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by Toni Morrison


Main Themes


            “Beloved” is one of the best and most popular works in the African-American literature and it involves a great suggestion of anger towards many social problems of that time, such as slavery, African American cultural identity and many others.


One of the main themes of “Beloved” is the problem of race and effects of slavery1. Much of the novel focuses on a community of ex-slaves and how they manage to get back to normal with their lives. The novel questions, through the eyes of a teacher, what the difference is between a man and an animal. In its realistic description of the Negro community, complete with their hopes and problems, the novel shows that a colored man is like any other man. The novel also asks whether it is better to suffer the injustices of a cruel people or to fight against them.

            Closely tied to the theme of race is that of the past. Each of the characters have  had  a furious past, complete with the worst horrors imaginable. Sethe has been raped and forced to murder, Paul D has been imprisoned in a cube, Stamp Paid was forced to give his wife away to be a sex toy, and the list goes on and on. Many of these men and women have chosen, like Sethe and Paul D, to forget the past. Others worked actively against it, like Stamp Paid. However, no peace appears  for any of the characters until each learns to accept and deal with the past (which is very alive in the present). Only then can a future be found.

            Another theme in “Beloved” is that of the banality of evil. Slavery is not just an institution, it is a philosophy and way of thinkig which has many and deep  consequences. The Garners treated their slaves well, and as a result were respected by people like Sethe and Paul D. However, as Paul D later comes to realize, "Everything rested on Garner being alive. Without his life each of theirs fell to pieces." Though treated nicely, the Negroes on Sweet Home were little more than toys to be used by the Garners. The theme also comes up in the description of the Bodwin's household, which includes the statue of a black boy and the words "At Yo Service." The Bodwins fail to comprehend the thoughts behind that statue. With such images, Morrison demonstrates the extent of slavery and what must be done to abolish it completely.

            Moral ambiguity, of course, plays a large role in the novel. The question of "Was the murder right or wrong?" appears many times in the book. The answer finally reached is that it was the right thing to do, but Sethe didn't have the right to do it. Had she not murdered Beloved, she and all the children would have been sold back into slavery. Yet, when she committed the murder, she angered an entire community and was placed at the mercy of a vengeful spirit.

             The novel also asks what it means to be free. Was Baby Suggs truly free, when


1 The institution of slavery destroyed much of the heritage of the Africans brought to the Americas; the novel partially recounts the creation of a new people and culture, a people displaced and forced to forge a new identity in the face of brutality and dehumanization.


white men were allowed to barge into her yard at any time? Was Paul D free, though he wasn't allowed to love whatever he wanted to love? Were any of the Negroes truly free, who had to wait at the back of the supermarket for the whites to be served before they could get their groceries? Freedom, Morrison points out, is more than a matter of not belonging to a single master.

The concept of family also pervades the novel. Most of the slaves have been torn apart from their families at an early age, and there is little hope in discovering what is left of their families. The consequences of this type of separation can be seen in Sethe, who is possessive of her children, and Paul D, who is determined not to love anything too much.
            One thematic point underlying her writing in Beloved is her preoccupation with community, and the need to write in a way which has a political purpose: If anything she does, in the way of writing novels or whatever....isn't about the village or the community or about people, then it isn't about anything.  She is not interested in indulging herself in some private exercise of her imagination.... which is to say, the work must be political.
            Toni Morrison, and other Negro women writers, have been trying to develop a new type of novel, one which represents the hopes, aspirations, and historical memories of colored women.  African American women struggle under a double burden: that of racial prejudice and that of a male-centred society.  While black men may have created a literature about the former, it has been left to black women to analyse the whole of the latter situation.

Beloved is extremely possessive of her sister, not allowing Sethe to assist in caring for the young woman when she is ill.  She treasures her time alone with Beloved while Sethe is at work in the restaurant more than anything in her life at that point.  She is driven by a hunger to know about the mysterious history of her sister; a hunger that cannot be satisfied by her responses to Sethe and Paul D's simple questions.  She furthermore appears to be completely devastated, throwing herself into a blinding and violent rage in the midst of the cold house.  It is an attraction that evidently lies in something more complex and difficult to understand than mere sisterly love; it lies rather in the sense of desperation on Denver's part to be essentially one with Beloved.
             Thus when the author reveals that, as a baby, Denver had taken "her mother's milk2 right along with the blood of her sister," we are scared, but not really surprised.  What are the implications of this?  Of course all brothers and sisters  share the same family blood, but what does it mean for one to take that blood by means of the mouth?  This is in a way very similar to the taking of Christ's blood in the sacrament of communion.  The wine that Catholics drink symbolizes the blood of Jesus, his death, and the consequent giving of himself to us and for us.  As a result, Catholics are expected, according to their religion, to live their lives in the ways of Christ, striving ultimately to be one with him; to hunger for him.   Denver, as a very young and innocent child, had desired the milk of her mother and instead had been fed the blood of her deceased sister. Her hunger had been satiated by the taste of her sister rather than her mother; an everlasting tie had been formed.  Tragically through this, which we as outsiders alone are


