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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
Beloved directed by Jonathan Demme (1998)
I am going to start this with a fairly detailed summary. Even if you have read the book or seen the movie, I know both can be confusing and hard to follow. I will give a summary in chronological order (unlike the book) so you can understand the events of this book and movie. If you already know and understand the story, I will put a timestamp telling you when I am done with the summary and get into the details and analysis of book and movie.
There is a lot to this story, and the book tells it nonlinearly but here I will tell what happens in chronological order. There are some really uncomfortable and difficult things in this story, but Morrison tells this story with such skill and care, it is not at all told in an exploitative way.
A slave woman named Baby Suggs gives birth to a child named Halle and the two of them are bought by a man named Garner who’s plantation is called Sweet Home. There are a few other male slaves, who are around Halle’s age, and one is Paul D. Halle eventually asks Garner if he can work to buy his mom’s freedom and eventually he is able to give Baby Suggs her freedom. She had worked in the house, and now that Baby Suggs is free, Garner buys a woman named Sethe to take her place.
Baby Suggs goes to the Cincinnati area, meanwhile Halle and Sethe decide to be married. All the other men are jealous and dream of Sethe, seeing as she is just about the only woman they see.
Sethe gives birth to three children, two boys then a girl. At some point, Garner, who was kind in terms of slave owners, dies. His wife is getting old and hires a man who is called Schoolteacher to help run things. Schoolteacher and his nephews are cruel and life at Sweet Home becomes terrible.
They make plans to run away, however things don’t go as planned. Sethe is able to send her three children off, but can’t find Halle so she has to go find him. Meanwhile, Paul D and others are caught. One man named Sixo is killed by being burned, and Paul D has a prong collar put on.
Sethe finds Paul D and asks what happened. Paul D is ashamed of the metal around his neck, and is touched at how Sethe treats him despite having it on.
Sethe is pregnant with her fourth child at the time, and when she is looking for Halle, the Schoolteacher and the nephews take her to the barn and take her breast milk (and I think rape her?).
She tells Mrs. Garner about it, a woman who has always been kind but is now too old and weak to do anything. The guys find out she told on them, and whip Sethe.
After this, she decides she is going to run away, with or without Halle.
She makes it to Ohio thanks to the help of a strange white woman who helps her give birth to her daughter whom she names Denver. A man named Stamp Paid gets her to Baby Suggs place and helps with Denver.
Twenty-eight days later, he returns and sees that the new baby Denver is alive still which fills him with relief and joy. He goes to pick berries, and brings back two bucket-fulls and gives some to baby Denver.
They end up cooking a feast that night and inviting everyone over to celebrate. The next morning, Stamp is out chopping wood, and Baby Suggs is doing chores when four white men come riding up. It is Schoolteacher, two others from Sweet Home, and the local sheriff there to find Sethe and take her back. Sethe, seeing the men, can’t let her children return to that place where they are treated like animals. She takes her children into the woodshed and when the men open the door, they see she has killed her two year old and is about to kill Denver. Stamp rescues Denver, and Schoolteacher and the others are in shock. They leave, and the sheriff arrests Sethe.
Sethe takes Denver with her when she goes to jail and when she is released she finds that the ghost of the dead baby haunts the house.
Her two sons leave, Sethe thinking it’s because they can’t stand living with the ghost. Baby Suggs dies after a while, and Sethe and Denver are left alone to live in the haunted house. Sethe doesn’t seem too bothered by the spirit, and Denver actually likes the ghost.
Eighteen years after Sethe had escaped Sweet Home, she comes home one day to see Paul D there on her porch. She invites him in and he can sense the ghost. At one point, the ghost causes the house to shake and things to fly around, and Paul D “battles the ghost” and is able to get rid of it.
They go out together a few days later, and when they return, there is a young women dressed in black sitting on their stump. She has a gravely voice, and says her name is Beloved.
Denver immediately loves Beloved and is very protective of her. Sethe also comes to love her and likes how devoted Beloved seems to be to Sethe.
