Beloved By Toni Morrison Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapter 1

Summary

In 1873, Sethe, a former slave, resides with Denver, her reclusive 18-year-old daughter, in a haunted two-story house at 124 Bluestone Road outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. The house once sheltered a close family, including Grandma Baby Suggs; Sethe's two sons, Buglar and Howard; and her infant daughter, Beloved. All are gone now except Sethe and Denver.


Almost nine years after Baby Suggs's death, Sethe and Denver's isolation is ruptured by the unforeseen arrival of Paul D, a survivor of Sweet Home, the Kentucky slave farm where Sethe, her husband Halle, and their children were also enslaved. In conversation, Sethe and Paul D reveal memories of their former lives of subjugation. Owned for years by the benign Garners, a childless couple, the slaves eventually fell under the cruel tyranny of an unnamed schoolteacher, who destroyed the farm's harmony and forced the slaves to desperate measures of rebellion and flight.

Sethe divulges to Paul D the catastrophic events that caused her to run away from Sweet Home. Pregnant with her fourth child and fearing for her family's future under the schoolteacher's reign, Sethe surrendered her sons and daughter to a woman in a wagon, waiting in the corn. Before she could escape herself, however, two white boys — the schoolteacher's nephews — sucked out her breast milk and lashed her with rawhide whips. Although she was in terrible pain from the whipping, Sethe ran away from Sweet Home that night. A white girl found Sethe, tended to her injuries, and helped her give birth to her second daughter.

Sethe reveals that later, her oldest girl died from having her throat cut. Paul D, empathetic because of his own experience with slavery, massages the thick scars on Sethe's back as his other hand strokes her breast. The ghost of Sethe's dead daughter, which haunts her house, reacts angrily to Sethe and Paul D's closeness and causes the whole house to shake. Paul D authoritatively banishes the ghost and takes Sethe to bed. Denver, meanwhile, sits on the porch, missing the ghost's presence and resenting Paul D's intrusion into her and her mother's lives. She miserably appeases her loneliness and apprehension with bread and jelly.

Analysis

Veiled in what Anne Tyler calls the "gauzy mists of magic," Beloved opens with the house number 124, a repeated mantra that suggests many numerological possibilities. On one symbolic level, the numbers 1 + 2 + 4 add up to 7, the number of letters on Beloved's headstone. In Christian lore, the number 7 represents charity, grace, and the Holy Spirit, as well as completion and perfection. As we will see later in the novel, Beloved's death signified the end of all of these elements in both Sethe's life and the life of her family. When Beloved died, the family lost the charity of the townspeople, the grace of a happy life together, and Baby Suggs's connection to the Holy Spirit. The family became incomplete and imperfect. The number 124 emphasizes this incompleteness when examined sequentially. The number 3 is missing from the sequence, just as Sethe's third child is missing from the family. A more complicated arithmetic equation denotes Sethe's arrival at Sweet Home and her selection of Halle as her husband, an act that leads to four children, doubling of one into two and two into four.

Chapter 1 introduces a number of motifs (repeating ideas or images) that support Morrison's themes. In addition to numbers, the most significant motifs that reappear in later chapters are these:

  • Bestiality, or having animal-like characteristics. This motif is demonstrated by references to the "baby's venom" and Sethe being down "on all fours." References that appear later in the novel include Sethe calling her unborn child a "little antelope" and Garner's slaves copulating with calves.

  • Colors, particularly the "gray and white house on Bluestone Road" and the white stairs that lead to the bedrooms on the second floor.
  • Plants, especially the clinging chamomile sap that Sethe hurries to rinse from her legs, the cherry gum and oak bark used for making ink, and the sycamore trees that become gallows for hanging slaves. The poignant touch of the chokeberry tree on Sethe's back compels the reader to empathize with her suffocating misery.
  • Breastfeeding, a central issue, which provides Sethe's infant with food and the ravaging white boys a source of mammary rape.
  • The heart, a welcoming, nurturing image implied by the "pool of red and undulating light" that invites Paul D to settle into Sethe's house. Red becomes Beloved's signature and is the hue that Baby Suggs avoided late in life when she focused only on colors.
  • Iron, a dual symbol that describes Sethe's eyes and backbone and also represents Paul D's bondage in two torture devices, one bridling his tongue and another collaring him with outstretched tines (prongs) so that he couldn't lie down or lean back in comfort.
  • Superstition, indicated by Paul D's awareness of the ghost baby and his reference to the "headless bride," as well as Denver's memories of her brothers telling her "die-witch! stories."
  • Female genitalia, briefly implied by women "way past the Change of Life" (menopause).
  • Resurrection, the hopeful image implicit in the "dawn-colored stone studded with star chips."

Glossary

slop jars indoor containers that take the place of toilets, especially for night use or for people too ill or infirm to walk outside to an outhouse.

Dearly Beloved the traditional opening words for a Protestant wedding or funeral.

chamomile sap juice from any plant of two genera of the composite family, with strong-smelling foliage; esp., a plant whose dried, daisylike flower heads are used as a medicine and in making tea.

hazelnut stranger a visitor with reddish-brown skin.

pouch of tobacco . . . smoking paper the materials needed for handrolling cigarettes.

chokecherry a North American wild cherry tree yielding an astringent fruit.

Sethe took a little spit from the tip of her tongue . . . lightly she touched the stove a method of testing temperature in a woodstove. A skillful cook can detect by the sizzle of saliva when a stove is hot enough for baking.

I had milk an unusual occurrence that Sethe is both pregnant and lactating, since breastfeeing suppresses ovulation. Also, the likelihood that a woman can endure extreme trauma and still produce milk for two children is a rare example of determination winning out over cruel circumstances.

pass her air to burp.

wire from the top of the jar and then the lid a forerunner of the metal-lidded canning jar. The container was sealed when the wire bail was pulled into place at the top of the glass lid.

cloth . . . cake of wax a method of sealing jelly to prevent mold and keep out insects.

die witch! stories scary tales that Denver's brothers told her, suggesting their fear of Sethe, who had tried to execute them.

keeping room a colonial term for parlor or sitting room.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How does Baby Suggs get her freedom?




Quiz