Beloved begins with a description of 124 Bluestone Road, located outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. This house is haunted by a ghost who is violent towards its inhabitants, breaking items, throwing things, and ruining food. Because of the violence, the two male children left in their early teens to escape, leaving behind their mother, Sethe; their sister, Denver; and the grandmother, Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs has died, and Sethe and Denver are left in a house haunted by Denver's older sister, who died before she was two, just after Denver was born. When this baby died, Sethe could not afford a headstone, so she provided the stone mason with sexual favors to get a pink headstone for her baby daughter with the word "beloved" inscribed in it.
Now, Denver is a young lady living alone with her mother in a house that no one around will visit. Denver has come to consider her sister's ghost as a friend, even if it is reckless and often destroys things, because she has no one else other than her mother. However, a man named Paul D Garner shows up at their house. Paul D was a slave with Sethe at a plantation called Sweet Home, and he has not seen her since she ran away eighteen years ago, while pregnant with Denver.
There were five slave men at Sweet Home, three Pauls, Sixo, and Halle Suggs. Halle had worked on his day off for five years to be able to buy his mother's freedom, and when he did, Mrs. Garner purchased Sethe to replace baby Suggs. After a year on the plantation, Sethe chose Halle as her husband, even though they weren't allowed to have an actual wedding. Although Mr. Garner was a gentle master, when he died, he left debts, and Mrs. Garner had to get her sister's husband to come and help her get the plantation running well. The slaves called this man "schoolteacher" because he is always making notes, which they finally realized were for a book about them. With him came two nephews who were cruel and violent, like the schoolteacher. Although he was scholarly and intellectual, the schoolteacher had no compassion for the slaves and broke their spirit very early.
When Sethe ran away, she sent her three children ahead of her to Baby Suggs's house. She was still nursing her daughter, but she had a plan to keep that child healthy until she arrived, and she wanted very badly to get to her baby so she could keep caring for her. However, the schoolteacher's nephews attacked her in the barn and drank her breast milk. When she told Mrs. Garner about their actions, the schoolteacher had her whipped so badly that the scars on her back now resemble a tree. So, when she ran away from Sweet Home, she was very far along in a pregnancy, nursing a baby who she had been away from for days, and injured from the whipping. She almost died by the side of the road, but a white girl named Amy found her and encouraged her to crawl to cover. Sethe tells both Paul D and Denver that Amy saved her life and the unborn Denver.
Now, eighteen years later, Paul D has found Sethe at Baby Suggs's house outside of Cincinnati. He is at first frightened of the ghost in the house, but when he realizes how much Sethe has had to bear, he violently chases the ghost out of the house. He is gentle with Sethe, tracing the tree of scars on her back. Denver feels all alone because her only friend has gone and her mother has this old friend to be with. Paul D and Sethe spend the night together and decide that he will move into the house for awhile.
Beloved is written in the tradition of magical realism, in which the characters take supernatural happenings as a part of their otherwise totally normal lives. Sethe does not question the fact that a ghost of a baby lives in her house; it is just there.
This section sets up a lot of what will follow. Sethe is a former slave, one of her children died tragically, and two others have left her. She has known kindness from white people, but she has also known great cruelty from white people.
These chapters also establish the special link between Sethe and Paul D. Because they lived through slavery together, they have a special bond.Even though Sethe chose Halle as her husband at Sweet Home, she is connected to Paul D because he is the only one around who can relate to her terrible experiences at the plantation and because he knew her husband.
Denver is a very lonely girl, as she never leaves the house or yard and no one will come visit them. In her loneliness, she has accepted the ghost as her only company. Sethe has a different kind of loneliness. Although she is very strong, she has lived through so much sadness that she cannot connect with other people. When Paul D comes, it appears that their loneliness is over.