Who is Beloved?
Considering that the novel bears her name, Beloved is clearly a character of central importance in Beloved. Yet she is also a mysterious figure whose presence is never fully explained. The dominant interpretation is that Beloved is the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter, reincarnated in the form of a young woman to exact revenge on her mother for killing her. This is the interpretation that the characters in the novel accept. Denver is the first to arrive at this conclusion, and eventually, Sethe comes to understand Beloved’s appearance as her second chance at caring for her daughter.
Several details support this interpretation. First, Beloved appears shortly after Paul D banishes the ghost from 124, and the name she gives herself references the one-word inscription on her tombstone. She’s also about the same age as Sethe’s daughter would have been, had she lived. Finally, Beloved arrives at 124 thirsty and with a scratchy throat, and at one point tries to strangle Sethe. Both of these references to the throat allude to the fact that Sethe slit her daughter’s throat. All of these details support the hypothesis that Beloved is the incarnated ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter.
Yet there is another interpretation that the novel makes possible, an interpretation that the characters in the book never entertain. The key to this alternative interpretation appears in chapter 22, which features a stream-of-conscious section of narrative where Beloved speaks from her own perspective. This section is difficult to understand, and it poses a challenge for readers specifically because the details Beloved recounts do not relate in any obvious way to the interpretation that she is the ghost of Sethe’s daughter. Instead, many of the details she describes seem obscurely related to being trapped in an African slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean to America. Consider the following passage, which references dim, crowded, and abysmal conditions that resemble those of a slave ship’s hold:
daylight comes through the cracks and I can see his locked eyes I am not big small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in . . . we are all trying to leave our bodies behind
These details describe experiences that Sethe’s daughter never had in her two years of life, which begs the question: Whose experiences are they?
In response to this question of Beloved’s identity, some critics have claimed that Beloved is not the ghost of Sethe’s daughter at all, but rather the ghost of Sethe’s mother, who had been captured somewhere in Africa and brought to the United States on a slave ship. According to this interpretation, Beloved’s role in the novel results from a double misrecognition. On the one hand, Sethe yearns for her murdered daughter, and she convinces herself that Beloved is that child. On the other hand, Beloved yearns for the parents she lost when she was captured, and she convinces herself that Sethe is her mother.
Though compelling, the claim that Beloved is really Sethe’s mother and not her daughter is not completely satisfying, since it does not address any of the evidence that clearly links Beloved to Sethe’s murdered child. Perhaps it would be more accurate to interpret Beloved not as a singular individual, but rather as a composite identity. That is, Beloved is a dual spirit that represents both Sethe’s mother and her daughter.