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Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What are the circumstances surrounding the loss and return of Denver's hearing in Beloved?

A schoolmate asks Denver whether Sethe has been in jail for murder. The day Denver has the courage to ask that question of Sethe and Baby Suggs, her hearing is "cut off by an answer she could not bear to hear." Her deafness persists for two years and returns with the "sound of her dead sister trying to climb the stairs." Up to this point they have all coexisted with the ghost, but the spite becomes more pronounced as the spirit releases its fury at what has happened. In this shared outrage Denver's hearing returns. It is as if she has identified with her mother in trying to repress thoughts of the baby's murder, but the ghost will no longer allow that repression.

How does Paul D's view of life and death change throughout Beloved?

Paul D's views of life and death change according to his sense of freedom and feeling of being loved. Only when he is both free and loved does he feel fully alive. While working on the chain gang, Paul D and the other enslaved men sing "love songs to Mr. Death." Only when life is over would they be safe from the horror. Paul D refers to his quarters as a grave, and there comes a day when Paul D thinks that "life rolled over dead." Then, because it rains and the chain gang cannot work, the prisoners have the chance to escape. After he escapes Paul D becomes "resigned to life without aunts" or other family, experiencing a return of life but one that is incomplete. He begins to embrace life after reuniting with Sethe, saying to her, "We can make a life, girl." Although he leaves her in horror after he learns about her murder, he returns. It is Sethe who finally gives life back to him and compels him to say, "We got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."

In Beloved how does Beloved affect Paul D's definition of what it means to be a man?

Paul D begins to reclaim his manhood while he lives with Sethe, but Beloved undermines it. He is "moved, placed where she wanted him, and there was nothing he was able to do about it." He has lost his identity again and is no longer man enough to claim his freedom. Shamed, Paul D needs Sethe's help to break free of Beloved's spell. Although Paul D resents having to ask the woman he wants to protect, Sethe, for help, he feels as if he has no choice. Beloved has control over him, and his only way out is to convince Sethe to bear him a child. It's a threefold solution, "a way to hold on to her [Sethe], document his manhood and break out of the girl's spell—all in one." In this way Paul D could reclaim his manhood and rid himself of Beloved.

Why do the characters in Beloved refer to Baby Suggs as "holy"?

Baby Suggs gathers the black community together at the Clearing and prays for them although she is not ordained. She tells the people to look for and imagine grace. Her words and "great heart" encourage them to cry, laugh, dance, and, most of all, to love themselves and one another, for no one outside their community will. The character has decided that slavery has taken everything from her except her heart, so she must "put [it] to work at once." Her unorthodox approach is considered holy because it does not follow the rules of organized religion. Instead, it acknowledges her followers' suffering and allows them a chance to heal.

How do images of water relate to Beloved as both a character and a symbol in Beloved?

When Beloved rises out of the water and comes to 124, she makes a transition from death to life. Her emergence is associated with birth. Sethe urinates when she sees Beloved, as if her water has broken. The birth imagery is obvious when Sethe thinks, "There was no stopping water breaking from a breaking womb." Water symbolizes both life and death. Critics have pointed to the water images in Beloved as a reminder of the Middle Passage, the stage in the slave trade in which enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold. Many Africans died during the Middle Passage, and the journey itself was horrific. Sethe's mother experienced these horrors firsthand, and in Chapter 22 Beloved describes conditions similar to those of the Middle Passage. Morrison explicitly references the Middle Passage in the book's dedication to "Sixty million and more." The water imagery suggests that Beloved is both a reincarnation of the dead baby and a symbol of many other murdered people of African descent.

What is the significance of the narrative style in Beloved, with its numerous flashbacks and retold stories?

