The novel begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War, by describing a house on the edge of Cincinnati: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” The house is haunted by the ghost of the baby of Sethe, a former slave who lives at 124 with her daughter, Denver. They have lived in the house for 18 years. Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away from the house a little over eight years earlier, scared by hauntings such as a baby’s handprints appearing in a cake. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, used to live at the house, but became withdrawn not long after Howard and Buglar left and did nothing but “ponder color.” She died soon after.
The fact that the novel begins with a description of the house, rather than any character, emphasizes the importance of the home to Sethe and her family. However, the haunting presence of Sethe’s dead baby has disrupted any kind of ideal home, causing Howard and Buglar to flee their own family. Baby Suggs seeming depression and obsession with pondering color raises a mystery about just what could have pushed her into such a state.
Shortly after Baby Suggs’ death, Sethe and Denver attempt to call forth the ghost to talk to it, but it does not appear. Denver suggests that the deceased Baby Suggs is preventing it, but Sethe counters that the baby-ghost is simply too young to understand them. Sethe recalls burying the baby, and the engraver of its tombstone only having time to engrave “Beloved”, rather than the full phrase “Dearly Beloved” that Sethe wanted. But she still believes that this one word was enough of a response to the townspeople that were disgusted with her.
Sethe and Denver’s attempt to speak with the ghost sets the tone for the prevalence of supernatural episodes in the novel. The ghost is one way in which Sethe’s past continues to literally haunt her. As we will later learn, Sethe herself killed the baby, but the word “Beloved” on the baby’s tombstone insists that Sethe still somehow cared for the child and was acting as a loving mother.
Sethe remembers once suggesting to Baby Suggs that they could move out of the house to escape the ghost, but Baby Suggs told her there was no point, since there’s “not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” Baby Suggs’ comment prompts Sethe to think of her own past, which she tries not to remember. But she cannot help thinking of Sweet Home, the plantation on which she was once a slave.
Baby Suggs’ comment reminds the reader that the suffering of Sethe and her relatives is only a microcosm of the suffering of all the former slaves throughout the country. Sethe cannot help but remember her past life on the ironically named farm Sweet Home, which was anything but a sweet home to her and other slaves. The past, like the ghost, haunts her.
Sethe goes outside and is surprised to find Paul D, an ex-slave who also worked on Sweet Home, sitting on her porch. He asks about Baby Suggs and Sethe tells him that her death was easy and that “being alive was the hard part.” Sethe asks about her husband Halle, who she hasn’t seen since fleeing Sweet Home and thinks may be dead, but Paul D doesn’t have any news about him. Sethe invites Paul D inside to stay the night.
Paul D is another element of Sethe’s past life at Sweet Home, and his arrival immediately dredges up the past, particularly Sethe’s lost husband Halle.
Upon entering the house, Paul D feels some kind of presence and asks, “What kind of evil you got in here?” He reflects on Sethe’s beauty and recalls how her children had been sneaked out of Sweet Home and sent to Halle’s mother, Baby Suggs, and how Sethe had run away after, to meet up with them. Paul D remembers how the owner of Sweet Home died and Schoolteacher came to manage the plantation.
Seeing Sethe also prompts Paul D to remember things from Sweet Home. All of the former slaves are haunted by the past, just like Sethe. Even he, who is not aware of Sethe’s dead child, can feel its persistent presence in 124.
Sethe tells Paul D that the sad presence he feels in the house is from her daughter. She tells him that she works at a restaurant and sews to make money in order to feed herself and Denver. Paul D remembers more of his past from Sweet Home: Sethe came to Sweet Home at age 13, the only female slave there. All the male slaves there desired her but let her choose her own man, since they were “Sweet Home men.” The owner of Sweet Home, Mr. Garner, took pride in his slaves being real men, though other slave-owners told him that no slaves could be men. Sethe eventually chose Halle, a Sweet Home man who had worked extra time to buy freedom for his mother, Baby Suggs.
Paul D’s recollections begin to show what life was like as a slave on Sweet Home. Although Mr. Garner was kinder than other slave-owners, the slaves were still looked down upon and Baby Suggs’ freedom as a human being had to be bought. Nonetheless, the slaves on Sweet Home form a kind of community as “Sweet Home men.”
Denver meets Paul D and is shy around him, since she is not used to friendly acquaintances or guests. She is upset by the attention that her mother gives to Paul D and is jealous of their shared knowledge and memories of Sweet Home. She wishes for the baby to do something disruptive. She tells Paul D about the ghost in an attempt to break up his conversation with Sethe. She asks why they talk about Sweet Home if it was so bad. Sethe replies that such memory “comes back whether we want it to or not.”
Denver’s relationship with her mother is so close that she gets jealous whenever she feels excluded from her in some way. Sethe’s comment about the past emphasizes that memory is often involuntary.
As Sethe and Denver start to prepare dinner, Denver makes a rude remark to Paul D and then begins to cry. She says that she can’t live any longer in the house, since people avoid it and don’t speak to Denver or Sethe. Paul D is sympathetic to Denver and suggests that they move, but Sethe rejects the idea.
Denver does not see Paul D as fitting into the home that she and Sethe have made. Sethe’s refusal to move shows her attachment to 124, even with its haunting, or perhaps because of its haunting.
Sethe makes reference to having a tree on her back. Paul D asks her what she means and she explains: on Sweet Home, when she was pregnant with Denver and still lactating to nurse her infant (the baby that is now the ghost), two white boys held her down in a barn and took her breastmilk. She told Mrs. Garner and when the boys found out that she had told on them, they whipped her, leaving a tree-shaped scar on her back. When Sethe was escaping to Cincinnati, a white woman who helped her saw the scar and told her that she had a chokecherry tree on her back.
Sethe’s memory is one of the novel’s most horrifying episodes of life as a slave. The two white boys not only physically violate Sethe, but also take from her one of the most basic, physical ways of being a mother, robbing her children of their mother’s breast milk. The boys essentially treat her like an animal—taking her milk as if from a cow. The memory stays with Sethe just as the physical scar remains on her back.
Alone in the kitchen with Paul D, Sethe puts biscuits into the oven. Paul D comes up behind her and embraces her. As she weeps, he begins to kiss her and undoes her dress. Sethe savors the brief moment of respite and pleasure but suddenly the house begins to shake, throwing her to the floor. Paul D yells at and fights the house, throwing the kitchen table around.
The spirit of Sethe’s baby, representing the persistence of the past, does not allow Sethe even one moment of relaxation or pleasure. However, Paul D fights the house and can potentially help create a new order at 124, making it a different kind of home.
After the house settles down, Denver takes the biscuits onto the porch and eats, while Sethe and Paul D go upstairs. Alone, she thinks of her brothers and remembers her young childhood with Baby Suggs and them. Now she feels lonely and miserable.
Even the young Denver is burdened by her past, as she misses the members of her family who have died or run away.