Beloved Summary

Toni Morrison


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Beloved Summary

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Beloved is a 1987 novel by American author Toni Morrison. Set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil war, it is inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who fled slavery in the years before the war by fleeing to the free state of Ohio. Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved, is eventually caught when a posse of slave hunters catches up to her. She chooses to kill her two-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be taken back to slavery in Kentucky. Years later, a mysterious woman named Beloved begins haunting Sethe’s Ohio home, and Sethe becomes convinced that this is the daughter she killed come back as a vengeful spirit. Beloved explores two main themes. The first is the complex nature of mother-daughter relationships as explored between Sethe and Beloved. The second is the psychological impact and collective trauma of slavery, and the way it stripped African-Americans of their humanity. Beloved was critically acclaimed and is considered one of Morrison’s most enduring works, winning the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and being nominated for the 1987 National Book Award. In 1998, it was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey.

As the book opens, Sethe and her daughter, Denver, are living in Cincinnati after their escape from slavery. A ghost, whom they believe to be the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter, haunts their house. The haunting—which includes objects being mysteriously thrown around the room—has left Denver withdrawn, quiet, and friendless. Her two sons, Howard and Bulgar, have already run away from home, both before they turned thirteen. Soon after the book begins, Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, passes away in her bed. Paul D., a former slave who worked with Sethe and her husband Halle (now missing) at the plantation Sweet Home, arrives at Sethe’s home and attempts to pull his old friend out of the supernatural mire she’s stuck in. He attempts to get Sethe to let go of the past, but this makes the spirit agitated. He manages to get the withdrawn Denver out of the house briefly, but when they return a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself Beloved confronts them. Paul D. does not trust this woman and tries to warn Sethe, but Sethe is drawn to Beloved and ignores him. Paul D. soon finds himself forced out of the house by a supernatural force.

Paul D., although he cannot enter the house for an unknown reason, is still worried about Sethe and sticks around, sleeping in a shed outside. One night, Beloved corners him in his shed and forces herself on him. They have sex, and as this occurs, his mind is suddenly filled with horrible memories from his past. He is overwhelmed by guilt and tries to tell Sethe about this, but cannot. Instead, he blurts out that he wants to have a new family with her. Sethe is thrilled, although Paul D. is suspicious and continues to worry about Beloved’s influence. He tells people at work about his plans to start a new family with Sethe, and they react with horror. One of his friends tells them why everyone shuns Sethe, and he goes home to confront her over this information. Sethe reveals that after escaping from Sweet Home and finding her children at her mother-in-law’s house, she was found by the slave owner, who attempted to take her and her children back to the plantation. In a panic, Sethe grabbed her children and ran into the shed, where she attempted to kill them. She only managed to kill her youngest daughter with a saw. She claims she was only trying to put them where they could not be hurt anymore, but Paul D. is horrified and leaves Sethe. Without him, Sethe’s grip on sanity begins slipping.

Sethe becomes convinced that Beloved is the daughter she killed, whose name bears only that same word. She begins to spend carelessly, spoiling Beloved out of guilt and treating her as a daughter. Beloved only becomes more and more aggressive, though, throwing tantrums and turning the house into a menacing place. Beloved’s presence consumes Sethe’s life, with Sethe even forgoing her own food so Beloved can eat, as Sethe shrinks and Beloved grows bigger and bigger. Seeing her mother deteriorating, Denver seeks out help from the local black community, and some of the village women come by to perform an exorcism. At the same time they arrive, a white man appears. He is the same white man who helped Sethe’s mother-in-law get the house they live in now. In her insanity, Sethe attempts to attack the man with an ice pick, not knowing that he’s there because Denver asked him for a job. Sethe saw him as her master, returning to claim her. As Sethe has this traumatic flashback, Beloved suddenly disappears. The novel ends with Denver getting her first job and joining the community, while Paul D. returns, and he and Sethe reconcile.

Toni Morrison is an American novelist and professor, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1996, the National Endowment selected her for the Jefferson Lecture for the Humanities, and in 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Politically active and vocal, she is considered one of the most prominent and acclaimed voices in African-American literature, with many of her books addressing the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow south. The author of eleven novels over a 45-year writing career, she has also written children’s literature, plays, non-fiction, and the libretto for an opera about Margaret Garner, the woman on whose life story she based Beloved.