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Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Beloved what clues does the author give about Beloved's identity?

The author gives multiple clues linking the adult Beloved to the dead baby who haunts 124. Her appearance provides many of these clues. Denver describes her as having "big black eyes [with] no expression at all." As Sethe thinks about Beloved, she recalls that "when I did see your face it had more than a hint of what you would look like after all these years." Denver hints about being able to see the tip of a scar on Beloved's neck that matches the wound she would have received from Sethe, while Sethe observes that the girls are as "alike as sisters." Beloved's actions also provide clues to her identity. When she arrives at 124, she hovers "like a familiar." She also asks Sethe about her diamonds, a memory she could not possibly know about. Repeatedly, Beloved seems to move without noise or appear unexpectedly, as if a ghost: "No footfall announces her, but there she is, standing where before there was nobody."

In Beloved how do Beloved and others close to her help Sethe deal with the pain of the past?

When Baby Suggs was still alive, her words of wisdom in the keeping room kept Sethe going. However, Baby Suggs dies, and Sethe thinks, "Nine years without the fingers or the voice of Baby Suggs was too much." Sethe is tempted to take Baby Suggs's advice to "lay it all down." When Paul D appears, he awakens Sethe's memories of harsh truths about the past. Beloved's appearance, however, helps Sethe deal with her memories. She responds to Beloved's request for storytelling, which "amaze[s] Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt." Telling Denver snatches of the past hasn't had the same healing effect, as "the hurt was always there." With Beloved, it is the "distance from the events itself, or her thirst for hearing it" that makes the difference. It gives Sethe pleasure to tell Beloved stories from her past, to dig up old and sometimes painful memories as a way of confronting and dealing with them.

How does Morrison structure Beloved?

Morrison divides the novel into three parts: Books 1, 2, and 3. Each section deepens readers' understanding of the characters, plot, and theme. Book 1 is about origins. It describes how Sethe and Paul D come to be at 124 and reveals segments of the past that brought them to this place, including some events at Sweet Home. Beloved comes out of the water and arrives soon after Paul D commands 124's ghost to leave. In Book 2 characters face hard truths. Stamp Paid comes to make things right after the truth about the murder drives Paul D off. Paul D must face who he has become and consider who he will be. More of Baby Suggs's story is revealed through Stamp Paid's retelling, and Sethe realizes Beloved's true identity. Book 3 describes Sethe's and Denver's break from Beloved, which is necessary for them to live happily at 124. Beloved demands more and more of Sethe and Denver, until Sethe is practically consumed and Denver is serving and caring for them both. Denver begins to establish her own identity, saves her mother, and helps to drive the ghost away.

In Beloved what advice about love does Sethe receive from different characters, and how does she respond to the advice?

When Stamp Paid brings Sethe to Ella's after her escape with Denver, Ella cautions her, "Don't love nothing." Later, Sethe reflects on her freedom: "when I jumped down off that wagon—there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to." But her all-consuming mother love and her desire to protect her children lead her to murder Beloved. Paul D thinks Sethe loves too much, that her love is "too thick." In contrast, he keeps his love thin. He knows it's risky for any slave to love another human that much. "The best thing," the narrator says about him, "was to love just a little bit." He asks Sethe to save some space to love him too. Sethe doesn't give him any commitment; along with his thin love, Paul D brings "old rememories that broke her heart." Sethe lavishes her "thick" love on Beloved, but Beloved's appetite for Sethe's love nearly devours her. Finally rescued by Denver, Sethe is able to accept Paul D's love at last and believe that they have "some kind of tomorrow."

How does Amy's comment about the dead coming back to life contribute to the story of Beloved?

Denver remembers the story of her birth, including Amy's comment as she rubbed Sethe's feet: "Anything dead coming back to life hurts." Denver makes a connection between the comment and the present time, thinking that the statement is "a truth for all times." She wonders if "the white dress holding its arm around her mother's waist was in pain," referring to Amy's desire to leave home and make a better life for herself in Boston. Sethe has avoided feeling, or making plans, because that would indicate a coming back to life, acknowledging she could have a life of her own. She doesn't want to face the hurt she will experience as a part of coming back to life.