Paul D however, gets a weird vibe from her and doesn’t believe her story and thinks something fishy is going on.
Denver and Beloved have a conversation where Denver asks, kind if indirectly, if Beloved is her dead sister to which Beloved says that yes she is. Beloved also says that she came back just for Sethe. This hurts Denver’s feelings, because she is very attached to Beloved.
Meanwhile, one night Paul D falls asleep in the living room chair rather then going up and sleeping in bed with Sethe. From there, he starts sleeping in a different bedroom. Then, even though it is getting cold, he starts sleeping out in the shed.
While out there, Beloved comes in and seduces him in a way. He doesn’t want to have sex with her, but she has a strange pull and he doesn’t have a choice. When they have sex, the metaphorical box he has locked his past in, is opened up.
Paul D wants to confess to Sethe what has been going on between him and Beloved but is unable to. Then, Stamp Paid decides to tell Paul D about Sethe and what she did to her daughter. The whole town avoids them because of it, and thinks Sethe comes off prideful, refusing to ask for help. He tells Paul D and Paul then asks Sethe about it.
She explains why she did what she did, that she wanted her children safe. Paul D can’t follow her logic, and tells her she has two legs, not four. Meaning she’s not an animal that kills their young. He then leaves and stays in the church basement.
With Paul D gone, Sethe starts noticing Beloved even more and starts thinking about the things in Sethe’s past Beloved somehow knew about. She realizes Beloved is her dead daughter and confirms this with Beloved. Sethe starts being later and later getting to work, because she just wants to spend all day at home with Beloved. Eventually, she is late so often, she is fired.
Before long, Beloved and Sethe are equally obsessed with each other. They pay Denver no mind, and even though they are basically starving because they have no food, Beloved and Sethe don’t seem concerned about it. They fight with each other constantly. Beloved accusing Sethe of abandoning her, Sethe constantly trying to explain herself and justify her actions.
Denver realizes she needs to do something before they starve. She gets help from a woman she had known years before and food is provided by the community. Sethe and Beloved eat the food, not caring to think about where it came from.
Denver eventually goes to see a white man and sister who had helped Baby Suggs and they give Denver a job.
Denver is sitting outside one day, waiting for the white man to pick her up. Meanwhile, a large group of women, who heard about Sethe’s dead daughter coming back to life and basically slowly killing Sethe, arrive to help. They start singing, and Sethe and Beloved come outside to see.
Then the white guy drives up, and Sethe is triggered by the memory of Schoolteacher arriving. She runs at him with an ice pick, but is stopped by the crowd. When they look back at the house, Beloved has disappeared.
We flash forward a bit, and Paul D sees Denver in the city. She is like a new person, so unlike her awkward, anti-social, bitter self she had when they first met. He asks how Sethe is doing and Denver says she isn’t well. Ever since that day, she’s stayed in bed and hasn’t gotten out. Paul asks if he should visit her, and Denver says it’s up to him but if he does see her, to be nice.
He goes to see her and she says how Beloved has left and that she was the best part of herself. To which Paul says that Sethe herself, is the best part of her.
(There are more details about Paul D’s past as well as things about Halle that I didn’t mention here, but will talk about in my analysis of this story as I compare it with the movie.)
Toni Morrison said of this story, “The figure most central to the story would have to be her, the murdered, not the murderer, the one who lost everything and had no say in any of it. She could not linger outside; she would have to enter the house. A real house, not a cabin. One with an address, one where former slaves lived on their own.”
Thoughts on the Book
To start, this book is written in a very unique way. I haven’t read any other Morrison books, but this one seems pretty clear it is written by an experienced writer. The perspectives change frequently and without warning. The timeline also jumps around a lot. This isn’t like books that separate perspectives or time frames into specific chapters. Perspective will change from one paragraph to the next and time changes from one sentence to the next.
I would not recommend listening to the audio when first starting this book. That’s what I did, and it left me feeling confused at times. After listening to that first section, I came home and read what I had just listened to, to make sure I understood things right.
