Historical fiction refers to any fictional narrative set in the past. Works of historical fiction are typically set in real places, and they frequently include details about the social, cultural, and material conditions that defined the place and time where the story is set. Beloved is an example of historical fiction because it is set in the past and in a real place: 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Though set nearly ten years after the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the novel’s many flashbacks frequently return the story to the pre-Civil War South, where slavery was well established. Sethe’s and Paul D’s escape from the slaveholding South to the free North is therefore based on real American history and geography. Morrison also includes many historically accurate details in order to give a rich sense of the period, though the way she incorporates these details is chiefly fictional. One example is the iron bit that Paul D has to wear. By including this detail, Morrison acknowledges the historical fact that slave masters used such devices to punish their slaves. However, Morrison uses her imagination to explore how the bit causes Paul D both physical and emotional pain.
A ghost story is a type of fictional story that either directly features ghosts or else explores the possible existence of ghosts. According to folk tradition, a ghost is the spirit of a dead person that can appear to the living. Though deceased, ghosts exist somewhere between life and death, and they haunt the living due to some form of unfinished business that needs to be resolved before the ghost can finally be laid to rest. Ghosts also conventionally haunt particular places or people to which they were linked in life. All of these descriptions apply to Beloved, which prominently features the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter. Initially the ghost in the house at 124 is invisible, though she is able to manipulate physical objects in ways that frighten the house’s inhabitants. After Paul D scares the ghost away in the opening chapter, the ghost takes a physical form in the strange young woman named Beloved. Beloved comes to 124 in order to haunt her mother, who killed her when she was just two years old. Though Beloved’s haunting of Sethe conforms to ghost story conventions, it also symbolizes the way that traumas of the past remain alive and haunt the present through memory.