Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 9
The stabilizing influence of Baby Suggs seems far removed from the jarring news of Halle's bizarre splash in the butter churn. No longer anchored by the living presence of her loving mother-in-law, Sethe recalls Baby Suggs's admonition to abandon the past. In the clearing where Baby Suggs once preached, men, women, and children danced, sang, and celebrated the crippled old woman's healing love. Herself defeated by a weak heart, a month after Sethe arrived in Cincinnati, Baby Suggs took to her bed, caressed bright colors, and, blaming "those white things," willed herself to die.
Sethe's mental journey returns her to the Kentucky riverside where Denver was born and where Stamp Paid fed Sethe fried eel and river water from a jar. Because fever gripped her body and dampened the baby, Stamp Paid ordered his nephew to take off his jacket; in it he swaddled the newborn. Stamp Paid then ferried Sethe across the Ohio to an earth-floored shack, marking the sty with a knotted white rag. Responding to the signal, Ella arrived with potatoes, a blanket, cloth, and a pair of men's shoes, which had to be split to accommodate Sethe's swollen feet.
Sethe welcomed the news that her other three children had already arrived at their grandmother's house. Despite Ella's terse advice that she not love anything, Sethe basked in the loving reception she received when she and her newborn arrived at 124 Bluestone Road. She felt true comfort in Baby Suggs's gentle bathing and binding. Baby Suggs stitched a dress for Sethe to wear and, after rescuing Mrs. Garner's crystal earrings from the hem of her old dress, discarded the garments she arrived in. Sethe's older daughter delighted in the jingle of the earrings.
Turning her thoughts to the present, Sethe, accompanied by Denver and Beloved, reaches the clearing and ponders her doubts that Halle will ever return. As she muses about the possibility of life with Paul D, Sethe feels fingers closing around her neck and strangling her. Denver rushes to her aid. When Sethe can breathe again, Beloved massages Sethe's bruised flesh and kisses her. Denver halts the girl's assistance, but not before Sethe momentarily recognizes the touch, which is identical to the touch she once felt from the two-year-old ghost of her daughter. Reflecting further on Paul D's love, Sethe understands Denver's need for a sister.
Sethe plans a tasty dinner for Paul D, who soaks in the tub and gestures to Sethe to join him. Beloved arrives unseen and, filled with jealousy, goes back outside. Denver accuses Beloved of choking Sethe, and Beloved runs to the stream.
Denver thinks about the time she spent when she was seven attending Lady Jones's school, where she made progress in reading and writing until Nelson Lord revealed the reason why neighbors shunned her house: "Didn't your mother get locked away for murder? Wasn't you in there with her when she went?" Two years after Nelson Lord drove her out of school, Denver first heard the sounds of the crawling baby ghost. The spirit's spiteful intrusion unnerved Denver's brothers; to escape the oppressive atmosphere of 124, they left home after Denver's grandmother died.
Back in the present, Denver assesses how she can relieve her agonizing solitude. She turns to her sister, who crouches in the stream and watches two turtles mate.
Morrison blends several religious conventions in this chapter. Like Pythia, Apollo's priestess in ancient Delphi, "Baby Suggs, holy" sat in her shrine — the clearing — and, without training, responded intuitively to the spiritual needs of all comers. Her Christ-like message, "Let the children come," emulates Mark 10:14, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Reaching out to men and women as well, Baby Suggs bid the children to laugh, the men to dance, and the women to cry. The throng, mixing their roles in a symphony of laughter, dance, and sobs, responded to Baby Suggs's "great big heart."
Like the Native American All-Mother or Mediterranean Earth Mother mythic figures who offer blessings and transcend time and place by permeating all cultures, Baby Suggs offers her own version of Christ's beatitudes. After the battering self-denial of slavery, her followers need self-esteem more than theology. Baby Suggs exhorts them to find human comfort — to love their hands and to use them in touching, patting, and stroking others. She names feet, backs, shoulders, arms, liver, and "the prize" — the heart. A foreshadowing of Baby Suggs's heart condition as well as of Sethe's need to rediscover her own self-worth, the scene anticipates the conclusion of the novel in which Sethe, no longer able to lean upon her wise mother-in-law, finds acceptance in Paul D and thus accepts herself.
Sethe's salvation is challenged, however, by a harrowing event that causes the neighboring black community to shun her for 18 years. Coinciding with Baby Suggs's collapse, this event occurs a mere month after Sethe's reunion with her children. The description of the four-week period of peace as "twenty-eight days" reflects another feminine detail, the lunar cycle that governs the menstrual flow.
Don't study war no more a line from "Down By the Riverside." Baby Suggs, an illiterate preacher, took her texts from Negro spirituals.
fixing ceremony the arrangement of a corpse for burial.
AMEs and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds black religious denominations. AMEs refers to the African Methodist Episcopal church, founded in New York City in 1801 by Richard Allen.
buckeyes the seeds of any of various trees of the horse-chestnut family.
flatbed a flat-bottomed skiff.
hutch a hut.
juniper any of a genus of evergreen shrubs or trees of the cypress family, with needlelike or scalelike foliage, aromatic wood, and berrylike cones that yield an oil used for flavoring gin and formerly in medicine.
rind a piece of pork skin, traditional southern style seasoning for green beans.
raised bread yeast bread.
four o'clocks any of a genus of chiefly American annual or perennial herbs, esp. a garden plant with fragrant yellow, red, or white flowers opening late in the afternoon.