One of the primary themes of Beloved is the issue of race and effects of slavery. Much of the novel focuses on a community of ex-slaves and how they manage to get on track with their lives. The novel questions, through the eyes of schoolteacher, what the difference is between a man and an animal. In its vivid portrayal of the Negro community, complete with their desires and troubles, the novel shows that a colored man is like any other man. The novel also addresses the concern of whether it is better to endure the injustices of an unfeeling people or to fight against them.
Closely tied to the theme of race is that of the past. Each of the characters have endured a furious past, complete with the worst horrors imaginable. Sethe has been raped and forced to murder, Paul D has been imprisoned in a cube in a ditch, Stamp Paid was forced to give his wife away to be a sex toy, and the list goes on and on. Many of these men and women have chosen, like Sethe and Paul D, to repress the past. Others worked actively against it, like Stamp Paid. However, no sort of resolution occurs for any of the characters until each learns to accept and deal with the past (which is very alive in the present). Only then can a future be found.
Another theme in Beloved is that of the banality of evil. Slavery is not just an institution, it is a philosophy and mindset which is far-reaching in its consequences. The Garners treated their slaves well, and consequently were respected by such people as Sethe and Paul D. However, as Paul D later comes to realize, "Everything rested on Garner being alive. Without his life each of theirs fell to pieces." Though treated nicely, the Negroes on Sweet Home were little more than toys to be manipulated by the Garners. The theme also comes up in the description of the Bodwin's household, which includes the statue of a black boy and the words "At Yo Service." The Bodwins have taken an active stance in the fight against slavery, yet fail to comprehend the mindset behind that statue. With such images, Morrison demonstrates the extent of slavery and what must be done to abolish it completely.
Moral ambiguity, of course, plays a large role in the novel. The question of "Was the murder right or wrong?" crops up many times in the book. The answer finally reached is that it was the right thing to do, but Sethe didn't have the right to do it. Had she not murdered Beloved, her and all the children would have been sold back into slavery. Yet, when she committed the murder, she was shunned by an entire community and placed at the mercy of a vengeful spirit.
The novel also addresses what it means to be free. Was Baby Suggs truly free, when white men were allowed to barge into her yard at any time? Was Paul D free, though he wasn't allowed to love whatever he wanted to love? Were any of the Negroes truly free, who had to wait at the back of the supermarket for the whites to be served before they could get their groceries? Freedom, Morrison points out, is more than a matter of not belonging to a single master.
The concept of family also pervades the novel. Most of the slaves have been torn apart from their families at an early age, and there is little hope in discovering what is left of their families. The consequences of this type of separation can be seen in Sethe, who is possessive of her children, and Paul D, who is determined not to love anything too much.