Beloved centers around the story of Sethe, a proud and independent woman who has escaped from slavery. Although the present time of the novel is 1873, the narrative frequently flashes back, providing a fragmentary view of Sethe’s life as a slave on a plantation known as Sweet Home, her escape from slavery, her journey north, and a terrible act of desperation that occurred shortly after her arrival at her mother-in-law’s house in Ohio. Just twenty-eight days after Sethe reaches Ohio, white men from Sweet Home track her down. When Sethe sees the men approaching, she ushers her children into a shed behind the house, where she attempts to kill her two sons and her youngest daughter and succeeds in killing her eldest daughter. Sethe’s sudden act of violence represents one of the central inciting events of the novel, an incident that initiates the haunting of the house at 124, causes Sethe’s two sons to run away from home, and solidifies Sethe’s alienation from the local community.
Sethe, who is a fiercely protective mother, understands her attempt to kill her children as a merciful act meant to spare them the trauma and humiliation of slavery. However, the act of mercy does not go as intended. Afterward Sethe must live with the burden of having murdered her own child. This memory becomes one among many other traumatic experiences from the past that continue to haunt Sethe and cause her pain in the present. Sethe longs to forget the many traumas of her past, but when Beloved, the ghost of her murdered child, shows up in material form, Sethe quickly forms a codependent relationship with the young woman. This relationship effectively binds Sethe to the very past she seeks to move beyond. Both the object of Sethe’s intense maternal affection and a symbol of horrific trauma from which she yearns to heal, Beloved represents the main obstacle for her mother’s redemption. It isn’t until a band of women from the local community come to exorcise the ghost that Sethe is finally freed from the burden of her past and, with the support of Denver and Paul D, given an opportunity to consider her own well-being.