You do get used to the writing style, and get the characters in order. If Morrison wasn’t a talented, smart writer, this style would have produced a confusing mess. However, I loved the way it’s written.
Right from the start, we are dumped into what is happening with no set up. I love when books (and movies) do this. As said, this style has you feeling a bit disoriented for a chapter, or more, but things are explained in an organic way, rather than an omniscient narrator holding your hand the whole way and spoon feeding you the story.
In the introduction, Morrison explains the thoughtful choice behind starting the book in this way, “There would be no lobby into this house, and there would be no “introduction” into it or into the novel. I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”
This book was also a hard one to put down. To have to do anything other than to continue reading felt like an inconvenience.
It was more horror-esque than I realized because I went into this book knowing almost nothing. It deals with a malevolent spirit that haunts a home, then the spirit appears in the flesh. Even more horrifying, are the stories we are told from the past and what happened to each character when they were slaves. There is some messed up stuff in here, but slavery is disturbing, violent, evil and horrific, so how can you expect a book about slavery to not at least in part, be some of those things.
Even though the story is tragic and gut wrenching, the ending is actually a happy one which surprised me. I thought it would be a brutal ending, but we are given hope.
I recently did a YouTube video where I explained my issue with Kristin Hannah books. Her books annoy me, because they cover traumatic things, but do so in glamourous, romantic, Lifetime way. Here, Morrison covers incredibly traumatic things, and does so with unflinching clarity. A Goodreads reviewers for this book wrote, “The book is about the problem of memory, specifically the memory of trauma, both on a personal and national level. I feel like everyone always wants to write these great books about the most terrible [stuff], but the fact is that doing so right is incredibly hard, which is maybe why there’re so many bad books about tragedy and so many good books about boring people’s mundane little problems. You really have to know what you’re doing to write about the most terrible [stuff], well, and Morrison picked THE most terrible [stuff], in America’s past, then wrote an original and organic ghost story that deserves its hallowed place in American literature… This book depicts the effects of slavery on people — individually and collectively — with, just, well, shattering genius. But don’t try this at home, folks! She is a lady of unusual talent and skills, and in most people’s clumsy hands this effort’d be dangerous.”
That Goodreads reviewer isn’t completely accurate though. Morrison didn’t create this story from her imagination entirely. Sethe “saving” her children from being taken back to slavery is from a real event that happened in Ohio, where Morrison is from.
“Author Toni Morrison based part of her story on a true case. Margaret Garner was a slave who lived on a farm called Maplewood in Boone County, Kentucky. Her owner was Archibald K. Gaines…[was also] the father of two of Margaret’s children. In January, 1856, Margaret, her husband Robert Garner, and their four children escaped across the frozen Ohio River to the home of Margaret’s uncle, Joe Kite, just outside Cincinnati. When slave catchers caught up with them, Margaret Garner attempted to kill her four children rather than have them returned to slavery. She succeeded in killing her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife before she was subdued. It took four weeks to bring the case to trial in Cincinnati, because the prosecution argued that Margaret should be tried under federal Fugitive Slave Laws, while the defense argued that Margaret should be tried for murder under state murder laws. (The defense hoped to obtain a pardon from the Ohio governor if Margaret was convicted.) By the time the judge ruled in favor of the federal Fugitive Slave Laws, Margaret’s owner had taken her back across the river to Kentucky. To keep her out of the hands of Ohio abolitionists, Gaines sent Margaret to New Orleans, and then to a Mississippi plantation, where she died of typhoid fever in 1858.”
This movie is directed by the same man who directed Silence of the Lambs, which in some ways is fitting, but surprised me nonetheless. As said, this book could almost be considered a horror novel and Demme leans into the horror side of this story. Some scenes it seems are in here for shock value, or maybe he just wanted to really get us to feel how disturbed some events are.
The novel gets right to it at the start, and the movie has quite the start as well, showing the scene where the spirit throws the dog around the house. The book has some graphic stuff, and I wondered if the movie would clean some stuff up. I was surprised though how much the movie kept in. And we aren’t eased into it either. In the first five minutes, we see a dog with his eyeball hanging out and Sethe popping it back in place.
