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Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


Compare and contrast Baby Suggs's and Sethe's recollections of their children in Beloved.

Sethe is quickly forgetting Buglar and only remembers Howard because he "had a head shape nobody could forget." For a while she looked for the boys to return, then she stopped. Similarly, Baby Suggs claims she could remember only that her first-born child liked to eat the burnt bottom of the bread when she said, "Eight children and that's all I remember." Sethe, however, says that's all Baby Suggs chose to remember. For her, remembering or forgetting is a deliberate choice. For her girls, she "worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe." She clearly remembers Denver's birth and sending the other three children ahead to freedom. She considers it a miracle that she got them all out, without anyone's help, and they all made it to safety. Unlike Baby Suggs, Sethe has had some success in keeping her children; therefore, she is also able to remember them.

In Beloved why does Sethe say her "brain was devious"?

Sethe says her brain is devious because an innocent moment in the present—"the plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them"—brings the past to mind, not from any specific sight or sound or scent. The memories just pop up unbeckoned. For example, she remembers the "shameless beauty" of Sweet Home, which "never looked as terrible as it was." Sethe's memory blocks out the horrible images and holds on to the wonderful ones: "The sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that." She could easily remember the trees but had difficulty recollecting what her sons looked like. As other characters recall events from Sethe's past, readers see that each person remembers details in different ways.

When Paul D first comes to 124, what clues does the narrator of Beloved give about Sethe's past and present relationship with him?

Paul D has waited a long time for Sethe. When he first talks with her in Chapter 1, he looks "at the meadow on the other side of the road, knowing the eagerness he felt would be in his eyes." To Sethe, they have picked up where they left off, in an innocent relationship. "This is the way they were—had been. All of the Sweet Home men." They respected her and "treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it." Even so, she cannot miss the "waiting in his eyes," and her subsequent actions show she is ready for a more intimate relationship.

How does slavery at Sweet Home change over time in Beloved?

At first, Sethe finds Sweet Home better than her previous situation. "The five Sweet Home men looked at the new girl and decided to let her be." She could choose whom she would have as a "husband" and chose Halle. For Paul D, Mr. Garner gave the men at Sweet Home "the privilege not of working but of deciding how to." He "believed and trusted [them], but most of all they were listened to." After Mr. Garner dies, he is replaced by schoolteacher, who does not share his lofty ideals. According to Paul D, schoolteacher "broke three more Sweet Home men and punched the glittering iron out of Sethe's eyes, leaving two open wells." At the same time, the novel invites the reader to question whether Mr. Garner's treatment was better than schoolteacher's. Even a "benevolent" slaver involves ownership of a human being as property.

Does Sethe regret her decision to choose Halle from among the Sweet Home men in Beloved?

Sethe chose Halle because he "bought [Baby Suggs] with five years of Sundays." She liked his devotion to his mother and thought he would treat her well. As far as the other slaves are concerned, Halle is good to her. However, Sethe can't really forgive him for leaving her when he suffers a mental breakdown after witnessing her rape. When Paul D appears in her life and sheds light on the past, she asks, "What'd he leave then if not me? ... Then he did worse; he left his children." Sethe is able to survive her violation and continue to mother her children, while merely witnessing the event breaks Halle.

In Beloved how does the past affect the way Sethe lives in the present?

Sethe cannot think beyond the present moment: "To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay." She hardly dares dream of a future with Paul D, the life he says they might have. She stays at 124 because it's the house she and Denver have known, they are comfortable (more or less) with the ghost, and there is nowhere else to go. Even though Sethe has told Denver the story of her birth, she keeps Denver "from the past that was still waiting for her [which] was all that mattered," because she doesn't want to lose Denver as she had the boys. Sethe works hard to keep the past from intruding. She throws herself into "working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day's serious work of beating back the past." Finally the time comes for Sethe to face the past. As she tells Paul D, "No more running—from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth." Her painful journey of not only facing the past but bringing it to light begins. Sethe ultimately comes to realize that memories—of Sweet Home and otherwise—"[come] back whether we want [them] to or not."

What is the significance of the keeping room in Beloved?

A keeping room was used for storage. Handy to the kitchen, its proximity to the kitchen stove kept it warm. In the novel the keeping room serves to keep various things: a memory, secrets, confidence, and life itself. As the room in which Baby Suggs spends her last days, it keeps her memory alive with "two patches of orange," squares in a quilt in an otherwise colorless room. Baby Suggs brought Sethe to the room to tend her when she first arrived after Denver's birth, keeping her alive. The room keeps the confidence of Sethe's whispered prayers, or what she calls "talk-think," which help her to endure. The adult Beloved collapses there after she comes up out of the river; the room will keep the secret of her identity. Beloved was there in infancy, too, when Baby Suggs "traded the living for the dead, which she carried into the keeping room." In a setting where endurance is painful and difficult, the keeping room helps the characters to "keep on."

In Beloved what effect does Paul D have on Sethe, Denver, and Beloved?

Sethe observes that "there was something blessed in his manner," something that made women of all ages confide in him. After he comes to terms with the murder of her daughter, he accepts Sethe's scars, as well as her sorrow and humiliation. His tender care and love give her hope for the present and a possible future. He expresses interest in her as a person, not mocking "but interested, as though he were examining an ear of corn for quality." When Paul D first arrives at 124, Denver is jealous of his presence, although she later comes to see him as an ally. At the carnival Denver considers Paul D's effect on people as a positive, albeit brief experience. "There was something about him ... that made the stares of other Negroes kind, gentle." Paul D has learned to enjoy the moment, and others can't help but share his pleasure. Beloved and Paul D engage in battle from the day he comes into the house and orders the ghost out. When Beloved comes to stay in 124 in bodily form, Paul D's presence threatens her possessive relationship with Sethe, and over time she forces Paul D out of the house. Once he is sleeping in the cold room, she seduces Paul D to drive a wedge between him and Sethe.

How does Denver's relationship with Beloved develop throughout the novel Beloved?

Denver becomes "a model of compassion" when Beloved first arrives and nurses her back to health. She turns "waspish," however, when Sethe tries to help. She resents Beloved's preference for Sethe and tries to capture all of Beloved's affection for herself. Even though it is the present that interests Denver, she does what she can to satisfy Beloved's appetite for stories, carefully choosing which stories to tell her. As Beloved establishes herself permanently in the house and demands more of its inhabitants, Denver realizes that her and Sethe's survival depends on her ability to distance herself from her sister. She finally extricates herself from her sister's clutches and ventures out to find help.

How do Sethe, Denver, and Paul D consider and meet the needs of others in Beloved?

Sethe, Denver, and Paul D all possess a remarkable amount of compassion considering, or perhaps because of, the pain they have suffered. All are able to step outside their own needs and do what they can for others. Sethe and Denver care tenderly for Baby Suggs, doing what they could for her in her last days. Rather than pester Beloved with questions, Paul D and Sethe focus on "what it might be that she needed." When Denver begs Beloved to keep her true identity a secret from Sethe, Beloved insists, "she is the one I need." Denver also has a need to be loved by her mother; but, frightened of Sethe, she focuses her need on Beloved, seeking the apparition's affection. Outwardly, these needs restrict Sethe, Denver, and Paul D in their quest for freedom. Yet the novel shows that, in helping each other, they can slowly make their way toward that goal.

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