Grief is a recurring theme on both a micro and macro level in Beloved. On the micro level, each of the main characters deals with their own personal grief as they grapple with their past pain. As Baby Suggs admits, 124 is “packed to its rafters” with their grief (Morrison 11). Baby Suggs grieves the loss of her children, who were torn from her and sold across the country. Her son Halle buys her freedom, but even then Baby Suggs finds it hard to overcome the pain from her past. After Sethe tries to kill her children, Baby Suggs eventually succumbed to her grief and died in her bedroom. Paul D also almost died from his grief, but he learned how to box it up and push it away. However, once he hears of Sethe’s horrible choice, his grief comes roaring out of his Pandora’s box, and he turns to alcohol to soothe his pain. Denver takes a completely different route to deal with the grief of losing her family. Initially, she shuts herself away and retreats from the world, relying on Sethe for human interaction. However, by the end of the novel, Denver has learned to face her grief head-on and conquers her fear of the world. She becomes a resourceful young woman who is the breadwinner for her family. Denver manages to overcome her grief from slavery’s legacy and serves as a symbol of how Black Americans managed to succeed post-slavery.
Like Baby Suggs, Sethe also has a mother’s grief, but hers takes the tangible form of Beloved. Not only does Beloved represents all of Sethe’s grief, guilt, and pain from slavery and the harsh choices she had to make, but she also represents the pain, fear, suffering, and grief of the millions of American slaves and their descendants. In this way, Beloved is a representation of grief on a macro level.
Memory, or “rememory,” is an integral part of Beloved. Morrison uses the characters’ memories and fragmented remembrances of the past to compose her story. The result is a novel that oftentimes flits back and forth across space and time. For example, though the story opens at 124 in 1873, much of it takes place at Sweet Home plantation before the Civil War. Sights and sounds as innocuous as a dog lapping at water or the back of a sleeping man trigger horrible and painful memories for many of the characters (Morrison 12 and 51). Once triggered, characters then serve as a gateway to the past, where the real story lies. This method of storytelling is demonstrated when Paul D recounts the story of Sixo and the Thirty-Mile Woman. Paul D’s memory of his friend was triggered by seeing Sethe cross her ankles (Morrison 45). This is a perfect example of how a pedestrian motion can hold a wealth of meaning and memory for the novel’s characters.
Memory is also important because of the role it plays in the relationships between characters. Sethe and Paul D have a fraught shared history because of Sweet Home and the horrible memories it generated. So when they reconnect years after the Civil War, their new relationship exists in the shadow of these memories. As Sethe says, the hurt of the shared memories between herself and Paul D “was always there-like a tender place in the corner of her mouth that the bit left” (Morrison 107). Memory also influences Sethe’s relationship to Denver. Sethe’s memory of how she tried to kill Denver fills her with guilt, and so she keeps Denver at arm’s length. Denver senses her mother’s feelings and also keeps her distance. The only memory that the mother and daughter regard positively is Denver’s birth story, because it demonstrates Sethe’s love and devotion for Denver. Finally, memory is the controlling force in Sethe’s relationship with Beloved. Beloved is the physical manifestation of Sethe’s grief, guilt, and trauma from slavery. Because Beloved was absent for much of Sethe’s life, she craves Sethe’s memories and stories of the past. But unlike Sethe’s behavior with Paul D and Denver regarding her memories, Sethe enjoys and wants to share Beloved's memories. At first, it’s because Sethe believes Beloved is a complete stranger, and so there’s a distance that makes the storytelling easy (Morrison 107). But later on, these memories feed Beloved like food, and so sharing memories becomes the central component of their relationship.
In many respects, Beloved is a story about motherhood and how slavery impacted Black women’s ability to be good mothers. Starting with Baby Suggs, who had all but one of her children sold to plantations far away from her, it’s clear that slavery erected many physical barriers between a mother and her children. Sometimes these barriers existed even on the same plantation, as Sethe and her mother demonstrate. As Sethe’s mother toiled in the fields, another woman assigned to look after the plantation’s children raised Sethe. This left little time for Sethe and her mother to bond and build a relationship (Morrison 111). As a result, the physical barrier became an emotional one as well.
Looking at Sethe, we see slavery’s impact on Black mothers at its most extreme. Rather than watch her children become slaves, Sethe attempted to kill them. At first glance, Sethe’s actions seem opposite to our expectations of a mother’s behavior. Everyone who witnessed her behavior, from Stamp Paid to the schoolteacher, struggles to comprehend her seemingly evil and barbaric act. However, if we consider the idea that a slave’s life is a fate worse than death, Sethe’s actions become easier to understand. She believed she was being a good mother by sparing her children from slavery and all its horrors. However, since Sethe became a social pariah after her actions, it’s clear that very few agree with her reasoning.
Sethe also struggles with her guilt and has a strained relationship with her surviving children. Her children have been raised in a world where they are free, and thus they cannot comprehend the fear that fueled their mother’s actions. So both sides keep their distance, further widening the divide between mother and children. By the end of the novel, Sethe’s relationship with Denver seems to be improving. This is mostly because Denver recognized the damage Beloved inflicted on Sethe and assumed the responsibility of caring for Sethe. This is a reversal of the traditional mother-daughter relationship where a mother cares for her daughter, and it gives us a poetic sense of closure. Sethe is finally receiving the type of mothering that slavery had kept from her.
