Beloved is a novel set in Ohio during 1873, several years after the Civil War. The book centers on characters who struggle fruitlessly to keep their painful recollections of the past at bay. The whole story revolves around issues of race, gender, family relationships and the supernatural, covering two generations and three decades up to the 19th century. Concentrating on events arising from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1856, it describes the horrendous consequences of an escape from slavery for Sethe, her children and Paul D.
The narrative begins 18 years after Sethe’s break for freedom, and it gradually persuades the reader to accept the haunting of 124 Bluestone Road by a 2 year old child, killed by her mother Sethe: “Full of baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children… by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims” (Page 1). The novel is divided into three parts.
Each part opens with statements as to indicate the progress of the haunting–from the poltergeist to the materialized spirit to the final freeing of both the spirit and Sethe; Part I: “124 WAS SPITEFUL” (Page 1); Part II: ” 124 WAS LOUD”(Page 169); Part III: “124 WAS QUIET” (Page 239). These parts reflect the progressive reconciliation of a betrayed child and her desperate mother. Overall symbolizing the gradual acceptance of freedom and the enormous work and continuous struggle that would persist for the next 100 years.
The dynamics of the story attempt to distance the reader from an immediate and direct exposure to the extremes of the real horror contained in the narrative. The narrative jumps from one setting to another, from the past to the present. However, the complex chronology is necessary to understand the psychological and emotional state of all the participants in the story. Reading the story resembles “listening” to a story. This peculiar “oral” style surfaces; it feels as if the novel is speaking the emotions of each character out loudly, allowing the reader to identify with each one.
Events that occurred prior and during the 18 years of Sethe’s freedom are slowly revealed and pieced together throughout the novel. Ever so painfully, Sethe is in need of rebuilding her identity and remembering the past and her origins: “Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places, are still there. If a house burns down it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in rememory, but out there in the world” (Page 35).
The author moves around the characters allowing each participant in the story a turn–Baby Suggs, Paul D, Stamp Paid, Denver, Sethe and Beloved–to convey their perceptions of events to the reader. Baby Suggs’ horror at her grandchild’s murder is passionately displayed: “Baby Suggs had got the boys inside and was bathing their heads, rubbing their hands, lifting their lids, whispering, ‘Beg your pardon, I beg your pardon,’ the whole time” (Page 152).
Within this horror, the insensitivity of her landlord is shown when Baby Suggs is approached by her landlord’s kids regarding fixing some shoes, not knowing and not caring to know they just give her the shoes: “Baby Suggs … She took the shoes from him… saying, ‘I beg your pardon. Lord, I beg your pardon. I sure do” (Page 153). Paul D’s memories of Sweet Home are remembered to confront his and Sethe’s past: “Paul D smiled then, remembering the bedding dress. Sethe was thirteen when she came to Sweet Home and already iron-eyed” (Page 10).
These various voices act as witnesses to Sethe’s experiences and showing how black women had no control over their husbands, children or own bodies. Racial issues are one of the main issues in Beloved. The story revolves around the life of a former slave and her attempts to get on with her life as best as she can considering what the white slave owners have put her through. The cruelties of the slaves by the slave owners in this story are probably conservative compared to what really occurred in many cases.
This novel is about emotions and perceptions of African-Americans and of the burden of sorrow that they have inherited from being deprived of their homeland and treated like animals. These emotions are complex and very deep. The violation begins at the moment of capture, when the native Africans were forcefully taken and transported cross the Atlantic to the New World: “She told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea. Both were taken up many times by the crew” (Page 62). Sethe’s mother threw away the children of the abusers, exercising the choice to kill as her daughter will do herself later.
One did it for hate and the other one for love, but for both mother and daughter the choice to kill was the ultimate act of protection: “She threw them all away but you… You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never” (Page 62). The treatment of black women as productive livestock whose children were regarded as valuable economic units was a fact of slave life. The lack of respect of such basic human qualities is central to Sethe’s attempt to kill her children and her success in killing Beloved: “Men and women were moved around like checkers.
Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children” (Page 23). Baby Suggs had adopted a strategy for survival by which she allowed herself not to become attached to her babies who would be sold from her.
