The year is 1873, and Sethe, a former slave, lives with her daughter Denver in "124," a house in rural Ohio. The house is haunted by the ghost of one of Sethe's children. Denver is the only living child who is still with Sethe; the two boys, Buglar and Howard, had fled by age 13 after having particularly frightening encounters with the ghost. Sethe's memories of her sons are fading fast. Baby Suggs, Denver's paternal grandmother, died shortly after the boys left. Baby Suggs was a weathered woman, unsurprised by the fleeing of the boys, insisting only that Sethe and Denver should bring bits of color into the house, especially during the gray Ohio winters. Baby Suggs was unmoved by the disappearance of the two boys: of her eight children, all disappeared. She could barely remember her first-born.
The spirit of the dead baby is persistent and often malicious (years ago, the baby crippled the family dog). Sethe paid for the child's tombstone by having sex with the mason, ten minutes for seven letters, which was enough for the word "Beloved." The way the child died is hinted at, as we are told that Sethe can remember the feeling of the baby's blood.
Eighteen years have passed since Sethe escaped from Sweet Home, the farm where she was a slave. Sweet Home was originally run by Mr. Garner, but after he died and Mrs. Garner became ill, a cruel man called schoolteacher came to run the farm. The actions of schoolteacher were the catalyst for Sethe's flight.
Today, Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men, turns up on Sethe's doorstep. He was one of five men: Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner, Halle Suggs, and Sixo. All the men, back in those days, were in their twenties. Back at Sweet Home, Sethe was originally bought to replace Baby Suggs, Halle's mother. Halle had bought Baby Suggs' freedom with money earned by hiring himself out every Sunday for five years. Sethe arrived at Sweet Home, a young woman with "iron eyes and a backbone to match." The men waited a year while Sethe chose which one of them she would have for her partner. Desperate for women, the men dreamed of Sethe and had sex with calves while they waited. She finally chose Halle, sewing herself a dress so that their legally and religiously unsanctified marriage would have some feeling of celebration to it.
Sethe invites Paul D into the house. Paul D immediately encounters the ghost, in the form of a pool of red light. Sethe explains that the mysterious happenings in the house are the doing of her dead baby's ghost. In the world of the living, Denver receives Paul D with apprehension, feeling left out of the rapport and the shared history between her mother and this new male guest. Denver breaks down and says that she can't stand living at 124 anymore: no one comes by, not only because of the haunted house, according to Denver, but because of Sethe. Paul D's presence somehow allows this breakdown: he is described as the kind of man in the presence of whom woman feel comfortable crying. When Paul D asks why they don't leave, Sethe is adamant: she will not run from anything ever again.
She tells Paul D about the tree on her back, a cluster of scars in the shape of a chokecherry tree. Right before she fled from Sweet Home, Sethe sent her two sons and her daughter up to Cincinatti, where they were left with Baby Suggs. Sethe was pregnant with Denver, but the third child, the girl, still needed Sethe's milk. Sethe tells Paul D that schoolteacher's nephews took her milk, and when she told Mrs. Garner about it schoolteacher found out and responded by having one of the boys whip her. The scars are still there.
Paul D touches Sethe's breasts and the ghost becomes violent, shaking the entire house. Paul D tries to fight back, shouting loudly and smashing up parts of the house in the process. The rumbling stops. The ghost's presence can no longer be felt, and Denver resents Paul D for having gotten rid of it; the ghost was the only other company Denver had.
Beloved's narrative moves quickly between past and present, frequently shifting forward and back in time and through the memories of characters. This narrative technique suggests the powerful continuity between the past and the present; although Sethe might like to forget her past, its influence (as reflected directly by the direction of the narrative and metaphorically by the ghost) constantly intrudes into the present. The power of this past is embodied in the ghost of Sethe's baby. The dead child will not leave the family alone, and it's absence/presence is inscribed even into the number of the house: "124" draws attention to the missing "3," the third child, the dead daughter that now haunts their home.
The horrifying effects of slavery on the family unit are clear. Baby Suggs seems scarcely able to feel love for her relations, numb from a lifetime of loved ones being taken from her. The men, including Paul D, are wanderers, drifting from place to place. Now, Sethe is in the first generation of blacks that can bear children without those children being torn away from her. But Sethe's family life is still haunted by the dead child and the memories of slavery.
Denver is a lonely and troubled girl, friendless and needing company but also wary of the male intruder from Sethe's past. Sethe is constantly described as having eyes of iron, and her refusal to run anymore shows some of her determination-as does the story of her successful escape from slavery while pregnant. Her devotion to her children is also clear: in telling the story of her tree-scar to Paul D, she emphasizes the theft of her milk above all other parts of the story. The passage possibly suggests that she was also raped, but the loss of her milk, to this day, is the part of the story that Sethe keeps repeating.