How does Morrison use personification and metaphors in Beloved?

The novel's opening sentence personifies the house by saying it was "spiteful," as if it were a person acting spitefully toward another person. The house commits insults against its inhabitants, and Paul D lashes out against "the screaming house." Denver regards the house "as a person rather than a structure" and treats it with respect as she would a person. In a sense, the house itself acts as an oppressor, like an extension of the slave owners. The author also uses personification to show how weather affects the characters. One year "winter came in a hurry at suppertime and stayed eight months." Morrison uses metaphors throughout the novel, as when Paul D decides to keep his terrible memories where they "belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest." And when the rust begins to flake off that tobacco tin, he calls out, "Red heart." The words are a metaphor for the vital life that is returning to him as his hidden memories surface so that he can examine them and learn to live with them.

How does the use of an omniscient narrator illuminate the theme of past versus present in Beloved?

Morrison tells the story from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who communicates the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. Because the point of view shifts from one character to the next, readers can experience the memories Sethe and Paul D share even when they aren't talking. Each of these characters has different memories of Sweet Home, even of events they both witnessed. For instance, it is Paul D who tells Sethe that Halle saw her rape by schoolteacher's nephews. The omniscient narrator can thus show that it is not just the events of the past and the present that shape the main characters but the way each character remembers those events.

What does Sethe do on her own to deal with the memories that haunt her in Beloved?

She keeps her hands busy with daily tasks, such as when she folds clothes in the midst of "remembering something she had forgotten she knew." The physical actions keep her grounded in the present. But the repetition also makes the memory clearer and clearer. She searches for meaning in the nuances of memories, "picking meaning out of a code she no longer understood." Paul D's revelation of Halle's knowledge of what happened overwhelms Sethe. She can no longer stay focused on the present through manual work. Memories crowd her mind "loaded with the past and hungry for more." Her brain "left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day." Eventually she realizes the truth of Baby Suggs's advice to just "lay it all down" and struggles to find a way to do that.

What part does 124 play in providing freedom for the characters of Beloved?

Beloved says she was looking for "this place I could be in," and Sethe makes a connection to the old days "when 124 was a way station where messages came and then their senders." The past inhabitants of 124 were devoted to the antislavery movement. The day Sethe returns to the Clearing to seek advice from Baby Suggs, she remembers what the house used to be—"a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed." That was Baby Suggs's way of giving her community freedom to live and to be. She loved those who came through, and she kept the "messages [that] were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon." The house provides freedom for the characters again at the end of the story after Beloved's ghost has been exorcised, at the cost of forgetting what has happened there.

How do Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Paul D each define freedom in Beloved?

Each character defines freedom differently. Their perspectives come from the ways in which slavery has broken their family ties. Baby Suggs cannot claim freedom for herself; she uses her freedom to minister to others. Her son gives Baby Suggs freedom from Sweet Home, but it comes almost too late. She has suffered the loss of all her children except Halle and so has already lost her identity: "I don't call myself nothing." Later she described only a lack of freedom. "Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,"she said, "and broke my heartstrings too." Sethe understands that freedom is more than just living free from a master who owns a person. Sethe has exactly 28 days of freedom before she sees schoolteacher's hat and kills her baby. After that she is enslaved by the past, which has driven her to commit the murder. Sethe's freedom is a journey: "freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another." Once free she has to search for and claim her own identity. Unlike Baby Suggs she is able to do this because she was able to keep her children. Paul D relates freedom to being and doing what he loves. He says that at Sweet Home he "wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was"; he had to be what someone else wanted him to be. His owners took his enjoyment of life itself, even nature—things that should belong to everyone. He had "neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place ... everything belonged to the men who had the guns." Freedom for Paul D was getting "to a place where you could love anything you chose." Paul D is childless; he hasn't had the agonizing experience of trying to parent while enslaved, so he accepts freedom more readily than the female characters.

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