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Toni Morrison: Beloved

Morrison’s novel on slavery and its effects is considered to be her best. The book opens in 1873 in 128 Bluestone, a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, where Sethe, a former slave, lives with her daughter, Denver. They are joined soon after by Paul D, who had been a slave with Sethe on a plantation in Kentucky, called Sweet Home. Sethe is based on an actual slave, Margaret Garner. The house at 128 is haunted, apparently by Sethe’s deceased baby daughter, known only as Beloved. However, when a young woman called Beloved turns up at their door, it seems that the dead baby might have been reborn as this young woman.

It is from Paul that we learn the story of Sethe and the other slaves at Sweet Home. They had been treated well by the Garner family but when Mr. Garner died, they were badly treated by the new manager appointed by Mrs. Garner, known only as Schoolteacher. Sethe was able to send her children off to Cincinnati, to the home of Baby Suggs, another fellow slave, whose freedom had been purchased by her son, Halle, but Sethe had been delayed waiting for Halle and had been caught by Schoolteacher and his nephews. She did manage to get to Cincinnati but when schoolteacher turns up to take her back, she kills the baby, like Margaret Garner, as she would rather her daughter died than be returned to slavery. The ghost continues to haunt the house till Paul D shows up and he is able to exorcise it. The couple live together happily till the new Beloved turns up. Denver becomes attached to Beloved, seeing the ghost of her sister in the woman, and Beloved seduces Paul D. Sethe more and more believes that Beloved is the reincarnation of her deceased daughter but when a white man shows up, Beloved thinks that he has come to take her back into slavery and she runs away.

Morrison’s account of the story of the main characters is certainly harrowing but what she is aiming to do is to show the devastating psychological effect slavery had on slaves, even well after slavery was ended in the United States. It led to loss of identity and cases of abuse and violence. Her superb telling of the tale – using a technique she called rememory, a gradual reconstruction of the horrific events of the past – has rightly made this not just one of the best novels dealing with slavery and its aftermath but one of the foremost novels of the twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Knopf