Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapters 17-18
Returning to the present, Stamp Paid offers Paul D proof that Sethe was jailed for murdering Beloved. He shows Paul D Sethe's pencil-drawn portrait in a newspaper clipping that describes the murder. Paul D denies that the mouth of the pictured woman belongs to Sethe. Stamp Paid explains how the murder occurred, noting that Baby Suggs felt the approach of danger. He indicates that because of the revelry the previous night, the party-goers dropped their guard and failed to spot "some new whitefolks with the Look." Paul D continues to reject the truth, even after Stamp Paid reads the article aloud.
Paul D asks Sethe for the truth, and her words mix tender memories with horror. Too distraught to sit, Sethe spins around the kitchen, recalling her insufficient knowledge about babies and nutrition, the painting of the steps that enticed the crawling Beloved, and her attempts to work and simultaneously watch over her children at Sweet Home. Paul D realizes that Sethe killed her child with a handsaw. He accuses Sethe of the crime, and then withdraws from the house. Sethe suspects that she may never see Paul D again.
A mother killing her own child is an act that subverts the natural order of the world. A mother is expected to create life, not destroy it. The truth about Beloved's death is finally revealed, and Morrison leads up to the story with images of death and unnatural circumstances. The setting for Stamp Paid's revelation to Paul D is the slaughterhouse, where he and Paul D work with death every day. When looking at the newspaper clipping, Paul D immediately recognizes the implications of Sethe's picture appearing in a white newspaper. News about blacks does not normally appear in white papers unless something terrible enough has occurred to capture the white readers' interest. Just as it is unnatural for the white community to acknowledge any blacks, it is unnatural for a black community made up of ex-slaves not to protect their own from white slave catchers. However, that is what happened on the day Sethe tried to murder her children.
Paul D's resistance to Stamp Paid's revelation about Beloved's murder demonstrates the degree of horror and disbelief such an act creates. As we have seen, Paul D has undergone terrible, dehumanizing experiences which have toughened him and made him nearly impervious to hardship and pain. Morrison reminds us of his toughness when she describes his working conditions at the slaughterhouse. Paul D, we know by now, is not a man who is easily shocked. He is horrified, though, by the nature of Sethe's crime and by her inability to comprehend why her actions were wrong.
In a striking reversal of characterization, Sethe dances frenetically through the kitchen after Paul D shows her the clipping. She pours out confessions of her inability to mother her children — to nourish them and protect them from harm while she worked the fields, from fire while pork was being smoked, from the well, and from the stomp of Red Cora's hoof. Paul D, incapable of asking outright if she murdered her own child, looks at Sethe with unquestioning love — "love you don't have to deserve." The climax of their encounter, and of the novel itself, pours out in simple words: "I did it. I got us all out [from schoolteacher's tyranny]." Sethe, beaten down by slavery and despair, flaunts her pride that she — a woman, a slave, a pregnant female — managed to rescue her family, "Without Halle too." To dramatize her deed, she envisions herself as "deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between." Sethe celebrates her ability to shelter her family.
The pivotal scene hangs on Sethe's final question, "You know what I mean?" Paul D understands why an ex-slave should "[protect] yourself and [love] small," at least until being free of schoolteacher and men like him. He perceives the risk that Sethe took by opening her heart to "a big love . . . [one] that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia." Sethe and Paul D continue to connect through individual horror stories — stories of Paul D suffering life on a chain gang and sleeping in a subterranean coffin, and Sethe not being able to "let [Beloved] nor any of 'em live under schoolteacher."
The epiphany that concludes Book I pours out beyond language, outside of the domain of human communication: "No. No. Nono. Nonono." Within Sethe's psyche, metaphoric hummingbirds pierce her headcloth, their wings drumming into her brain a desperate course of action. Therefore, by the time her pursuer reaches her, the child in her arms has pumped out the last of its blood.
Learning the truth, Paul D finally perceives Sethe as a new and different woman, indefinably separate from the child-woman who had taken Baby Suggs's place at Sweet Home. He lashes out at the "thickness" of Sethe's love, which killed one child and drove two more away. Condemning her for wrongdoing, Paul D erects a barrier between them with a singularly uncharitable observation: "You got two feet, Sethe, not four." Like a beast peering through the forest, she correctly identifies his panic and murmurs, "So long."
dead Miami a large Indian tribe that once populated the Ohio Valley before its lands were stolen and its tribal members shunted to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.
fagot a bundle of sticks, twigs, or branches, esp. for use as fuel.
sassafras a small eastern North American tree of the laurel family, having an aromatic bark, leaves with usually two or three fingerlike lobes, and small, bluish fruits.
comfrey any of a genus of European plants of the borage family, with rough, hairy leaves and small blue, purplish, or yellow flowers, sometimes used for forage or ornament.