In contrast Sethe’s life under Garner at Sweet Home had been less harsh, since she always had her children around and by the time the change of ownership took place, her bond with her children was complete. The escape from slavery did nothing more than intensify this bond. For the first time she felt she could love her children unreservedly and had a vision of true freedom: “Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love ’em in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love… A place where you could love anything you choose–not to need permission for desire–well now that was freedom” (Page 162).
Gender issues are also dominant in the story. Three of the four main characters are female, and it not only tells the story of an ex-slave but of a woman’s life. Slavery is the cause of Sethe being in the situation she is. The bulk of the story deals with the relationship between a single mother (Sethe), her daughter (Denver) and a female stranger (Beloved). Sethe’s relationship to Paul D is a source of contrast on the three women. Sethe and Paul D could symbolize the joint potential of a people united no longer held apart from slavery and a possible solution to heal everyone’s pain.
The freedom to love one another. The Afro-American spirituality reflected in the novel by Baby Suggs’s character indicates the responsibility African-American women have in empowering and morally developing and sustaining the community. Such activities are showed by Baby Suggs who preaches in the clearing: “A wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what” (Page 87). Here she urges the community to love themselves as proof of their love of god and delivers a very powerful monologue: ” ‘Here’, she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.
Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They do not love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flat it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face, ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth… This is flesh that needs to be loved’ ” (Page 88).
Baby Suggs clearly questions the racial inferiority implied by slavery and stresses a better life on earth, which must come from the community and a re-evaluation of the physical black self. To love one self and one another. This sermon of love challenges the perversion of Christianity which had been used to further exploit the blacks and justify slavery. Self-acceptance and love are perhaps the most important points of the novel. For people whose negative up bringing and indoctrination has associated blackness with every form of evil and ugliness, self-love is difficult to achieve.
Appreciation of one self and moral reconstruction can be achieved only with a rejection of all that had destroyed black identity in slavery. The author is attempting to show the roots of this negativity in order to overcome it. The story revolves around the scars and the psychological state of African-Americans during and after slavery. Beloved materializes when Seth’s plantation past re-emerges with a visit from a fellow ex-slave, Paul D. He offers her love and the possibility of a new life. This triggers Beloved incarnation who is extremely jealous to be recognized as the proof of her mother’s deed.
The signs indicating that the young woman was Seth’s child materializing in flesh and blood were many, such as her name ‘Beloved’ and her weak neck: “Her neck, its circumference no wider than a parlor-service saucer, kept bending and her chin brushed the bit of lace edging her dress” (Page 50). The sudden emergency Sethe experienced as she noticed Beloved, remind the reader of Sethe giving birth. Beloved’s struggle to reclaim connection with her mother, could symbolize their struggle for freedom by reclaiming their past.
In order to never forget their enslaved history and confrontation could be the catalyst to growth: “She had an emergency that unmanageable. She never made the outhouse. Right in front of its door she had to lift her skirts, and the water she voided was endless… No, more like flooding the boat when Denver was born” (Page 51). Denver had never left 124 Bluestone Road and never encountered white people until forced to seek help from her community where she recognizes the danger that Beloved poses to Sethe.
She begins to grow by attending to her mother and Beloved as if they were her children. Later when in the house of Bodwin a pro anti-slavery activist she sees a small statue of a black boy kneeling and with his mouth wide open to be used as a money box: “Painted across the pedestal he knelt on were the words ‘At Yo Service’ ” (Page 255). Here she realizes that help from this man who owns this ornament is helping to perpetuate racism and that her emancipation is only possible with the help of the black community.
Although this novel is full of symbolism and metaphors, the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby could reflect the author’s beliefs in the paranormal. Anyone who enters the house on Bluestone Road actually witnesses the presence of this ghost which may symbolize slavery’s “rememories” that haunt Sethe and her people throughout the story. All of the characters try to repress their memories, which need to be faced and exorcised as you would a ghost. The end of this novel emphasizes the importance of the community and the individual’s search for self which characterizes the survival struggle of Black Americans.
Sethe is destroyed by her memories and her isolation with the ghost of Beloved, (representing the memories of slavery) until the community intervenes and saves her. The black community and their cohesiveness and harmony is an essential factor to further the healing of 244 years of slavery and another 133 years of political abuse. The author has successfully developed a novel which represents the hopes, aspirations, and historical memories of black America in 273 pages. Special attention has been placed on black women, which struggle under a double burden: that of racial prejudice and that of a male-centered society.