From the beginning, Beloved focuses on the import of memory and history. Sethe struggles daily with the haunting legacy of slavery, in the form of her threatening memories and also in the form of her daughter’s aggressive ghost. For Sethe, the present is mostly a struggle to beat back the past, because the memories of her daughter’s death and the experiences at Sweet Home are too painful for her to recall consciously. But Sethe’s repression is problematic, because the absence of history and memory inhibits the construction of a stable identity. Even Sethe’s hard-won freedom is threatened by her inability to confront her prior life. Paul D’s arrival gives Sethe the opportunity and the impetus to finally come to terms with her painful life history.
Already in the first chapter, the reader begins to gain a sense of the horrors that have taken place. Like the ghost, the address of the house is a stubborn reminder of its history. The characters refer to the house by its number, 124. These digits highlight the absence of Sethe’s murdered third child. As an institution, slavery shattered its victims’ traditional family structures, or else precluded such structures from ever forming. Slaves were thus deprived of the foundations of any identity apart from their role as servants. Baby Suggs is a woman who never had the chance to be a real mother, daughter, or sister. Later, we learn that neither Sethe nor Paul D knew their parents, and the relatively long, six-year marriage of Halle and Sethe is an anomaly in an institution that would regularly redistribute men and women to different farms as their owners deemed necessary.
The scars on Sethe’s back serve as another testament to her disfiguring and dehumanizing years as a slave. Like the ghost, the scars also work as a metaphor for the way that past tragedies affect us psychologically, “haunting” or “scarring” us for life. More specifically, the tree shape formed by the scars might symbolize Sethe’s incomplete family tree. It could also symbolize the burden of existence itself, through an allusion to the “tree of knowledge” from which Adam and Eve ate, initiating their mortality and suffering. Sethe’s “tree” may also offer insight into the empowering abilities of interpretation. In the same way that the white men are able to justify and increase their power over the slaves by “studying” and interpreting them according to their own whims, Amy’s interpretation of Sethe’s mass of ugly scars as a “chokecherry tree” transforms a story of pain and oppression into one of survival.