Literature Study GuidesBelovedPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Beloved is divided into three parts, each of which is further divided into chapters marked by a page break but not given titles or numbers. This study guide numbers the chapters for ease of reference.

Summary

124 Bluestone Road has been haunted for years by the ghost of a baby that is furious at "having its throat cut." The setting is the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873. Only Sethe, a former slave, and her 10-year-old daughter, Denver, experience the ghost's spite. Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has died, worn out from a life so intolerable all she could think about at the end was colors. Sethe's sons, Howard and Buglar, have run away. Sethe and Denver try to call up the ghost to reason with it, but nothing happens. Sethe thinks of the baby's headstone, on which only the word Beloved is engraved. The reader never learns the baby's birth name. Sethe reflects that Beloved is written on her gravestone because she couldn't afford to have more than a word of the preacher's eulogy engraved. To get that word carved, she had to agree to have sex with the engraver.

Sethe walks through a field of chamomile, and the sap makes her legs itch. As she washes it at the pump, the sight of the water suddenly evokes memories of Sweet Home, the plantation where she was enslaved. Paul D, who had been a fellow slave with Sethe at Sweet Home, arrives and sits on Sethe's porch. They have not seen each other in 18 years, since Sethe tried to run away from Sweet Home. Paul D immediately experiences the wrath of the ghost, which tries to drive him out. He remembers the other men who belonged to Sweet Home, including Sethe's husband, Halle, and how the arrival of the cruel overseer called schoolteacher changed their lives.

Sethe tells Paul D that schoolteacher's nephews held her down and "took her milk" when she was pregnant with Denver. They raped her and nursed from her breasts the milk for the baby she had already sent away, along with her two sons. The boys found out she told Mrs. Garner, the plantation's widowed owner, of this insult, and so schoolteacher allowed one of the boys to whip her, opening up her back. The scar has formed into the shape of a tree, and the experience "punched the glittering iron" out of Sethe's eyes, in Paul D's memory.

Paul D embraces Sethe and kisses the scars on her back, which causes the ghost to roar to life. Paul D shouts at the ghost and suddenly it is gone. Denver misses her brothers and reflects that now the ghost, who was her only other company, has been driven out.

Analysis

This opening chapter introduces all the novel's major symbols and themes. The story begins with the house number 124, a symbol of Sethe's missing baby, whom—readers will learn—she has murdered. Readers learn about the "tree" (scar) on Sethe's back, used here as a symbol of evil, and the colors that comforted Baby Suggs, such as lavender and pink—anything but red, the color of blood. The pump water reminds Sethe of Sweet Home but also foreshadows the healing arrival of Paul D. The baby ghost, a central character and the symbol of Sethe's past enslavement, has scared off Sethe's sons and disrupts her renewed relationship with Paul D. All the symbols point to the horrors of slavery and its enduring legacy, though Morrison will also use water and trees as symbols of hope and comfort.

In this chapter the arrival of the ghost and Paul D conjures memories of Sethe's painful past, including her rape, which reduced her to an animal and stripped her of her identity. Readers also see how Sethe works to suppress her guilt; she "worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe." Finally, Sethe tells Denver about the powerful way she loved the dead baby who now harbors so much rage.

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