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The Powers and Limits of Language

When Sixo turns schoolteacher’s reasoning around to justify having broken the rules, schoolteacher whips him to demonstrate that “definitions belong to the definers,” not to the defined. The slaves eventually come to realize the illegitimacy of many of the white definitions. Mr. Garner, for example, claims to have allowed his slaves to live as “real men,” but Paul D questions just how manly they actually are. So, too, does Paul D finally come to realize with bitter irony the fallacy of the name “Sweet Home.” Although Sixo eventually reacts to the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of slavery by abandoning English altogether, other characters use English to redefine the world on their own terms. Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid, for example, rename themselves. Beloved may be read as Morrison’s effort to transform those who have always been the defined into the definers.

While slaves, the characters manipulate language and transcend its standard limits. Their command of language allows them to adjust its meanings and to make themselves indecipherable to the white slave owners who watch them. For example, Paul D and the Georgia prison inmates sing together about their dreams and memories by “garbling . . . [and] tricking the words.”

The title of the novel alludes to what is ultimately the product of a linguistic misunderstanding. At her daughter’s funeral, Sethe interpreted the minister’s address to the “Dearly Beloved” as referring to the dead rather than the living. All literature is indebted to this “slippery,” shifting quality of language: the power of metaphor, simile, metonymy, irony, and wordplay all result from the ability of words to attach and detach themselves from various possible meanings.