Summary and Analysis
In the fourth week of her residency at 124 Bluestone Road, Beloved clings to Sethe, following her about the kitchen and awaiting her return from work at the restaurant. Like a hungry child, Beloved clamors for Sethe's stories, questioning her about her "diamonds," the crystal earrings that Mrs. Garner gave Sethe as a wedding gift to mark the union that had no proper ceremony or celebration. Sethe describes how she pilfered fabrics to fashion a wedding dress, which she topped off with a wool shawl that "kept [her] from looking like a haint peddling." Following the Saturday honeymoon in the cornfield, Mrs. Garner gave Sethe the earrings and wished the couple happiness.
More questions about Sethe's mother elicit meager facts — that she worked in indigo fields from dawn to nightfall and then slept through Sundays. The demands of her toil gave her only a few weeks in which to bond with her infant daughter, who was then passed on to a wet-nurse so that Ma'am could return to the fields. Once, Ma'am carried Sethe behind the smokehouse and lifted her breast to reveal a circle and cross burned into her flesh so that the child could always identify her mother. After her mother was hanged, Sethe examined her corpse but was unable to locate the symbols on the decaying flesh.
Retelling the vile stories forces Sethe to abandon narrative and move into action. Lifting damp sheets, she begins folding them as she tries to answer Beloved's insistent queries about Ma'am. Sethe can recall only that many slaves were killed along with her mother, and that Nan, a one-armed black governess, took over the role of parent and taught Sethe her mother's native dialect. Pained by the sorrowful "rememory," Sethe longs for the comfort of her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. To Denver's relief, Sethe shifts her attention from the tense conversation to the imminent arrival of Paul D.
The relationship between Sethe and Beloved, which will later turn sadomasochistic, begins innocently with storytelling, the oral tradition that forms the core of black history and black literature. Violating her unspoken pact with Baby Suggs to leave memories of slave days out of conversation, Sethe "[gives] short replies or rambling incomplete reveries" in response to Beloved's many questions. Her memories cause her pain in exchange for Beloved's pleasure. Like the pull of an infant mouth on a mother's tender breast, Beloved's intense delight in Sethe's past seems to nourish an inner need to know more about the crystal earrings and about Ma'am, Beloved's unnamed grandmother.
Offsetting the hurt of child to mother is Sethe's massaging of Denver's wet hair with a towel. A motif introduced by Paul D's reverent touching of Sethe's scarred back in the first chapter and by Amy's attentions to her swollen feet when she first escaped from Sweet Home, the concept of a healing touch evolves in later chapters into a powerful message. The characters, who are incapable of obliterating the hurtful memories of enslavement, minister to each other in imperfect human fashion, applying fingers and hands as a kind of tangible blessing, flesh to flesh. Together with the repeated image of breastfeeding, Morrison frequently delineates methods by which one human being comforts another.
familiar in folklore, an evil spirit constantly attending someone and typically viewed as dwelling within an animal; also, the animal within which such a spirit dwells.
fast bread bread made from batter rather than yeast dough, which must rise before it can be baked.
half peck a unit of dry measure equal to an eighth of a bushel, or four quarts.
the bit the part of a bridle that goes into a horse's mouth, used to control the horse; in this context, it is used by plantation overseers to bridle a slave's tongue.
night bucket the slop jar or portable night toilet.
press an upright closet in which clothes or other articles are kept.
haint a dialect pronunciation of "haunt;" a ghost.
in line the positioning of slave teams to work the indigo fields.