Beloved

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Themes and Colors
Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood Theme Icon
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Beloved, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Motherhood Theme Icon

At its core, Beloved is a novel about a mother and her children, centered around the relationship between Sethe and the unnamed daughter she kills, as well as the strange re-birth of that daughter in the form of Beloved. When Sethe miraculously escapes Sweet Home, it is only because of the determination she has to reach her children, nurse her baby, and deliver Denver safely. Similarly, Halle works extra time in order to buy the freedom of his own mother, Baby Suggs, before seeking his own freedom. The strength of mother-child bonds are further illustrated by the close relationship between Denver and Sethe, upon which Paul D intrudes.

But, within the novel, the strength of motherhood is constantly pitted against the horrors of slavery. In a number of ways, slavery simply does not allow for motherhood. On a basic level, the practice of slavery separates children from their mothers, as exemplified by Sethe’s faint recollections of her own mother. Since it is so likely for a slave-woman to be separated from her children, the institution of slavery discourages and prevents mothers from forming strong emotional attachments to their children. As Paul D observes of Sethe and Denver, “to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.” The scene in which Sethe is held down and robbed of her own breast milk shows, on a cruelly literal level, Sethe being robbed of her very bodily capability to be a nurturing mother. The conflict between motherhood and slavery is perhaps clearest in the central act of the novel: Sethe’s killing her own daughter. The act can be read two ways: on the one hand, it represents an act of the deepest motherly love: Sethe saving her children from having to endure slavery, believing that death is better. But on the other hand, it can also be interpreted as Sethe refusing to be a mother under slavery. Slavery would not allow her to be a real mother to her children, so she would rather not be a mother at all.

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Motherhood Quotes in Beloved

Below you will find the important quotes in Beloved related to the theme of Motherhood.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

[...] in all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.

Related Characters: Sethe, Baby Suggs
Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Sethe ruminates on her life and the lives of other slaves back at Sweet Home. She explains here that those lives have generally been lived at the whims of other people: white slave owners.

That people “were moved around like checkers” shows how in slavery, humans were treated like pieces in a game—objects to be manipulated rather than given real care or dignity. The following series of verbs are presented in similarly passive constructions: “been hanged, got rented out […]” that place the subjects in roles lacking actual control. It presents their lives as subject to external forces rather than constituted by personal agency. When Sethe links this passivity to the paternity of Baby Suggs’ children, she implies that the men Baby Suggs loved were all taken away from her as part of that checkers game “called the nastiness of life.”

Her realization that children function as “pieces” in this game is particularly disheartening. Baby Suggs presumably assumed that children would be given a separate and safe dispensation away from these manipulative tactics, but in fact they are treated equally ruthlessly. This theme of a perverted childhood and motherhood will reverberate throughout Beloved: Morrison underlines how the cruelty and dehumanization of slavery was applied regardless of one’s innocence or weakness.

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Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man... Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe.

Related Characters: Sethe
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Sethe recounts a story a woman Nan told her about Sethe's mother. When the two were crossing from Africa on a slave-boat, Sethe’s mother was raped repeatedly by white men, and she "threw away" all the children except for Sethe.

This tale sets up a cyclic quality to time in this novel, in which past events are repeated throughout different generations. Just as Sethe killed Beloved, we learn that her mother had killed many of her own children—selecting only one to save, just as Sethe only saved Denver. The abandoned children were similarly nameless, thus establishing the giving of names as a significant plot event. Furthermore, both Sethe’s and Sethe’s mother’s stories are characterized by migration: the first from Good Home, the second from Africa. By placing in parallel their two tales, Morrison shows how social conditions can cause similar histories to appear throughout generations. Although Sethe’s tale might seem to imply the progress of emancipation, she is still beholden to the symbolic terrors that crippled her mother.

Part 1, Chapter 15 Quotes

The last of [Baby Suggs’] children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own—fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked.

Related Characters: Baby Suggs, Halle
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

While waiting for Sethe and Halle to arrive at 124, Baby Suggs thinks fondly of her son. She recounts how her previous children had been stolen from her immediately upon being born.

Suggs’ memories speak to the alienation between slaves and their relatives. The cruel actions of traders and owners would rip families apart, even severing children from their mothers. As a result, Suggs’ memory is imprinted only with the initial physical components of her children, and she lacks any knowledge of their future. Describing the children in terms of fractured body parts—“a little foot”; “the fat fingertips”—emphasizes the disconnected way that Suggs engaged with them. And she has similar snapshots of their existence in time, holding only past images with no present or future to combine into a full sense of her children as people.

The passage shows how this broken relationship with one’s relatives has a permanent effect on how one deals with all relationships. Suggs’ earlier experiences with her children, for instance, induced complete alienation from Halle because she presumed “it wasn’t worth the trouble.” Morrison thus draws our attention to the fact that one’s ability to take an interest in those around them is predicated on perceived value and permanence—both of which are negated by slavery.

Part 1, Chapter 18 Quotes

And if [Sethe] thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one else could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.

Related Characters: Sethe, Denver, Beloved
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul D confronts Sethe about murdering her child. During their discussion, she tells this story of her escape from Sweet Home.

