Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved is a haunting tale of slavery and its impact on family relationships. Set in the years just after the Civil War, Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver, recently escaped from slavery and living in Cincinnati. However, the house where they reside is clearly haunted. Soon, Paul D arrives, having come from the same plantation where Sethe and her mother once worked.
Paul D tries to impose a sense of order on the house, and forces out the unknown spirit. Taking Denver outside for the first time in years, they encounter a young woman, who calls herself Beloved. While Paul D is suspicious of the woman, Sethe invites her in. Paul D, in frustration, is forced to sleep in the outside shed, where he is seduced by Beloved.
Sethe eventually tells Paul D her dark secret. Years before, she had escaped slavery with her children, but was cornered by her master. Rather than return, she planned on killing all her children, but was only able to kill a two-year-old girl. Sethe believes that Beloved is the spirit of that daughter, whose tombstone reads only "Beloved." In an attempt to exercise her guilt, Sethe begins spoiling Beloved, who becomes increasingly demanding. Denver seeks out help in driving the spirit from the house, and Sethe, who inadvertently attacks a white man, believing her master is coming again. This action propels Denver into the community, becoming fully integrated at last.
In the end, Paul also has issues of guilt but they are from the new decisions that he made in sleeping with the returned Beloved. He believes that he is being punished for sleeping with her when he finds out about how Sethe tried to murder her children. He also harbors some guilt over how he encourages Sixo, a fellow slave, all those years ago to try and run away with him. They were caught and Sixo had been burned alive. In the end, none of them escaped slavery besides the children.
This thought shows that the guilt associated with those who survived slavery will continue to bind them to the institution of slavery, the true ghost of the era. Many of the problems were beyond anyone's control and even those that were, were from decisions made in desperate conditions. Yet, because they cannot let go of the guilt and not forgive themselves, they cannot truly be free.
Redemption comes to the characters in the end because of conscious decisions that they make.
- Denver who carries her mother's guilt begins to leave the house and becomes acquainted with the townspeople eventually getting a job at the Bodwins.
- Denver's mother has redemption when she decides that Beloved has come back as a way of forgiving her and this immediately changes her thought pattern, allowing her to day dream again.
- Beloved disappears soon after and Paul finds redemption when he returns home to take care of Sethe forever.
Morrison does an exceptional job at mixing together the themes of guilt, forgiveness, and how one views themselves when it comes to being imprisoned. She shows that slavery is not necessarily a physical possibility but also one where someone can be enslaved mentally. It is in forgiveness that these bonds are broken, not only forgiveness by those on the outside but internal forgiveness as well. It is in the absence of guilt that one can truly live.