Summary and Analysis
A solitary child-woman, Denver takes refuge in a circle of boxwood shrubs and inhales the fragrance of cologne. Her memories return to an earlier time when she saw Sethe kneeling in prayer beside a white dress with "its sleeve around her mother's waist." Denver savors the story of her birth and Sethe's dim memories of her own mother, known only as Ma'am. Denver's thoughts blend with Sethe's voice retelling the episode in which Sethe prepared to die but was saved by Amy Denver, a threadbare white servant girl fleeing toward Boston from the cruelties of Mr. Buddy. Amy's plucky encouragement and application of first aid relieved Sethe's swollen feet and helped her crawl to safety, far from schoolteacher's reach.
Chiming in is a third voice, Paul D. Paul D is singing prison songs and thinking over his journey from Sweet Home to Alfred, Georgia and on to Delaware. Hinting that he may settle in Cincinnati, Paul D asks Sethe about job opportunities and questions whether Denver will mind his presence. Sethe, who believes that Denver is a charmed child, begins telling Paul D how schoolteacher tracked her family down in Cincinnati. She indicates that she spent time in jail after schoolteacher's visit and that Denver remained safely with her when she was imprisoned.
Morrison's use of a complex circular narrative technique squeezes out bits of information from various viewpoints, none of which supplies the whole picture. The bits of information, which form the outline of a gestalt, or pattern, create enough clarity to elicit suspense in the reader, who must remain in tune as Sethe holds back crucial information and Denver continues to anticipate some undefined connection with the past. Sethe makes plain to Paul D that Denver is the center of her life and the sole concern of her daily existence. Her brief comment that the jail rats "bit everything in there but her" delineates the extent of Sethe's protection. Sketchy details, deliberately chosen for maximum concealment, obscure the story between the arrival of slave catchers at 124 Bluestone Road and Sethe's incarceration in a cell. Meanwhile, the charmed protection that Sethe describes Denver as having seems symbolically represented in the ring of boxwood bushes that Denver enters to escape from loneliness. Denver's green retreat, another Edenic symbol, suggests a religious treatment of the spot where her grandmother once preached.
The description of Denver being born in a vaginal-shaped canoe adds to the motif of genital images. Imagining herself delivered on the river that divides slavery and freedom pleases the girl because the event epitomizes Sethe's devotion to motherhood.
The burden of painful memories for both Sethe and Paul D produces typically female and male responses. Sethe, like the house, covers herself in a breastplate of silence as a means of shielding Denver from earlier horrors. Paul D, the intruding male figure in a female-dominated environment, sings away his troubles with restless, urgent, masculine verses recalling hunger, labor, weariness, and a controlled impulse to avenge himself on the overseer. Realizing that his macho lyrics are out of place, Paul D turns his pent-up energies to the repair of the broken window and table leg. His supportive presence results in a tenuous harmony within the household as he ponders settling into a steady job and family life.
wild veronica any of a genus of plants of the figwort family, with white or bluish flower spikes.
cold house a springhouse or storage shed for dairy items, meats, and other items which would spoil in a hot kitchen.
privy a toilet; esp., an outhouse.
watery field terrain flooded for the cultivation of rice.
bloody side of the Ohio River Kentucky. The Ohio River separated Kentucky, a slave state, and Ohio, a free state.
huckleberries the fruit of any of a genus of plants of the heath family, having dark-blue berries with ten large seeds.
carmine red or purplish-red; crimson.
foal to give birth to (a foal). By comparing Sethe's condition to that of a pregnant mare, Amy reveals white prejudice about blacks, whom owners treated like brood animals so that their offspring, like foals or piglets or calves, could be reared for labor or for market.
lisle a fabric, or stockings, gloves, etc., knit or woven of lisle, a fine, hard, extra-strong cotton thread.
molly apple the wild fruit of a perennial woodland plant of the barberry family, with shield-shaped leaves and a single, large, white, cuplike flower.
glazing the work of a glazier in fitting windows, etc. with glass.