Morrison juxtaposes two forms of potential action: a well-reasoned escape plan in which the route has been rationally conceptualized; and the haphazard, desperate style characterized of Sethe. Indeed, Sethe's mindset here does not seem to revolve around “thought” at all, but rather the absence of thought—the blunt rejection of “No” that grows and replicates itself into “Nonono.” We have little insight into Sethe’s thought process, for her journey lacks a coherent direction, a clear set of objects that she saves, or even a certain destination. Instead, she maintains the vague goal of “outside,” similarly defined in terms of negation, as was the “No.”

The language of this passage mimics Sethe’s style of thought. Composed of short fragments, it avoids normal, fluent syntax in order to place the reader in the mind of someone making stressed and disordered decisions. It is as if Sethe is trying to convince the reader of her disorientation just as she tries to convince Paul D. And Morrison thus makes sensible to us what might have motivated a series of decisions by Sethe. In particular, she demonstrates how deeply one’s psychology can be warped by the experiences of slavery—to the extent that one may even murder their own child as an act of intended love.

Part 2, Chapter 19 Quotes

I can forget it all now because as soon as I got the gravestone in place you made your presence known in the house and worried us all to distraction. I didn’t understand it then. I thought you were mad with me. And now I know that if you was, you ain’t now because you came back here to me... I only need to know one thing. How bad is the scar?

Related Characters: Sethe (speaker), Beloved
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

After her skating outing with Denver and Beloved, Sethe grows increasingly convinced that Beloved is the spirit of her dead child. She ponders here how her dead spirit haunted 124.

This passage displays Sethe trying to reconcile with her memories—and to make sense of how past experiences exist alongside current ones. For instance, the new meaningful times with Beloved and Denver have caused her to “forget it all now,” thus distancing herself from the past. Similarly, she “didn’t understand it then,” but the past does have a more sensible nature when now considered in retrospect. It seems that Sethe is finally able to reconcile with her own guilt, believing that Beloved is not angry “because you came back here to me.” Thus her presence as a pseudo-child seems to recreate and to narrativize Sethe’s past.

These descriptions present Sethe as gaining greater clarity into her past based on her current moments with Beloved. But Morrison also implies that Beloved’s presence may be causing Sethe to sink inappropriately into the past—in a way that cripples her ability to progress into the future. Her singular focus on the “one thing” of the scar, for instance, speaks to emotional nearsightedness, which we also see in the way she has abandoned Paul D to be only with Beloved. Morrison thus shows how the symbolic return of the past has a double meaning: It can both order and obscure the present.

Part 2, Chapter 20 Quotes

Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.... She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be.... I won’t never let her go.

Related Characters: Sethe (speaker), Beloved
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel has entered a pure stream-of-consciousness style at this point. Sethe repeatedly describes her deep love of Beloved and how that affection motivated her actions.

These lines reiterate that Sethe’s infanticide was the result of her deep love for Beloved. The action is phrased not even as a choice, but rather as a necessity given the circumstances: “She had to be safe.” In this way, Sethe seeks to justify her action not as the best choice given a set of circumstances, but indeed as the only one that could have been made. Morrison thus demonstrates how horrifically the definitions of safety and love have been warped under the specter of slavery: Love can be exemplified by murder, and safety is equated with death.

Yet the careful reader should not take this text at face value. Morrison uses halting statements and fragmented phrases to emphasize the lack of clarity in Sethe’s thought process. Further, her repeated use of possessives—“she my”; “she mine”; “my love”—present the mother-daughter relationship as deeply controlling, even obsessive. The moral compass in Morrison’s work is never entirely clear, and the text makes no clear pronouncement on Sethe’s actions. Thus even as she makes a compelling argument for how love motivated her behavior, parts of the stream-of-consciousness writing itself undermine the validity of that position.

Part 3, Chapter 26 Quotes

Yet [Denver] knew Sethe’s greatest fear was...that Beloved might leave.... Leave before Sethe could make her realize that far worse than [death]...was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

Related Characters: Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D, Beloved, Stamp Paid, Ella
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

As life at 124 grows ever worse, Denver reflects on what is motivating Sethe to acquiesce to Beloved’s wishes. Sethe, she explains, wants to prove to Beloved that her infanticide offered her a better end than she would have had alive under slavery.

This passage casts Sethe’s relationship with Beloved in a somewhat different light than before. Whereas earlier sections justified her actions as derived from pure affection, this passage presents them as seeking some kind of repentance or justice. That Sethe wants Beloved to “realize” that another fate (slavery) was “far worse” reveals a wish for acceptance and forgiveness on Beloved’s part. She wants her, in a bizarre way, to understand the horror of an alternative past that she never experienced—in order that Sethe's decision will be deemed merciful and the result of love.

Denver’s focus on the loss of identity is intriguing here. She presents the worst end of slavery as that one “forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up,” which speaks to how mentally fractured Sethe had become by the time she fled Sweet Home. Yet if Sethe had sought to save Beloved from this fate, she also has caused it to come true: if Beloved is indeed the ghost of her child, she lost her identity and came blindly to Sethe without a clear sense of self. Morrison thus presents the murder less as a real escape from the institution of slavery, but rather as a reproduction of its horrifying ends.