The tree on Sethe's back suggests the need to aestheticize painful experiences. Real trees are referred to at several points, establishing a motif of trees as a source of protection, comfort, and pleasure-when Sethe remembers Sweet Home, she always thinks of the beautiful trees. Through language and imagery, the scars from Sethe's pain and humiliation become a tree in bloom, a source of life and shelter. Using language to transform a scar into a tree parallels part of the work done by the novel: it is an attempt to make sense of a painful legacy through the power of words and of art.
Part One, Chapter 2
Sethe and Paul D have sex, which is disappointing for both of them. Paul D has longed for Sethe for thirty years, and the experience has been quick and unexciting. Paul D, looking at Sethe, dislikes the way her breasts lay flat on her and is repulsed by the clump of scars on her back, refusing now to accept the comparison between the scars and a tree. He remembers the trees of Sweet Home and the shelter they once provided him; under a special tree he called Brother, he rested in the shade with his friend Sixo, one of the slaves at Sweet Home. On a few of the rare free days the men had, Sixo used to take long treks to see a woman thirty miles away. Consequently he was the one Sweet Home man not sick with longing for Sethe
The sex is equally disappointing for Sethe. She resents his earlier exhortation to her to leave the house; it's the first and only home that has been her own. The slaves had to become used to not being able to lay claim to things: although Sethe was lucky enough to be married for six years to one man who fathered all of her children, Baby Suggs eight children had six fathers. Baby Suggs lost all of her children while they were young, except for Halle-and Halle, too, she eventually lost. Being with Paul D reminds Sethe of the way Halle used to treat her-more like a brother, rather than one who could lay claim to her.
When Halle and Sethe decided to get married, Sethe told Mrs. Garner of their decision, who reacted pleasantly (but rather unpassionately) to the idea. When Sethe asked if there would be a wedding, Mrs. Garner laughed and called her sweet. Sethe wanted to have something, so she secretly made a dress. She was fourteen years old.
The first time Halle and Sethe made love, it was in the cornfield. Although the two thought they were hidden, from the rustling in the field all of the Sweet Home men knew that Halle had been chosen. They watched mournfully, and then cooked some of the corn from the field and ate it. The corn, at least, is a simple pleasure that no one takes from them.
History is what has brought Sethe and Halle together, and together in bed, they can think nothing of the future: they return obsessively and repeatedly to memories of their past, shared and otherwise. The sex in the present has been disappointing, not nearly as sensual as Paul D's memory of the corn he ate on the first day Halle and Sethe made love. This preoccupation with the past and the disappointing sex in the present emphasizes the power of the past, its constant intrusion into the present, its burden on the characters, its ability to shape/undermine characters perceptions of present events. When Paul D and Sethe have sex, they have thirty years of Paul D's fantasies of her as a burden; no sex can live up to that kind of pressure.
Ownership is an important theme throughout the book: for the ex-slaves, to feel that something belongs to them, whether a place or a person, is a loaded issue. Sethe stays in the house partly because she feels a bond to the place: it is her own, ghost and all, even if the deed to the property is not officially hers. All who visit know it is her home, and she cannot forget that she was never able to own anything as a slave. Even more significant is the idea of "laying claim" to another person. Sethe remembers that Halle treated her in an almost brotherly way, and not as a person who laid claim. But part of love is being able to make demands, have expectations, and in some respects lay claim to the other. Sethe and Halle were unable to lay claim to each other because even their own lives were not their property. Even though the Garners were generous masters (by the standards of slave-holders), the lives of the slaves were not their own, and the nature of slavery meant that a change of hands could bring a terrible change of fortune. Part of slavery's legacy is this inability to lay claim: one cannot say "my mother," "my husband," "my daughter" with a feeling of security, because they cannot belong to you if they are the property of another. The kind of "ownership" that comes along with love and familial bonds is ruptured by the unnatural ownership of slavery.
Part One, Chapter 3
Denver has a secret place where she spends time alone, in the woods behind 124. There is a place where five boxwood bushes planted in a circle have grown together into a canopy, forming a round and empty room with green leaves and branches for walls. She spends hours at a time there, paradoxically isolating herself in the room to seek relief from her loneliness.
Years ago, after a session in her secret place, Denver came home and looked in through a window to see her mother kneeling in prayer. A white dress was kneeling next to her mother and had its empty sleeve around Sethe's waist. The tenderness of the phantom's gesture reminded Denver of her own birth.
Sethe has only vague memories of her own birthplace somewhere far from Sweet Home. She was not allowed to be with her own mother. Just a child, she helped tend the babies and watched rows and rows of black women, all of whom she called Ma'am, but one of whom was "her own." Sethe learned to recognize her mother, although they were never allowed to be together, because her mother alone wore a cloth hat.
When Sethe herself was a mother, fleeing from Sweet Home and pregnant with Denver, she received unexpected aid from a poor white girl named Amy. Amy, a recently released indentured servant, saved her life. Amy and Sethe ran into each other by chance: the white girl was trying to walk to Boston because she was obsessed with the idea of finding some carmine-colored velvet. Sethe, with a baby about to come, a torn-up back, and destroyed swollen feet, was barely able to crawl. Amy led her to a lean-to and massaged her damaged feet, telling Sethe to endure the pain because "Anything dead coming back to life hurts."