The theme of past versus present is revealed in flashbacks the characters experience when they look back on their lives. Sethe, whose present life is frequently interrupted by memories, struggles to escape the bonds the past holds over her. Paul D, similarly, frequently flashes back to painful memories of Sweet Home and the chain gang. He and Sethe share and compare their memories, spoken and unspoken, to make sense and meaning out of what happened and to help each other heal. Storytelling helps to validate the characters. Beloved establishes herself as a real, living entity. Denver finds her worth in retelling stories about key events in her life.

What is Stamp Paid's role in the story and in the lives of the characters in Beloved?

Stamp Paid plays an important role in the characters' lives and as the character who sets several important plot points in motion. Baby Suggs and Sethe greet Stamp Paid with welcoming laughter when he shows up with buckets of blackberries. They know him as a "sly, steely old black man: agent, fisherman, boatman, tracker, savior, [and] spy." Tragically, his seemingly endless buckets of blackberries inspire the party that makes the community feel that Baby Suggs and Sethe are too proud. This in turn leads them to fail to protect the family from the slave catchers, leading to the murder of Sethe's baby. Stamp Paid chops wood for Baby Suggs, putting him in a position to run "through the door behind them and [snatch] the baby from the arch of its mother's swing." This, he believes, is the reason Denver survives Sethe's attempt to sacrifice her. His partiality to Denver makes Stamp Paid regret his decision to show Paul D the newspaper clipping. Doing so "ran him [Paul D] off, the one normal somebody in the girl's life since Baby Suggs died." Stamp Paid is always welcome—until he tells Paul D the truth about what happened. Then he no longer finds entry at a door that has been open to him before. In his determined way, he sets out to find Paul D and make things right, and he succeeds.

In Beloved how does the community's anger after the celebration at 124 affect Baby Suggs and Beloved?

The people recognize Baby Suggs's role as spiritual leader in the community, but the celebration is too much for them. Their anger is born of resentment and incredulity: "Loaves and fishes were His powers." They resent the fact that Halle has bought his mother's freedom; it wasn't hard won, as theirs was. Baby Suggs recognizes too late that she had overstepped her bounds. Baby Suggs's enjoyment of life contributes to the death of Sethe's baby. The neighbors close their eyes and ears in disapproval and choose not to warn those at 124 when the slave catcher comes for Sethe. Their ongoing resentment causes Sethe's painful history to continue to impact her in the present. Realizing this, Baby Suggs withdraws from the world outside 124.

What factors contribute to Sethe's murder of her baby in Beloved?

The sight of the slave catcher and schoolteacher causes Sethe to go "wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who'd overbeat her and made her cut and run." In a desperate attempt to save her children from similar horrors, Sethe tries to end their lives. Her actions are instinctive, like those of a mother bird saving her chicks, as Stamp Paid tells it. She "[flies], snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing" and hurrie[s] them into the woodshed." When she tries to tell Paul D about that day, she says she collected "all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful" and tried to get them to a place "where no one could hurt them." Because Sethe takes her identity from her role as a mother, she dies along with the baby that day: "The hot sun dried Sethe's dress, stiff, like rigor mortis." She continues to cling to the dead child, reaching for Denver "without letting the dead one go."

In Beloved how does Paul D contribute to Sethe's quest to deal with the past?

Paul D begins to help Sethe when he first arrives at 124 and shows her love and acceptance, including acceptance of her scars. "The ever-ready love she saw in his eyes" helps her face the truth. His love, which Sethe "[didn't] have to deserve," helps her to tell him things that she hasn't been able to tell others. She tells how she got all her children out, on her own. In the telling she realizes she "loved em more after I got here." And then she considers, "Maybe I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love." Later in the story, after the arrival of Beloved, Paul D is an obstacle in the path of Sethe's journey to forgiving herself. She tells him, "It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible." But Paul D's reaction, saying what she did was wrong, undercuts his relationship with her and demonstrates his lack of understanding for her pain. Paul D leaves and does not return until the end of the novel, after he realizes his mistake. Then he is finally able to validate her fragile new identity when he says, "You your best thing, Sethe. You are."

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