Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, is a proud and noble woman. She insists on sewing a proper wedding dress for the first night she spends with Halle, and she finds schoolteacher’s lesson on her “animal characteristics” more debilitating than his nephews’ sexual and physical abuse. Although the community’s shunning of Sethe and Baby Suggs for thinking too highly of themselves is unfair, the fact that Sethe prefers to steal food from the restaurant where she works rather than wait on line with the rest of the black community shows that she does consider herself different from the rest of the blacks in her neighborhood. Yet, Sethe is not too proud to accept support from others in every instance. Despite her independence (and her distrust of men), she welcomes Paul D and the companionship he offers.
Sethe’s most striking characteristic, however, is her devotion to her children. Unwilling to relinquish her children to the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma she has endured as a slave, she tries to murder them in an act that is, in her mind, one of motherly love and protection. Her memories of this cruel act and of the brutality she herself suffered as a slave infuse her everyday life and lead her to contend that past trauma can never really be eradicated—it continues, somehow, to exist in the present. She thus spends her life attempting to avoid encounters with her past. Perhaps Sethe’s fear of the past is what leads her to ignore the overwhelming evidence that Beloved is the reincarnation of her murdered daughter. Indeed, even after she acknowledges Beloved’s identity, Sethe shows herself to be still enslaved by the past, because she quickly succumbs to Beloved’s demands and allows herself to be consumed by Beloved. Only when Sethe learns to confront the past head-on, to assert herself in its presence, can she extricate herself from its oppressive power and begin to live freely, peacefully, and responsibly in the present.