2Beloved is critically scrutinized for its “obviously symbolic story” and not adequately appreciated for the vivid metaphors, imperative to the understanding of post-civil war slavery (Rumens). The numerous reference's to Sethe's “stolen milk” could be one of the images that Carol Rumens attacks in her critique for being “overly symbolic”.

able to see, we know that Denver can never be truly satisfied in her desires.  What she longs for is a place within her sister, a place that is simply not within her reach.  She had not known it then, nor is there any way for her to see it now: the seed of Beloved had been planted within Denver, and there it will continue to grow.

            “Beloved” explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery, a devastation that continues to haunt those characters who are former slaves even in freedom. The most dangerous of slavery’s effects is its negative impact on the former slaves’ senses of self, and the novel contains multiple examples of self-alienation.Paul D.  for instance, is so alienated from himself that at one point he cannot tell whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else’s. Slaves were told they were subhuman and were traded as commodities whose worth could be expressed in dollars. Consequently, Paul D is very insecure about whether or not he could possibly be a real man, and he frequently wonders about his value as a person. As a result of their inability to believe in their own existences, both Baby Suggs and Paul D become depressed and tired. Baby Suggs’s fatigue is spiritual, while Paul D’s is emotional.

            “Beloved” demonstrates the extent to which individuals need the support of their communities in order to survive. Sethe first begins to develop her sense of self during her twenty-eight days of freedom, when she becomes a part of the Cincinnati community. Similarly, Denver discovers herself and grows up when she leaves 124 and becomes a part of society. Paul D and his fellow prison inmates in Georgia prove able to escape only by working together. They are literally chained to one another, and Paul D recalls that “if one lost, all lost.” Lastly, it is the community that saves Sethe from mistakenly killing Mr. Bodwin and casting the shadow of another sin across her and her family’s life.

Cincinnati’s black community plays a pivotal role in the events of 124. The community’s failure to alert Sethe to schoolteacher’s approach implicates it in the death of Sethe’s daughter. At the end of the novel, the black community makes up for its past misbehavior by gathering at 124 to collectively exorcise Beloved. By driving Beloved away, the community secures Sethe’s, and its own, release from the past.

            Morrison enhances the world of Beloved by investing it with a supernatural dimension. While it is possible to interpret the book’s paranormal phenomena within a realist framework, many events in the novel (most notably, the presence of a ghost) push the limits of ordinary understanding. Moreover, the characters in Beloved do not hesitate to believe in the supernatural status of these events. For them, poltergeists, premonitions, and hallucinations are ways of understanding the significance of the world around them. Such occurrences stand in marked contrast to schoolteacher’s perverse hyper-“scientific” and empirical studies.

Beloved’s epigraph, taken from Romans 9:25, bespeaks the presence that Christian ideas will have in the novel. The “four horsemen” who come for Sethe reference the description of the Apocalypse found in the Book of Revelations. Beloved is reborn into Sethe’s world drenched in a sort of baptismal water. As an infant, Denver drinks her sister’s blood along with her mother’s breast milk, which can be interpreted as an act of Communion that links Denver and Beloved and that highlights the sacrificial aspect of the baby’s death. Sethe’s act so horrifies schoolteacher that he leaves without taking her other children, allowing them to live in freedom. The baby’s sacrificial death, like that of Christ, brings salvation. The book’s larger discussions of sin, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, love, and resurrection similarly resound with biblical references.




Narrative and Community Crisis in Beloved - D. Scot Hinson

Beloved study guide - Univ. of Warwick

Synopsis of Beloved - UTexas students

Historical events affecting characters in "Beloved" - UTexas students

Parallel Themes Found in Beloved - UTexas students

Scars and Self-Definiton in Beloved - Student at Kansas State University

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