Throughout Toni Morrison’s remarkable novel Beloved, the effects that the past holds over the present pieces together the story at 124 using dialogue and flashbacks are used to convey the impact it has had.
Main character Sethe is in a constant struggle to “beat back the past.” However, it will not remain buried, both literally or figuratively. The ghost of her dead daughter haunts her. While she is content with that, Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men,” comes to visit her, bringing with him painful memories of slavery. Sethe hates her “rebellious brain” that will leave no painful memory behind, with no room to plan for the future. But with Paul D she is better able to bear the past because the horrors belong to him too. This connection being the reason that their relationship is so sturdy. She hopes that she can learn to trust him. Although, she tells him her worst memory, that of killing her own child to save her from slavery. He reneges on his promise to “catch her” and leaves.
Paul D begins to talk to Sethe about memories of Sweet Home. But he leaves most of them locked up in the “tobacco tin” that takes the place of his heart. After hearing Sethe’s reasons for killing her daughter, his tobacco tin is blown wide open. Memories of the horrors of Sweet Home under authority of schoolteacher (the slave owner) come flooding back. In the end Paul D remembers his friend Sixo’s love for the Thirty-Mile Woman. He decides he wants to combine his story with Sethe’s and make a future together.
Beloved’s memories, revealed in stream-of-consciousness narration, are of dying and being among dead people. When she comes back to life, she remembers her mother’s diamond earrings and a song she sang. She forces her mother to remember. Sethe wants to tell Beloved everything, to make her understand. In this way Beloved helps Sethe confront the past, but it almost ruins her. Through these memories Morrison makes sure the reader does not forget the brutality of slavery.