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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.
Slavery Theme Icon

Through the memories and experiences of a wide variety of characters, Beloved presents unflinchingly the unthinkable cruelty of slavery. In particular, the novel explores how slavery dehumanizes slaves, treating them alternately as property and as animals. To a slave-owner like Schoolteacher, African-American slaves are less than human: he thinks of them only in terms of how much money they are worth, and talks of “mating” them as if they are animals. Paul D’s experience of having an iron bit in his mouth quite literally reduces him to the status of an animal. And Schoolteacher’s nephews at one point hold Sethe down and steal her breast milk, treating her like a cow.

Even seemingly “kind” slave-owners like Mr. and Mrs. Garner abuse their slaves and treat them as lesser beings. Slavery also breaks up family units: Sethe can hardly remember her own mother and, for slaves, this is the norm rather than an exception, as children are routinely sold off to work far away from their families. Another important aspect of slavery in the novel is the fact that its effects are felt even after individuals find freedom. After Sethe and her family flee Sweet Home, slavery haunts them in numerous ways, whether through painful memories, literal scars, or their former owner himself, who finds Sethe and attempts to bring her and her children back to Sweet Home. Slavery is an institution so awful that Sethe kills her own baby, and attempts to kill all her children, to save them from being dragged back into it. Through the haunting figure of Beloved, and the memories that so many of the characters try and fail to hide from, Beloved shows how the institutionalized practice of slavery has lasting consequences—physical, psychological, and societal—even after it ends.

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Slavery Quotes in Beloved

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

“How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can’t stop talking about it? Look like if it was so sweet you would have stayed.”
Paul D laughed. “True, true. [Denver’s] right, Sethe. It wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home.” He shook his head.
“But it’s where we were,” said Sethe. “All together. Comes back whether we want it to or not.”

Related Characters: Sethe (speaker), Denver (speaker), Paul D (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Denver is perturbed by Paul D's arrival and his conversations with Sethe. She interrogates them about their discussion of Sweet Home, to which they respond that the place continues to exert powerful control over their lives.

This exchange establishes the fraught relationship these characters have to the plantation from which they have escaped. Although the location signifies cruel memories, it is also part of Sethe’s personal history, as well as the communal history created among all the slaves who worked there. Her simple constructions—“it’s where we were” and “all together”—make the incontestable argument that the plantation functioned much like a home does. It played the same narrative and psychological role for these characters, whether they want it to or not, and thus it returns consistently in their interactions and lives.

As an outsider, Denver is unable to make sense of this pattern. Her distanced viewpoint allows her to notice, for instance, the irony in the plantation’s name itself. She thus stands for the role of a second generation of ex-slaves, as well as for the contemporary reader, who might be confused about why the plantation serves to connect Sethe and Paul D. Morrison thus points to a disjoint between these two generational perspectives: one that feels a continued link to the plantation and one that cannot make sense of that very link.


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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.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

Odd clusters and strays of Negroes wandered the back roads and cowpaths from Schenectady to Jackson.... Some of them were running from family that could not support them, some to family; some were running from dead crops, dead kin, life threats, and took-over land. Boys younger than Buglar and Howard; configurations and blends of families of women and children, while elsewhere, solitary, hunted and hunting for, were men, men, men.

Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

When Paul D meets Beloved, he decides not to interrogate her about her past. He contemplates the various ways that ex-slaves traveled to escape their plantations.

Here Paul D presents the ways that this population moved through the United States. Instead of portraying a coherent migration, he uses language that connotes haphazard movement: “odd clusters and strays” as the subject, “wandered” as the verb. He then subdivides this general movement into a series of separate ones—a set of “some” groups that fled from and toward various destinations. The makeup of the populations, he notes, was similarly varied: the phrase “configurations and blends” emphasizes the lack of a singular identity.

Morrison unseats, through these images, the preconception that ex-slaves moved in a single, coherent fashion. They were not, she implies, composed of traditional family units or made of a homogenous population (because most family units had been broken up or destroyed by slavery itself, and slave owners tried to keep slaves from forming any kind of real community). Considering this complexity, it may seem surprising that Paul D does not ask Beloved of her past. And here we also see a commentary on personal history: Its complexity can provide grounds to ignore the past, to not dig too deeply for fear of what may be found.

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 7 Quotes

[Sethe] shook her head from side to side, resigned to her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you?

Related Characters: Sethe
Page Number: 82-83
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul D has just told Sethe that Halle saw her being attacked by the white men back at Sweet Home. In response, Sethe despairs that her memories refuse her attempts at controlling them.

This passage develops a model of deeply involuntary memory. Whereas Sethe wishes to control her relationship to the past, she finds herself stuck with “her rebellious brain.” She wonders why it indiscriminately incorporates all information: nothing is “refused,” and all is permissible “to accept.” That memory can never say “No thank you” means that it can never be shut out of the present moment. Though Sethe earnestly wishes to control her relationship to the past, these tales continue to play an active role beyond her control.

