Beloved’s elusive, complex identity is central to our understanding of the novel. She may, as Sethe originally believes, be an ordinary woman who was locked up by a white man and never let out of doors. Her limited linguistic ability, neediness, baby-soft skin, and emotional instability could all be explained by a lifetime spent in captivity. But these traits could also support the theory that is held by most of the characters in the novel, as well as most readers: Beloved is the embodied spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter. Beloved is the age the baby would have been had it lived, and she bears the name printed on the baby’s tombstone. She first appears to Sethe soaking wet, as though newly born, and Sethe has the sensation of her water breaking when she sees her. Additionally, Beloved knows about a pair of earrings Sethe possessed long ago, she hums a song Sethe made up for her children, she has a long scar under her chin where her death-wound would have been dealt, and her breath smells like milk.
A third interpretation views Beloved as a representation of Sethe’s dead mother. In Chapter 22, Beloved recounts memories that correspond to those that Sethe’s mother might have had of her passage to America from Africa. Beloved has a strange manner of speaking and seems to wear a perpetual smile—traits we are told were shared by Sethe’s mother. By Chapter 26, Beloved and Sethe have switched places, with Beloved acting as the mother and Sethe as the child. Their role reversal may simply mark more explicitly what has been Beloved’s role all along. On a more general level, Beloved may also stand for all of the slaves who made the passage across the Atlantic. She may give voice to and embody the collective unconscious of all those oppressed by slavery’s history and legacy.
Beloved is presented as an allegorical figure. Whether she is Sethe’s daughter, Sethe’s mother, or a representative of all of slavery’s victims, Beloved represents the past returned to haunt the present. The characters’ confrontations with Beloved and, consequently, their pasts, are complex. The interaction between Beloved and Sethe is given particular attention in the book. Once Sethe reciprocates Beloved’s violent passion for her, the two become locked in a destructive, exclusive, parasitic relationship. When she is with Beloved, Sethe is paralyzed in the past. She devotes all her attention to making Beloved understand why she reacted to schoolteacher’s arrival the way she did. Paradoxically, Beloved’s presence is enabling at the same time that it is destructive. Beloved allows and inspires Sethe to tell the stories she never tells—stories about her own feelings of abandonment by her mother, about the harshest indignities she suffered at Sweet Home, and about her motivations for murdering her daughter. By engaging with her past, Sethe begins to learn about herself and the extent of her ability to live in the present.
Beloved also inspires the growth of other characters in the novel. Though Paul D’s hatred for Beloved never ceases, their strange, dreamlike sexual encounters open the lid of his “tobacco tin” heart, allowing him to remember, feel, and love again. Denver benefits the most from Beloved’s presence, though indirectly. At first she feels an intense dependence on Beloved, convinced that in Beloved’s absence she has no “self” of her own. Later, however, Beloved’s increasingly malevolent, temperamental, self-centered actions alert Denver to the dangers of the past Beloved represents. Ultimately, Beloved’s tyranny over Sethe forces Denver to leave 124 and seek help in the community. Denver’s exile from 124 marks the beginning of her social integration and of her search for independence and self-possession.
Although Beloved vanishes at the end of the book, she is never really gone—her dress and her story, forgotten by the town but preserved by the novel, remain. Beloved represents a destructive and painful past, but she also signals the possibility of a brighter future. She gives the people of 124, and eventually the entire community, a chance to engage with the memories they have suppressed. Through confrontation, the community can reclaim and learn from its forgotten and ignored memories.