Beloved. Who or what is Beloved? Many people think that Beloved is the Devil or a savior. Others just take her at face value as Sethe’s dead child come back to haunt her. I believe that all of these ideas come close to her identity, but they are still not completely right. This is not a story about good or evil, but rather a story about facing your own past. Beloved (the character) is simply a physical manifestation of Sethe’s guilty conscience.
Sethe’s desire to save her children from slavery was stronger than her humanity, and as a result she brutally murdered her baby, and buried it under the headstone “Beloved.” Sethe chose to have this engraved on the tomb, because this was the “word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (all there was to say, surely)…Dearly Beloved” (5). The baby is first christened at death, with a name by which the preacher refers to the spectators at the burial. Sethe thus named the child after herself, insofar as she, Sethe, was whom the preacher was addressing as “dearly beloved.” In this way she brands her detached conscience with guilt.
I call it her “detached conscience” because in order to go on with life Sethe needed to remove herself from her guilt. She removes herself so completely that her neighbors, already upset at her crime, isolated her because she seemed to feel no remorse for the awful deed. Sethe’s stoic resolve continues until Denver loses her hearing, which was caused by Denver not being able to deal with hearing what her mother had done. Only when her mother’s conscience manifests itself as the ghost of the baby does Denver’s hearing return.
Denver, having as a child suckled her sister’s blood with her mother’s milk, attaches herself to this ghost, the manifestation of her mother’s guilt. She makes friends with it, because due to her mother’s heinous deed, she will have no other friends in the community. Denver must make peace with what her mother did in order for her to survive, and she accomplishes this by making the ghost her playmate. In their own little world, both Denver and her mother acclimate themselves to the sin that they must live with.
The appearance of Paul D throws everything into turmoil. To Sethe, Paul D is a man that knows what her life was like before she escaped, and might understand why she killed her child. This was a man that she could share herself with. In the stage when the ghost is still in its intangible form and Paul D presents himself at the house, Sethe almost lets the “responsibility for her breasts, at last be in somebody else’s hands” (22). As soon as she has this thought, the ghost attacks and wreaks havoc. Sethe’s conscience, manifested in the ghost, wouldn’t allow her to be freed from her past by Paul D. But Paul D angrily rebukes the ghost, “God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!” (22), and effectively drives the ghost out. Sethe seems to be relieved, because “to Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay” (52). However, Denver is not happy, because Paul D has gotten rid of her only “friend”, and has made her mother seem to forget her crimes. As a peace offering, Paul D takes Sethe and Denver to the carnival, which makes Denver realize that a life with Paul D around instead of the ghost might not be so bad. So just as things are finally looking better, Sethe’s guilty detached conscience shows up again, but now in a human form, as Beloved.
Sethe’s conscience is masochistic in nature. Whenever it looks like her life may improve, her conscience just finds a new way to make her suffer for what she did. So, as life begins to get better for Sethe and Denver again because of Paul D, Beloved shows up, and when she gains some strength she promptly begins to move Paul D out of the house, systematically further and further away from Sethe. This is consistent with the masochistic pattern exhibited by Sethe’s conscience, because Paul D is the only individual who shows potential (at this stage in the plot) of helping Sethe overcome her past. In his absence her guilt could punish her more effectively, and so Paul D ends up sleeping in the shed, with Beloved visiting him at night to make him very uncomfortable. When he tries to control his own destiny and explain things to Sethe on her way home from work, Beloved surprises them on the road with no jacket or wrap, scrutinizing Sethe and distracting her from Paul D’s side, trying to steal her away from happiness again.
This time, however, Sethe says to Beloved, “You got to learn more sense than that” (160), telling her own guilty conscience that it’s silly to hold on so tightly, that she is entitled to some fun. Sethe also takes things into her own hands again when “she solved everything with one blow,” and suggests to Paul D that he would rather sleep inside than out in the cold-house (161). At this point, Beloved sends “threads of malice” (161) across the table, because she is indignant that her position of power is being undermined; she recognizes that Sethe is taking matters into her own hands and refusing to be servile to her guilty conscience’s whims. By requesting that Paul sleep inside, Sethe is beginning to forgive herself and let go of her punishment.
Subsequently, Beloved begins to fall apart: “she knew that she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces…she thought it was starting” (164). This guilty conscience was having trouble sticking around in human form, now that Sethe was actively fighting it to make her life better. Beloved recognizes Paul D as the source of Sethe’s strength, and makes Paul D even more uncomfortable than before. He uses his new knowledge of Sethe’s crime as an excuse for moving out not much later. During the entire fight between Sethe and Paul D, he feels Beloved staring at him, adding to his discomfort. He is not comfortable with Sethe’s conscience, and so he leaves. Now Sethe, Beloved, and Denver are all alone.
Sethe’s progress towards self-emancipation is reversed when Paul D leaves. Finding that her past has driven out the only happiness that she had, Sethe concentrates all her attentions on Beloved. Sethe is feeding her guilty conscience, letting it get the better of her. She does everything for Beloved, spending so much time with her that she loses her job, and gives all the food to Beloved and starves herself. The roles that should be, of mother and daughter, are reversed and Beloved is the authority figure. Denver is cut out of the picture, just as if there were not two identities but one, just her mother, who was trapped in this cycle of self-destruction. Denver begins to see what is happening, that her mother is being harmed by this entity, and leaves the house to find help. It is this action that halts the downward spiral.
As I mentioned before, Sethe’s original detachment of her conscience is why her neighbors have shunned her for eighteen years. And it is because of this isolation that her detached conscience is able to have so much control over her. This cycle is broken when Denver seeks help, because in this action the townspeople see that Sethe is not inhuman, just in some severe trouble. Ella, her friend during that short happy time eighteen years ago, plays a large role in this “saving” of Sethe. “Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present” (315), and so she organizes a group of women to rescue Sethe.
The group of thirty women that gathers at the gate of 124 shocks Sethe and Beloved. Sethe believed that the community cared nothing for her, and this showed that they did. “For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her” (321). The women were Sethe’s salvation, but in her last moments of torment her guilty conscience takes control. It sends her flying at Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick, because she believes that schoolteacher has come for her children all over again, and she does not want to lose Beloved, she does not want to let go of her past. It is Ella who takes control of rescuing her old friend and does so by hitting her, literally knocking sense into her, or knocking out that part of the past that had such a firm grip on her. Sethe never reaches Mr. Bodwin, and Beloved disappears.
I think that the reason that Beloved disappears is because Sethe’s ability to identify with the human race is returned to her and her conscience is reattached when the women hold Sethe back from killing Mr. Bodwin. This allows Sethe to have direct access to her guilt and truly begin to forgive herself. The guilt is still there, and she wants to take the easy way out and die. She tells Paul D “She left me she was my best thing” (335). Finally, it is Paul D that finally helps her forgive herself the most, when he responds “You are your best thing, Sethe” (335). Sethe is herself beloved. Beloved is gone, but instead of dying, Sethe can now begin to live her free life to the fullest extent. She conquers her conscience and her past with the help of her future, her real daughter, Denver, and her lover, Paul.