I went into the movie with pretty low expectations, because how can a novel like this be turned into a good adaptation?? When I started the movie and saw it was a whopping three hours long(!), I was like, “Okay, okay. It looks like they really tried to get the whole story in this.” And I was pleasantly surprised. This movie was a box office flop, but let’s be honest-a three hour movie about the horrors of slavery isn’t one that you would expect to do well in the 90’s, or even today, because a lot of people don’t want to think about the terrible things that happened during slavery.
Oprah Winfrey is in the lead role of Sethe, and it is thanks to Winfrey this movie was even made. From the start, she knew she wanted to play Sethe, and wanted Glover as Paul. This is only the second movie I’ve seen with Oprah, but I think she is a fine actress.
Kimberly Elise is Denver, and Elise gives an amazing performance. I was impressed with her right from the start. The main three characters all change through the course of the story, but the movie is able to capture Denver’s arc the best in my opinion and part of that is due to Elise’s excellent portrayal of Denver.
Danny Glover plays Paul D and I loved him in this role. The movie left out a lot of his story from the book, but as I watched the movie, I had his backstory in my mind. Paul D is such a great character and a wonderful person in the book and Glover really brings him to life. There is one scene the movie added, that wasn’t in the book, but I think it was added to make up for how much of Paul D’s past is left out of the movie.
Thandwie Newton is also perfectly cast as Beloved. Though she plays the character like she has a mental disability and I still don’t know how I feel about that. When I read the book, I didn’t imagine Beloved in that way, so it took some adjusting. Newton always held her mouth in this weird way which sometimes annoyed me. It makes sense though to have Beloved be mentally off, considering she died when she was only two, and now here she is, a spirit who doesn’t know what it is like to be human after all that time. Funny enough, Thandwie Newtons first name means “beloved”.
LisaGay Hamilton plays young Sethe in the flashbacks, and is great in the gut wrenching scenes she has.
Even though Sweet Home wasn’t a terrible place to be when the Garner’s were in charge, once Schoolteacher takes over it is horrible. In present day, Sethe is reflecting on Sweet Home and it reads, “and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world.“
In both book and movie, we learn what happened to Halle. Paul D tells Sethe that later, after their failed escape and after Sethe had gotten away, he saw Halle at the churn, rubbing butter over his face and body and he wasn’t mentally there. He tells Sethe that Halle had been in the loft and saw what schoolteacher and his guys had done to her.
Sethe can’t believe he saw, yet did nothing about it. To which Paul D replies, “Listen up. Let me tell you something. A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.” Baby Suggs described her son as being too good for this world, and was worried he wouldn’t be able to take it. He was a strong person though and was admired by all, but this even broke him and he wasn’t able to recover from it.
After hearing all this, it reads,
“Did you speak to him? Didn’t you say anything to him? Something!” “I couldn’t, Sethe. I just…couldn’t.” “Why!” “I had a bit in my mouth.” Sethe opened the front door and sat down on the porch steps. The day had gone blue without its sun, but she could still make out the black silhouettes of trees in the meadow beyond. She 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? I just ate and can’t hold another bite?…I can’t go back and add more. Add my husband to it, watching, above me in the loft—hiding close by—the one place he thought no one would look for him, looking down on what I couldn’t look at at all. And not stopping them—looking and letting it happen. But my greedy brain says, Oh thanks, I’d love more—so I add more. And no sooner than I do, there is no stopping. There is also my husband squatting by the churn smearing the butter as well as its clabber all over his face because the milk they took is on his mind. And as far as he is concerned, the world may as well know it. And if he was that broken then, then he is also and certainly dead now. And if Paul D saw him and could not save or comfort him because the iron bit was in his mouth, then there is still more that Paul D could tell me and my brain would go right ahead and take it and never say, No thank you. I don’t want to know or have to remember that. I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age and sickness not to speak of love. But her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.”
