The Significance of numbers in "Beloved"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


1. Introduction

Beloved is a novel with many interesting themes which are worth examining.

The following paper deals with the significance of numbers in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Numbers play an important role in this novel. The novel was first published in 1987 and is a neo-slave narrative (cf. Palladino 54) written in free indirect discourse. It is about Sethe, a former slave, and her family. Sethe will not deal with her past and the trauma she has suffered during her time in Kentucky on the plantation “Sweet Home”. She is hunted by the ghost of her baby that she has killed because she did not want her to become a slave. The ghost will only disappear after she has dealt with it and with her past.

Numbers play an important role in Beloved. Morrison did not choose them by chance, they all have a meaning in the story of the novel. I want to show the significance they have – by some numbers with reference to the Bible. First, there is an analysis of the overall structure and the numbers of the book, of the three parts and the chapters including the first sentence of all three parts (cf. chapter 2.1). Then the numbers which occur in the novel are examined (cf. chapter 2.2-2.9), after this analysis, there will be an examination of the dedication – which is also a number (cf. chapter 3). The end of the paper is composed of the conclusion in chapter 4.

2. General thoughts about the significance of numbers in Beloved

In Beloved, numbers have a connection among themselves and because of this it is difficult to arrange the individual chapters according to their numerical order. However, to get an overview of the significance the numbers have it is better to have a chapter for each number, so each chapter deals with a different number. References to the Bible will be made in the particular chapters.

The following order of the chapters, including the significance of the different numbers, is not a numerical order. By reading and analysing the novel, the order was spontaneously developed – 124, three, eighteen, seven, twenty-eight, four, one, two and six (cf. chapters 2.1 – 2.9).

2.1 The three parts of Beloved and their quantity of chapters

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part has eighteen subdivisions or chapters, the second part seven, and the third part has three chapters. The sum of these chapters is twenty-eight. All the numbers mentioned before have a meaning of their own.

The quantity of the chapters in the different parts have a connection to the content of the part, and so has the parallel structure of the first sentences.

In the first part, there are eighteen chapters, eighteen is also the amount of years since Sethe murdered her crawling-already? baby. The novel and therewith the first part opens with the sentence “124 WAS SPITEFUL” (Morrison 3). This refers to the house in which Sethe lives with her family, which is located on Bluestone Road 124 in Cincinnati, Ohio (cf. Morrison 3). The number and the sentence have a connection: This first part deals with the haunted house which nobody visits since the murder – because it was “spiteful” and “[f]ull of a baby's venom” (Morrison 3). The ghost of the dead baby is still there.

The seven chapters in part two refer to the letters of the name Beloved, this is the name which is written on the gravestone of the crawling-already? baby (Morrison 5). The first sentence in the second part of the novel is “124 WAS LOUD” (Morrison 199). Number seven and the first sentence refer to Beloved, the ghost of Sethe's baby which came back as a person. In the second part, Beloved dominates over Sethe and is in the centre of the story; she takes “possession” of the people in 124 and is therefore “loud”, one cannot avoid Beloved (Morrison 199).

The third part starts with the sentence “124 WAS QUIET” (Morrison 281). In this part with its three chapters Beloved is dead, because of the exorcism lead by Ella (cf. Morrison 302-309). Three children are still alive and Beloved is again excluded from family life. The house and its residents can go “back to normal”, the house will be “quiet” again after the ghost has left for good. The house which at the beginning seems to be a person (cf. Morrison 35) is now quiet and unloaded (cf. Morrison 311) and “just another weathered house needing repair” (Morrison 311). Now 124 is nothing special but a “normal” house among others on Bluestone Road.

2.2 Number three

The number three has multiple meanings in the novel and it also refers to the Bible.

By considering the house number 124, one notes that, in a logical order, the three is missing. This refers to Sethe’s missing third child – Beloved (cf. Domenig 51). Beloved is missing because Sethe killed her 18 years ago, while three children are still alive.

In the novel, there are always three people living in 124, but it seems like there is always one person too much in there. One person is always alone, excluded by the others and “seems to be forced out” (Ertl 76). Three is a number which refers to completeness (cf. Palladino 57), but in Beloved the protagonists are not happy when they are in a threesome.

