Summary and Analysis
Chapter 20 finds Sethe continuing to wander the past, resolved in her choice to reclaim Beloved. She recalls that she reported to Mrs. Garner that schoolteacher's nephews attacked her while he watched. Mrs. Garner, reduced to invalidism, did nothing about the atrocity. Through the dying woman's bedroom window, Sethe heard shots. Quickly, she entrusted her three children to the woman in the wagon, and Sethe returned to Sweet Home to try to find Halle. The beating she received for freeing her children cost her a piece of tongue, which she bit off when the lash opened the skin on her back.
In Chapter 21, Denver ponders her brothers' fear of their mother after she tried to kill them. Denver admits to herself that she is a recluse: "Not since Miss Lady Jones' house have I left 124 by myself. Never." Her only forays into the world outside 124 have been a burial and the outing to the carnival. Her mind churning from worry that Sethe will harm her and Beloved, Denver remains alert. She frets, "This time I have to keep my mother away from her." She exults that Paul D is gone and vows to hang on "till my daddy gets here to help me watch out for Ma'am and anything come in the yard." The bright spot in Denver's reality is Baby Suggs, who taught her to appreciate and love her own body. The hope of Denver's future is Beloved, who returned to fill the emptiness left by Baby Suggs's death.
Sethe contemplates the paradox of Beloved's death. In her musings, Sethe declares that "if I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her." A mixture of motherhood images roils in Sethe's tangled internal monologue. She recalls Nan nursing her with the milk left over from the "whitebabies." She thinks about herself tenderly caring for Mrs. Garner during her bout with a grotesque throat tumor. She also contemplates her marriage to Halle.
In one of her frequent, minor epiphanies, Sethe praises herself for what she has accomplished. "I lasted," she boasts, "And my girl come home."
Sethe displays unusual rebellion for an ex-slave as she takes stock of what her choices have brought her. Late to work for the first time in 16 years, she testily rebukes her boss Sawyer, risking the loss of a job with one of the few people willing to hire an ex-con. For the first time, she comprehends Baby Suggs's preoccupation with color and realizes that the freedom to contemplate "what the sun is doing to the day" is a benchmark in an ex-slave's life. Sethe remarks that she also understands why Baby Suggs didn't want "to get to red" — the color that covered Sethe's dying baby.
As Sethe looks to the future, she hopes for a reunion with her "ma'am" and the rest of her family. The memories of her mother's peculiar smile convince Sethe that a steel bit forced her mother's mouth into a semblance of an upturn, like the forced welcome of "Saturday girls" working the slaughterhouse yard. Sethe recalls how close she came to prostitution and that same forced smile, until the Bodwins found her a job that allowed her to earn $3.40 a week to feed her family.
Chapter 21, a companion piece to Sethe's internal monologue in Chapter 20, shifts point of view to the intense needs and insecurities of Denver. Like Sethe, Denver — controlled by the past and a victim of persistent nightmares where "she cut my head off every night" — examines her seclusion, which is made bearable now by the company of her ghostly sister. She recalls the advice of her brothers about how to avoid execution if danger should again force Sethe to desperate parricide. Unpleasant memories float up from Denver's childhood: the sound of scratching, the sight of the dark shed, the smell of desperation emanating from Sethe's dress, and "something little" watching from the corners.
Serving a self-imposed sentence of nameless fear, alienation, and yearning, Denver retreats to "the secret house," the green chapel that shuts out the hurt. In the sheltering clearing, she envelopes her bruised psyche in Baby Suggs's lore: the joy of being alive and free, the pride in being mistress of her own home, and the admiration of Halle, who worked so hard to free his mother from slavery and alleviate her pain. Denver believes that nursing from a breast anointed with Beloved's blood made her immune to the ghost's menace. Isolated and longing for sisterly communion, Denver loves this visitor: "She's mine, Beloved. She's mine."