I know that was long, but once again, it is such a painful yet beautifully written passage. It also shows how Sethe is held captive by her past and how her decisions are steeped in her past experiences. Which is the case with everyone I suppose to some extent.
The movie doesn’t have Paul D with a bit in his mouth and he is able to talk to Halle but all Halle says is something about the loft.
We also hear a lot of stories about a man named Sixo, when Paul is reflecting back. Sixo had a strong spirit and had “rebelled” in various ways. He also had a women he would walk 30 miles to go see and she is there when they try to escape.
There are two sections in the book that describe the kind of person Paul D is, the first one reading, “Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could. There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep—to tell him that their chest hurt and their knees did too. Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other…”
Then later, once he is with Sethe, she is realizing how she notices more when he is there and she thinks, ” He was responsible for that. Emotions sped to the surface in his company. Things became what they were: drabness looked drab; heat was hot. Windows suddenly had view. And wouldn’t you know he’d be a singing man.”
We learn so much more about Paul D in the book than we are shown in the movie. However, the movie still captures the kind of man Paul D is, even without these exact words being said.
As far as his life before arriving at 124, we don’t learn much of it in the movie. It does have the scene where after he tells Sethe he wants to have babies with her, he is in great spirits and happy at work. A coworker tells him they might be told they are free, but they still aren’t truly free. Paul D gets upset and says how he was bought and sold five times and his children won’t have to go through that.
The book tells us in detail what he experienced, and at some point he says how he locked away all those past pains and trauma from the past in a box never to be opened again. When he has sex with Beloved though, that box is unlocked.
We learn though that after Sweet Home he was sold to a man whom he at some point tried to kill. From there he was sent to prison. In jail, they kept them in boxes in the ground kind of thing, and at one point it is raining for days on end. The rain helps them get out and because it’s raining, no white people are outside so they are able to run away. They reach a group of Native American’s who cut their chains.
All the men eventually leave to do their own thing but Paul D stays the longest because he doesn’t know what to do. Paul struggles throughout the book with is identity. Later, when he is thinking about how he left Sethe, he thinks, “As a matter of fact, Paul D doesn’t care how It went or even why. He cares about how he left and why. When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed.”
In book and movie, he and Sethe talk about how it’s been 18 years since they’ve seen each other, and Paul says he’s been walking every one of those years. He never stayed anywhere long and couldn’t “find himself”. There are a couple stories when he is free, and the experiences he has that he can’t believe. Including have a bed with sheets to sleep on and how it brings tears to his eyes.
When he gets to Sethe, he feels he is somewhere he could stay. When he leaves her, it once again makes him question himself and who he is. The man Garner, calls his slaves “men” whereas other slave owners call them “boy”. This also is something Paul D struggles with, “That was the wonder of Sixo, and even Halle; it was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not. It troubled him that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point. Oh, he did manly things, but was that Garner’s gift or his own will? What would he have been anyway— before Sweet Home—without Garner? In Sixo’s country, or his mother’s? Or, God help him, on the boat? Did a whiteman saying it make it so? Suppose Garner woke up one morning and changed his mind? Took the word away. Would they have run then? And if he didn’t, would the Pauls have stayed there all their lives? Why did the brothers need the one whole night to decide? To discuss whether they would join Sixo and Halle. Because they had been isolated in a wonderful lie, dismissing Halle’s and Baby Suggs’ life before Sweet Home as bad luck. Ignorant of or amused by Sixo’s dark stories. Protected and convinced they were special…”
Sethe often says that her children are the best part of her and is very protective of them, in a way. There is a line from the book which says, “The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean.” She feels she has been tainted by the abuse she has suffered and no longer has much self worth. After her daughter is dead, she too want to die, but stays alive just for the sake of her three children that are still around. She ties her worth to her children, because she sees them as the best part of herself because they are clean.
