Summary and Analysis
In another flashback scene, four white outsiders — "schoolteacher, one nephew, one slave catcher and a sheriff" — ride authoritatively toward 124 Bluestone Road. Alert to the value of slaves captured and returned alive, they survey the family scene.
Baby Suggs fans her face while Stamp Paid chops wood. But Sethe has already seen the white men coming and sprung into action. Too late, the foursome stare at the woodshed where Sethe has murdered Beloved, wounded Buglar and Howard, and threatened to bash Denver's brains. Stamp Paid rescues Denver before Sethe can swing the infant into a plank wall.
Schoolteacher partly blames Sethe's extreme reaction to his presence on the "nephew who'd overbeat her and made her cut and run." Faced with a crazy mother, two injured children, and an infant with no wet nurse, schoolteacher realizes that this brood will not profit Sweet Home. The horrific scene impresses the nephew who took Sethe's breast milk, and he trembles as the sheriff takes charge. Schoolteacher and his companions also conclude that too much "freedom" has reduced these slaves to African savagery.
Before the sheriff places Sethe in custody, Stamp Paid tries to take Beloved's corpse from Sethe's clinging hands and give Denver to her mother. Baby Suggs hurries to aid the wounded boys. Sethe relinquishes Beloved and holds Denver to her blood-stained nipple. Denver swallows milk along with her sister's blood. Sitting up straight in the sheriff's wagon, Sethe is taken away amid the wordless humming of onlookers. A red-haired boy jumps out of an approaching cart and gives Baby Suggs a pair of shoes to repair.
Ominous images hovered in Chapter 15, particularly the prickly bracken that Stamp Paid braved to gather blackberries. But for all their destructive power, like the circlet of thorns that crowned Christ's head, the cruel prickers that pierced Stamp Paid's skin yielded the sweet fruit that he fed to the infant Denver. Bitter and sweet overlapped. Likewise, the fullness of the feast at 124, like the loaves and fishes with which Christ fed his followers and the Last Supper that preceded his crucifixion, foreshadowed the black community's betrayal of Sethe, whose unforeseen violence disturbed their peace.
But while Chapter 15 mixed images of pain and sweetness, Chapter 16 pours out a bitter harvest, a slow-motion montage of slavery's worst fears. Far more threatening than thorns or envious neighbors to Sethe and her family are the galloping "four horsemen," the slave-day version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, portentous embodiments of famine, war, pestilence, and death. Each white male of the foursome represents an aspect of inhumanity. Schoolteacher, who remains unnamed, preserves a cool detachment about the slaves, whom he studies as breeding stock for Sweet Home. The slave catcher, motivated by profit, recognizes the worth of potential captives who must be guarded from violence to preserve their usability and maintain maximum value. The nephew, himself a victim of physical abuse, learns too late about the seeds of violence that he has sown by his inexplicably perverse sexual abuse of a helpless female slave. The sheriff, perhaps the most pathetic of the four riders, must uphold an unjust law that sanctions the capture and return of runaway slaves. He must act without regard to the human cost of a woman's murder of her own child to spare it the torment of slavery.
jelly-jar smile pretended innocence.
cut and run to flee.
camphor a volatile, crystalline ketone with a strong characteristic odor, derived from the wood of the camphor tree or synthetically from pinene: used in medicine as an irritant and stimulant.
the singing would have begun at once If Sethe had been less proud, her neighbors would have begun the soothing songs they instinctively began to mourn the dead. Instead, they hum but intone no words of blessing or comfort.