Beloved Analysis of Part 1 (Epigraph & Chapter 1)
by Toni Morrison

The first page of the novel, which usually plays host to a dedication of sorts, is inscribed with the ominous "Sixty Million and more." The words refer to the estimated number of Africans who died in the Middle Passage between Africa and North America. The slave trade was notorious for its dirty, crowded ships, into whose cellars Africans were forced to lie for periods of up to twelve weeks. The reference and the implication of a dedication are more than enough to set the theme of slavery firmly into the reader's mind.

The epigraph, a passage from the Bible (Romans 9:25) is a statement by Hosea quoted by Paul in a sermon on the ultimate sovereignty of God. We do not know, claims Paul, whom the Lord has chosen to save. Thus, until the final judgment, the Lord may call a person "beloved, which was not beloved," (i.e. who was not made to be saved). The context, however, serves only as a background-perhaps to evoke the uncertainty of our lives. In the foreground is the juxtaposition of the past and present of the quote-the naming of someone beloved who was not beloved-as well as the religious overtones.

The first chapter serves mainly to build up characterizations of the principal characters: Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. Sethe is portrayed as an iron-willed woman who is attempting to escape her own past. Her face is described as being "too still for comfort . . . a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes." The past, however, constantly creeps up on her. Though she "worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe," her "brain was devious." There is some tension here caused by her denial of the past. The arrival of Paul D forces her to relive part of that past and it relieves her: "What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else's hands."

Despite her determination, though, there is a compassionate side to Sethe. It seems buried by many years, but is hinted at in the flashback when her milk is taken from her. The vividness of the imagery and the refrain "They took my milk" emphasizes Sethe's need to take care of her children.

Denver, on the other hand, does not possess the maturity of Sethe. Though eighteen, she is remarkably immature, perhaps because she has not had any opportunities for social interaction. She is incredibly lonely, having only her mother (and the ghost) to keep her company. The arrival of Paul D threatens to separate her from her mother, which brings her misery and anger while simultaneously revealing her immaturity.

All three characters seem in need of some resolution: Sethe and Paul D of the past, and Denver of the present.

Share on Pinterest