In the end, Paul D provides her with the truth she needs to hear. That she is the best of herself, and the abuses she has suffered doesn’t diminish who she is as a person. This section, with Paul D talking to her reads, “There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” He is staring at the quilt but he is thinking about her … The wet dress steaming before the fire. Her tenderness about his neck jewelry [the collar schoolteacher put on him]—its three wands, like attentive baby rattlers, curving two feet into the air. How she never mentioned or looked at it, so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers. “Sethe,” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers. “Me? Me?””
In various stories in this book, we hear how slaves learned not to love anything too much, because it could be taken from you and if you love too much it just makes life too hard. Baby Suggs stopped loving children she gave birth to, and when she had Halle, she assumed they would be separated from him like she had her other children. Yet they end up staying together and he buys her freedom. Sethe’s own mother gave birth to other children on the ship to America, but they were products of rape, so she threw the babies overboards. I don’t remember if Sethe’s father was a whiteman or another slave, but she decided to keep Sethe for some reason.
When Sethe is free, for those 28 days after arriving at Baby Suggs, she finally felt she could love her children to the fullest extent. And going back to what I just talked about, she saw the children’s purity as the best part of her as they were untainted from the effects of slavery. And she would therefore rather have them die than become slaves.
There is a passage early on, describing Denver approaching the house, when the ghost is still there, “Shivering, Denver approached the house, regarding it, as she always did, as a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits. Her steps and her gaze were the cautious ones of a child approaching a nervous, idle relative (someone dependent but proud).”
The house itself is 124 Bluestone Road, and 124 has symbolic meaning. Sethe had four children, but the third one is gone, Hence, 1-2-4, missing the three.
Sethe tells herself that her sons left because of the ghost. The truth though, is that they left because they were scared of Sethe. After the event in the shed, it says how the boys always held hands and wouldn’t go anywhere without the other. They also talked to Denver, telling “die-witch” stories, which were them telling her how to kill Sethe if Sethe ever tries to kill her.
We also see that Denver doesn’t like her mom braiding or combing her hair. Later in the book, we learn of Denver’s fear of Sethe. That whatever made Sethe think she had to kill her children, could take over Sethe again one day and she could try to kill Denver. She doesn’t like Sethe doing anything with Denver’s head, because she is worried Sethe with chop it off basically. She also is very protective of Beloved at first, because she wants to protect her from Sethe. All of these details are left out of the movie, though when the boys are running away, it does show them holding hands.
When Denver was younger she went to school, but then one day, a well meaning boy asks her about Sethe and Denver never returns. She asks Sethe about what the boy had said, and Sethe responds but Denver doesn’t hear her. For a time, she has a deafness caused by the trauma.
Some people think she is mentally slow, but it is just her experiences that have stunted her mental and emotional growth.
When she is forced to get out of her comfort zone, and seek help from others, the opportunity to scoilaize with others starts to awaken something in her. The people she sees, as she returns their dishes, invite her in and they talk about Baby Suggs whom Denver misses very much.
The movie has the great scene where Denver is upstairs while the craziness is going on, and Baby Suggs appears and provides comfort and guidnence to Denver.
“The job she started out with, protecting Beloved from Sethe, changed to protecting her mother from Beloved. Now it was obvious that her mother could die and leave them both and what would Beloved do then? Whatever was happening, it only worked with three—not two—and since neither Beloved nor Sethe seemed to care what the next day might bring (Sethe happy when Beloved was; Beloved lapping devotion like cream), Denver knew it was on her.”
The book never gives a straight up explanation into Beloved. In book and movie, when Paul D is talking to Denver he asks her if she thinks Beloved really was her sister and she says that at times she did. Paul D says, “if you want my opinion…” but Denver cuts him off and says, “I don’t. I have my own opinion.” Morrison teases us with the chance to her their thoughts, but then cuts them off and we are left to ourselves to form our opinions.
People in the town talk about a girl who was held captive in a white man’s basement, and some speculate that that’s who Beloved is. I don’t think so though. I think she really was the dead daughter, or if not the daughter, she was a spirit who knew Sethe and her past as well as the past of slavery in general. To Sethe, Beloved represents her past and how she holds on to it and isn’t able to movie forward and live her life. Beloved is past traumas, specifically the trauma of slavery. Maybe that is why Paul D’s traumatic past is opened up when he has sex with her.
