Central to the story that Toni Morrison's Beloved is trying to tell is the relationship that exists between Sethe and the thing that is called Beloved. As far as Sethe is concerned in the novel, the thing called Beloved is the ghost of the child that she kills when the men without skin come to take her and her children back to Sweet Home that has taken a physical form to live again with her mother. Morrison also presents Beloved as a metaphor; a representation for all of the slaves that suffered and died during their forced passage into the Americas, which is made clear in the epigraph of the novel, and the chapter containing no punctuation (Morrison 323-24; 248-52). While the presentation of Beloved as a metaphor for those lost in the passage is both true and clear, Beloved being the child that Sethe kills when the slavecatchers come, that has returned to her mother is an erroneous belief that Sethe, Denver, and the other characters within Beloved hold. The thing that is Beloved is, in fact, the manifestation of the subconscious of Sethe, that takes physical form and torments Sethe in the real world, until Sethe is finally able to come to terms with herself and her actions at the end of Beloved.
If Beloved is the manifestation of Sethe's subconscious that has taken a physical form, this behooves one to ask why Sethe's subconscious would be bothering her. The answer is quite simple, really. Sethe's subconscious is bothering her because of her guilt for killing of her child. Throughout the novel, Sethe denies feeling any guilt for killing of her child, saying to Paul D. when he confronts her on the incident, “It felt good. Good and right,” (190). Perhaps Sethe does not feel conscious guilt at the time that she is talking to Paul D. about her killing her child. After all, she does not want to see her children live a life of slavery, as she did (192). However, it does not seem as though she truly accepts this rationalization, as she does feel guilt subconsciously, which is revealed in the third book, when she “plead[s] for forgiveness,” from the thing called Beloved—from her own subconscious. At this point, her subconscious is not willing to reconcile with Sethe, which is why “Beloved denie[s] [her pleas of regret and claims of love],” (284). It is important to note that this admission of guilt does not happen between the Sethe and another individual, as she is not able to admit guilt to other people. It happens only between her and herself. This is also why Sethe's subconscious takes the shape and name of the child that she killed, because she still feels the guilt of the act—and what better way to represent this guilt, and to elicit Sethe's guilt to the forefront of her mind.
Before going any further, it is prudent to go back to discuss why exactly this manifestation came about in the first place, advancing from an incorporeal existence to a corporeal one. It seems that Sethe's inner turmoil came to a head with the arrival of Paul D. at 124. Moreso, it is when Paul D. and Sethe become intimate, and Sethe begins to enjoy herself that the manifestation starts to act up, throwing a table at Paul D. (22). This is because of the guilt that Sethe feels for killing her child. Because of this guilt, Sethe's subconscious refuses to allow for her to be happy with her life—as she does not feel like she deserves being able to enjoy herself. The initial combat with Paul D. was not enough to get him out of Sethe's life, however, which is why Sethe's subconscious takes a physical form as Beloved. This explains why Beloved is so hostile with Paul D., and why it slowly moves Paul D. further and further away from Sethe (134). It even explains why, when it was not able to fully get Paul D. out of the house, that it began to have sex with Paul D., to undermine his drive to have sex with Sethe, thus denying Sethe of the pleasure from Paul D. being around (138). Additionally, it explains why, when Sethe is contemplating her relationship with Paul D., it chokes Sethe. Sethe believes that she was choked by Baby Suggs, as Baby Suggs was usually the one to rub the Sethe's neck. However, the timing of Sethe's Paul D. contemplation, followed by Beloved then putting its hands around her neck as a way to provide punishment for Sethe' thinking about Sethe's possible pleasure, followed by relief (if not pleasure) from Beloved works as a way for Beloved to further cultivate Sethe's attachment to it (113). Furthermore, Denver saw Beloved choking Sethe, or at least, she believes that she did, though Beloved denies it (119).
Another reason why Beloved is not the child of Sethe, but rather a manifestation of her subconscious, is because of the knowledge that Beloved has. If Beloved was truly the child of Sethe, and nothing more, then it should not have the memories and knowledge that it has. In fact, it should not have any knowledge of the world, other than perhaps the fact that its mother killed it. Beloved knows more than that. This is first, and perhaps best seen, with it asking about Sethe's diamonds (69). There is no reason for Beloved to have known about the existence of said diamonds, which Sethe had since lost. The reason that Beloved knows about the diamonds is because it is Sethe, and it has the memories that Sethe has and is avoiding thinking about—that she is repressing. Beloved asks about the diamonds in order to get Sethe to think about her marriage with Halle, and how Halle is not around. Ultimately, it asks about the diamonds to get Sethe to think about the day in which she kills her child, so that she will not forget what she has done. So that she is forced to remember. This is also why Beloved asks about Sethe's mother, who it would also have no knowledge of, if it was indeed the child of Sethe, and not an extension of Sethe (72). Beloved asks Sethe about her mother in order to dredge up seldom visited memories of her death, in order to, as before, cause Sethe suffering.
