Summary and Analysis
Stamp Paid, upon learning that Paul D left 124 Bluestone Road on the day that he saw the newspaper clipping, scolds himself for violating Sethe's family's privacy. He thinks over the sequence of events that Baby Suggs's family endured after the "Misery" of Beloved's murder and after the death of Baby Suggs shortly before the end of the Civil War. He recalls that after Baby Suggs's death, neighbors distanced themselves from Sethe, who avoided Beloved's funeral service and stood stonily at the graveside. For six days after Paul D leaves, Stamp Paid tries to knock on Sethe's door but cannot find the courage to do so.
On the other side of the door at 124, Sethe tries to rid herself of anger. She decides to take Denver and Beloved ice skating, but before they go, her thoughts return to jail, the loss of her earrings, and small parcels of food that Baby Suggs handed her through the bars. Sethe remembers that during her leave of absence to attend the baby's funeral, Howard and Buglar refused to come near her. Within three months of being jailed, Sethe gained her freedom. She bartered sex for a gravestone and had the carver inscribe one of the words that she heard Reverend Pike say during the funeral service invocation, "Dearly Beloved." Weighed down by these memories, Sethe trudges to work late for the first time in 16 years.
Stamp Paid, pondering the source of his name and wondering if he owed a debt to Denver and Baby Suggs, discusses Sethe's strange household with Ella, who was one of many black neighbors to snub Sethe after Beloved's murder. Ella suggests that Stamp Paid may find answers to his questions from Paul D, who has been sleeping at the church. Stamp Paid chides Ella for not opening her own home to Paul D in a time of need. He rejects Ella's criticisms of Sethe and acknowledges that his own meddling caused Paul D to leave 124.
As Sethe ends her day's work for Sawyer, she recalls how trusting she was at Sweet Home before Mr. Garner's death, when things changed and slaves had to steal, lie, and deceive in order to endure life. She recalls her humiliation at hearing schoolteacher instruct his nephews to catalogue her human traits and her animal traits. The realization that Buglar and Howard would soon be large enough for schoolteacher to sell disturbed her sleep. Sethe congratulates herself for managing to save her children from slavery.
Morrison makes it clear that the victimization of former slaves does not stop with their escape from slave states. Law intervenes in Baby Suggs's life all the way to her burial. She enjoys only a four-week acquaintance with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren before schoolteacher, justified by the Fugitive Slave Law, terrifies Sethe into mayhem. Taking to her bed in search of respite from more worries than she can handle, Baby Suggs absorbs herself in the abstract comfort of color until her death. Sethe's order to "Take her to the Clearing," where she wants Baby Suggs buried, also meets opposition from laws that force mourners to bury the popular matriarch in the cemetery.
The classical theme of hubris (exaggerated pride), an essential in Greek tragedy, delineates Sethe as the tragic heroine of this story. Because of her outrageous act of self-sufficiency, her neighbors rescind the sympathy and camaraderie usually extended to ex-slaves, and they exile her in the land of freedom that she risked everything to attain. After Baby Suggs's death, mourners refuse to enter 124 or partake of Sethe's food. As Stamp Paid contemplates the family's fate, he blames himself for acting out of mean-spiritedness and envy. By searching for the "pride [that] goeth before a fall" in Sethe, he discloses that pride in his own heart. Shamed by his uncharitable act, Stamp Paid downgrades his own status from a rescuer of runaway slaves and "Soldier of Christ" to an ignoble meddler.
Another classical theme, harmony, crumbles quickly under the weight of local suspicion, blame, and alienation. Before Beloved's death, the community of ex-slaves shared their miseries in the warmth of Baby Suggs's house and shared spontaneous bursts of revelation and rejoicing in the clearing. These connections fade to nothing as Beloved's ghost replaces the spirit of generosity and acceptance. In place of harmony, Sethe rewards herself with the satisfaction that she succeeded in rescuing her children from whipping, lynching, starvation, and sale. Thus, the theme of endurance takes precedence over harmony. Sethe, content in her efforts, locks out the inharmonious neighborhood that turns its collective back on her.