When Stamp regrets telling Paul D, he goes to see him and Beloved comes up. Paul says of her, “First minute I saw her I didn’t want to be nowhere around her. Something funny about her. Talks funny. Acts funny…She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I’m supposed to remember.” Which contributes to her being a representation of slavery and his, and everyone’s, troubles past.
There is also a section of this book that is written as a stream of conciouness from the perspective’s of Sethe, Denver and Beloved. Beloved’s section is written in a way that is hard to make sense of, but it seems to be her saying that she was on a boat that was taking people from Africa to America. Sethe’s own mother was taken from Africa, so maybe Beloved’s spirit was there with her ancsetor. Or it could once again be an example of how Beloved isn’t just the dead daughter, but just slavery in general.
Also, one last thing about Beloved. When the baby died, Sethe was allowed out of jail to see the burial. The only words she heard the preacher say was, “Dearly beloved…” Sethe took that to mean he was calling the baby dearly beloved, not the people that had gathered for the funeral. She wants to have those words written on the tombstone, but doesn’t have money. The guy tells her if she has sex with him, he will write “beloved”, so that is what Sethe does. She says the pink chips of the headstone where the last time she noticed color. Until Beloveds return later in the story.
Sethe and Beloved
Once Sethe believes that Beloved is her daughter, she becomes obsessed with her. When you think of Beloved as being an embodiment of trauma and regret, there are sections that are so powerfully written about how people become obsessed with their terrible past. Sethe bends to Beloved’s will, and Sethe becomes smaller and smaller, literally as well as figuratively. “The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness.”
“But once Sethe had seen the scar, the tip of which Denver had been looking at whenever Beloved undressed— the little curved shadow of a smile in the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin—once Sethe saw it, fingered it and closed her eyes for a long time, the two of them cut Denver out of the games. The cooking games, the sewing games, the hair and dressing-up games. Games her mother loved so well she took to going to work later and later each day until the predictable happened: Sawyer told her not to come back. And instead of looking for another job, Sethe played all the harder with Beloved, who never got enough of anything: lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, the top of the milk.”
When a person is overtaken by their past, the abuse towards them plus their hauntings of their own actions, they neglect everything and everyone around them.
Sethe is also always over explaining herself to Beloved. Sometimes because Beloved is accusatory, but other times Beloved appears to be fine, but Sethe gets her going by bringing it up again out of nowhere.
“This and much more Denver heard her say from her corner chair, trying to persuade Beloved, the one and only person she felt she had to convince, that what she had done was right because it came from true love…[Denver] came to realize that her presence in that house had no influence on what either woman did. She kept them alive and they ignored her. Growled when they chose; sulked, explained, demanded, strutted, cowered, cried and provoked each other to the edge of violence, then over. She had begun to notice that even when Beloved was quiet, dreamy, minding her own business, Sethe got her going again. Whispering, muttering some justification, some bit of clarifying information to Beloved to explain what it had been like, and why, and how come. It was as though Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out.”
These sections are just so incredible, into what happens to a person when they are overtaken by their past! I know I’m repeating myself, but this is just such a profound metaphor here. The fact that Sethe wouldn’t even accept forgiveness if it was given to her, because she has yet to forgive herself for what she did.
The movie does a good job conveying this, but the way Morrison writes it is just so much more powerful.
The movie has the scene where Stamp tells Paul what happened with Sethe, but the movie leaves out what happens later. Stamp starts to regret what he did and is worried how Paul moving out effected Sethe and specifically Denver. “Even if Sethe could deal with the return of the spirit, Stamp didn’t believe her daughter could. Denver needed somebody normal in her life. By luck he had been there at her very birth almost—before she knew she was alive—and it made him partial to her. It was seeing her, alive, don’t you know, and looking healthy four weeks later that pleased him so much he gathered all he could carry of the best blackberries in the county and stuck two in her mouth first, before he presented the difficult harvest to Baby Suggs. To this day he believed his berries (which sparked the feast and the wood chopping that followed) were the reason Denver was still alive. Had he not been there, chopping firewood, Sethe would have spread her baby brains on the planking. Maybe he should have thought of Denver, if not Sethe, before he gave Paul D the news that ran him off, the one normal somebody in the girl’s life since Baby Suggs died.”
