• Study Guide
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

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.

Family

Beloved explores how the conditions of slavery at once make family more fragile and more firmly bonded. Since slaves were considered private property, slave owners could break up families by buying or selling individual family members. It was especially lucrative to sell children, who were young and had many working years left. Baby Suggs directly experienced having her children sold to other slave owners. She gave birth to nine children, all but one of whom were taken from her. Yet the experience of losing nearly all of her children did not break Baby Suggs. On the contrary, it greatly intensified her relationship with her one remaining son, Halle, who went to extraordinary lengths to buy her freedom. The familial bonds produced by slavery can also prove dangerous, as demonstrated by the intensity of Sethe’s maternal instincts. When schoolteacher arrives at 124, Sethe doesn’t hesitate in her attempt to protect her children from him. But others find it deeply disturbing that Sethe attempted to protect her children by trying to kill them. Paul D, for instance, tells Sethe that her maternal love is “too thick.” But Sethe rejects his claim and insists: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all.”