The story starts in the house at 124, Bluestone road in Cincinnati and this house is haunted. A ghost of a child keeps terrorizing all the inhabitants of the house - Sethe, a black woman who was formerly a slave, her daughter Denwer and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. Sethe’s husband died and her two elder sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away from home as soon as they reached the age of thirteen. They couldn’t withstand the strange things that happened in the house: the glasses that were broken in front of their faces, the tiny handprints on the fresh bread and the furniture that moved by itself.
Baby Suggs is too weak, she is preparing for her death and doesn’t have enough willpower to bother with all these events. She tries to rejoice with thoughts about rainbow and asks Sethe to bring her colorful pieces to remember what the rainbow looks like. Denwer, though, likes the ghost, trying to befriend it and thinking of it as of her little sister. Sethe is also eerily calm, she behaves like she knows where the ghost came from and why is it here. She has her job as a cook and the daughter to raise and takes every new trouble stoically.
Sethe is ostracized and scorned by the townspeople for the reason we, as readers, don’t know yet. She gets used to it, but her daughter is too shy and confused, so she tries not to leave home at all, totally alone after her brother fled the house. No wonder Denwer tries to become friends even with the malevolent ghost.
One day the man named Paul D. comes to their house. Sethe hasn’t seen him for more than twenty years, since they both worked as slaves on their owner’s plantation, ironically called Sweet Home. He and Sethe sit and remember their common past - slavery and all its terrors, her deceased husband Halle and Sethe’s attempt to escape slavery with her children. Finally, the woman opens up and vocalizes the events that haunted her for twenty years.
We start to understand Sethe’s sad story. She was sold into slavery being as young as thirteen years of age and almost immediately put to labor. But the owners of Sweet Home were comparatively kind to her. No one touched her, despite there were six men who desired young Sethe. She chose Halle and married him - mostly not because of love but for his generosity. Halle bought her mother out of slavery working during his holidays to earn spare money. Sethe gave birth to two sons and the baby daughter, whom she didn’t gave a name yet. When she tried to escape she was pregnant with her fourth child, Denwer.
The escape wasn’t her whim. The owner of the plantation died and his wife asked her brother-in-law to help her running it. He was a sadist and enjoyed tormenting the slaves. Sethe remembers that they called him a schoolteacher. He made their life so miserable that running away was an only option. The first attempt to run was a failure. Some slaves (Paul D. amongst them) were captured and one of them was killed in front of the others as a warning. But it only strengthened Sethe’s desire to run. She sent her children to her mother-in-law and prepared to try running away herself. But the schoolteacher’s nephews caught her and used her for their own amusement, violently raping and torturing her, even despite Sethe was pregnant. Her husband, Halle, saw that hiding on the roof of the barn in which that horror happened. Later Paul D. found him totally insane of what he had seen.
Paul D. himself was humiliated and mocked, the “schoolteacher” tried to strip him of his dignity in the most creative ways. Sethe managed to recover and talk to the widow of the previous owner, telling her about everything what happened. For this, the “schoolteacher” lashed her almost to death. Sethe understood that she needed to act while she was still able and ran away, gathering all her strength left.
She almost collapsed because of exhaustion and labor pains in the wild forest but, by some miracle, a white woman named Amy Denwer found her and helped her to give birth to the baby in her boat. Deeply touched, Sethe named her newborn daughter Denwer, after her savior. Amy transferred her to Sethe’s another friend named Stamp Paid who, in his turn, helped her to reach Baby Suggs’ house and reunite with her children.
Paul D. stays and soon he and Sethe become a couple. But this is not the last unexpected visit to 124, Bluestone road. Soon a woman who names herself Beloved is found sleeping at the door of the house. Sethe’s reaction is strange. “Beloved” was the only word written on the tombstone of her third child who died in infancy. Moreover, Beloved seems to know something deeply personal about Sethe, the things that anyone isn’t supposed to know. Sethe allows mysterious woman to stay saying that Denwer might need a friend and Denwer, at first, is excited with this idea. But gradually almost everyone in the house starts to believe that Beloved is the real reincarnation of Sethe’s deceased daughter.
Step by step, Beloved becomes more capricious and demanding. She wants everything best that is in the house and everything that belongs to Sethe. Sethe herself looks like she has an obsession with the guest and gladly allows Beloved to do everything she desires. This results in Beloved seducing and sleeping with Paul D., “taking” him from Sethe. Some unnatural power takes him away from the house where Beloved corners him and has sex with him demanding to father her child.
But the last straw that splits Sethe and Paul D. is brought by Stamp Paid. He comes to tell Paul D. the end of Sethe’s story. It is revealed that the “schoolteacher” later traced Sethe to her very home and came for her. Driven mad by the possibility of returning to slavery, Sethe took her children and ran with them to an abandoned barn to kill her children that way taking them to the safe place where nobody would hurt them. She managed to slit the throat of her third child with a saw, but then the sheriff caught her and took her and Denwer to prison. Later the group of white abolitionists freed her and allowed to return to 124, Bluestone road, to her mother-in-law. Baby Suggs experienced deep depression at the time, she grieved the death of the baby, Sethe’s madness and being banned from the local community where she was a respected woman before.
Shocked, Paul D. confronts Sethe about it. She doesn’t deny this, but their talk becomes more and more angry and finally grows to the fight. Paul D. leaves the house.
Sethe loses her job, there is no food at their home. Baby Suggs finally dies, but Sethe doesn’t care. All her attention belongs to Beloved, she even gives all the food to the now pregnant woman, making herself and Denwer starve. Denwer has no options than to find courage and step away from the house asking the community that shunned their family for help.
But, to her surprise, the townspeople are actually willing to help. They find Denwer a job so she can support her family. Denwer doesn’t want to gossip about what happens in her home, but from the scarce information she gives one of the local women, Ella, the woman concludes that Beloved can really be a ghost who haunts Sethe. She knows Sethe for ages, helped her during the escape and believes she is in need of help now. Ella offers to conduct an exorcism ritual.
The women of the town prepare for the ritual. When they are almost ready to perform it and go to the Sethe’s house, they see the completely exhausted woman and the perfectly healthy Beloved, who stands near her, pregnant and naked, with a satisfied smile on her face. At that moment a white man who came to pick Denwer up for her new job enters the house. Sethe experiences a flashback in which she sees that a white slaver has come to take her child away. She rushes at that white man with an ice pick trying to crash his head.
No one can say clearly what happens later. Was it Ella finishing the exorcism or some other, more material reason - but Sethe is restrained, the white man is saved and Beloved, whoever she was, is gone for good.
Sethe is extremely depressed. She just lies on the Baby Suggs’ bed, willing to die as her mother-in-law did. She still mourns Beloved and thinks that she deserved everything that happened to her. Paul D. returns to her house and comforts her, telling Sethe that he loves her and they all have to move on and forget everything that was like a bad dream.
Sethe gradually gets better and the community also accepts her and her family back.