Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

The Past Lingers

Toni Morrison (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved tells the story of a formerly enslaved woman named Sethe, suffering with her family in 1873 from a “curse” set on their Cincinnati home by her dead infant daughter. Years ago, Sethe had killed her daughter to absolve her from enslavement.  She referred to her as “Beloved” on her tombstone. This excerpt comes from the opening of the novel.

The excerpt introduces Sethe’s other daughter, Denver, her husband’s mother, Baby Suggs, and her two sons, Howard and Buglar. The opening also details how their house was possessed and how it affected each of them.  These early allusions are sometimes hard to decipher but the writing is always vivid.  Morrison describe how Baby Suggs passed away, “suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it.” As a slave, Baby Suggs had lost many children, “four taken” she remembers, and “four chased.”

Oprah Winfrey as Sethe in Beloved, 1998 (

Morrison drew inspiration for Sethe from the true story of Margaret Garner who escaped slavery in Kentucky with her children in 1856, only to be hunted down in Ohio.  Cornered by slave catchers, Garner killed one of her infant children and was desperately preparing to kill others before she was stopped.

In this opening excerpt, Sethe experiences deep regret and sorrow. She always seems to think she could have done more. Was this how the novelist imagines the horrible cycle of American slavery?  Morrison seems to be suggesting that even the enslaved experienced terrible guilt themselves over their inability to protect their own families.  It is chilling in this case to ponder how slavery destroyed everyone’s innocence, even the victims.

By Nick Rickert

Excerpt from Beloved by Toni Morrison, read by Nick Rickert