Likening memory to “a greedy child” is a poignant simile. First, it corroborates the way that Beloved functions to induce Sethe's memory—both in that she reminds Sethe of Sweet Home and in that she greedily asks her to recount stories of her past. If before, Beloved’s inquisitive nature seemed to offer a positive way for Sethe to relate to her past, here the connection to “greedy child” casts it in a less favorable light. Beloved becomes, then, a metaphor for memory’s uncontrollable and ravenous nature—the way it can prey on one’s current psychology.

Mister, he looked Better than me. Stronger, tougher. ...Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead.

Related Characters: Paul D (speaker), Paul D
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Sethe agrees to listen to Paul D’s stories about the past. He recounts, here, the despair he felt when he saw a rooster named Mister.

By juxtaposing the liberty of an animal with his own lack of liberty, Paul D shows the true destitution experienced in slavery. He considers the rooster to epitomize manlike qualities of “Stronger and tougher,” and to have more agency in determining his place in the world. In contrast to Mister’s ability to “stay what he was,” Paul D feels himself to be at the whims of others. This comparison functions in two ways: retroactively, it shows the misery of Paul D’s enslavement, and in the moment it caused him to understand just how powerless he was. His interaction with the rooster allowed and allows him to articulate the horror of slavery.

Bestowed with an honorary title—“Mister”—the rooster is presented to have a human identity and sense of control. Thus even if he were to be treated as an animal by being “cooked,” he would still have the honorific title that made him somehow more human and free. Paul D, on the other hand, trivializes his own name and, by extension, his own identity. Regardless of whether he is “living or dead,” he believes he will not be recognized. Morrison renders humanity, then, not an intrinsic quality, but rather a question of how one’s identity is constructed by others.

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them.... No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. ...The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.

Related Characters: Baby Suggs (speaker)
Page Number: 103-104
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Sethe recounts the sermons that Baby Suggs would deliver at the clearing. The oration encouraged ex-slaves to love themselves and each other, a behavior in direct contrast to the hatred and dehumanization they experienced from white people.

This passage shows the way Baby Suggs was, for a time, able to cultivate a meaningful and isolated community for ex-slaves. She defines the clearing in opposition to a “yonder,” which is described in terms of negations: “do not love”; “don’t love”; “no more do they love” etc. The clearing, on the other hand, is characterized by affirmations and actions—which Baby Suggs implores her listeners to replicate. She becomes a spiritual leader for the community, then, and the clearing becomes her allegorical church. Morrison seems in this scene to offer a form of mental emancipation and spirituality for the ex-slaves.

It bears noticing how much of the language focuses on components of the body: “hands” “liver” and “heart.” Instead of speaking only of emotional and spiritual identity, Baby Suggs maintains an almost exclusive focus on physicality. This emphasis speaks to how her unique brand of religion is non-denominational—unified by physical bodies instead of by ideology. It also underlines how the physical identity is what is most detested by those “yonder,” and thus what is most in need of protection by the closed circle of the clearing. Slavery was, at its simplest level, about the dehumanization and destruction of black bodies, and so here Baby Suggs seeks to undo that horror by teaching the former slaves to love and celebrate those same black bodies.

Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open.

Related Characters: Sethe, Paul D, Sixo
Related Symbols: Paul D’s Tobacco Tin
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul D describes his journey after escaping from the chain gang. He imagines placing memories into a tobacco tin in his chest, leaving them stored away and inaccessible.

This passage offers one example of how ex-slaves sought to confront their harrowing pasts. Here, Paul D’s strategy is to firmly seal off those memories in a metaphorical tobacco tin. He applies this process indiscriminately—to the cruel “schoolteacher” just as to his lover “Sethe” and to sensory images like butter and hickory. In contrast to the passage in which Sethe railed against how memory’s involuntary nature could easily overwhelm her, Paul D seems to maintain an impressive mastery over his mind.

Yet at the same time, Morrison hints at the fickle and uncontrollable nature of memory. In seeking to control his memories, Paul D must also sever himself from the positive ones. We should pause, similarly, at the image of the “tobacco tin.” Tobacco was one of the original crops grown by slave plantations in the United States, so the tin also serves as an implicit reference to the institution imprisoning Paul D. While this passage might seem to praise Paul D for his precise control over his past, the text both foreshadows that the tin will indeed be someday "pried open" and hints that Paul D's procedure of gaining this control may itself be deeply troubling.

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 2, Chapter 19 Quotes

I was about to turn around and keep on my way to where the muslin was, when I heard [Schoolteacher] say, “No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up.”

Related Characters: Sethe (speaker), Sethe, Schoolteacher
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

Sethe continues to involuntarily recall different events from Sweet Home. She cites a memory of Schoolteacher instructing his nephew, writing down lists of her human and animal characteristics.

