Author Toni Morrison
Type of work Novel
Genre Historical fiction; ghost story
Time and place written The 1980s in Albany, New York
Date of first publication 1987
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Point of view The anonymous narrator of
Tone The text’s tone changes from character to character and reflects their varying, usually explicit attitudes toward the events. The primary “narrator” regards the characters and their actions with a mixture of mournfulness, regret, and awe.
Setting (time) 1873, with frequent flashbacks to the early 1850s
Setting (place) Cincinnati, Ohio; flashbacks to Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky and prison in Alfred, Georgia
Protagonist Sethe is the primary protagonist, but Denver also drives much of the plot’s action, especially in Part Three.
Major conflict Having survived a traumatic escape from slavery, Sethe has killed her older daughter in a mad attempt to keep her from being taken back to the South by her old master. A mysterious figure now appears at Sethe’s home, calling herself by the name on the dead daughter’s tombstone.
Rising action A ghost has haunted Sethe and Denver’s house for several years. Paul D arrives and chases the ghost away. Beloved appears at the house soon after and causes memories to surface in Sethe, Denver, and Paul D.
Climax Because the novel follows two different stories, one told through flashbacks and one that is taking place in the novel’s present, there are two different climaxes. The climax of the flashback plot occurs near the end of Part One in Chapter 16, when the text finally reveals the circumstances of Sethe’s daughter’s death: eighteen years ago, Sethe attempted to murder all her children when she refused to hand them over to schoolteacher to endure a life of slavery. Only her elder daughter died. The second climax occurs at the end of the novel, during the “exorcism” of Beloved, who seems to be the ghost of the daughter Sethe murdered. In an echo of the first climax, Sethe mistakes Mr. Bodwin, her family’s benefactor, for schoolteacher and tries to kill him with an ice pick.
Falling action Beloved leaves 124 forever, Denver is preparing to go to college, and Paul D returns to Sethe, who has been spending her days in Baby Suggs’s bed.
Themes Slavery’s destruction of identity; the importance of community solidarity; the powers and limits of language
Motifs The supernatural; allusions to Christianity
Symbols The color red; trees; the tin tobacco box
Foreshadowing Morrison unfolds the story in a circular, elusive way, making use of a device akin to, but more complex than, foreshadowing. The narrative makes indirect or incomplete allusions to events that are picked up and developed further at later points in the novel. For example, the death of Sethe’s daughter is mentioned repeatedly from the beginning of the novel, but only in Chapter 18 does the complete story unfold.