At first, the three people living in 124 are Sethe, Denver and Baby Suggs. After Baby Suggs dies, Beloved's ghost fills the empty space but not for a long time because Paul D arrives and “dispels” the ghost. Sethe, Denver and Paul D are the new 'unit of three' (Ertl 76) but Denver does not want to be a part of it; she does not like Paul D, because he banished Beloved and he spends too much time with her mother (cf. Ertl 76). On the surface, it seems like the three can be a happy family with Paul D as a father for Denver. The family seems to be completed with a father, a mother and a child. The three of them even join carnival in the community together and are having a good time (cf. Morrison 55-59). But this unity does not last long. When they arrive at home after the carnival they find Beloved, the incarnated ghost of the crawling-already? baby, in front of 124 (cf. Morrison 61); from this moment on Paul D is more and more excluded from the “unity of three” (Ertl 76) until he leaves the house and the three women.

That this constellation cannot last forever can be seen in the scene where Sethe, Denver and Beloved are ice-skating (cf. Morrison 205-206). They have three skates for three persons. Beloved has two skates, Denver one and Sethe has only her shoes (cf. Morrison 205). Beloved with a pair of skates will not fall as easily as the other two. This shows how dominant she is in the second part. Sethe has no skates – she is totally smitten with Beloved.

The three women are ice-skating at night, “before sunset” and “nobody saw them falling” (Morrison 205). This last sentence is repeated several times to make the reader attentive. No other person is around, because they skate secretly at night when nobody is able to see them. This is an indication that community and Beloved will not go together and therefore Sethe and Denver cannot be happy with Beloved around. Only with the support of the community can one be happy.

The three women stand for different “times”. Beloved represents the past, Sethe the present and Denver the future. One has to overcome the past to make place for the future and a new life; so only if Sethe leaves Beloved and concentrates herself on Denver, can there be a future for them. Paul D comes back after Beloved is exorcised (cf. Morrison 320). The threesome of Sethe, Denver and Paul D seems to be reestablished, even if Sethe just lays down and Denver and Paul D take turns in watching over her (cf. Morrison 320).

The number three is also a reference to the Bible. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are the Trinity, they are One and can exist perfectly next to each other (cf. Palladino 57) but the people in Beloved cannot live perfectly in a threesome.

In the Bible, three does not only stand for the Trinity but also for the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion (cf. Matthew 28, 1-6), when he came back as the Redeemer for mankind. Beloved is not a Redeemer, but she rose from the dead, too, and came back to her family. Beloved stands in contrast to Jesus, who will take away our sins and deliver good news. Although Beloved and Jesus are opposites, there are certain parallels between the stories. With her arrival at 124, she brings no redemption but harm to her family – Sethe loses her job, Paul D, the man with whom Sethe had been happy, is more and more driven out until he leaves completely, Denver is jealous, Beloved eats so much that there is nearly nothing left for Sethe who is on the brink of dying. There is only redemption for the family after the exorcism of Beloved by the thirty women of the community. These thirty women are some kind of “redeemer” for the Suggs family because they banish Beloved (for good). Like Jesus died on Good Friday to redeem mankind, Beloved is exorcised on a Friday (cf. Morrison 303) and therewith her family is redeemed.

Number three also occurs in other numbers, e.g. in number 30. The lover of Sixo,is called the Thirty-Mile-Woman because Sixo has to walk thirty miles to reach her (cf. Morrison 29). The name Sixo derives from the calculation of two times thirty which is sixty.

The group of women who came for the exorcism consists of thirty women and they do the exorcism at three o'clock in the afternoon on a Friday (cf. Morrison 303). This passage clearly refers to the crucifixion of Jesus; Jesus died at the age of thirty-three on the ninth hour (Matthew 27, 46 – 50), which is three p.m. in today's computation of time (cf. Palladino 58). The evil in Beloved is banished at the same time at which Jesus died for mankind.

The women who are partly responsible for Sethe's murder because they did not warn her although they had seen the slave catchers help Sethe with the exorcism in the end. It seems like they want to make up for their behaviour eighteen years ago.

In this scene, the numbers three and thirty are often repeated, e.g. in Edward Bodwins childhood memory. “[H]e was three years old when his family moved into town” and “[h]e had not seen the house for thirty years” (Morrison 305).

2.3 Number eighteen

With direct reference to the protagonists of the book, eighteen can be the result of a calculation. Sethe has four children, but the three of them which are (probably) alive each have six letters in their names – Howard, Buglar and Denver – and three times six is eighteen.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Significance of numbers in "Beloved"
University of Wuppertal
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Beloved, To, Toni Morrison, number
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Nora Nobis (Author), 2012, The Significance of numbers in "Beloved", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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