The next, and most damning bits of evidence supporting the claim of Beloved being a manifestation of Sethe's subconscious come late in the novel, in the chapter inside of the mind of Beloved. This chapter is also one of the two places in the novel in which the metaphor of Beloved—that being as representation for the slaves lost in the passage to the Americas, and those who died in servitude. Also in this chapter, Beloved says “I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop,” (248). This is a clear statement by Beloved that it cannot exist without Sethe—that it is Sethe. With this sentence, Morrison is clearly telling her reader that Sethe and Beloved are one in the same, as Beloved is but a mere extension of Sethe, existing as a cancerous, parasitic force—one that exists to bring guilt to Sethe for what she did to her child. To make her suffer, because she cannot forgive herself for what she did. Morrison gives further evidence to this by having Beloved say, “it is my dark face that is going to smile at me the iron circle is around our neck” (250). This is in the middle of a scene in which Beloved is talking about people dying on a slave ship, so it is referring to Beloved being a slave on the ship. However, this phrasing is also used by Beloved to describe the thing that chokes Sethe earlier in the novel, when she was choking Sethe (119). Beloved also refers to the iron circle being around “our neck,” utilizing the first-person plural pronoun to indicate both that it is a metaphor for all slaves, but then also to say that the circle of iron is around the neck that it and Sethe share. Furthermore, Beloved also says that, “her face is mine,” (251). Again, she is referring to another person who is on the ship with her, as she is representing the departed slaves, but she is simultaneously. This is reinforced in the following chapter, in which the voices of Beloved, Denver, and Sethe are merged together. In this chapter, one of the characters says, though it is at first unclear who, “You are my face; I am you,” (256). While it could be Denver or Sethe who said this, it seems unlikely that Sethe or Denver would say this, as neither of them have used language involving the face in such a way before, while Beloved has.
There are two additional, miscellaneous pieces of evidence that point to Beloved being the manifestation of Sethe's subconscious. First, there is the matter of how Beloved acts when Sethe is not in 124 because of her job. During this time, Denver describes Beloved as “private and dreamy or quiet and sullen,” (143). It makes sense that Beloved does not really care for, nor does anything outside of when Sethe is around, as she is part of Sethe, and exists to bring out the guilt that she holds. Additionally, there is the knowledge that Beloved has of the song that Sethe sings to her children, which Beloved then reproduces (207). This can be used to explain that Beloved in the child of Sethe (as Sethe believes) or it can be used to explain that it is a manifestation of Sethe's subconscious. Paired with the rest of the textual evidence though, it further supports the manifestation claim.
Beloved being a manifestation of Sethe's subconscious also helps explain the third book of the novel. Core to this book in the withering of Sethe, and the growth of Beloved. It is explained in the book that Sethe is eating barely anything, while Beloved is eating literally like a pig—albeit, a pig that favors sweets. This gives a literal explanation of the growth of Beloved and the withering of Sethe. However, this growth and withering is also a beautiful metaphor for the domination of Sethe by her subconscious. Over the course of the novel, Beloved drives away all of the joy in the life of Sethe—from her children to Paul D. Now, it is literally taking away her life-force by taking up all of her time and attention. All because Sethe cannot come to terms with what she did. Her guilt is literally consuming her. By the third book of Beloved, Sethe cannot stand up against her guilt, against her subconscious. The one time that she does try, it pushes her down, making her a mess, apologizing for what she did, trying to justify and rationalize her actions—though her subconscious does not accept this (284). It is through the chorus of black women coming to 124 that Sethe is able to break away from the dead-locked focus that she has been giving Beloved for the duration of book three. This allowed for her to see Mr. Bodwin coming to 124, which then triggered her instinct to protect her children, as she had done all of those years ago when she killed her child (309). By attacking Mr. Bodwin, Sethe is finally able to come to terms with what she did before, as this time, she defended her child by fighting the man without skin, instead of killing her child. This act settles her subconscious turmoil, which is why Beloved flees during this time. This act shows to Beloved, to Sethe's subconscious, that she really does and did care for her children and child, respectively.
Toni Morrison's Beloved is a story about relationships. The relationship between master and slave, between Paul D. and Sethe, between Denver and Sethe, and, most importantly, between Sethe and the thing known as Beloved. In the novel, Sethe, Denver, and the other characters believe that Beloved is the spirit of the child that Sethe kills twenty-eight days after she arrives at 124 when the men without skin came to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. This however, is not what Beloved really is. Beloved serves two purposes in Beloved. She acts as a metaphor for those slaves who died in the passage to the Americas and in servitude, but she also serves as the manifestation of Sethe's subconscious—namely, her subconscious guilt for killing her child. This is seen by the form and the name that Beloved takes, being modeled off of this child, in addition to the timing of the arrival of Beloved being around the time that Sethe attempts to allow pleasure into her life—which explains the actions that Beloved takes to deny pleasure from Sethe at every turn. Beloved also holds memories that the child of Sethe could not have, but that Sethe would. Moreover, Beloved utilizes language when describing Sethe and its relationship to Sethe that suggest, if not all-out says, that they are the same person. This claim of Beloved being a manifestation then makes the third book of Beloved make sense as a metaphor for the subconscious of Sethe draining her life-force away, and then explains the departure of Beloved, which is otherwise unclear as to why it happened as it did. Thus, Beloved is a manifestation of Sethe's subconscious.