Beloved was published in 1987, but the context more important for understanding the novel is the historical period in which it takes place, between 1855 and 1873. This period encompasses the American Civil War (1861–1865), which means that the novel takes place both before and after slavery was officially abolished in the United States. Although the present time of the novel unfolds in the post-war years, the major defining events of the book occur when slavery still flourished. In the pre-war years U.S. states were divided on the issue of slavery. Whereas Northern states outlawed the institution, Southern states relied heavily on slave labor for the production of tobacco, cotton, and other cash crops. Despite the division, the North and South remained in a fragile balance due to the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which legally required officials and citizens in free states to capture alleged runaway enslaved people and return them to their masters. Such a law would have applied to Sethe, an enslaved person who fled north in 1855. When schoolteacher arrives in Cincinnati to recapture Sethe, it is possible that no one from the community warns her in part because they feared punishment under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Read about another novel inspired by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.