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Beloved

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English Literature

Beloved (1987) is the haunting novel written by Toni Morrison in 1987. It tells the story of the struggles of enslaved African Americans and the trauma slavery causes. A popular but chilling magical realist tale, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Beloved: main idea and genre

The novel Beloved (1987) looks at the traumatic effects of slavery after the American civil war. The novel switches often between its present of 1873 with flashbacks to twenty years earlier in Kentucky. It is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the American midwest and follows escaped slave Sethe. Although Sethe is free in Ohio she is enslaved by the trauma of her past, a recurring theme in the novel.

The story is based on the real-life story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, who flees a Kentucky plantation with her husband, Robert, and the rest of her family. Eventually, the law catches up with the family and Margaret kills her daughter, rather than allowing her to become a slave. The novel is an example of magical realism. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 and was even adapted into a film in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey.

Magical realism: a literary genre where elements of fantasy occur in an otherwise normal, everyday setting.

Beloved: Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, USA. She was an American author known for writing about African American life. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Toni Morrison was raised in a family with a deep-rooted affection for African/African American culture, where folk tales and songs were a large part of her upbringing. These traditional forms of storytelling influenced her fiction.

Morrison attended Howard University before completing her master's degree at Cornell University. In 1965 she worked as a fiction editor at the publishing company Random House.

Morrison's first book was the novel The Bluest Eyes (1970), which examined the idealisation of the often white beauty standards, from the point of view of an adolescent African American girl. Toni Morrison came to national prominence with her third novel, The Song of Solomon (1977).

Morrison received further prestigious awards later in life: she was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 2010 and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Toni Morrison died on 5 August 2019 in the Bronx, New York.

Beloved: plot summary

The novel begins in the year 1873 when Sethe, an escaped slave, is living alone with her teenage daughter Denver in the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her mother in law, Baby Suggs, has died and her two boys have run away due to strange visitations from what seems to be the ghost of a child. Paul D, a former slave from the same Kentucky farmstead as Sethe, visits her in Ohio. It has been twenty years since Sethe has seen Paul D and his arrival stirs her memories. The book moves between the two time periods.

Twenty years previous, Sethe had been sold to a couple who were considered kindly, despite being slave owners. Sethe was on the farm with five other slaves who were all male; one of them is Paul D and another one was Halle, who Sethe married. Halle and Sethe had four children.

In the present day, Paul D's visit doesn't just stir memories but disturbs the ghost haunting the house. The strange occurrences increase in frequency and physicality. Finally tiring of these hauntings, Paul D performs some form of exorcism and the hauntings cease.

Beloved, Rural Ohio, StudySmarterRural Ohio, the setting for Beloved and also where author Toni Morrison was raised, Pixabay.

In another flashback, we hear of the circumstances that result in Sethe's escape. Mr Garner, the farmstead owner, dies, and his wife asks her brother for his help on the farm. The brother, known as Schoolteacher, is much crueller than his brother in law. Sethe is abused by Schoolteacher and his nephew despite being pregnant. Unkown to Sethe, Halle witnesses the abuse and becomes mentally unstable. Sethe then escapes the farmstead with the help of a white girl named Amy Denver.

Sethe enjoys a brief period of happiness and peace in Ohio with Baby Suggs, Halle's mother. However, Schoolteacher and the law catch up with Sethe, who runs into a woodshed with her children. Sethe's intentions are to kill her children, rather than return them to slavery. She succeeds in killing one child before being discovered. Seeing such an extreme situation, Schoolteacher leaves Sethe in the hands of the law, who take her and Denver to jail.

In the novel's present, Paul D and Sethe begin a relationship and find happiness together. They visit a carnival with Denver and when they return they find a stranger outside the house. The stranger claims to be called Beloved, the same name that is on Sethe's deceased child's grave. Sethe believes this stranger to be a reincarnation of the child whose life she took.

Beloved, Ghost, StudySmarterBeloved is the name on the grave of Sethe's child, and her strange visitor, Pixabay.

Beloved and Sethe develop an intense relationship and Beloved's behaviour becomes more strange and manipulative. Denver begins to feel estranged and Paul D is distrusting of the newcomer. Paul D's discomfort increases when Beloved seduces him seemingly against his will. Sethe's obsessive attitude towards Beloved makes her unaware of the others' doubts. Her guilt over her deceased daughter and belief that Beloved is an embodiment of her cloud her thoughts. Paul D learns of Sethe killing her daughter and soon leaves.

Denver begins to reach out to the community after Sethe loses her job. Denver herself starts to do menial work for a neighbouring family and provides food for her mother and Beloved. The community decide to visit Sethe's house, worried about the stranger. Sethe mistakes Denver's employer for her former slaver, Schoolteacher and tries to attack her. Sethe is restrained and Beloved mysteriously disappears. Paul D returns to the house and vows to comfort Sethe during her rehabilitation. Denver continues working in the community and hopes to eventually attend college.

Beloved: Themes

Let's look at the main themes in the novel.

