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Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Chapter 1 of Beloved, why is 124 described as "spiteful"?

In the opening lines of the novel, readers learn that 124 is a haunted house, "full of a baby's venom." This phrase announces the ghost that haunts the residence and foreshadows its devastating effect on its inhabitants. The ghost's frustration and spite is expressed on the first page when "merely looking in a mirror shattered it" and "another kettlefull of chickpeas [lay] smoking in a heap on the floor." Howard and Buglar, Sethe's sons, interpret these incidents as insults and flee the residence. The cruel acts the ghost commits are done out of spite toward those who compete for Sethe's attention.

What is Baby Suggs's role in reconciling the past with the present in Beloved?

In a story that ranges across many years, Baby Suggs is a link between the past and the present. In Chapter 9, for instance, Sethe decides to go to the Clearing in an effort to reconnect with Baby Suggs and her advice to "lay it all down," to "get a clue ... as to what she should do with her sword and shield now." As Sethe tells the story of her escape and subsequent reunion with her children, Baby Suggs connects Sethe's past and her new present in Cincinnati. After the murder Baby Suggs remains fixed in that moment in time. Her life becomes constricted as she decides to "fix on something harmless in this world" because the "whitefolks" came into her yard and she couldn't do anything about it. The past has made the present too terrible for her to bear. But it is her voice and spirit that give Denver the courage in Chapter 26 to go down the steps and out into the world beyond 124 to seek help.

How does Toni Morrison call on oral storytelling tradition in Beloved?

Oral storytelling draws on certain traditions, including the use of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, to give stories a timeless tone. Morrison draws on such traditions to make Sethe's story seem both timeless and legendary. For example, before turning the first page, readers hear the words, "first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away." The use of parallel structure in stuffed, snatched, crept and the repetition of the brothers' departures escalate the events to the level of folklore. The omniscient narrator continues to use storytelling traditions to achieve this effect. For example, Baby Suggs's state of being is described this way: "Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it." Here, parallel structure in "nastiness of life" and "meanness of the dead" and "leaving life or living it" make the character's struggle to remain alive seem epic.

How do the key characters in Beloved view death?

The boundaries between life and death are often unclear for the major characters. Beloved seems to have come back to life from the dead. According to Baby Suggs, "death was anything but forgetfulness." She believes death is too mean to allow her to forget the pain of life. Based on all she has experienced, Sethe recognizes early in life that, whenever her time came, "she was not to have an easeful death." At the same time, Sethe sees death as an escape from misery; this belief gives her the strength to cut her baby's throat. For Denver, "death is a skipped meal compared to this." She has experienced too much loss, had too many people leave, and each one takes a part of her until there is nothing left and "she has no self." There are also a number of characters who may be dead or alive; the other characters will never know. These include Halle, Baby Suggs's extended family, and Sethe's sons, Howard and Buglar.

Why is Sethe in Beloved oblivious to colors other than red and pink?

Red and pink symbolize the dead baby; red represents her blood and pink, her headstone, a paler shade of red. Because Sethe's life is consumed by her guilt over the baby, she does not pay attention to other colors. Pink and red, however, are colors she knows intimately. For example, when Paul D encounters the pulsing red light preventing him from entering the house, Sethe claims that it is sad, not angry. The morning after Paul D arrives, Sethe sees her surroundings in a new way. She understands why Baby Suggs longed for color: the house at 124 Bluestone Road was devoid of it. Sethe decides her lack of awareness of color is deliberate. "It was as though one day she saw red baby blood, another day the pink gravestone chips, and that was the last of it." She believes 124 so envelops its inhabitants that "perhaps she was oblivious to the loss of anything at all."

How does the author of Beloved use the concept of rememory?

Morrison uses rememory, an invented noun that combines remember and memory, to describe the act of remembering a memory. This is not a simple memory; Sethe describes a rememory as "a picture floating around out there outside my head ... even if I die, the picture ... is still out there." She believes that her rememories actually exist. Because many of the things she recalls over and over are excruciatingly painful, such as her baby's murder and her violation by schoolteacher's nephews, Sethe's belief makes it especially difficult for her to overcome the past and move on with her life.

How does Denver's relationship with Sethe change throughout Beloved?

When the story begins, Sethe and Denver have only each other and the ghost that lives with them. Then Paul D arrives, and Denver observes, "The one who never looked away ... [was] looking away from her daughter's body." Denver competes first with Paul D and then with Beloved for her mother's attention. In time Denver is able to admit, "I love my mother ... and tender as she is with me, I'm scared of her." Denver takes on the role of protector so that her mother won't kill again. After Paul D leaves, the relationship between Denver, Sethe, and Beloved becomes more intertwined. As Beloved demands more and more of Sethe's life, Denver takes on the role of caregiver for her mother. Finally she is her mother's savior, reaching out to the community for help in driving the baby's ghost away. Because motherhood and associated guilt have defined Sethe's life, it is appropriate that mother and daughter trade places in order to break guilt's hold on Sethe.

What is the significance of the word Sethe chooses for Beloved's headstone in Beloved?

The only words Sethe hears the preacher say at her daughter's burial are dearly beloved. She thinks that fitting, because there is nothing "more powerful than the way [she] loved her." Sethe says she "didn't have money enough for the carving, so I exchanged (bartered, you might say) what I did have" and the single word had to be enough. Sethe exchanges an act of "love" (sex) for a headstone for the beloved child, and beloved is the only word engraved on the stone. The reader never learns the birth name that had been given to the baby before Sethe killed her.

What might Sethe say to a preacher and an abolitionist in Beloved to defend the killing of her baby?

The word Beloved spelled out for all to see would be Sethe's best defense for her crime to a preacher. She was guilty, but only of love, as she says when she speaks to Beloved in her thoughts: "Dearly Beloved, which is what you are to me." Sethe didn't need to answer to the white preachers who wanted to pray for her soul; she believed she had saved her baby's soul. Her defense to an abolitionist would be her desire to save her children from the brutality of slavery, which she endured. She refuses to answer to the abolitionists who failed to save her from schoolteacher and the slave catcher. Finally, Sethe would not feel the need to defend her actions to the townspeople, who didn't warn her that schoolteacher was coming to reclaim her.

What is the significance of the baby's hands that appear repeatedly in Beloved?

"Two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake" and drove Howard, the second of Sethe's two boys, away from 124. Sethe and Denver try to call the ghost forth, and Sethe reflects on the baby's actions and the intense rage it exhibited: "she [had] to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut." The handprints represent a baby's hands that grasp at her mother's fingers, clutching at life and seeking to belong. These things had been snatched from Beloved in her mother's effort to save her from slavery. At the same time, those baby hands will be strong enough to choke Sethe later in the novel.

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