Beloved tells the story of a black family during the aftermath of slavery. It is also a ghost story. After Sethe flees from slavery and goes to live with her freed mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, her white slave owners track her down. Rather than allowing her children to return to slavery, Sethe to tries to kill them and succeeds in murdering her own daughter, whom she names Beloved. The novel opens years later with the ghost of the baby haunting Baby Suggs’ house and tormenting the family. Sethe’s two older sons flee, while Baby Suggs dies in her sickbed, tired of life, leaving Sethe to live a repetitive and lonely life with the ghost and her other daughter, Denver. Then Paul D, a former slave who lived in Sweet Home with her, arrives and begins a relationship that offers a new future and hope for Sethe. He even challenges the ghost and seems to exorcise her forever from the house, until one day a mysterious adult woman arrives named Beloved. It is Sethe’s daughter returned in the flesh, and only Sethe’s shy, quiet daughter Denver can save her from the vindictive and obsessive ghost-daughter.
Much of the novel consists of flashbacks. This stylistic choice relates directly to the point of the book. One can never truly escape the past, no matter how much we try to repress it and get beyond it. The past haunts the present and the future. Even though slavery is over, the characters such as Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Paul D struggle to escape the horrors of their experience during slavery. When the white sheriff and the slave owner known as schoolteacher arrive to capture Sethe, they enter on Baby Suggs property unbidden. This coupled with the tragedy of Sethe’s murderous actions makes Baby Suggs realize that even though she is legally free, she lives in a white person’s world; in a sense, she can never be free of the white social structure. Even in her freedom from slavery, the whites can pretty much do whatever they want to her and her property. So what is that freedom really worth?
At times the novel also allows us to see the same events from multiple points of view. When the slave owner arrives at Baby Suggs house and witnesses Sethe’s actions they view it with their own bias point-of-view, confirming for them all their prejudiced beliefs about the savagery of blacks, and serves as one of their justifications for the so-called civilizing effects of slavery. From their perspective, a black woman murdering her own child demonstrate to them why slavery is necessary. However, Morrison shows us that this is an ironic perspective in so far that Sethe justifies her terrible actions precisely because she is trying to prevent her children from experiencing the horrors of slavery. It is the system of slavery itself that causes her to commit the terrible deed in the first place. No slavery, she wouldn’t have done it. Slavery then isn’t what would have prevented her from doing it, it is what caused her to do it.
The novel connects the personal atrocities committed by Sethe to the larger social atrocities of slavery. Sethe kills her daughter in order to protect her from slavery. A deeper symbolic logic is hidden in this event. In the act of killing her child she adopts the mentality of the slave master. Sethe believes she has the right to kill her children because she is their mother, giving all sorts of false justifications to herself, others (such as Paul D), and even Beloved when she returns from the dead. Beloved gets no say whether she lives or die. She doesn’t get to choose for herself; her mother makes that choice for her, playing the role of the master, believing she has the right to control the life and death of her children. The personal tragedy meets the larger social conflict in the idea that nobody has the right to control the lives of other people and make those sorts of decisions for them.