Sethe was born enslaved and escaped to Ohio, but 18 years later she still isn’t free; instead, she’s haunted by the ghost of her daughter and memories of the past.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” Truth discusses women’s rights at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.
Pair Beloved with “Ain’t I a Woman” to provide students with a historical perspective on the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. Have students read the passage before beginning the novel, and ask them to comment on how Sethe occupies the world as a Black woman after reading Chapter 1, paying particular attention to how she describes being treated by Schoolteacher and his nephews.
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897), who wrote under the pseudonym Linda Brendt, was an American slave who eventually escaped and became an abolitionist. “What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North” is a chapter from Brent’s memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861. In it, Jacobs provides a true account of her experience as a slave, and writes about the lies slaveholders told their slaves to keep them from running away to the North.
Pair Beloved with “What Slaves Are Taught to Think of the North” to provide students with a historical perspective from a female enslaved person. After students read Chapters 1-3, ask them to discuss how Sethe views Sweet Home and Ohio before and after her escape in the context of Jacobs’ description of what she was taught to think of the North.
Frederick Douglass (1818 –1895) was born a slave but became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. In chapter 11 of his memoir, Douglass describes his escape from slavery and the challenges he faced upon becoming a free man.
Have students read “The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: Excerpt from Chapter 11” after reading Sethe’s own escape story (Part 1, Chapter 3) to provide historical context on escaping slavery. Ask students to describe the risks and rewards Sethe and Douglass faced in their escapes. What motivated them in spite of the risks?
In this poem, contemporary American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove reinvents a common symbol--the heart--and in doing so, shows us what it means to be human.
Have students read “Heart to Heart” after Paul D reveals that his heart is a “tin tobacco box” in Part 1, Chapter 7, to help students think deeply about the heart as a symbol for emotional expression and repression. Ask students to compare the heart in the poem to Paul D’s heart. How are the speaker and Paul D’s hearts and emotional states similar or dissimilar? Teachers may choose to ask students to revisit the messages of the poem when they have completed the novel, in order to focus on character development.
In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” Dunbar uses the experiences of a caged to bird to discuss the oppression of African Americans.
Pair Beloved with “Sympathy” to focus on the themes of suffering and abuse throughout Part 1 of the novel, paying particular attention to Chapter 10 and Paul D’s history in a chain gang. Ask students to examine Sethe and Paul D’s individual characterization in relation to the themes of the poem. How do their traumas affect their personalities and choices throughout the novel? Teachers may also choose to use this text to focus on suffering in Part 2, Chapter 19 and Part 3, Chapter 27.
In “No Man Is an Island,” the speaker explains the interconnectedness of all humankind.
Have students read “No Man is an Island” to focus on the theme of the power of community in Part 1, Chapter 15. Ask students to discuss how Sethe benefits from being part of the community in Ohio, as well as whether the community has let her down. Teachers may also choose to discuss how the community has supported or neglected Sethe, Paul D, and Denver in Chapters 9, 10, 26, and 27.
The Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by the United States Congress in 1793, and then later renewed in 1850. This act guaranteed slave owners the right to recover run-away slaves. When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act lost its power.
Have students read “Fugitive Slave Act” before Schoolteacher comes for Sethe in Part 1, Chapter 16, to provide historical background on Sethe’s status as an escaped, formerly-enslaved person living in the North. Have students read this text after Chapter 15, ask them to discuss the foreshadowing in Chapter 15 and what they believe happened to Sethe’s family in the context of the Fugitive Slave Act.
In “Margaret Garner: Defying the Fugitive Slave Act,” abolitionist Levi Coffin recounts the story of Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her children to keep them from returning to slavery.
Have students read “Margaret Garner: Defying the Fugitive Slave Act” after they discover the full story of how Sethe murdered her daughter in Part 1, Chapter 16, to provide them with historical background on the event that inspired the novel’s central conflict. Ask students to compare the conflict in Beloved to the historical event that inspired the novel; then ask them to evaluate how effectively Morrison captures Sethe’s emotional crisis during Chapter 16. How does fear drive both Margaret and Sethe? Are their actions justifiable? Teachers may also choose to assign this at the end of the novel.
Margaret Atwood (born 1939) is an award winning Canadian poet, novelist, and literary critic. In “Morning in the Burned House,” Atwood paints a dream-like picture through her use of symbolism and metaphor, describing a speaker who imagines her childhood as a burned house.
Have students read “Morning in the Burned House” after completing the stream-of-consciousness chapters in Part 2 (Chapters 20-23) in which Sethe, Denver, and Beloved speak in order to focus on the technique and theme of mixing the past and the present. Ask students to evaluate how the characters in Beloved blend their past and present like the speaker of the poem.
Loving another person and accepting love from another person can sometimes be a very painful experience. In his article, “Why Do We Hate Love,” Robert Firestone, Ph.D. explains the psychology behind this phenomenon.
Have students read “Why Do We Hate Love?” before Part 1, Chapter 26, to provide students with psychological context on the characters’ attitudes towards love. Ask students to discuss how Firestone’s argument can explain Beloved and Sethe’s relationship at this point in the novel, as well as Paul D and Sethe’s romantic relationship. Teachers can also choose to introduce this text before beginning Part 2 or after students have read the entire novel.