Beloved explores the all-encompassing destruction wrought by slavery, which affects the characters in freedom just as much as captivity. The plot of Beloved follows two different stories. The first story takes place in present time, which is the year 1873, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The second story unfolds through flashbacks that tell of events that transpired in the past eighteen years. The novel begins with Paul D appearing on Sethe’s porch one day. They have not seen each other in eighteen years, when they both ran away from Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky where they lived as slaves. Though both escaped captivity, they endured traumatic experiences in the process. Paul D ended up at a prison camp in Georgia, where he worked on a chain gang until a flood created conditions for an escape. For her part, Sethe was nine months pregnant when she fled from Sweet Home, and she had to give birth en route to freedom. Help from a young white woman saved her life and enabled Sethe and her newborn, Denver, to make it to Ohio. There Sethe reunited with the three older children she had sent ahead of her. When schoolteacher tracked her down twenty-eight days later, Sethe responded by trying to kill her children to spare them enslavement, and though three survived, Sethe succeeded in killing her eldest daughter.
When Paul D arrives at Sethe’s house at the beginning of the novel, the house is haunted by the ghost of the daughter that Sethe murdered. Paul D scares off the ghost, grows intimate with Sethe, and becomes part of the household. The major inciting incident that sets the plot in motion occurs on the day that Paul D takes Sethe and Denver to a local carnival. The three return from their outing to find a mysterious young woman outside the house. She calls herself Beloved, but she cannot explain who she is or where she came from. Beloved’s sudden appearance at the house is confusing at first, and her presence quickly starts to unlock all sorts of troubling memories for Sethe, Paul D, and Denver. It is through these memories, recounted through flashbacks, that the reader gradually learns about what happened to Sethe and Paul D in the eighteen years since their escape from Sweet Home. The difficult encounter with these memories constitutes the novel’s major conflict. Sethe in particular feels paralyzed by her memories, and “she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe.”
The memories stirred by Beloved’s presence build toward the novel’s twin climaxes. The first climax occurs in chapter 16, which narrates the scene where schoolteacher arrives at 124 and Sethe tries to kill her children in the shed to save them from a life of slavery. She wounds her two sons, slits her eldest daughter’s throat, and attempts to bash Denver’s head against a wall. This horrific event changed Sethe’s life, poisoning her reputation in the community and creating deep rifts in her family. Eighteen years later, in the novel’s present time, Sethe realizes that Beloved is her dead daughter returned to her, and Sethe seeks redemption by taking this second chance to care for her lost child. The relationship between Sethe and Beloved grows increasingly co-dependent, and with her mother indisposed, Denver takes responsibility for the family by seeking work. The second climax occurs at the end of the novel, and it echoes the first climax. When a white man comes to the house to pick Denver up for work, Sethe mistakes the man for schoolteacher. This time, instead of trying to kill her children, she tries to kill the white man. Her attempt is thwarted by the group of women who have arrived at the house to exorcise Beloved from 124. In this moment, Beloved vanishes forever. Though left behind, Sethe now has an opportunity to escape Beloved’s hold and heal from the memories of slavery that have consumed her completely.