Stamp goes to the house to check on them and says as he approaches he hears loud voices. He can’t make out what they are saying, aside from the word “mine”. As he gets to the door, the voices are suddenly just a murmur. But when he is further out, they once again get loud. I wish the movie would have had this detail, because it is so haunting. The bad spirit that is in there. He even knocks on the door several times, but isn’t heard.
As said, the woman in the town don’t like Sethe and don’t have much sympathy for her. One woman in particular, Ella, we see into her thoughts reading,
“The daughter, however, appeared to have some sense after all. At least she had stepped out the door, asked for the help she needed and wanted work. When Ella heard 124 was occupied by something-or-other beating up on Sethe, it infuriated her and gave her another opportunity to measure what could very well be the devil himself against “the lowest yet.” There was also something very personal in her fury. Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. Sethe’s crime was staggering and her pride outstripped even that; but she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving on in the house, unleashed and sassy. Daily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life—every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” and nobody needed more; nobody needed a grown-up evil sitting at the table with a grudge.””
The women of the town banding together, against this embodiment of evil, embodiment of their own terrible pasts and traumas, to overtake it with love and caring.
In the movie, it has Beloved yell and with that yell she literally disappears. Whereas in the book, they look away, and when they look again, she is gone. Making her all the more mysterious. Beloved is also pregnant. She had sex with Paul D, so is she pregnant with his child? Also, does her pregnancy symbolize something? A future generation taken hostage by a bad past? Specifically Denver? But Beloved is cast out, and the child she was carrying never came to be-meaning Denver is able to move past her trauma and continues towards a healthy life?
Scenes not in movie
There are a number of events in the book that aren’t in the movie, some of which I have already covered.
I wanted to share two more. One, before Paul D arrives, Denver is outside and looks in through a window into Baby Suggs room (who has died at this point) and she sees Sethe kneeling in prayer. Beside her, is a white dress with its arm wrapped around Sethe’s waist. Denver tells Sethe, and Sethe asks her to describe the dress. Denver does so, but it isn’t a dress Sethe recognizes. Denver then says that the baby ghost has plans for Sethe. Paul D then arrives, so he may have upset whatever “plan” may have been in store.
Later, when Beloved in there, Sethe is sitting outside and feels herself being strangled by an unseen force. Denver and Beloved run over and Beloved is very soothing with Sethe’s neck. Denver thinks that Beloved is who was having Sethe be strangled, and it confuses her that she followed it up by being so tender with Sethe.
Book or Movie
I think it’s pretty clear how I’ve been talking about this book and how many quotes I’ve shared, that I love this book so much! The movie is a good adaptation and follows the story extremely close and does it’s best to capture the symbolism. I don’t think it’s a movie I would ever watch again though, whereas I have already read the book almost twice already. The acting is incredible though, specifically Elise as Denver and Glover as Paul.
The movie is almost three hours, so they really tried to include as much as possible which is something. It’s a well-made movie, and since I went in with low expectations, that surprised me.
It is graphic, and the scene where Paul D has sex with Beloved (and the scene leading up to that when Beloved sees the turtles) are both awkward scenes.
This book (and movie) remind me in some ways of the movie Babadook that came out in 2015 and was popular on Netflix. It is a scary movie, and the “monster” in the movie is a representation of the woman’s depression. When you are aware that that is the deeper meaning behind the movie, it means so much more and the ending is perfect. Whereas I remember hearing two coworkers talking about it, and they were saying how dumb the ending was, but that was because they didn’t understand the whole point of the movie!
Morrison doesn’t hold our hand throughout Beloved, not explaining every little thing so that we will understand. She tells us enough, and it is up to us to decipher the full meaning of this incredible story.