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Beloved | Themes

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Morrison uses dialogue and flashbacks to convey the themes of her novel Beloved. Through them the reader is able to piece together the puzzle that reveals the story of the house at "124."

Past versus Present

Sethe is in a constant struggle to "beat back the past." However, it will not remain buried, either literally or figuratively. The ghost of her dead daughter haunts her. While she is content with that, Paul D, "the last of the Sweet Home men," comes to visit her, bringing with him painful memories of slavery. Sethe hates her "rebellious brain" that will leave no painful memory behind, with no room to plan for the future. But with Paul D she is better able to bear the past because the horrors belong to him too. She hopes that she can learn to trust him. Eventually, she tells him her worst memory, that of killing her own child to save her from slavery. He reneges on his promise to "catch her" and leaves.

Paul D begins to talk to Sethe about memories of Sweet Home. But he leaves most of them locked up in the "tobacco tin" that takes the place of his heart. After hearing Sethe's reasons for killing her daughter, his tobacco tin is blown wide open. Memories of the horrors of Sweet Home under authority of schoolteacher (the slave owner) come flooding back. In the end Paul D remembers his friend Sixo's love for the Thirty-Mile Woman. He decides he wants to combine his story with Sethe's and make a future together.

Beloved's memories, revealed in stream-of-consciousness narration, are of dying and being among dead people. When she comes back to life, she remembers her mother's diamond earrings and a song she sang. She forces her mother to remember. Sethe wants to tell Beloved everything, to make her understand. In this way Beloved helps Sethe confront the past, but it almost ruins her. Through these memories Morrison makes sure the reader does not forget the brutality of slavery.

Loss of Identity in Slavery

The author metaphorically refers to the slaves as animals. Sethe's trouble begins when schoolteacher's nephews nurse from her, milking her as if she were a goat or a cow. Schoolteacher tells them to categorize her qualities, putting her "human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right."

When she murders her child, schoolteacher thinks Sethe has gone wild and blames his nephew for overbeating her, thereby rendering her useless to him as a slave. He justifies her behavior, saying she acted like an animal that had been mishandled. Even when Sethe tries to explain her actions to Paul D, he tells her she has "two feet, not four."

Paul D and Halle also suffer loss of identity. They are treated like men at Sweet Home when Mr. Garner consults them. But, when they set foot off of Garner's property, they are trespassing in the white man's world, where they are not men but merely property. After he tries to escape and is caught, Paul D is chained up and an iron bit is placed in his mouth.

Guilt

Sethe lives a life of solitude and is so steeped in guilt over the killing of her daughter that she loses her sense of self. At first, Sethe accepts the antics of the ghost of her baby daughter. When Beloved returns to her, Sethe begins to indulge her every whim. Out of guilt, she tries to make up for what she has done to her baby.

Beloved is the incarnate memory of the horrible act Sethe committed. Sethe struggles to make Beloved understand that she killed her out of love. Toward the end of the novel, Sethe stops taking care of herself because Beloved is angry with her. It is not until Beloved is banished by the neighbors that Sethe is finally rid of the guilt.

Love

Slavery does not allow for love. It arrests all emotional attachments, especially between family members. Paul D knows this and feels that love is risky. It is dangerous for slaves to love anything and anyone, especially their children. Family love can "split you wide open." He feels it is best to love "just a little." He defines freedom as getting to a place where you could love "anything you choose."

When Sethe sees her children free in Cincinnati, she feels even more love for them. However, she proves Paul D right: the battle lines between love and slavery are clearly drawn. Sethe loves her daughter so much that she kills her rather than see her return to slavery. Sethe tries to explain to Paul D and, later, to Beloved that what she did was right because "it came from true love." When Paul D tells her that her love is "too thick," she replies, "Thin love ain't no love at all." Sethe loves the only way she knows how and pays a terrible price for it by being haunted by the memory of the child she killed.

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Questions for Themes

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How would you explain how a good, loving and all-powerful God allows suffering and evil in his creation?
Tell us what the best piece of writing your ever read was. Why did you think so? What did it reach you so well? Was there something special about the description or detail? Did you like the writer's v
Briefly explain the opinions of two of Ravana’s brothers (Kumbakarna and Vibishana) during their council meeting.
to whom i should speak today meaning every stanza . please help me i badly needed this.

Flashcards for Themes

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Term:

Southern rape complex

Definition:

white man's fear that his daughter/wife will be raped by black man

Term:

tragic mulatta

Definition:

a character who, usually a mix of white and black, loses a sense of belonging because she is isolated from both races as she doesn’t fit completely in the “white world” or the “black world.” Special sympathy is afforded because she is “almost white” but not quite. Significant to Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Term:

miscegenation

Definition:

the mixing of racial groups. Can be used to refer to interracial marriage/sex. Most often found in the phrase “miscegenation laws,” which ban such relationships. Miscegenation features heavily in most of our stories. pick an appropriate one. Desiree’s Baby

Term:

Bildungsroman

Definition:

a coming of age story. Follows a character from childhood to adulthood. Seen in Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Bildungsroman stories guide the character’s story to optimize the readers understanding and empathy for the decisions made by the character. Edna in The Awakening is also the focal point of a Bildungsroman.

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