When Denver told Sethe about the phantom dress, Sethe talked to her about memory: even after a thing is destroyed, its presence remains, not only in minds but somehow in the real world. She told Denver about schoolteacher, who was Mr. Garner's brother-in-law. He came with his two nephews and always took notes while observing the men and Sethe, studying them pseudo-scientifically. Sethe explained some of this to Denver and then they both decided that, judging from the apparition of the dress, the baby ghost had plans.
After his failed escape from Sweet Home, Paul D spent time in a prison in Georgia, working in a quarry by day and going crazy in a box in the ground at night. He sings songs, some of which he learned in Georgia, while he works. His heart is described as being closed up, and Sethe's presence threatens to open it. Paul D decides to stay for a while-although he has a pattern of settling in and wandering out soon afterward-and his decision makes Sethe hopeful.
Sethe tells him some of the story of when schoolteacher found her, after she had reached Cincinatti. Somehow she managed to avoid being taken back to Sweet Home, but she did spend some time in prison. Paul D wants to know more, but speaking about jail reminds him of his own experience in Georgia. He drops the subject. Sethe is hopeful about a future with Paul D, but her the future is still primarily "a matter of keeping the past at bay." Her mission is still to protect Denver from this past.
Denver's time in the green room reveals her painful loneliness, and is yet another example in the book (along with Paul D's old tree, which he named "Brother") of trees providing comfort to human beings. The apparition of the ghost foreshadowed the form the returned baby will take: not a child's form, but a full-grown woman, the age that the baby would be if it had lived. This form was consistent with Sethe's ideas about the past. Although the baby died, it has continued to grow and change as if it had lived, and its presence is totally real. Sethe's idea of the past comes from her own painful relationship with the legacy of slavery; she is still convinced that the past could hurt Denver, and tells no stories to her unless Denver prods. Denver, on the other hand, has an insatiable curiosity about the story of her birth, and feels the need to connect to the past that her mother is so silent about.
Amy's rescue of Sethe is a portrait of a possible world, one of female companionship and community in addition to one of black-white cooperation. Significantly, Sethe expected that the approaching stranger would be a white boy, in which case Sethe felt she would have been done for; instead it was Amy, who was a former indentured servant. Indentured servants were only one step above slaves, living as the near-property of wealthy whites, although each servant's time of servitude was finite and set. Although Amy sometimes talked to Sethe in a condescending or rough way, Amy did not turn Sethe in, and in fact saved her life. Her quest for carmine (red) velvet is reminiscent of Baby Suggs desire for colored cloth. Small pleasures, such as the simple pleasure of looking at a colored piece of fabric, were for both Amy and Baby Suggs a deep relief after a life of hardship.
The problem of the past exerts a powerful influence on the way Sethe and Paul D interact: he wants to talk about her time in jail, but it reminds of his own past, which hurts so much that he drops the subject. His heart, here and repeatedly throughout the novel, is described as being closed or locked away in a container. By closing himself off, Paul D has protected himself and survived. His own past is so painful that often he relates to it indirectly, through his songs-although he knows not to sing any of the Sweet Home songs in Sethe's presence.
Part One, Chapter 4
After Paul D has stayed at 124 for a few days, Denver asks him how long he plans to "hang around." The question hurts Paul D's feelings, and he never really answers it. Sethe chastises her daughter strongly and then apologizes for her, but she refuses to hear any of Paul D's criticism of Denver. Paul D sees from Sethe's behavior that she loves her daughter fiercely, and he remarks to himself that it's dangerous for a former slave to love anything so much-love must be rationed, because what and whom one loves can be taken away at any time.
Paul D, in part to make peace with Denver, brings the two women to the carnival, which sets aside Thursdays for black people. The other blacks, who usually shun Denver and Sethe, treat them with some gentleness when they are with Paul D. Paul D has the best time of anyone, buying gifts for the women and bending over backwards to make sure they enjoy themselves. On the way to and from the carnival, Sethe sees that their three shadows look like they are holding hands.
Denver is lonely, yet she still resents Paul D's presence. She resents his shared past with her mother; any past history not connected to her birth is somehow threatening to her.
At the carnival, we see the extent of isolation usually experienced by Denver and Sethe. The townspeople fear the haunted house, and they have not forgotten the circumstances of the child's death. But Paul D gives Sethe and Denver a link to the rest of the black community. In the figures of the shadows holding hands, Sethe sees a symbol of a future the three of them could have together. For once, Sethe is thinking of the future, and the shadows stand as mirror opposites of the ghost baby: rather than phantoms of the past, they are auguries of the future. These hopes will be challenged by the arrival of Beloved in the next chapter.