hopes that her sons will return.
Stamp finds Paul living in the church basement and expresses regret that no one in the community offered him a place to stay. He tries to explain that Sethe’s actions resulted from her great love for her children and not from any mental imbalance. Paul admits, though, that he is afraid of her. When, despondent over the situation, he implores, “How much is a nigger supposed to take?” Stamp responds, “All he can.” Paul then cries out, “Why?”
C Part III
At first Sethe, Denver, and Beloved played together, happily cut off from the rest of the world, but “then the mood changed and the arguments began.” Sethe and Beloved close out Denver when both determine that Beloved is Sethe’s lost daughter. Their battles revolve around Beloved’s recounting of the anguish she has experienced and Sethe’s pleas for forgiveness and accounts of what she has suffered for her children. Denver notes, however, that Sethe’s inability to leave the subject alone suggests that she “didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused, and Beloved helped her out.” At this point Denver’s concern shifts from Beloved’s safety in her mother’s presence to Sethe’s as she confronts Beloved’s anger. She is also anxious about the fact that since Sethe has been fired from her position at a local restaurant, there has been no food for them to eat.
When Denver asks a woman in the neighborhood for help, food starts appearing in the yard. Denver decides she must find a job to help support her family and is hired by Mr. Bodwin, a white abolitionist who had helped get Sethe released from jail. Word of the family’s distress reaches the entire black community and, as a result, one morning, thirty women congregate outside their home. There the women begin to pray and sing in an effort to chase the ghosts of the past. In the midst of this congregation, Mr. Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver for work. When Sethe sees a white man arriving at her home, she appears to flashback to the past, confusing him with one of the four white men who came to return her to slavery, and so tries to kill him with an ice pick. As the women, including Denver, wrestle the pick away from her, Beloved, who had been standing on the porch observing the scene, seems to disappear.
Soon after the incident, Paul returns to Bluestone Road. Finding Sethe in a dazed state, he realizes she has given up on life as Baby Suggs had before she died, and tells her, “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” When Sethe cries out that she has lost Beloved, her best thing, Paul tells her, “You your best thing,” as he holds her hand. The novel closes with Sethe’s questioning, “Me? Me?”