Foreshadowing plays a complex role in Beloved, primarily because the novel frequently moves back and forth between past and present. This shuttling movement creates a tension between the chronological events as they happened in historical time and the events as they are presented in the novel’s narrative time. For instance, the reader learns in the first chapter that the house at 124 is haunted by the spirit of a child. The revelation that 124 is haunted does foreshadow the story recounted in chapter 16 about how Sethe killed her daughter to spare the child the trauma of slavery. Although this revelation functions as foreshadowing, it does so in an unconventional way, given that the foreshadowed event actually occurred long before the events recounted in the novel. In this way, the device Morrison uses throughout Beloved resembles foreshadowing, but it also has a more complex function. Whereas foreshadowing typically relies on a linear understanding of time, time in Beloved does not move in a straight line. The circular nature of time in Beloved creates a sense of history cycling back to repeat itself. Crucial scenes, such as the scene of Beloved’s exorcism and Sethe’s attack on Mr. Bodwin, repeat earlier events, but with different outcomes that correct mistakes of the past.
The full account of how Sethe killed Beloved appears in chapter 16, near the end of Part One. However, the events of this story are frequently foreshadowed from the beginning of the novel. For instance, it is clear already in chapter 1 that the ghost haunting 124 is that of a baby. In the early chapters the narrator also frequently references a daughter who was alive eighteen years ago when Sethe arrived in Ohio, but who remains unnamed and is not otherwise referenced in the present time. Once Beloved appears, there are other instances of foreshadowing that allude to the murder that will be recounted later. For example, there are numerous references to the throat. When Beloved appears she is parched and drinks an unusual quantity of water. Later, while in the Clearing where Baby Suggs used to preach, Beloved kisses Sethe’s throat before threatening to strangle her. These references to the throat foreshadow the revelation that Sethe cut her daughter’s throat with a handsaw.
Beloved concludes with a group of local women converging on the house at 124 to banish the ghost that has taken up residence there. This scene echoes the opening chapter of the novel, where Paul D forcefully banishes the ghost haunting Sethe’s house. Although similar, there are important differences between these two scenes. In the first scene the person who banishes the ghost is a man who comes from Sethe’s past, and who violently forces the ghost out. Paul D’s methods are rough, and they are partly selfish as well, since he desires a relationship with Sethe and a place to stay. In the second scene it’s a group of women who conduct the exorcism. Though they don’t know Sethe well, and though they’ve distrusted her in the past, the women gather in solidarity out of a belief that Sethe’s well-being is important for the well-being of the community at large. Thus, although Paul D’s original banishment of the ghost at 124 foreshadows the final exorcism of Beloved at the novel’s end, the final exorcism underscores the importance of community.
Sethe’s attempt on Mr. Bodwin’s life
During the scene when women from the community gather to exorcise Beloved from 124, a white man named Mr. Bodwin rides up to the house on horseback in order to pick Denver up and bring her to her new place of work. These events repeat the scene from eighteen years ago, when the white men who were tracking Sethe rode up to 124 with the intention of capturing her and returning her to Sweet Home. Sethe, who near the end of the novel is lost in her memories, mistakenly believes that Mr. Bodwin is schoolteacher. She takes an ice pick and runs toward the man in an attempt to kill him. Though history repeats itself here, an important difference separates the two scenes. Eighteen years ago Sethe tried to protect her children by attempting to kill them. She succeeded in killing Beloved, and the memory has haunted her ever since. In the present time, now that Sethe has Beloved back, she chooses a different course of action that corrects the past. That is, she chooses to protect Beloved by attacking the white man instead.