Beloved, which is classified as historical fiction, gothic horror story, and bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel), demonstrates Toni Morrison's skill in penetrating the unconstrained, unapologetic psyches of numerous characters who shoulder the horrific burden of slavery's hidden sins. Because the crimes at the heart of the novel repulse some readers, a small vocal coterie of critics has lambasted Morrison's work as soap opera, a "blackface holocaust novel," and a revamped Heart of Darkness. In rebuttal, she has insisted, "It's not my job to make black peoples' values acceptable to society as a whole." Rather, Morrison chooses to marvel that slaves who were brutalized beyond endurance were able to function as well as they did, especially after emancipation, when their expectations were high but their social station reflected little change from plantation days.
Morrison drew on a Cincinnati murder case arising from a woman's sacrifice of her children to keep them out of the grasp of slave catchers. As Morrison saw it, slavery denied black mothers the right to feel maternal love and eventually made them ambivalent toward their own offspring, particularly those sired by slave ship crews, overseers, and masters. In her words, "[These women] were not mothers but breeders." In Beloved, Morrison explores the psychology of motherhood when a slave mother and her children experience freedom. No longer a "breeder," the mother is free to love her children absolutely and, therefore, becomes capable of making unthinkable sacrifices to protect them.
The power of Beloved lies in Morrison's ability to create a compelling curiosity about the nature of Sethe's crime. Less a suspense novel than a treatise on acceptance and endurance, the work has struck an appreciative chord with a varied audience, including many noted authors who value the painful process of creating a guilt-ridden, near-crazed survivor. By identifying with the piercing eye and halting voice of a child-killer, Morrison performs what critic Claudia Tate calls "reclamation of slavery" through empathy with Sethe's will to endure and to love on her own terms.
A Brief Chronology of the Events in Beloved
Because Toni Morrison structures her narrative in circular form, events are revealed through the chance offerings of various speakers, usually long after the fact and out of time order. The following retelling of the plot restructures the events in approximate chronology, including certain historical events that support the plot.
1795 Baby Suggs, a slave, is born.
1803 Ohio becomes a state.
1805 Edward Bodwin is born.
1808 The Bodwin family moves from Bluestone Road to Court Street.
1818 Tyree and John, Baby Suggs's sons, run away.
1835 Sethe is born to "Ma'am" in either Carolina or Louisiana. Halle is born. Paul D arrives at Sweet Home.
1838 The Garners learn of the Bodwins' kindness toward ex-slaves. Garner purchases Baby Suggs and Halle.
1848 Sethe arrives at Sweet Home in Pulaski County, Kentucky to replace Baby Suggs, whose freedom Halle has purchased with voluntary weekend work.
1849 Mrs. Garner agrees to Halle's marriage to Sethe. Sethe secretly sews a "bedding dress" from pillow cases, a dresser scarf, and mosquito netting.
Saturday: Halle consummates his marriage to Sethe in the cornfield.
Sunday: Mrs. Garner presents Sethe with crystal earrings as a wedding gift.
1850 Baby Suggs finds out that Halle's new wife is about to give birth to their first child, Howard.
September 18: Congress passes a compromise bill containing a Fugitive Slave Law, intended to appease both slave and free states.
1851 Buglar, Sethe's second son, is born.
A 20-year period of northern migration for runaway and newly emancipated blacks begins.
After Mr. Garner's death, Mrs. Garner sells Paul F. (From the proceeds of the sale, she lives two years before summoning schoolteacher and his boys to help her run Sweet Home.)
1854 Beloved, Halle and Sethe's third child and first daughter, is born in November.
1855 Baby Suggs intuitively selects 1855 as the year that Halle died. The Society of Friends is at the height of its abolitionist drive. The Sweet Home slaves unsuccessfully try to escape. Sethe is assaulted by the schoolteacher's nephews before she finally escapes slavery.
Monday: Sethe fears that Halle is dead. Amy helps deliver Denver in a lean-to near the Ohio River. Stamp Paid ferries the pair to a hut. Ella leads them to 124 Bluestone Road, where Baby Suggs tends Sethe's mutilated body.
Four weeks later: Stamp Paid delivers two buckets of berries to Baby Suggs, who expands the gift into a feast for 90 people.
The next day: Sethe kills her oldest daughter and tries to kill her other children when the schoolteacher and his nephews arrive to take her and the children back to Sweet Home. Sethe and Denver are taken to jail.
1856 Paul D is locked onto a chain for 83 days in a prison camp in Albert, Georgia.
1857 January: Mudslides force the Albert, Georgia convicts to flee to a Cherokee camp.
February: Paul D starts to migrate north.
July: Paul D arrives in Delaware and moves in with a "weaver lady."
1858 With help from Mr. Bodwin, Sethe gets a job in the kitchen of Sawyer's restaurant.
1860 January: Paul D takes a job with the Northpoint Bank and Railroad Company and departs Delaware.
1862 Denver attends Lady Jones's school.
1863 Nelson Lord ends Denver's school days by questioning her about Sethe's jail term.
1864 Denver hears the crawling ghost on the stairs.
Christmas: Miss Bodwin buys cologne for Sethe and Denver, a shawl for Baby Suggs, and oranges for the boys.
1865 Buglar and Howard leave home. Baby Suggs dies before the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, which occurs April 9. Denver misses her grandmother and urges Sethe to move away from Bluestone Road.
1866 Paul D finds work in Trenton, New Jersey.
1869 Paul D watches five women and fourteen little girls arrive in Rochester and search out a "preacher on DeVore Street."
1873 Monday in August: Paul D comes to 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati.
Thursday at 11:00 a.m.: Paul D escorts Denver and Sethe to the carnival beside the lumberyard.
Thursday afternoon, late: Beloved appears in the flesh, sitting on a stump outside Sethe's house. Sethe loses bladder control.
Monday: As Denver hovers, Beloved awakens in the keeping room.
Thursday: Beloved notices the orange patches on the quilt.
Four weeks after Beloved's arrival: Beloved asks about Sethe's mother and about Sethe's "diamond earrings."
Five weeks after Beloved's arrival: Paul D presses Beloved for personal information. He reveals to Sethe that Halle observed the schoolteacher's nephews maul and molest her before her escape from Sweet Home.
By fall: Paul D moves out of Sethe's bed.
In winter: Beloved seduces Paul D.
Three weeks later: Paul D feels guilty about his infidelity. He meets Sethe at Sawyer's restaurant intending to confess, but instead he asks her to bear his child.
1874 Stamp Paid reads a newspaper clipping to Paul D that tells the story of Beloved's murder. Paul D confronts Sethe about her deed and then leaves 124 Bluestone Rd. For six consecutive days, Stamp Paid approaches Sethe's door, each time leaving without knocking.
1875 January: Denver, Beloved, and Sethe play and enjoy each other's company on the frozen creek.
March: Sethe discovers the scar on Beloved's neck, which was created when Sethe killed her. By the end of the month, Sethe spends her life savings on fancy food and clothes in an attempt to appease Beloved.
April: Denver asks Lady Jones for work. Lady Jones gives her food.
A Friday in summer: Thirty women approach 124 Bluestone Road as Edwin Bodwin comes to fetch Denver to go to work. Thinking Bodwin intends to take her children, Sethe tries to stab him with an ice pick. Ella stops her, and Denver wrestles her to the ground. A very pregnant Beloved vanishes from the porch.
In the days or weeks that follow Beloved's disappearance: Sethe takes to her bed. Paul D returns and helps her learn to live again.