Summary and Analysis
At the end of five weeks, Beloved, who is hesitant to reveal personal information, gives a clue to her past — the fact that she "was at the bridge." Sethe halts Paul D's intrusive grilling about how Beloved could have walked a long way without soiling her new shoes. Beloved bursts out in baby talk: "I take the shoes! I take the dress! The shoe strings don't fix!" Denver, recognizing that Beloved has never learned to tie a bow, promises to teach her.
Paul D, uneasy about the glow that illuminates Beloved, concludes that there is some significance to the girl's arrival on the very day that Sethe and he had "patched up their quarrel, gone out in public and had a right good time — like a family." Just as he determines to investigate Beloved, she chokes on a raisin and then says she wants to go to sleep. Delighted to have an intimate companion, Denver escorts her to the upstairs bedroom.
Sethe and Paul D, left to themselves, discuss his vexation with Beloved. Paul D boasts that he "never mistreated a woman." Sethe indicates that Halle mistreated her by leaving his children. Paul D shocks Sethe by revealing that on the night the schoolteacher's nephews assaulted her and stole her breast milk, Halle was hidden in the barn loft and saw the attack take place. Traumatized by his wife's suffering, Halle lost his mind, and the last time Paul D saw him, he was sitting mutely with butter smeared all over his face. Paul D could not cry out at the horror of this image because his own mouth was stifled by an iron bit as he waited for transportation to a labor camp in Alfred, Georgia.
Sethe, her image of the loving Halle shattered by this revelation, boils over with rage at the menacing "boys with mossy teeth," schoolteacher taking notes during the assault, and Halle watching from the loft but taking no action to defend her. She calms herself by examining Paul D's face, which is somehow free of the wildness that afflicts most men who have suffered the iron bit. Paul D tells Sethe that the worst of his humiliation after being captured by schoolteacher was the glare of Mister, the deformed rooster that he helped hatch from its shell. Sethe, having heard this confession of pain and degradation, massages his knee in sympathy.
It is revealed in this chapter that Sethe's house was once a way station. The motif of the way station, a key element in the novel, operates on two levels. As an earthly dwelling for a wandering spirit, Sethe's house serves as Beloved's resting place after she crosses the bridge to return from the afterlife. Historically, the way station was a treasured salvation for ex-slaves who lacked food, clothing, and safe passage among whites. For illiterate blacks who identified themselves by the scraps of names they were presented in slavery, the way station also served as a postal center and message drop. Chance meetings with other wayfarers sometimes reunited them with friends and loved ones. Barring such windfall, the way station provided a warm, dry, and safe rest stop along the wearying road away from slavery.
Paul D, lost in thought, relives his 20 years on the road after leaving Sweet Home, where he encountered "Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything." As he and Sethe try to resolve the mystery of Halle's disappearance, Paul D bursts out with a defense of Halle, who epitomizes the emasculated black male, impeded from protecting his family: "A man ain't a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can't chop down because they're inside."
The bestial image of Mister, the regal rooster, smiling from his tub, destroyed Paul D's remaining sense of humanity as he waited to be carted off to prison. He now recognizes the bitter irony of the fact that the bad-tempered rooster was free to be what it was — a rooster — while Paul D was stripped of his human dignity and treated like an animal. He mourns the men of Sweet Home, "one crazy, one sold, one missing, one burnt and me licking iron with my hands crossed behind me." Sethe's maternal response to Paul D is as instinctive as soothing a child. To her, the rubbing and pressing of his anguished limbs brings the satisfaction of bread-making. As Sethe kneads Paul D's bony knee, her mind turns to her restaurant job and the workaday wisdom that there's "nothing better than [kneading bread] to start the day's serious work of beating back the past."
way station a safe house where wandering blacks could inquire about relatives and expect hospitality.
paterollers patrollers or slave-catchers.
Pulaski County, Kentucky a county in south central Kentucky.
the dragon a Klan symbol.
underground agent the guide who waited in the cornfield to lead slaves to freedom.
clabber thickly curdled sour milk.
sugar teat an early kind of pacifier; a small square of cloth filled with a mixture of brown sugar and butter, tied off, and given to babies to suck on.