Beloved is not narrated chronologically; it is composed of flashbacks, memories, and nightmares. As a result, it is not an easy read if you haven't encountered William Faulkner, James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf. Following, we have constructed a basic outline of the action in the story. In no way, however, does it reflect the wonder of Morrison's novel.
Sethe, a 13-year-old child of unnamed slave parents, arrives at Sweet Home, an idyllic plantation in Kentucky operated by Garner, an unusually humane master, and his wife, Lillian. Within a year, Sethe selects Halle Suggs to be her mate and, by the time she is 18, bears him three children. After Garner dies, his wife turns control of the plantation over to her brother-in-law, the schoolteacher, who proves to be a brutal overseer.
Schoolteacher's cruelty drives the Sweet Home slave men — Paul D, Halle, Paul A, and Sixo — to plot their escape. In August, fearful that her sons will be sold, a very pregnant Sethe packs her children Howard, Buglar, and Beloved in a wagon and sends them to safety with their grandmother in Cincinnati. Schoolteacher discovers what she has done, and as Halle watches from the loft of a barn, schoolteacher takes notes as his nephews — the "two boys with mossy teeth" — suck the milk from Sethe's breasts. She reports the assault to the ailing Mrs. Garner. The nephews retaliate by beating Sethe with cowhide until her back is split open with wounds. Unknown to Sethe, schoolteacher roasts Sixo alive and hangs Paul A for trying to escape the plantation. Before she leaves Sweet Home, Sethe confronts Paul D, who is shackled in an iron collar for his part in the escape attempt. Sethe then makes her own escape.
Sethe flees through the woods and, with the help of Amy Denver, a runaway white indentured servant, gives birth to her fourth child. Then, with the help of Stamp Paid, a black ferryman, she crosses the Ohio river into freedom.
Safely reunited with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her babies in Cincinnati, Sethe enjoys 28 days of contentment. Then one day as Stamp Paid replenishes the woodpile and Baby Suggs and Sethe work in the yard, schoolteacher, the sheriff, a slave catcher, and one of schoolteacher's nephews arrive to recapture Sethe and her children. To spare her children a return to bondage, Sethe slices the throat of the eldest girl, tries to kill her two boys, and threatens to dash out the brains of her infant daughter, Denver. The sheriff takes Sethe and Denver to jail, and Sethe is condemned to hang. She leaves her cell long enough to attend her daughter's funeral. Three months later, pressure from the Quaker abolitionist Edward Bodwin and the Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio produces Sethe's freedom. She barters sex for a gravestone inscribed "Beloved" to mark her daughter's burial site. Immediately, Beloved's ghost makes itself known in Baby Suggs's house at 124 Bluestone Road.
Sethe is granted a release from her death sentence, but after leaving jail she finds the black community closed to her. With the aid of Mr. Bodwin, she locates work and manages to build a stable, though solitary, life. Her mother-in-law withdraws completely from the community and dies several years later. Shortly after Baby Suggs's death, Sethe's sons leave home, unnerved by the presence of Beloved's ghost. Left with only Denver, Sethe lives in uneasy solitude.
Years later, after escaping a cruel Georgia prison and wandering North, Paul D arrives in Cincinnati and reunites with Sethe. He immediately banishes the disruptive ghost from the house. The two former slaves attempt to form a family, although Denver is uncomfortable with Paul D's presence. Sethe and Paul D's relationship is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious young woman who calls herself Beloved, the same name that is on the headstone of Sethe's murdered daughter.
Beloved quickly becomes a dominant force in Sethe's house. She drives Paul D out of Sethe's bed and seduces him. She becomes the sole focus of Sethe's life after Sethe realizes that this young woman is the reincarnation of her dead child. Drawing Sethe into an unhealthy, obsessive relationship, Beloved grows stronger while Sethe's body and mind weaken. Sethe quits her job and withdraws completely into the house. With the aid of Denver and some female neighbors, Sethe escapes Beloved's control through a violent scene in which she mistakes Bodwin for a slave catcher and tries to stab him with an ice pick. Beloved vanishes, and Paul D returns, helping Sethe rediscover the value of life and her own self-worth.