Beloved herself is perhaps the most obvious antagonist of Beloved, since she is the character who most directly stands in Sethe’s way. As a ghost she terrorizes Sethe and breaks up her family. When she appears in material form, she chases Paul D away and forms an unhealthy, codependent relationship with Sethe. This relationship prevents Sethe from moving on from the many painful memories that afflict her and compromise her well-being. Beloved’s motivations aren’t entirely clear. On the one hand, she loves her mother and wants the care and nurturing that was denied her. But on the other hand, she appears to want revenge on her mother for killing her. These mixed desires make her only partially antagonizing. From another perspective, Sethe could be considered her own antagonist. Though Beloved does make it difficult for Sethe to move on from her traumatic past, Sethe maintains a strong sense of pride that has resulted in her longstanding isolation from the surrounding community. Though Beloved eventually commands all of Sethe’s attention, Sethe had a difficult time connecting with others outside of 124 long before Beloved arrived.
In a more abstract sense, the greatest antagonist in Beloved is white society at large. White people were the architects of slavery in the South, and they could be patronizing and racist even in the supposedly “free” North. Whether in the South or the North, white society contributed to the ongoing degradation of African American life, and it did so both during the time of slavery and after its abolition. Baby Suggs puts the matter most concisely on the day schoolteacher comes to Cincinnati and pushes Sethe to try to kill her children. She laments: “There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.” Stamp Paid shares Baby Suggs’s sense of the damage white society has done, but he also makes a more specific observation. He reflects on how the racism that harms people of African descent is a kind of virus that also “invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. . . . The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.” In other words, the racism at the heart of white society harms black people and white people alike.