Written by Toni Morrison and set in the years of Reconstruction following the Civil War, Beloved tells the story of the haunting legacy of slavery and its impact on the present. The main character, Sethe, kills her two-year-old daughter rather than see her placed back into slavery; a ghost named Beloved, presumably Sethe’s lost child, returns to haunt her after she has secured her freedom.
One of the leading themes in the story is that of the connection between mother and daughter. While that bond can sometimes be harmful – such as when Sethe killed her daughter as a means of protecting her from the horrors of slavery – even the worst actions are meant with the best of intentions. After she believes her daughter has returned to her, Sethe is willing to sacrifice everything for her; she essentially starves herself and denies her family their needs all in the hopes of providing for the child that has come back to her. Morrison emphasizes this bond to shed light on the destructive role that slavery could have one the mother-child relationship, both physically and emotionally. Just as mothers and their children could be torn apart via slave sales, so too could their emotional connection be ripped to shreds in the face of the hardships of the life of slaves.
The book also focuses on the inability of the characters to look forward; Sethe, for example, is perpetually shackled by her past. Her guilt over killing her child comes back to haunt her; the remorse she feels as a result of her actions causes her to neglect the present. Her past has manifested in a way that becomes the centerpiece of her very existence. Her once-lost child, the physical manifestation of Sethe’s past life as a slave and her past mistakes as a mother, color her present, and it is only when she is able to break those bonds that she is able to move forward.