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Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does Paul D view Sethe's goal of safety for her children in Beloved?

Paul D sums up Sethe's goal in one word: safety, something that "was missing in 124." He knows this from the first day he sets foot in the house and tries to make it safe by banishing the ghost. However, Paul D cannot accept murder as a way to protect a child. He reminds Sethe that what she did was wrong and that she has "two feet ... not four." He reminds her that she is not an animal, even if she has been treated like one at Sweet Home, as when schoolteacher had his nephews catalog her human and animal characteristics. Sethe does indeed react with animal-like instinct on occasion, "snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing." Similarly, Paul D, having been forced to wear a bit and chains like an animal, is especially sensitive to the need to preserve humanity in spite of slavery.

In the story of Beloved, does Stamp Paid deserve his guilt over telling Paul D about Sethe's crime?

Stamp Paid feels great remorse over his decision to tell Paul D that Sethe had murdered her baby, which suggests that he does deserve to feel guilty. Reflecting back on that day, Stamp Paid wonders, "Had he stopped the one shot she had of the happiness a good man could bring her?" It seems to Stamp Paid that he has crossed the line from trying to save people to trying to inform on them. Before, he'd acted "always for a clear and holy purpose," but in this instance the justification is not obvious; he hasn't thought through the outcome of speaking to Paul D. Stamp Paid reflects that it is "the lateness of this consideration" that makes him feel bad. At the same time, Paul D's departure from 124 allows events inside the house to take their course. It also gives Paul D a chance to realize that he must find his way back to Sethe. Given the importance of these events in bringing the couple's story to a resolution, readers can conclude that Stamp Paid does not deserve to feel guilty.

What contradictions surround Baby Suggs's life and death in Beloved?

Stamp Paid defines Baby Suggs's death as a contradiction to her life. She "devoted her freed life to harmony, [but] was buried amid a regular dance of pride, fear, condemnation and spite." Where once she had called the community together, now the people shy away from 124 because of the murder. Stamp Paid "attend[s] her funeral more put out with her than bereaved." Baby Suggs's contradictions continue. She has carried out her life-giving ministry in the Clearing, yet the whitefolk have a rule against her being buried there. She has a "heart that pumped out love," but it is beaten down by the whitefolk who come to get Sethe and the black community that betrays her daughter-in-law. It is as if the "sadness ... at her center" allows her to take on many roles, including contradictory ones.

In Beloved what is the importance of the phrase "Nobody saw them falling" in the scene in which Sethe, Beloved, and Denver go ice skating?

The narrator repeats the phrase, "Nobody saw them falling" several times. The words in the immediate context sound positive; Sethe, Beloved, and Denver have formed a close, self-contained family unit. The tone of the phrase, however, is more ominous. As the three women isolate themselves from the community, nobody can see them falling apart as Beloved takes over the household. The word nobody soon recurs when Sethe hears Beloved humming a song that "nobody knows" except her and her children. With Sethe's realization that Beloved is her daughter, she allows the young woman to consume her life, and the little family unit begins to deteriorate.

What is the significance of the voices Stamp Paid hears at 124 in Chapter 19 of Beloved?

As Stamp Paid approaches the house, he hears numerous voices that he can't "describe or cipher." He can only understand one word, mine. The second time Stamp Paid approaches the house, he hears the voices again. Now he believes they belong to "the people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons." He is referring to all the black people who have been lynched and murdered by whitefolk. This supernatural event precedes Stamp Paid's discovery that Beloved is inside the house. It reinforces the concept that Beloved represents the suffering caused by slavery.

In Beloved how does Sethe's realization of Beloved's identity change her?

The realization of Beloved's identity at first sets Sethe free; she smiles at all the things she "would not have to remember now." She believes that, if Beloved can come back, perhaps her sons can as well. However, her guilt also causes her to devote herself to Beloved's obsessive demands, marginalizing Denver. Sethe leaves her job and Beloved grows bigger, eating all the food in the house while Sethe becomes thinner. It is Denver who finally breaks Beloved's spell when she goes to find a job and receives the bounty of the community. The people who give the family food might be "sorry for the years of their own disdain," but they save Denver's and Sethe's lives and help to exorcise Beloved from the house.

What is the meaning of mother's milk in the story of Beloved?

The first thing a mother gives to her child is breast milk. It provides food, nourishment, and a bond. Slavery, however, takes away all family bonds, even a mother's milk. Sethe did not know her mother or her mother's milk, and the Sweet Home boys take Sethe's milk away from her and her babies. Sethe's only identity is as a mother, so her milk is a powerful possession. Bringing her milk, "enough for all," gives her the power to leave Sweet Home. When she recognizes that Beloved is her daughter, she thinks, "Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children." As Beloved begins to take over their lives, not only does she demand more, but she demands the best: the "top of the milk," or the most her mother can give to her.

How does Paul D guard his heart in Beloved?

Paul D chooses to tell Sethe only bits and pieces, keeping the rest in "that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be." He doesn't dare let her see what is in his heart, for fear his past will shame him and she will think less of him. Over time he adds to the memories stored there, but he can't protect his heart from Beloved's wiles. When the lid gives way, shame floods in. Unable to accept Stamp Paid's revelation about Sethe, Paul D leaves. When Stamp Paid finds him on the steps of the church, no guard is left in place: "His tobacco tin, blown open, spilled contents that floated freely and made him their play and prey." He is at his lowest point, but he is finally open to the possibility of love.

What is the significance of the Bible verse at the beginning of Beloved?

The epigraph, or meaningful quotation, at the beginning of the novel comes from Romans 9:25: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved." The verse speaks of God's love that is given freely to all. Throughout the novel Sethe has a fierce mother-love for her children. She defends her actions out of a desire to save her children from slavery. In truth, the reincarnated Beloved is not beloved by anyone but Sethe. Denver feels mostly jealousy for her sister, along with obsessive devotion as at first she competes for Sethe's attention. By the end Beloved has completely consumed her mother, almost to the point of death, yet Sethe loves her obsessively. It is as if motherhood conveys on her a Godlike power—which is also the power to grant life or death.

Why does Morrison include the last two words in Beloved's dedication to "Sixty Million and more"?

The author dedicates the novel to the number of slaves who died during the Middle Passage, writing out the number to emphasize its enormity. She adds the comment "and more" to indicate that those who survived the slave trade were unalterably changed. Further, the effects of slavery ripple throughout generations, as shown in the story. They are the people whose voices Stamp Paid hears as he approaches 124. The dedication is another reminder of Morrison's theme of past versus present—that people cannot bury the wounds of the past but must confront them in order to claim their identity and move on.

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