Sethe is the central figure of the novel. She was once a slave in Kentucky, but fled with her four children to Cincinnati. A month after her escape, she was discovered and, in an effort to keep her children out of slavery, Sethe murdered one of them. The main action of the story revolves around the return of the murdered child, twenty years later, and addresses themes such as justice, morality, and slavery.
Sethe stands apart from the other Negroes by her boldness and her independence, which others take to be pride. "I will never run from another thing on this earth," she pronounces to Paul D early in the novel. She is full of love for her children, and a willingness to make any sacrifice for them. Her love is a rare one-it is a daring love for a colored woman, whose children may be stripped from her at any time. Despite her resolution, though, Sethe's life is directionless. Her past, which includes both the murder of her daughter and being raped, is so huge that much of her time is spent "beating back the past."