Beloved Study Guide

Beloved is Toni Morrison's fifth novel. Published in 1987 as Morrison was enjoying increasing popularity and success, Beloved became a best seller and received the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its reception by critics was overwhelming, and the book is widely considered Morrison's greatest novel to date.

Mythic in scope, Beloved is an attempt to grapple with the legacy of slavery. Morrison based her novel on a real-life incident, in which an escaped slave woman who faced recapture killed her children rather than allow them to be taken back into slavery. In the novel, the protagonist's near-recapture follows the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, which stated that escaped slaves, as property, could be tracked down across state lines and retrieved by their old masters.

In Beloved, Morrison explores themes of love, family, and self-possession in a world where slavery has only recently become a thing of the past. Beloved is the ghost of Sethe's murdered child, returned for unclear reasons, embodied as a full-grown woman at the age that the baby would have been had it lived. Part history, part ghost story, part historical fiction, the novel also seek to understand the impact of slavery, both on the psychology of individuals and on the larger patterns of culture and history. Morrison was drawn to the historical account, which brought up questions of what it meant to love and to be a mother in a place and time where life was often devalued. The novel powerfully portrays the meanings of what it means to be owned by another and the difficulty of owning oneself.

Beloved also presents a powerful account of the foundation of black America. The memories of the characters?even the strange, supernatural race-memory of Beloved?extend back no farther than the beginnings of American slavery. The institution of slavery destroyed much of the heritage of the Africans brought to the Americas; the novel partially recounts the creation of a new people and culture, a people displaced and forced to forge a new identity in the face of brutality and dehumanization. Fragmentary in structure and written with great psychological intimacy, the book also continues with Morrison's narrative experiments that began with The Bluest Eye and have continued throughout her career. In 1998 it was adapted for a film starring Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. The film met mixed critical response and was a box office failure, a testament, at least, to the uniquely literary qualities of the novel.