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.
Slavery Quotes in Beloved
“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.”
[...] 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.
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.
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.
[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?
Mister, he looked so...free. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.