The destructive nature of slavery

Toni Morrison's novel explores the physical and mental trauma caused by slavery, and how its lasting effects continue while free. Slavery creates an identity crisis among former slaves, one particular case being the character Paul D, who is alienated from himself. Paul D hides his feelings in the 'tobacco tin' of his heart and at one point in the book is unsure if the screaming he hears is his thoughts or his own actions. As a result of being traded, Paul D is self-conscious about his value and whether he can be called 'a real man'.

Beloved, Chains, StudySmarterThe lasting effects of slavery are a large theme of the novel. Chains, Pixabay.

Schoolteacher refers to Sethe as animalistic when talking to his nephews. She is also alienated from herself and the community due to her actions in the woodshed. Denver becomes alienated from the family unit after the arrival of Beloved. Of the slaves in the Kentucky farmstead, Halle loses his mind and Sixo's unusual behaviour results in him getting killed.

Community

For a brief 28 days after freedom, Sethe almost feels like herself when Baby Sugg's house becomes a hub of the community. Being part of the community revives Sethe after the trauma she has experienced.

When Paul D is in a chain gang in Georgia, he and his fellow inmates have to work together in order to escape their prison.

Sethe and Denver also feel isolated upon returning to Ohio after prison. The ghost is the only visitor to the house after they are shunned by the community. By the climax of the novel, it is the actions of the community that reverse their isolation. The community comes to aid Denver and relieve Sethe of their strange interloper. They prevent Sethe from killing the sympathetic Mr Bodwin when she confuses him for Schoolteacher.

The community appears to exorcise Beloved in a moment that is redemptive for both Sethe and the community itself.

Beloved: main characters

Let's study the main characters in Beloved.

Sethe

Sethe is the novel's protagonist. She is a proud mother who would rather her children die than go into slavery. Sethe is haunted by her past in slavery and her attempts to escape its clutches. She becomes more withdrawn from the community after the traumatic events in the woodshed.

Her intense love and pride sometimes can be detrimental to her well-being. Her relationship with Beloved proves to be damaging to both her and her loved ones.

Beloved

An enigmatic stranger who wanders into Sethe and Denver's lives. Beloved's past is unknown; she could be a deeply troubled ex-slave. Beloved could also be read as the physical embodiment of Sethe's deceased child. Her intense love for Sethe alienates her further from the community.

Denver

Denver is Sethe's youngest child and the only one still with her. Denver was born with the help of a white girl called Amy Denver. The birth occurred while Sethe was escaping slavery. Denver is both sensitive and smart. She becomes isolated from Sethe after the arrival of Beloved. Denver becomes more independent as the novel reaches its conclusion and helps reunite Sethe with the community.

Baby Suggs

Baby Suggs is Halle's mother. Her son bought her freedom and she moved to Cincinnati. She becomes a vital member of the black community there, even offering spiritual guidance. Although she doesn't feature much in the novel alive, she continues to be an inspiration for many of the characters in the book.

Paul D

Paul D is a man who worked at sweet home with Sethe when they were both slaves. Paul D suffered great physical and emotional pain as a slave. As a result of this pain, Paul D is a repressed character who frequently questions his own worth. He arrives in Cinncinati and soon forms a romantic relationship with Sethe. This brings the couple peace initially although their relationship becomes fractured after Beloved's arrival.

Beloved: impact on literature

Toni Morrison's Beloved is an exceptional example of the magical realist genre. The novel weaves African mythology and American history to tell readers of the struggles of black womanhood. Toni Morrison ignores familiar tropes of the 'strong black woman'. Instead, she presents a character that is flawed due to the society surrounding her.

Beloved - Key takeaways

  • Beloved was published in 1987. The novel explores the traumatic effects of slavery.
  • The novel Beloved is an example of magical realism.
  • Toni Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.
  • Beloved is set in two different time frames: 1873 and twenty years before, told through flashbacks.
  • Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Beloved

The novel Beloved is an example of magical realism.

The novel tells the story of former slave Sethe and her struggle to deal with her past trauma

The novel Beloved explores the traumatic effects of slavery after the American Civil War.

Toni Morrison is the author of the novel Beloved.

Beloved was widely praised by critics and readers, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.

Final Beloved Quiz

Question

What is the novel Beloved's genre?

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Answer

The novel Beloved is an example of magical realism.

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Question

What is the novel Beloved about?

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Answer

The novel tells the story of former slave Sethe and her struggle to deal with her past trauma

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Question

What is the main idea of Beloved?

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Answer

The novel Beloved explores the traumatic effects of slavery after the American Civil War.

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Question

Who is the author of the novel Beloved?

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Answer

Toni Morrison is the author of the novel Beloved.

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Question

Is Beloved a good book?

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Answer

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Question

When is the novel Beloved set?

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Answer

The novel is set in 1873, it also features flashback to the year 1853.

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Question

What is the main theme of Beloved?

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Answer

The main theme of Beloved is the destructive nature of slavery.

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Question

The novel Beloved is based on the real-life story of which former slave. 

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Answer

The novel Beloved is based on the real-life story of former slave Magaret Garner.

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Question

The novel won which prestigious award in 1988?

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Answer

The novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.


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Question

What is the name of Sethe and Denver's strange visitor?

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Answer

The name of Sethe and Denver's strange visitor is Beloved

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