|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
Beloved is a 1987 novel by the American writer Toni Morrison. Set after the American Civil War (1861–65), it is inspired by the story of an African-American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky late January 1856 by fleeing to Ohio, a free state. Morrison had come across the story “A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child” in an 1856 newspaper article published in the American Baptist and reproduced in The Black Book, a miscellaneous compilation of black history and culture that Morrison edited in 1974.
Beloved begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the protagonist Sethe, a former slave, has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs lived with them until her death eight years earlier. Just before Baby Suggs’ death, Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away. Sethe believes they fled because of the malevolent presence of an abusive ghost that haunted their house at 124 Bluestone Road for years. The story opens with an introduction to the ghost: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award. It was adapted during 1998 into a movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey. A New York Times survey of writers and literary critics ranked it the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006.
The book’s dedication reads “Sixty Million and more”, referring to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. The book’s epigraph is Romans 9:25.
The book is the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery. Their home in Cincinnati is haunted by a revenant, whom they believe to be the ghost of Sethe’s daughter. Because of the haunting—which often involves objects being thrown around the room—Sethe’s youngest daughter Denver is shy, friendless, and housebound, and her sons, Howard and Buglar, have run away from home by the age of 13. Baby Suggs, the mother of Sethe’s husband Halle, dies in her bed soon afterwards.
Paul D, one of the slaves from Sweet Home—the plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle, and several other slaves once worked—arrives at Sethe’s home and tries to bring a sense of reality into the house. In attempting to make the family forget the past, he forces out the spirit. He seems successful at first; he even brings housebound Denver out of the house for the first time in years. But on the way back, they encounter a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself Beloved. Paul D is suspicious and warns Sethe, but she is charmed by the young woman and ignores him.
When made to sleep outside in a shed, Paul D is cornered by Beloved. While they have sex, his mind is filled with horrific memories from his past. Overwhelmed with guilt, Paul D tries to tell Sethe about it but cannot, and instead says he wants her pregnant. Sethe is elated, and Paul D resists Beloved and her influence over him. But when he tells friends at work about his plans to start a new family, they react fearfully. Stamp Paid reveals the reason for the community’s rejection of Sethe.
When Paul D asks Sethe about it, she tells him what happened: After escaping from Sweet Home and reaching her waiting children at her mother-in-law’s home, Sethe was found by her master, who attempted to reclaim her and her children. Sethe grabbed her children, ran into the tool shed, and tried to kill them all. She succeeded only in killing her eldest daughter, then two years old, by running a saw along her neck. Sethe claims that she was “trying to put my babies where they would be safe.” The revelation is too much for Paul D and he leaves. Without him, sense of reality and time moving forward disappears.
Sethe comes to believe that Beloved is the two-year-old daughter she murdered, whose tombstone reads only “Beloved”. Sethe begins to spend carelessly and spoil Beloved out of guilt. Beloved becomes angry and more demanding, throwing tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. Beloved’s presence consumes Sethe’s life to the point where she becomes depleted and sacrifices her own need for eating, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger.
In the novel’s climax, youngest daughter Denver reaches out and searches for help from the black community, and some of the village women arrive at the house to exorcise Beloved. At the same time, a white man comes into view, the same man that helped Halle’s mother, Baby Suggs, by offering her the house as a place to stay after Halle bought her from their owner. He has come for Denver, who asked him for a job, but Denver has not shared this information with Sethe. Unaware of the situation, Sethe attacks the white man with an ice pick and is brought down by the village women. While Sethe is confused and has a “re-memory” of her master coming again, Beloved disappears. The novel resolves with Denver becoming a working member of the community and Paul D returning to Sethe and pledging his love.
Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, and professor emeritus at Princeton University.
Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name(starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.