Beloved

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Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Theme Analysis

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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.
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon

The past does not simply go away in Beloved, but continues to exert influence in the present in a number of ways. The most obvious example of this is the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter. Though literally buried, the baby continues to be present in 124 as a kind of ghost or poltergeist. But beyond this instance of the supernatural, Sethe teaches Denver that “Some things just stay,” and that nothing ever really dies. Sweet Home, for example, although firmly in Sethe’s past, continues to haunt her through painful memories and the reappearance of Schoolteacher and even Paul D. As the novel continually moves between present narration and past memory, its very form also denies any simple separation between past and present. Sethe’s term for this kind of powerful memory is “rememory”, a word that she uses to describe memories that affect not only the person who remembers the past, but others as well.

One of the ways in which memories live on is through storytelling. The novel explores the value but also the danger of storytelling. Storytelling keeps memories alive and Sethe’s telling Denver about her family and her miraculous birth gives Denver some sense of personal history and heritage. As stories spread between Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Denver, personal memories give rise to a kind of collective oral tradition about the past, and offer former slaves the ability to tell their own story and define themselves, as opposed to constantly being defined by slave-owners, such as Schoolteacher (who takes notes for his own writings about his slaves). But storytelling also awakens painful memories, especially for Sethe and Paul D. Bringing up past pain can prevent characters from moving on. The end of the novel suggests that, after Beloved’s disappearance, people had to forget about her in order to go on living, as it repeats, “It was not a story to pass on.” But nonetheless, Toni Morrison’s novel does pass on the story of Beloved, suggesting that there still is some value in our learning about this painful story of the past, that as a nation we should not (and cannot) forget about the history of slavery.

One of the ways that communities find expression in Beloved is through song. Baby Suggs’ sermons are centered around song and dance, while the group of women that forces Beloved from the house does so by singing. Paul D and his fellow chain gang prisoners get through their labor by singing. A chorus of singing people provides the perfect example of the strength of operating as a community. The combined effect of a singing group is greater than that of all its individuals singing alone. Similarly, in order to endure slavery and its lasting effects, characters in Beloved rely on each other for strength.

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Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Quotes in Beloved

Below you will find the important quotes in Beloved related to the theme of Storytelling, Memory, and the Past.
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 3 Quotes

Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory.... Places, places are still there.

Related Characters: Sethe (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Denver is moved by the sight of a praying Sethe’s white dress, and she thinks of the story of her birth. When she asks Sethe what she was doing, Sethe reflects on the endurance of both memory and actual places.

Sethe makes two important distinctions on the permanence of certain aspects of life. The first is between things that “go” and things that “stay”: Certain events or people, she implies, are transitory while others maintain a permanent presence in her life. In making this distinction, she responds to Denver’s earlier skepticism on her and Paul D’s interest in Sweet Home, asserting that the past continues to play a significant role in the present. Selecting the term “rememory” instead of “memory” underlines its repetitive quality, demonstrating that a particularly strong memory recreates events in the present instead of merely observing them from a distance.

At this point, both the reader and Denver would presume that Sethe is speaking of memory—that memory allows things to “just stay.” But Sethe directly disarms this point, rejecting that “it was my rememory” and instead asserting the continued endurance of “places.” She thus affirms that what stays can be corporeal and physical instead of just psychological—a point that can be applied to her scarred body, to the building 124, and of course to the character of Beloved herself.

As for Denver, the job Sethe had of keeping her from the past that was still waiting for her was all that mattered.

Related Characters: Sethe, Denver
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Sethe ponders a potential future with Paul D, but notes that Denver must be her first priority. She worries about how her slave past may affect Denver’s future.

This passage inverts a traditional linear time-scale, for it positions “the past” to be “waiting” for Denver as if it is in fact in her future. Sethe has already spoken of the way the past can play a continued role in the present, but here she takes the claim one step further—observing that it can also affect the future. As a result, the past takes on qualities of aggression, even violence—things from which a child must be kept. That protecting Denver from these memories “was all that mattered” shows Sethe’s singularity of purpose: even as Paul D might allow her to engage with the present and future, her focus remains entirely on keeping the past from her child. (Ironically, this obsession makes Sethe herself deeply imbedded in the past.) Morrison thus shows how memory provides not only a continued struggle for an individual person, but also affects the ability of communities and new generations to live independent of previous atrocities.

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe... because every mention of her past life hurt.... But, as she began telling about the earrings, she found herself wanting to, liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved’s distance from the events itself, or her thirst for hearing it—in any case it was an unexpected pleasure.

Related Characters: Sethe, Beloved
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

When Sethe recounts the tale of her earrings, she is surprised at how much the story pleases Beloved. She wonders why they relate to her memories so differently.

This passage returns to the theme of how the past continues to affect the present. Here, “storytelling” connects earlier memories to a current interaction—which is precisely what Sethe wished to avoid for both herself and for Denver. As a result, she is surprised that Beloved gains “profound satisfaction” from the tales: a combination of words that implies not only pleasure but also a deeper sense of meaning. More intriguing still, this enjoyment transfers from Beloved back to Sethe, from listener back to storyteller.

The precise significance of this transfer remains somewhat unclear. On the one hand, it might cast Beloved as helping heal Sethe—as providing a way for her to reconcile her past and find an “unexpected pleasure” in what has formerly haunted her. A more skeptical reading, however, would see in Beloved’s “thirst” a level of manipulation that painfully brings an unwanted past into the present. One way to resolve the tension might be to see how Sethe attributes Beloved’s enjoyment to her “distance from the events itself.” This line points to the reliance of storytelling on a certain detachment from what is being told: perhaps by forming a narrative of her past, Sethe is able to acquire her own distance from the events, to become an audience for her own story like Beloved.

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.

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 3, Chapter 28 Quotes

They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget... In the end, they forgot her too.

Related Characters: Beloved
Page Number: 323-324
Explanation and Analysis:

In this novel’s final chapter, the narrator describes the outcome of Beloved’s disappearance. She explains that Beloved soon faded from the town’s communal memory.

That Beloved is described as a “bad dream” emphasizes her spectral and haunted nature. At this point, she is not deemed to be Sethe’s actual child, but rather an abstract embodiment of the horrors of slavery. As a result, she takes on different meanings for different members of the town. They “made up their tales,” thus fitting her into personal narratives, but those narratives soon diverge from actual memories as they “deliberately forgot her.”

Morrison here shows the way that people and communities edit their memories, both in active and passive ways. The process happens at different paces depending on the type of relationship each person held to Beloved, but slowly all move toward a similar end of oblivion. For a community to cleanse itself of negative occurrences, the novel implies, the past must be left behind.

This is not a story to pass on.

Page Number: 324
Explanation and Analysis:

At the novel’s conclusion, the narrator reflects on the storytelling process itself. She claims that the tale ought to remain, ironically, untold.

This line uses a normative tense—“this is not”—to make a decisive, moral statement on the story. Morrison seems to take up the belief of her characters’ that certain narrative and personal histories belong to the past and should not be retold or re-experienced. Yet it is deeply ironic that this line appears at the end of a novel: Morrison has clearly decided that the story is worth passing on to her readership as she has just told it. Indeed, we should also note that the line is written twice: first “It was not a story to pass on” and then switched to the present tense, as in this quote. This switch from past to present itself proves that the story has succeeded in being passed on.

As is typical of Morrison’s work, there is no clear resolution to this interpretive paradox. The story is simultaneously too awful to recount and entirely necessary to remember. It functions somewhat like a textual version of Paul D’s tobacco tin: a repository for what is too awful to be constantly around, but what cannot be ignored permanently.