This moment portrays the way slaveowners would make use of horrific and dehumanizing practices, as well as the pseudoscience they used to justify the institution itself. The Schoolteacher and his nephew have the semblance of scientific study through lining up attributes in a scientific manner. Yet their work horrifically demeans Sethe, reducing her human complexity to a series of bullet points. That one of those atomized lists is composed of “animal” characteristics is even more hideous: it shows that they believed slaves like her to only be partially human, to the extent that the non-human characteristics could be distilled through sufficient analysis.

That Sethe overhears this while asking for “muslin” is particularly ironic: muslin is a cotton cloth that would, of course, be only the concern of humans. Furthermore, the schoolteacher’s nephew is notably mis-ordering the lists, and thus presumably intellectually lacking even as he describes Sethe's intellectual inferiority. Thus even in the moment when the Schoolteacher dehumanizes Sethe, her actions and the text itself make a small effort to restore that humanity.

Whitepeople belived that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right.... But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them.

Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:

Stamp Paid ponders the frightening noises of 124. He describes a certain wildness in black people, but attributes it to the cruelty of whites.

At first, Stamp Paid seems to be engaging in the stereotypes held by white people toward black people. He describes the “jungle” beneath dark skin in exotifying imagery—reminiscent of a stereotypical idea of an African landscape—that presents slaves as pseudo-apes. Thus he develops the previous point that slaves are, in some way, part animal rather than entirely human. But then comes an unexpected turn: Stamp Paid does not deny the value of this image, and indeed claims “they were right.” Yet whereas white people believe that this metaphorical jungle derives from “the other (livable) place”—that is to say Africa itself—he believes it is the result of their oppression in America. The exact rage that white people fear in blacks was, in fact, planted by white people through the institution of slavery.

This passage is a brilliant example of how the imagery of oppressors can be repurposed by the oppressed for their own uses. Morrison implies that the most effective strategy for both Stamp Paid as a character and herself as author is not to deny the efficacy of the jungle metaphor. Rather, one must turn the horrific idea on its head, showing how it is a construction of white slave owners.

Part 2, Chapter 24 Quotes

For years Paul D believed schoolteacher broke into children what Garner had raised into men. And it was that that made them run off. Now, plagued by the contents of his tobacco tin, he wondered how much difference there really was between before schoolteacher and after.

Related Characters: Paul D, Schoolteacher
Related Symbols: Paul D’s Tobacco Tin
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

Now fully immersed in memories, Paul D questions the way he separated Garner and Schoolteacher. He thinks perhaps they were not as different as he had once thought.

This passages criticizes the way both whites and blacks would sometimes form hierarchies between slaveowners. It was and is a common practice to describe certain slaveowners as kinder than others. Here, Paul D has always believed Garner is kinder: His practices are applied to “men” instead of “children,” and they are “raised”—a relatively kind and nurturing verb—compared to the expression “broke into” used for Schoolteacher. Yet when Paul D revisits the actual content of the his memories, he realizes that this division may not actually be a significant as he had previously believed.

That “he wondered how much difference there really was” speaks to the flaws in viewing any behavior of a slaveowner in even relatively positive terms. Whether a slaveowner treated his slaves kindly or cruelly was secondary to the fact that he owned slaves at all, dehumanizing other people as "possessions" without identities other than those the slaveowner forces upon them. That this conclusion derives from Paul D having opened his “tobacco tin” speaks to the more positive results of revisiting one’s history. Though he may be “plagued” by these memories, they also give him greater clarity into his personal past—allowing him to realize the flaws in his more positive memories of Garner.

Remembering his own price, down to the cent, that schoolteacher was able to get for him, [Paul D] wondered what Sethe’s would have been. What had Baby Suggs’ been? How much did Halle owe, still, besides his labor? What did Mrs. Garner get for Paul F? More than nine hundred dollars? How much more? Ten dollars? Twenty?

Related Characters: Sethe, Paul D, Halle
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

Still consumed by memories of Sweet Home, Paul D wonders about the economics of slavery. He starts to brainstorm the costs that might have been paid for other slaves on the plantation.

This description emphasizes once more the dehumanizing way that slaveowners interacted with their slaves. Whereas earlier descriptions pointed out how slaves were likened to animals, this passages views them as commodities for sale. That each person can be affixed with a certain price point condenses their identity into a single interchangeable number. Even more insidiously, this mindset seems to have infiltrated Paul D. He takes on the language and perspective of the slaveowners here—indeed, applying it to his closest family and friends. Thus Morrison not only portrays the existence of this horrifying economic mindset, but also shows how easily it can infiltrate the minds of even the slaves it oppresses, so that they develop inferiority complexes and think of themselvesas commodities to be priced.

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.