Sethe is the central character of the novel and she lives in 124 Bluestone Road with her daughter, Denver. Sethe was born in the Deep South as a plantation slave. She barely remembers her mother being hanged and she also recalls a one-armed woman named Nan who traveled from Africa with Sethe's mother. Sethe worked on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky and she married fellow slave, Halle and had four children, giving birth to the fourth during her escape. When she moves to Ohio to live with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, Sethe kills one of her children in an effort to keep them safe from her owner, Schoolteacher.
For most of the novel, Sethe is haunted by her memories of slavery and her guilt, having committed infanticide. Sethe spends some time in prison, but the novel focuses on Sethe's life after Paul D arrives at her home. It is difficult for Sethe to separate the present from the past and it is even harder for her to make plans for the future in a house that is haunted first by her baby's ghost, and then by the arrival of her dead child in the flesh. Her crime ostracizes her from the community and the characters who care about her, namely Paul D, Stamp Paid and Denver, all of whom have difficulty overcoming their fear and disgust so that they can assist her in various ways. By the end of the novel, Sethe is debilitated from her warfare with Beloved, but the steadfast support of Paul D and Denver will enable Sethe to overcome her past and forge a future.
Denver is the youngest child of Sethe and Halle and she has lived an extremely lonely life in 124 Bluestone Road. After Baby Suggs dies and her two brothers run away, Denver's sole company is the baby ghost but when Paul D chases the ghost out of the house, Denver considers her fate to be hopeless. At the same time though, Denver is considered to be a "charmed child" and she loves the story of her miraculous birth, with the aid of her namesake, Amy Denver. Sethe gave birth to Denver while she was running to freedom across the Ohio River.
As the novel progresses, Denver is the character who shows the most maturation and growth. After Sethe and Beloved have battered themselves into oblivion, Denver leaves the house to get food to feed them. While Sethe and Beloved remain unaware of Denver's presence, let alone her assistance, the young woman finds an evening job and returns to Lady Jones' schoolhouse to complete her interrupted education. Denver spent most of her life "waiting for Daddy to come," but at the story's end, Denver is an able and independent young woman.
Beloved is the daughter that Sethe kills as an infant, so that she might be spared the indignities of a life in slavery. The dead child terrorizes her mother's house as a phantom: ruining cakes, stomping on the stairs, breaking windows, etc. When her child's play is cut short by Paul D's arrival in 1873, Beloved gets clever and returns to the house in human form - not as a child, but as the twenty-year-old woman she would be if she were alive. Beloved easily matches her strength to Paul D's and it is not long before the man is out of the house.
Beloved is "needy" and she has crossed the bridge between life and death so that she might see Sethe's face. Her primary concern is that she was the one child who was left behind and she needs an explanation as well as assurance that this will never happen again. Beloved becomes vicious in her treatment of Sethe. While she entered the home as a mysterious stranger, Beloved emerged as a doting daughter only to turn on Sethe and buffet her with guilt and penance. Community members have to perform a "rescue mission" to exorcise Beloved from the home and at the novel's end, Beloved is a roaming spirit, living in the wind and the river, begging to be remembered.
Paul D is one of the "Sweet Home men" - six slaves who were raised on the Garner's Kentucky plantation. After his failed attempt to escape from Sweet Home, Paul D suffers in a chain-gang laboring down in Alfred, Georgia. After escaping from the chain-gang, Paul D stalks his way up and down the eastern seaboard, stopping in Delaware only to be recaptured and re-emancipated. It is 1873 when Paul D arrives in Cincinnati, Ohio and he tracks down Baby Suggs' house only to find Sethe and her daughter, Denver. Paul D's memories of Alfred and "Sweet Home" trouble him the same way that Sethe's memories trouble her.
Paul D is distinguished by his "blessedness" but he has locked his heart away in a "red tobacco tin." When Beloved seduces him in the hopes of having Sethe for herself, Paul D is more intensely bemused by questions of his humanity and manhood. After Schoolteacher demoted the "Sweet Home men" into chattel, Paul D's self-conception has never recovered. His major effort in 1873 is an attempt to make a family in Sethe, thereby validating his manhood and permanently attaching himself to the human family.
Baby Suggs is the mother-in-law of Sethe. Her son, Halle, worked on Sundays to earn her freedom and after Baby Suggs was bought out of slavery, she moved to Ohio where she changed her name to Baby Suggs, holy. She had eight children and Halle was the youngest and the only one that she was allowed to get to know. Of her children all that she remembers is that one of them loved the burnt bottom of bread. Baby Suggs, holy is a "minister without a church." In the Clearing, she preaches a gospel of spiritual restoration and the adoration of the physical body. After Sethe's crime, her "heartstrings" are broken and after faith withers, she confesses that "the only bad luck in the world is white people."
Stamp Paid first appears as an operator in the Underground Railroad, ferrying Sethe to the free side of the Ohio River. Twenty-seven days later, Stamp picks three buckets of blueberries and initiates the feast that ends in the Misery. Stamp Paid is present for Sethe's infanticide and a series of events brings him back into Sethe's life nearly two decades later. Stamp's original name was Joshua and he was married to a slave named Vashti. Their master took a liking to Vashti and after months of suffering in her master's bed, Vashti returned to her husband, disconsolate and depressed. In pity - but also in jealous rage, Stamp snapped his wife's neck, ending her misery. He then fled north and changed his name to Stamp Paid, because she had suffered enough pain to pay for whatever sufferings life might have intended for him.
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Points To Ponder
Did You Know
Chapter 8 and 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 17 and 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21 and 22
Chapter 23 and 24
Chapter 27 and 28