Critical Essays Settings of Beloved


Through circular narrative, "rememory," and oral history, Morrison's characters play out their mutual hurt in a wide array of settings, from a Georgia prison camp to a Cherokee village, from an idyllic Kentucky plantation to the banks of the Ohio River.

For Sethe, birth occurs somewhere on a southern plantation, where her unnamed mother bends into the watery fields among a host of maternal ma'ams and slaves who dance the antelope. Maturity nets Sethe separation and resettlement in Kentucky, where she works in a white woman's kitchen and nightly rests atop a mattress on her cabin's dirt floor. Sweet Home, haunted by a "headless bride" and young men lynched in its luxuriant trees (one of which is named Brother), has its own peculiar beauty that is captured in nature, especially the small cornfield where Halle couples with Sethe, making the stalks wave, flaunting the lovers' private first-time tryst. In the one spot Halle expected togetherness, the wrecked rows of new corn evolve into the ruptured maidenhead edged with youthful pubic hair. Morrison, developing the image with lavish grace, stresses the youth of an enslaved virgin still clad in silk that is "fine and loose and free."

Eighteen years later, the scene shifts to 124 Bluestone Road and a spiteful, gray and white two-storied house with shed, keeping room, storeroom, privy, cold house, and porch. Limited in its outreach, it has only one door, through which journeying blacks pass from way station back to the plank road, which leads them on a perplexing odyssey toward scattered loved ones. The front of the lot sweeps past a field and circular boxwoods into the glade as though the house, unprotected from Beloved's spite, must fend for itself in the open.

In Cincinnati, far from the misshapen Mrs. Garner, the atavistic savagery of the "mossy teeth," and schoolteacher's sadism, Sethe sinks into the masochism of a fruitless emotional duel with her dead child's ghost. These emotional battles are virulent enough to rock the house on its foundations, smashing glass and rending a table leg. Only the steadying male hand of Paul D forces Beloved to abate her attacks and leave Sethe temporarily in peace.

To relieve the tension of this tight camera angle on a single house wracked by three warring females, Morrison selects an oddly evocative mix of side journeys. When Paul D chooses to make a public statement of his intentions, he leads his two women to the carnival, which is set alongside a lumberyard decked with late season roses reeking of overripe perfume. The freaks of the sideshow contrast the hand-holding shadow that predicts a family threesome.

In later scenes, after Beloved derails Sethe's small increment of security, Morrison reveals glimpses of Cincinnati's coldly judgmental black community. Paul D, whom Stamp Paid locates on the steps of the Church of the Holy Redeemer, sits in sunshine and indulges in strong drink from a bottle decked with a golden chariot. Along the plank road, a rider approaches, spurring Stamp Paid into the elaborate know-nothing guise of the Negro who has no information to share with the white outsider.

The women, too, briefly desert the too-confining walls of 124 to skate in private on slippery ice, a heavily symbolic bit of escapism that brings them a snatch of joy. Their adventure concludes with a kitchen communion scene graced with warm milk. More hospitable than the cold comfort of Sawyer's restaurant and vastly more inviting than the slaughterhouse where prostitutes smile in desperation and copulate standing up against rough-hewn walls, Sethe's house, for all its dismal past, is a real home. Its welcome draws Paul D upstairs, but the quarrelsome female trio, led by the bumptious ghost, eventually forces Paul D to the shed and Denver to dreamy, post-adolescent withdrawal in the boxwood circle out back.

Later, as Denver approaches desperation, she returns to Lady Jones's husbandless house, where the "post and scrap-lumber fence was gray now, not white" and the stone porch sits "in a skirt of ivy pale yellow curtains at the window." From her former teacher's welcoming abode, Denver moves on to guaranteed work at the Bodwins' house, lush with carpet "thick, soft and blue. Glass cases crammed full of glistening things. Books on tables and shelves. Pearl-white lamps with shiny metal bottoms. And a smell like the cologne she poured in the emerald house, only better." The jewel-like interior, itself only a way station for black sojourners, plays false with Denver and her hopes of renewal because of its statuette — a subservient black holding coins in his mouth — and its owners' hopes of molding her into a student at Oberlin. With more maturity than she has mustered in past episodes, she departs, bound for a job at the shirt factory, support for her ailing mother, and self-actualization.