Beloved is divided into three parts, each increasingly disjointed or “mad. ” The first section is told from the narrative present, 1874. Past events are distant and fragmented (albeit intrusive) memories, related in enough detail only to limn that something once happened, that strange behaviors and events in the narrative present are sufficiently motivated by the past. Not until the end of the first section, halfway through the novel, is the pivotal event recounted recognizably: Rather than return to slavery, Sethe takes a saw to her children’s throats, killing the “crawling-already” baby girl.
The vivid retelling of this murder is confirmed and captured in an old newspaper clipping shown by Stamp Paid, the runaways’ ferryman, to Sethe’s lover Paul D. With the newspaper clipping, the “mad” narrative voice seems to shore itself up by adding a sane counterpart: objective reportage. The clipping’s existence authenticates the oral text, much as white abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips appended their imprimaturs to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative.
Among other uses, an authenticating text’s function was to attest to the narrator’s veracity — and thereby, to his or her sanity. The second section of Beloved becomes more and more absorbed in what Sethe ambivalently describes as “rememory,” and in what Paul D metonymically calls a tobacco tin rusted shut in his chest. The novel’s narrative structure remains grounded in 1874, the narrative present, but this present becomes progressively more swamped in obsessive, intrusive memories of the past.
Paul D’s presence in an 1874 storefront church, for example, prompts vivid memories of his last days at Sweet Home. Sethe’s nurturing promises to the adult woman Beloved in this year serve as backdrop to Sethe’s memories of her own mother. Memory and present-time juxtapositions are within the boundaries of sane, rational reflection and reflexivity, but they are also so doubled-over and enfolded in such radiant, enduring pain that the characters cannot pay more than nominal attention to their mundane struggles for a living in post-Reconstruction Ohio.
Coming as it does toward the end of the section, Beloved’s disjointed, stream-of-consciousness narrative makes the other characters’ sense of chronological disorientation seem merely an attenuated version of her own. Her prose-poem/free verse images, apparently of a slave-ship capture, her mother’s suicide, and her sexual captivity aboard-ship, are more difficult to piece together than those of other characters, since the staccato images contain fewer attempts at sequential narrative structure.
In other words, this initially seems a mad piece of writing. But on closer inspection, the structure resolves into a fun-house mirror, more compressed, perhaps, but similarly proportioned to the narrative’s progress up to this point. That is, while Beloved’s narrative at first seems startlingly different from anything the text has yet presented, it is highly congruent in its fixation on past events, and in its memory-repression sequences from other narrative points of view. As the third section of the novel opens, past and present briefly merge.