Beloved begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Sethe, a former slave, has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter, Denver. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, lived with them until her death eight years earlier. Just before Baby Suggs’ death, Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away. sethe believes they fled due to the malevolent presence of an abusive ghost that has haunted her home at 124 bluestone road for years. Denver, however, likes the ghost, which everyone believes is the spirit of her dead sister.
on the day the novel begins, paul d, whom sethe hasn’t seen since they worked together on mr. Garner’s sweet home plantation in Kentucky about twenty years earlier, stops at Sethe’s house. His presence revives memories that have been buried in Sethe’s mind for nearly two decades. From here, the story will unfold in two temporal planes. The present in Cincinnati constitutes one shot, while a series of events that took place some twenty years earlier, mainly in Kentucky, constitutes the other. the latter shot is accessed and described through fragmented flashbacks of the main characters. as a result, we often read these flashbacks multiple times, sometimes from different perspectives, with each successive narrative of an event adding a bit more information to the previous ones.
From these fragmented memories, the following story begins to emerge: Sethe, the protagonist, was born in the South to an African mother she never knew. when she is thirteen, she is sold to farmers, who have a sweet home and practice a comparatively benevolent kind of slavery. there, the other slaves, who are all men, covet her but never touch her. Her names are Sixo, Paul D, Paul A, Paul F, and Halle. Sethe chooses to marry Halle, apparently in part because she has proven generous enough to buy her mother’s freedom by renting herself out on the weekends. Together, Sethe and Halle have two children, Howard and Buglar, as well as a girl whose name we never learned. When she leaves Sweet Home, Sethe is also pregnant with a fourth child. after the eventual death of the owner, mr. garner, the widowed mrs. Garner asks her sadistic and vehemently racist brother-in-law to help her run the farm. the slaves know him as a schoolmaster, and his oppressive presence makes life on the plantation even more unbearable than it had been before. the slaves decide to run away.
However, the schoolteacher and his nephews anticipate the escape of the slaves and capture Paul D and Sixo. The schoolteacher kills Sixo and takes Paul D back to Home Sweet Home, where Paul D sees Sethe for what he thinks will be the last time. he still intends to run, since he sent his children ahead of time to his mother-in-law’s house, baby suggs, in cincinnati. Invigorated by her recent capture, the schoolteacher’s nephews seize Sethe in her stable and rape her, stealing the milk that her body stores for her young daughter. Unbeknownst to Sethe, Halle is watching the event from a loft above her, where he lies frozen in her horror. then halle goes crazy: paul d sees him sitting next to a butter churn with butter smeared all over his face. Paul D, meanwhile, is forced to suffer the indignity of carrying a bit of iron in his mouth.
When the schoolteacher finds out that Sethe has reported her and her nephews’ misdeeds to Mrs. garner, he has her spanked severely, even though she is pregnant. Swollen and scarred, Sethe nevertheless flees, but on the way she collapses from exhaustion in a forest. A white girl, Amy Denver, finds her and nurses her back to her health. When Amy later helps Sethe deliver her baby girl on a boat, Sethe names this second daughter Denver after the girl who helped her. Sethe gets more help from Stamp Paid, who rows her across the Ohio River to Baby Suggs house. Baby suggests that she clean up the place before allowing her to see her three oldest children.
sethe spends twenty-eight wonderful days in cincinnati, where baby suggs acts as an unofficial preacher to the black community. However, on the last day, the school teacher comes to fetch sethe to take her and her children back to her sweet home. Rather than hand her children over to a life of dehumanizing slavery, she flees with them to the woodshed and tries to kill them. only her third daughter, her eldest daughter, dies, as her throat was slashed by her sethe with a handsaw. sethe then arranges for the baby’s headstone to be carved with the word “beloved”. The sheriff takes Sethe and Denver to jail, but a group of white abolitionists, led by the Bodwins, fight for her release. sethe returns to the house at 124, where baby suggs has sunk into a deep depression. the community avoids the house and the family continues to live in isolation.
Meanwhile, Paul D has endured torturous experiences in a prison chain in Georgia, where he was sent after trying to kill Brandywine, a slave owner who was sold to by a schoolteacher. his traumatic experiences have led him to lock up his memories, emotions and ability to love in the “tin tobacco box” of his heart. One day, a random storm allows Paul D and the other members of the chain gang to escape. he travels north following the blooming spring flowers. Years later, he ends up on Sethe’s front porch in Cincinnati.
Paul D’s arrival in 124 begins the series of events that take place in the current time frame. Before moving in, Paul D chases away the house’s resident ghost, making the already reclusive Denver resentful of him from the start. Sethe and Paul D look forward to a bright future together, until one day, on their way home from a carnival, they come across a strange young woman sleeping near the steps of 124. Most of the characters believe that the woman, who calls herself beloved — is the incarnated spirit of sethe’s dead daughter, and the novel provides a wealth of evidence to support this interpretation. Denver develops an obsessive attachment to the beloved, and the beloved’s attachment to Sethe is equally or more intense. Paul D and Amada hate each other, and Amada controls Paul D by moving him around the house like a rag doll and seducing him against her will.
When Paul D learns the story of Sethe’s “hard choice” – her infanticide – he leaves 124 and begins sleeping in the basement of the local church. In his absence, Sethe and her beloved’s relationship becomes more intense and exclusive. The Beloved becomes increasingly abusive, manipulative, and parasitic, and Sethe is obsessed with satisfying the Beloved’s demands and making her understand why she murdered her. Concerned about the way her mother is wasting away, Denver leaves the 124 facility for the first time in twelve years to seek the help of Lady Jones, her former teacher. The community provides the family with food and eventually organizes under the leadership of her, a woman who had worked on the Underground Railroad and helped with Sethe’s escape, to exorcise 124’s beloved. When they arrive at Sethe’s house, they see sethe on the porch with the beloved, who smiles at them, naked and pregnant. Mr. Bodwin, who has come to the 124 to drive her new job to Denver, arrives at the house. Mistaking him for the schoolteacher, Sethe runs to Mr. bodwin with an ice pick. she is restrained, but in the confusion the beloved disappears, never to return.
later, paul d returns to sethe, who has retired to baby suggs bed to die. beloved in mourning, she laments, “she was the best for me.” but paul d replies: “you are the best, sethe”. the novel then ends with a warning that “[t]his is not a story to be broadcast.” the city, and even the residents of 124, have forgotten the beloved “[like] an unpleasant dream during a disturbing dream.”