Skating both literally and symbolically on slippery ice, Sethe and Denver share one skate each while Beloved, treated to a full set, receives the privileges accorded a guest. The scene, unobserved by outsiders, ends with Sethe's unforeseen tears. The girls support her both physically and emotionally as they walk back to the house where Sethe provides them with warm milk. But this milk, symbolically thinned by the family's precarious position on Bluestone Road, requires artificial flavoring.
dropsy edema, or an abnormal accumulation of fluid in cells, tissues, or cavities of the body, resulting in swelling.
Fugitive Bill The Fugitive Slave Bill, tacked onto the Compromise of 1850, required the return of slaves from free states as just compensation of owners. Although contested in Ableman v. Booth, on October 16, 1859, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the unpopular law.
setting-up night-long watch over a corpse.
pride goeth before a fall a common compression of Proverbs 16:18, "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."
things older, but not stronger, than He Himself was that is, evil.
Spirit willing; flesh weak As described in Matthew 26: 40-41, Christ, in his agony in Gethsemane, the night when he is betrayed, chastises Peter because the disciples have fallen asleep.
Settlement Fee Pro-Union Southerners pressed claims for damages after their property, supplies, and animals were confiscated by an army quartermaster or commissary or were destroyed during foraging, pillage, or hostile action, such as artillery shelling or arson. On March 3, 1871, Congress began a process of reimbursement for the loyalists' losses. The legislation was extended on May 11, 1872 to cover similar losses caused by U.S. naval action.
God's Ways and Negro pews contemplation of God's apparent blessing of white people, who continued to isolate black worshippers in segregated pews, often in the "colored balcony."
skin voting only white people had the right to vote.
Republicans political movement led by Abraham Lincoln from third-party status to frontrunner.
Dred Scott (1795-1858) a Southampton County, Virginia, slave who sued for freedom in 1846. Voting seven to two, the Supreme Court dismissed the case of Scott v. Sanford nine years later on the grounds that the Constitution did not guarantee rights to a non-citizen. This pro-slavery decision is thought to have hastened the Civil War. Scott, who was freed by his owner in May 1857, died the following year from tuberculosis.
Sojourner's high-wheeled buggy Sojourner Truth was the alias of Isabella Baumfree (1797-1883), a slave and abolitionist born in Hurley, New York, who was freed when the state emancipated its slaves in 1827. Impelled by religious fervor, Isabel took the new name to announce her mission. She personally led many runaways to freedom and, despite her illiteracy, addressed rallies and women's rights conventions.
Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio a women's organization dedicated to social and civic activities, such as petitioning the courts to free Sethe from a death sentence.
North Star Frederick Douglass's abolitionist newspaper, published in Rochester, New York from 1847 to 1863.
live oak a wide-spreading, evergreen oak native to the southeastern U.S. Because it has tough bark and does not lose its leaves, the live oak often symbolizes resilience.
your eyes here, stove burners.
white satin coat a residue of cooked milk.
Licking River a river that branches south from the Ohio River into northern Kentucky.
get right make amends, apologize, or atone for a personal injury.
in chambers in private.
you way off the track with that wagon a common adage meaning "you're overstepping the bounds of courtesy."
you in deep water You've gone too far.
I'm on dry land I have just cause.
people who die bad don't stay in the ground a belief that victims of murder or wrongful death wander the earth as ghosts.
head cheese a loaf of jellied, seasoned meat, made from parts of the heads and feet of hogs.
measuring string the tape measure that schoolteacher uses to study black bodies. According to the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy, which were popular in the mid-1800s, the shape of the head and body revealed human character, intelligence, and capabilities.
Diane dianthus, any of a genus of plants of the pink family, including the carnation and sweet william.
he had company in the prettiest trees you ever saw Paul A is hanging from one of the trees of Sweet Home farm.