As the border that demarcates the free territory of Ohio from the nearby southern slave states, the Ohio River is of great significance. For slaves such as Sethe, the river represents the promise of freedom. Given the wealth of Biblical allusions in the novel, the river may also be understood as a version of the Jordan River from the Bible, which the Israelites cross to enter the Promised Land. As Beloved comes out of the river and describes herself as coming from “the other side”, the Ohio River also comes to symbolize the border between this world and the next (indeed, for free ex-slaves, crossing back into slave territory would be a kind of death). Stamp Paid’s occupation as a ferryman on the river for the Underground Railroad furthers this association, as he resembles Charon from Greek mythology (who ferried souls across the river Styx into the underworld).
The Ohio River Symbol Timeline in Beloved
The timeline below shows where the symbol The Ohio River appears in Beloved. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 5
Near 124, an unidentified young woman in a nice-looking dress climbs out of the river. She is described as having “new skin”. She sits down on a stump outside of... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 8
...thinks that the baby she’s pregnant with (Denver) must be dead. She limps to the river with Amy, where Sethe suddenly goes into labor. With Amy’s help, she gives birth in... (full context)