Set in the 19th century United States, Beloved follows a formerly enslaved woman named Sethe and the lives of those closest to her. Sethe lives in a house known only as 124 outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Not only is the house inhabited by Sethe and her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver, but it is also haunted by a poltergeist. 124 had been a gathering place for the area’s black community, led by the middle-aged Baby Suggs, another formerly enslaved woman. Prior to their move to Ohio, she and Sethe were held captive on the same Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home. Sethe was purchased for this plantation after Baby Suggs had been bought out by her son Halle who outsourced his labor in order to do so. Halle and Sethe were allowed to marry by the owners of the plantation, resulting in the birth of three children—two boys and a girl. In comparison to most other plantations, Sweet Home provided liberties rarely afforded to enslaved people, including choice of marriage, use of guns, lack of physical and humiliating punishment, input into work practices, and the aforementioned buy-out of Baby Suggs.

Conditions change once Sweet Home’s owner dies of a stroke and his widow brings in her brother-in-law and his young nephews to help run Sweet Home; the small liberties granted to the enslaved people are revoked by the new leadership, and cruelties ensue. The enslaved people, including Halle and a man named Paul D, plot to escape north; however, Sethe and her children are the only ones who succeed in doing so, only after she is violated by the nephews and brutally whipped by the brother-in-law for informing him of the assault. These events and Sethe’s flight are complicated by her near-full-term pregnancy. Approaching death from exhaustion and exposure, she is saved by a white girl who helps Sethe give birth. Her daughter is named Denver after the contextually benevolent white girl.

Carrying her newborn, Sethe arrives at 124, greeted by her other three children, into the care of Baby Suggs. The bittersweet happiness of her arrival without Halle is marred one month later by the arrival of a team intending to reclaim Sethe and her kids for Sweet Home. Rather than allow herself and her children to be forced back into slavery, Sethe intends to commit infanticide and suicide, succeeding in the murder of her older daughter. This action effectively prevents them from being taken, and Sethe is exonerated of her charges. Despite this, her act of desperation crushes her family, eventually leading to Baby Suggs’ death and to the flight of her sons from the household. Eighteen years later, Paul D arrives at 124. He begins a relationship with Sethe and manages to evict the poltergeist.

Soon thereafter, a strange woman arrives by the name of Beloved, the word Sethe had engraved on her child’s tombstone. Sethe is initially unaware of the stranger’s origins, and Paul D is effectively forced out by the new arrival. Once Beloved’s identity as the deceased child is understood, she, Sethe, and Denver become wrapped up in each other, blurring the lines of their identity. Sethe loses her job, but Denver manages to extricate herself to find work. Hearing of the family’s plight at the hands of the “unholy” Beloved, thirty black women of the area band together to purge 124 of her presence. Beloved leaves without a trace. Paul D eventually returns to 124, and memories of Beloved slowly fade into oblivion.


Beloved epitomizes artistic creation at its finest; Toni Morrison crafted a brilliant piece fueled by the lived experiences of enslaved people’s descendants in America and informed by the temporal proximity of the ratification of thirteenth amendment. The summary outlined above fails to capture the impact of the work’s nonlinear form, both in time and perspective. Flashbacks are seamlessly interwoven into the driving plot; not only are the past and present difficult to distinguish from each other, but this intermingling also elevates the past in status compared to the present, allowing the past to rival, and often exceed, the present in narrative importance. Time becomes a character in its own right, one whose primary end is the marring of other characters’ physical beings. Through this lens, the recapitulation of Sethe’s tree scars mirrors the historical impact of slavery on the modern-day United States. Morrison’s knowledge regarding the historical context and speaking patterns of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras is impressive. This context is further validated by the work’s inspiration—the life of Margaret Garner—which is addressed in certain editions through an introduction by the author.

Toni Morrison’s mastery of figurative language builds upon the nonlinearity of the piece. Her writing prowess is powerfully displayed through allegories, the most notable of which is found on pages 248-252. Through Beloved’s perspective, Morrison establishes a connection between hell and slave ships by using language that distorts their status as separate entities. This is further extended within the same section of the novel to remove the audience’s understanding of Beloved, Sethe, and Denver as being separate, varying their perspectives to create a mélange of emotion and perception.                 

The relevance of this piece to contemporary American politics and social issues is simultaneously profound and disturbing. Our history as Americans has been tainted by naysayers of the experiences of people of color, particularly those of Black/African-Americans; this novel exists as a cornerstone in establishing context for those that refuse accountability for the United States’ history of racial oppression, a history to which they directly and/or indirectly contributed and continue to contribute. The magical realism of the piece provides new dimension to a historical narrative, allowing for greater imaginative accessibility to the meaning behind its story. If no other image sticks with readers, let the following narrative fact from the biblically paralleled coming of the four horseman to “reclaim” Sethe make an impact: it is the responsibility of the sheriff both to reinforce the dehumanization of Sethe and to deal with her perceived cultural, psychological, and racial aberrancy through punishment sans reformation.  


Beloved was originally published on September 16, 1987 by Alfred A. Knopf Inc

National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (1987); Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988); American Book Award (1988); Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1988); Frederic G. Melcher Book Award (1988)



Place Published

United States



Page Count