Abandonment takes several forms in Beloved. There’s physical abandonment, demonstrated by Halle, Sethe’s sons, Paul D, etc. Though the specifics surrounding Halle’s abandonment of Sethe and their children are unknown, it’s believed that he left after witnessing schoolteacher’s nephews assaulting Sethe. Sethe’s sons left because they felt unsafe with their mother, and Paul D left once he learned of Sethe’s attempted killing of her children. While all these acts of leaving are examples of physical abandonment, they also illustrate emotional abandonment. In various ways, all of these men abandoned Sethe and severed their emotional ties to her. In particular, when Paul D compares Sethe to an animal, he is signaling that he no longer views her as a fellow human being, much less as a potential partner (Morrison 290). He abandons the intimate and emotional connection they had been forging since he arrived at 124.
Baby Suggs and Sethe are also examples of emotional abandonment. When Sethe arrives at 124, Baby takes her in and treats her as a daughter because of Sethe’s relationship to Halle. However, after Sethe commits infanticide, Baby retreats to her bedroom and recedes from the world. Though she is physically present in the lives of Sethe and her children, she abandons them emotionally, devastated by Sethe’s harsh decision. Sethe also emotionally abandons her children after she attempts to kill them. Her guilt makes it hard for her to forge connections to them. Her only remaining child, Denver, feels the absence of her family acutely. This feeling is only compounded when Paul D arrives and begins to take up Sethe’s attention and affection. Lonely and abandoned by her brothers, grandmother, and mother, Denver turns to the ghost haunting 124 for comfort (Morrison 25).
Slavery is the novel’s core theme and plays a critical role in the lives of each character. Slavery and its horrors are what led Halle to pay for Baby Suggs’ freedom, sentencing himself to a crushing debt to Mr. Garner. Later on, slavery and the concomitant sexual abuse drive Halle insane. Furthermore, slavery and the abuse Sethe suffered under it compelled her to commit infanticide rather than see her children also suffer. These examples all demonstrate slavery’s powerful hold over the enslaved.
Slavery also caused devastating emotional and psychological wounds in the enslaved, and Beloved is one of the first novels to explore this aspect of slavery. Similar to the schoolteacher’s comparison of Sethe to a horse that needed to be tamed, most novels gloss over the inner workings of an enslaved person. By delving into the consciousness of slaves and former slaves, Morrison exposes slavery’s crippling legacy beyond its physical impact. Sethe’s complicated decision to kill her children shows that slaves were far from the mindless cattle or livestock their masters took them to be. Rather, they were complex human beings capable of making bitter decisions in the name of love. Similarly, after his experiences at Sweet Home and the chain gang, Paul D suffers from PTSD. To cope, he replaces his heart with a metaphorical tin box where he locks away his traumatic memories. Again, this contradicts the stereotype of slaves as beings with no emotional or psychological sentience.
Jealousy drives Beloved’s plot and influences most of the characters. Denver is one of the first characters to demonstrate this jealousy. When Paul D arrives in Ohio at 124, she is jealous of not only his shared past with Sethe but also his positive impact on Sethe. This causes Denver to act rudely and brattily (Morrison 28). When Beloved arrives at 124, Denver is possessive of her, and she becomes jealous when Beloved gives more attention to Sethe than to her (Morrison 115). Later on in the novel, this jealousy is extended when Sethe begins to shower Beloved with attention. Denver views the two women locked in their own bubble and feels excluded. Paul D also becomes jealous at Beloved’s arrival, something that even Sethe notices (Morrison 235). Distrustful of Beloved, Paul D is jealous of her connection to Sethe and realizes that Beloved is creating a chasm between him and the rest of the family. He eventually leaves Sethe, driven away by Beloved’s behavior and Sethe’s past choices. Paul D’s departure was Beloved’s goal, as he was one more person with whom she had to compete for Sethe’s attention. As the physical manifestation of Sethe’s murdered baby, Beloved is greedy for her mother’s love and attention, and her jealousy fuels all of her actions. These actions are what set the novel’s events into motion and drives the story to its conclusion.
Family and Community
Despite slavery’s best efforts to sever the familial ties of slaves, slaves still managed to forge familial and community bonds. Despite her own fragmented relationship with her own mother, Sethe feels a fierce attachment to her children. She loves them and will clearly do anything for them, even sacrificing her own physical wellbeing and sanity. Baby Suggs also demonstrates the strong familial bonds slaves managed to form in spite of slavery. She welcomes Sethe and her children into her home based solely on Sethe’s word that she is Halle’s partner and bore his children. Baby Suggs’s faith demonstrates her enduring love for her son and her commitment to serving the slave community. Baby Suggs’ ability to provide a safe place for Sethe and the children is due to her son’s sacrifice for her freedom. Again, though slave traders and masters did their best to separate families and stunt familial attachments, Halle was still able to develop a love for his mother. This love drove him to trade his ability to make his own wages for his mother’s freedom.
When Sethe runs away from Sweet Home, we witness how the Black community and white abolitionists set up a system to help runaway slaves reach freed states. And when Sethe arrives in Ohio at 124, the Black community there embraces her and the children. Unfortunately, we soon see how jealousy turns this community into a double-edged sword that can help its members or endanger them. Baby Suggs’ neighbors, jealous of her success and supposed riches, refuse to warn the inhabitants of 124 when the schoolteacher comes looking for Sethe and her children. If the community had raised the alarm, perhaps Sethe could have escaped again and Beloved would still be alive. But although the Black community failed Sethe the day she killed Beloved, they come to her rescue years later and help save her from Beloved’s vengeance.
Beloved Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Beloved is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.