Note: The text of Beloved is divided into Parts One, Two, and Three. Within each part, there are smaller sections. They function like chapters, but are never designated as such by the book itself. For ease of reference, this SparkNote has labeled these sections as numbered chapters. This numbering system runs continuously through all three of the book’s parts.
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.
The novel opens in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the past eighteen years, Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver, have been living in a house that is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s firstborn baby daughter. Until eight years ago, Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, also lived with them in their house at 124 Bluestone Road. Before she died, Baby Suggs sank into a deep depression, exhausted by a life of slavery and by the loss of all eight of her children. She spent her last days requesting “color”—bits of brightly colored objects she hoped would alleviate her sadness. Her death came only a short while after Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, each ran away from 124 following encounters with their dead sister’s ghost.
Sethe works hard to remember as little as possible about her past, and the memory of her sons is fading fast. Most of her painful memories involve Sweet Home, a plantation in Kentucky where she lived as a slave until her escape eighteen years ago. On this day, however, she returns home and finds an unexpected and surprising guest: Paul D. Paul D was one of five men who were Sethe’s fellow slaves at Sweet Home; these had included Paul A, Paul F, Sixo, and Sethe’s husband, Halle. Although Sethe hasn’t seen Paul D in eighteen years, they slip into easy conversation and Sethe invites him inside. Paul D walks into a pool of eerie red light and feels a wave of grief come over him. Sethe explains that the presence is the sad specter of her dead baby, whose throat was cut before it was two years old. At her daughter’s funeral, Sethe mistook the preacher’s reference to the “Dearly Beloved” mourners for a reference to her dead daughter. Afterward, she agreed to ten minutes of sex with an engraver in order to have the word “Beloved” carved on the baby’s headstone.
Paul D has desired Sethe ever since she arrived at Sweet Home at the age of thirteen to replace Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs left because her son Halle had bought her freedom with five years of weekend labor. Sethe was beautiful then, and the five male Sweet Home slaves waited in agonizing sexual frustration, having sex with calves and dreaming of rape, while she took a year to make her choice among them. She chose Halle, and together they had two sons and a daughter. Sethe was pregnant with a fourth child, Denver, when the family made its escape from Sweet Home. Sethe and Halle were separated during their escape, however, and neither Paul D nor Sethe knows what happened to Halle. Seeing her mother flirting and talking about Sweet Home with Paul D makes Denver feel lonely and excluded. She reacts with surly jealousy and dissolves into tears at the dinner table one evening. She cries that she cannot stay in the house because the community knows it to be haunted. Consequently, everyone avoids Denver and she has no friends. When Paul D wonders aloud why they haven’t moved from 124, Sethe firmly asserts that she will never run away from anything again.
Later, Sethe explains that she was whipped before she ran from Sweet Home to meet Baby Suggs and her children, whom she had sent ahead, in Cincinnati. The white girl who helped deliver Denver said the resulting scars looked like a chokecherry tree. Sethe cries and says that the men who beat her stole her baby’s milk before she ran. Paul D comes up behind her and pulls down the top of her dress. He cradles her breasts in his hands while he kisses each line of her scars. The house immediately begins to lurch and shake as the ghost vents its rage. Paul D shouts and fights with the ghost, chasing it away. Denver resents Paul D’s act—the ghost was the only company she had.
From the beginning, Beloved focuses on the import of memory and history. Sethe struggles daily with the haunting legacy of slavery, in the form of her threatening memories and also in the form of her daughter’s aggressive ghost. For Sethe, the present is mostly a struggle to beat back the past, because the memories of her daughter’s death and the experiences at Sweet Home are too painful for her to recall consciously. But Sethe’s repression is problematic, because the absence of history and memory inhibits the construction of a stable identity. Even Sethe’s hard-won freedom is threatened by her inability to confront her prior life. Paul D’s arrival gives Sethe the opportunity and the impetus to finally come to terms with her painful life history.
Already in the first chapter, the reader begins to gain a sense of the horrors that have taken place. Like the ghost, the address of the house is a stubborn reminder of its history. The characters refer to the house by its number, 124. These digits highlight the absence of Sethe’s murdered third child. As an institution, slavery shattered its victims’ traditional family structures, or else precluded such structures from ever forming. Slaves were thus deprived of the foundations of any identity apart from their role as servants. Baby Suggs is a woman who never had the chance to be a real mother, daughter, or sister. Later, we learn that neither Sethe nor Paul D knew their parents, and the relatively long, six-year marriage of Halle and Sethe is an anomaly in an institution that would regularly redistribute men and women to different farms as their owners deemed necessary.
The scars on Sethe’s back serve as another testament to her disfiguring and dehumanizing years as a slave. Like the ghost, the scars also work as a metaphor for the way that past tragedies affect us psychologically, “haunting” or “scarring” us for life. More specifically, the tree shape formed by the scars might symbolize Sethe’s incomplete family tree. It could also symbolize the burden of existence itself, through an allusion to the “tree of knowledge” from which Adam and Eve ate, initiating their mortality and suffering. Sethe’s “tree” may also offer insight into the empowering abilities of interpretation. In the same way that the white men are able to justify and increase their power over the slaves by “studying” and interpreting them according to their own whims, Amy’s interpretation of Sethe’s mass of ugly scars as a “chokecherry tree” transforms a story of pain and oppression into one of survival. In the hands of the right storyteller, Sethe’s marks become a poignant and beautiful symbol. When Paul D kisses them, he reinforces this more positive interpretation.
The chapter provides other similar examples of the way that Paul D’s presence works to help Sethe reclaim authority over her own past. Sethe has always prioritized others’ needs over her own. For example, although she suggests in her story that schoolteacher’s nephews raped her, Sethe is preoccupied with their theft of her breast milk. She privileges her children’s needs over her own. When Paul D cradles her breasts, Sethe is “relieved of their weight.” The narrator comments that the “responsibility for her breasts,” the symbols of her devotion to her children, was Paul’s for a moment. Usually defined by her motherhood, Sethe has a chance to be herself for a moment, whoever that may be. Paul D reacquaints Sethe with her body as a locus of her own desires and not merely a site for the desires of others—whether those of the rapists or those of her babies.
Paul D’s arrival is not comforting to Denver because Paul D threatens Denver’s exclusive hold on Sethe’s affections. He also reminds Denver about the existence of a part of Sethe that she has never been able to access. Although she is eighteen years old, Denver’s fragile sense of self cannot bear talk of a world that does not include her. She has lived in relative isolation for her entire life, and she is angered and disturbed by Paul D’s sudden intrusion.
The events of the novel unfold on two different temporal planes: the present of Cincinnati in 1873, and Sethe’s time at Sweet Home during the 1850s, which is narrated largely in flashback. In this first chapter, Morrison plants the seeds of the major events that will unfurl over the course of the novel: Sethe’s encounter with schoolteacher and his nephews; the slaves’ escape from Sweet Home; the story of Amy Denver; and the mystery of Sethe’s baby’s murder. These past events are told in a nonlinear manner, fading and resurfacing cyclically as the characters’ memories reveal more and more to the reader and to the characters themselves.