Beloved, a sophisticated and powerfully evocative stream-of-consciousness novel, seems at once as old as Homer, as terrifying as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, as philosophical as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and as familiar as the Bible. Without becoming tedious or pedantic, Morrison blends a number of traditions:
- the journey, which takes Sethe from Sweet Home to Baby Suggs's home, across the river from Kentucky on the southern rim of Ohio. The physical journey, made arduous by a mutilated back, swollen feet, and a premature infant, hardly compares with the spiritual journey, which introduces Sethe to freedom and the most precious reward of all, a real family life. In stereotypically male fashion, Paul D follows his own route and, by deliberate indirectness, arrives at the same point. Reunited with Sethe, he is at last able to surrender himself to the nurturing role that Baby Suggs enjoined her followers to embrace — to love the body, to honor self.
- coming-of-age, which allies Sethe's realization of adult powers with a similar growth in Denver. Like successive ocean waves, Baby Suggs wearies of life, leaving the household to Sethe, who in turn crumbles, takes to her bed, and abdicates authority to Denver. Stunted by slavery, each of the women travels the unfamiliar path with imperfect directions. Baby Suggs was wrenched from Africa and forced aboard a slave ship. Sethe was likewise wrenched from her mother and handed into the maimed arms of a wet nurse. Denver, the next in the chain of female victims, lacks security and self-esteem but knows instinctively that the beguiling phantom is the sister for whom she has yearned. The longings of the three women, echoed by Lady Jones, Ella, Janey Wagon, and Patsy, expand coming-of-age into a coming-of-era, when human beings of both sexes can grasp their rightful heritage of personhood.
- the theme of grace, the blessings that don't have to be earned but which, like Christ's beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, pour out from charitable hearts touched by sufferings common to the human condition. Each figure in the Bluestone cast carries its burden of hurt, humiliation, and shame. Each, for whatever reason, responds to the complex social milieu at slavery's end by offering small gifts. One helps bind Sethe's tortured body, another weeps into the cooking pots, and a third tends the baby. A series of givers leaves humble packets of food marked by signed scraps of paper. Like shepherds presenting lambs to the Christ Child, the good-hearted black community shares its meager stores.
- the symbolic healing caress, a convention that recalls the tradition of medieval kings who placed a ritual touch on the sick. The touch of blessing permeates the story — from Amy's gentle massage and makeshift bandage for Sethe's feet to Baby Suggs's compassionate, methodical washing of Sethe's body, quadrant by quadrant; from Paul D's blessing of Sethe's hideous tree-like scar to his loving return to Sethe's bedside to anoint her feet and accept her for the powerful woman she once was and still can be. The motif grows more focused on womanhood through the use of myriad breast images, which connect suckling with the maternal will to raise healthy, whole, and safe babies, whatever the cost. By extension, Baby Suggs offers a spiritual caress to the worshippers who surround her miniature Sermon on the Mount in the clearing. Her message restores their sense of self-worth by urging them to love their physical bodies, which have been so discounted by slavery that, like Paul D, they have confronted themselves in terms of dollar value.
- the symbolic role of nature, which forms a sheltering chancel over Denver and reconnects her with Baby Suggs, the stable "parent" whose passing left Denver no anchor in rough seas. Water images, psychologically and rhetorically projecting life and motherhood, form a wavy, indistinct cover over Beloved's interment. The terrifying hot/cold, clear/murky figures express the ghost-child's great yearning to reunite with her mother and to complete the growth process cut short by a stroke of a handsaw. The suggestion that Beloved experienced the wretched sea voyage bearing slaves from Africa to America links all blacks with a trial by water, an unholy baptism for aborted infants, a watery grave for those who expired along the way. Beloved's mission is ended by the redeeming love of women, who intervene in Sethe's demented attack on yet another white buggy driver. Beloved, bulging with the unborn child begotten in the same shed where she was sacrificed, fades from sight, then resurfaces in wispy gossip, sightings, and footprints along the creek. But the recovery at 124 Bluestone signals Beloved's return passage over the bridge to her final rest, far from earth's troubled people.
- the red heart, an emblem of love, passion, and religiosity, recalls the typically Catholic pictures of Christ exposing his suffering heart. To Paul D, entering Sethe's house and being greeted by a "pool of red and undulating light," the pulsating welcome offers shelter that he accepts at great risk to his manhood. Later, his emotions, crumbled like moldering tobacco in a rusty tin, must rediscover unconditional love and know it for its mixed blessing. Ultimately, he rejects the temporary solace of liquor and a cold church basement to sort out his emotions and define a place for himself among the women of 124 Bluestone. Ironically, the redeeming heart that exonerates and rejuvenates Sethe is Paul D's.
- the traditional triad of philos, eros, and agape, the Greek names for belonging, passion, and charity, describe the levels of belonging that ex-slaves embrace upon landing on free turf. Having crossed the water from the bloody side to a non-slave state, Sethe passes through the stages of welcome and acceptance as a community member, mother, daughter-in-law, and lover. She loosens her bonds to Halle by inviting Paul D to share her bed. The triad proves fragile, however, after the ghost imposes itself between eros and agape. Beloved seduces Paul D; Stamp Paid weakens Paul D's bond with Sethe by revealing her murderous past. Ultimately, philos triumphs as the community forces Sethe back from violence and embraces her once more as a sister. Then the triad can re-form — this time, firm in its balance. Sethe, absolved of her frenzied infanticide, can leave her bed, love her man, accept her grown girl, and walk with pride and camaraderie among her neighbors down Bluestone Road.