Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved, is a proud and independent woman who is extremely devoted to her children. Though she barely knew her own mother, Sethe’s motherly instincts are her most striking characteristic. Unwilling to relinquish her children to the physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual trauma she endured as a slave at Sweet Home, she attempts to murder them in an act of motherly love and protection. She remains haunted by this and other scarring events in her past, which she tries, in vain, to repress.
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Sethe’s youngest child, Denver is the most dynamic character in the novel. Though intelligent, introspective, and sensitive, Denver has been stunted in her emotional growth by years of relative isolation. Beloved’s increasing malevolence, however, forces Denver to overcome her fear of the world beyond 124 and seek help from the community. Her foray out into the town and her attempts to find permanent work and possibly attend college mark the beginning of her fight for independence and self-possession.
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Beloved’s identity is mysterious. The novel provides evidence that she could be an ordinary woman traumatized by years of captivity, the ghost of Sethe’s mother, or, most convincingly, the embodied spirit of Sethe’s murdered daughter. On an allegorical level, Beloved represents the inescapable, horrible past of slavery returned to haunt the present. Her presence, which grows increasingly malevolent and parasitic as the novel progresses, ultimately serves as a catalyst for Sethe’s, Paul D’s, and Denver’s respective processes of emotional growth.
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The physical and emotional brutality suffered by Paul D at Sweet Home and as part of a chain gang has caused him to bury his feelings in the “rusted tobacco tin” of his heart. He represses his painful memories and believes that the key to survival is not becoming too attached to anything. At the same time, he seems to incite the opening up of others’ hearts, and women in particular tend to confide in him. Sethe welcomes him to 124, where he becomes her lover and the object of Denver’s and Beloved’s jealousy. Though his union with Sethe provides him with stability and allows him to come to terms with his past, Paul D continues to doubt fundamental aspects of his identity, such as the source of his manhood and his value as a person.
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After Halle buys his mother, Baby Suggs, her freedom, she travels to Cincinnati, where she becomes a source of emotional and spiritual inspiration for the city’s black residents. She holds religious gatherings at a place called the Clearing, where she teaches her followers to love their voices, bodies, and minds. However, after Sethe’s act of infanticide, Baby Suggs stops preaching and retreats to a sickbed to die. Even so, Baby Suggs continues to be a source of inspiration long after her death: in Part Three her memory motivates Denver to leave 124 and find help. It is partially out of respect for Baby Suggs that the community responds to Denver’s requests for support.
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Like Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid is considered by the community to be a figure of salvation, and he is welcomed at every door in town. An agent of the Underground Railroad, he helps Sethe to freedom and later saves Denver’s life. A grave sacrifice he made during his enslavement has caused him to consider his emotional and moral debts to be paid off for the rest of his life, which is why he decided to rename himself “Stamp Paid.” Yet by the end of the book he realizes that he may still owe protection and care to the residents of 124. Angered by the community’s neglect of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D, Stamp begins to question the nature of a community’s obligations to its members.
Following Mr. Garner’s death, schoolteacher takes charge of Sweet Home. Cold, sadistic, and vehemently racist, schoolteacher replaces what he views as Garner’s too-soft approach with an oppressive regime of rigid rules and punishment on the plantation. Schoolteacher’s own habits are extremely ascetic: he eats little, sleeps less, and works hard. His most insidious form of oppression is his “scientific” scrutiny of the slaves, which involves asking questions, taking physical measurements, and teaching lessons to his white pupils on the slaves’ “animal characteristics.” The lower-case s of schoolteacher’s appellation may have an ironic meaning: although he enjoys a position of extreme power over the slaves, they attribute no worth to him.
Sethe’s husband and Baby Suggs’s son, Halle is generous, kind, and sincere. He is very much alert to the hypocrisies of the Garners’ “benevolent” form of slaveholding. Halle eventually goes mad, presumably after witnessing schoolteacher’s nephews’ violation of Sethe.
Lady Jones, a light-skinned black woman who loathes her blond hair, is convinced that everyone despises her for being a woman of mixed race. Despite her feelings of alienation, she maintains a strong sense of community obligation and teaches the underprivileged children of Cincinnati in her home. She is skeptical of the supernatural dimensions of Denver’s plea for assistance, but she nevertheless helps to organize the community’s delivery of food to Sethe’s plagued household.
Ella worked with Stamp Paid on the Underground Railroad. Traumatized by the sexual brutality of a white father and son who once held her captive, she believes, like Sethe, that the past is best left buried. When it surfaces in the form of Beloved, Ella organizes the women of the community to exorcise Beloved from 124.
Mr. and Mrs. Garner are the comparatively benevolent owners of Sweet Home. The events at Sweet Home reveal, however, that the idea of benevolent slavery is a contradiction in terms. The Garners’ paternalism and condescension are simply watered-down versions of schoolteacher’s vicious racism.
Siblings Mr. and Miss Bodwin are white abolitionists who have played an active role in winning Sethe’s freedom. Yet there is something disconcerting about the Bodwins’ politics. Mr. Bodwin longs a little too eagerly for the “heady days” of abolitionism, and Miss Bodwin demonstrates a condescending desire to “experiment” on Denver by sending her to Oberlin College. The distasteful figurine Denver sees in the Bodwins’ house, portraying a slave and displaying the message “At Yo’ Service,” marks the limits and ironies of white involvement in the struggle for racial equality. Nevertheless, the siblings are motivated by good intentions, believing that “human life is holy, all of it.”
A nurturing and compassionate girl who works as an indentured servant, Amy is young, flighty, talkative, and idealistic. She helps Sethe when she is ill during her escape from Sweet Home, and when she sees Sethe’s wounds from being whipped, Amy says that they resemble a tree. She later delivers baby Denver, whom Sethe names after her.
Paul A and Paul F are the brothers of Paul D. They were slaves at Sweet Home with him, Halle, Sethe, and, earlier, Baby Suggs. Sixo is another fellow slave. Sixo and Paul A die during the escape from the plantation.