Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapter 4



After three days, Denver demands to know whether Paul D intends to stay. Sethe insists that Paul D remain and scolds Denver for discourtesy, even though the girl is old enough to be considered an adult. To ease the tension, Paul D invites Sethe and Denver to go to a carnival, saying "Thursday, tomorrow, is for coloreds . . . ." The next morning, the threesome, among Cincinnati's 400 blacks, walk toward the lumberyard and take in the sights, including clowns and freaks.


Morrison uses this small chapter to develop both plot and mood. Paul D, who has no understanding of Sethe's sufferings during their 18 years apart or her intense relationship with her one remaining child, probes for the unspoken admission of her affection for him. At the same time, he knows enough of the post-slavery era to realize that it's dangerous for a "used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much." Innocent of the hurt that Sethe conceals, he manfully promises to "catch you 'fore you fall."

During the morning's entertainment at the carnival ("Pickaninnies free!"), Paul D redeems himself with both women by spending his last two dollars on treats while they watch the Snake Charmer, an Arabian Nights dancer, the Fat Lady, and other sights. Their shadows appear to link hands as they walk, which Sethe takes as a positive omen. However, the overall atmosphere of the morning's jaunt is tainted by images of danger, juncture, violence, savagery, and dismemberment, as the carnival entertainers are "eating glass, swallowing fire, spitting ribbons, twisted into knots, forming pyramids, playing with snakes and beating each other up." The carnival, an embodiment of illusion, serves as entertainment. However, the images in this chapter foreshadow the time when Sethe must reveal to Denver and Paul D the vile memories that refuse to exonerate her. Like the snake of Eden, something evil coils in wait.


croaker sack a burlap bag.

walking man an unsettled man, not the marrying kind.

pickaninnies black children. The term, derived from Spanish or Portuguese, evolved into a racial slur meant to denigrate or dehumanize.

horehound candy made with horehound juice, a bitter juice extracted from a horehound herb's leaves, stem, or flowers.