Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Chapter 26
The war of wills continues at 124 Bluestone Road. Beloved, whose belly expands while Sethe starves, becomes Sethe's sole focus after she spots the scar on "the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin" — the scar left by the handsaw. Obsessed with Beloved, Sethe loses her job because Sawyer can no longer depend on her. As demented as Baby Suggs was at the end of her life, Sethe spends her remaining $38 on extravagances, including "ribbon and dress goods. . . . Bright clothes — with blue stripes and sassy prints." The family members eye each other warily. Denver fears for Beloved's life, Beloved demands constant attention and coddling, and Sethe searches for absolution for killing her baby girl. At length, Sethe unloads the hurt of the past, and Beloved accuses her of abandonment. Sethe counters with her hopes that the family can reunite "on the other side, forever."
Accusations and counter-accusations continue. Denver fears that Beloved may stab Sethe in retaliation for leaving her. Sethe and Denver grow faint with hunger and weary from emotional conflict. Denver, encouraged by her grandmother's example and wisdom, goes to her former teacher, Lady Jones, for help. Rejecting charity, Denver insists on working. Through Lady Jones, Denver taps into the generosity of the neighborhood women, who supply food regularly to the starving trio.
Denver's home life deteriorates further as Beloved continues to fatten and falls into despair, screaming "Rain! Rain!" and clawing her throat. Sethe recedes further from sanity as Beloved avenges her murder. Meanwhile, Denver serves her mother and sister as cook, laundress, and nurse. At Nelson Lord's suggestion, Denver seeks work in the Bodwin household.
Denver confesses to Janey Wagon, the Bodwins' servant, the truth about what's happening at 124 — her mother's madness, the visiting "cousin," and her own need for a job. Janey deduces that the cousin is a ghost and spreads this news to the community. At 3 p.m. on the Friday when Denver is to assume the role of night nurse to the aging Bodwins, 30 women approach 124 as Denver awaits Edward Bodwin's arrival. The women pray and begin singing at the edge of the yard as the unsuspecting Bodwin drives up in his cart.
Sethe is chipping ice with a pick, trying to cool Beloved's head, when Bodwin arrives. Hearing the women singing at the edge of the yard, Sethe and Beloved move to the porch to see what is happening. The sight of Bodwin triggers a flashback in Sethe's mind to the day schoolteacher and the other slave catchers came to reclaim her family. Racing toward the cart, Sethe fails to recognize the generous Mr. Bodwin, seeing only a white man with a whip in his hand. The ice pick becomes an extension of her hand and her will to protect Beloved.
Throughout the novel, the characters have been emotionally crippled by their pasts. Sethe and Denver especially are disabled by their histories. The mental and spiritual wounds caused by slavery are still fresh and have not been allowed to heal. Sethe cannot overcome her outrage and sense of violation from her Sweet Home experiences, nor can she work through the guilt she feels about her daughter's death. Meanwhile, although Denver has never lived as a slave, she suffers from the ramifications of her mother's experiences. Her development was arrested upon her discovery of Sethe's murder of Beloved and Sethe's attempt to murder Denver. The magnitude of this discovery caused Denver to withdraw from the community and to retreat into the sheltered but unhealthy world of 124.
With Beloved's arrival at 124, Sethe and Denver have been faced with the physical manifestation of the very thing that haunts them and keeps them from moving on with their lives. Beloved embodies not just the spirit of the child Sethe killed but also all of the past pain and suffering from which Sethe and Denver have never been able to escape. Initially they are fascinated by Beloved and what she represents, but in this chapter Morrison demonstrates how destructive centering one's life around the past can be. As Beloved feeds upon their fascination, Sethe and Denver's lives devolve into chaos and then into near-starvation.
Denver's recognition that she needs to "step off the edge of the world" and leave the house to find help signifies the beginning of her movement from the paralyzing world of the past into the freedom of the present. By taking this step, Denver re-enters the black community and propels herself into womanhood. Every connection she makes to other community members draws her farther from her mother and Beloved's unhealthy love and deeper into a life of possibilities. She learns to read, gets a job, and experiences her first feelings of attraction to a man.
Carrying on the pervasive theme of the lingering trouble caused by slavery, Lady Jones epitomizes the half-breed, "Gray eyes and yellow woolly hair, every strand of which she hated." An altruistic lover of children, she exerts maternal love to vault over her own isolation, widowhood, and failing vision. Recognizing Denver's needs, she envelops the young woman in love. Lady's intuitive assessment of the situation at 124 Bluestone Road leads her to share "rice, four eggs and some tea" with Denver.
Lady Jones's outpouring of charity serves as partial payment for the sufferings that every ex-slave has known in servitude. Morrison describes the pain that assaulted Baby Suggs, Ella, Stamp Paid, and Paul D: "That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up."
Denver's initial visit to Lady Jones and her subsequent visits to the other women in the community serve to reestablish the connections between the community and her family. To Janey Wagon, Denver's story is worthy gossip. To some hearers, it is gospel; to others, fiction. To Ella, it seems unlikely that family members could "just up and kill" their own kind. Whatever the people think of the situation at 124, they feel connected enough to the family again to try to help in different ways. While some people simply offer food, others decide they need to exorcise Beloved from the house. This decision represents a long-awaited reversal of their decision to shun Sethe and punish her for her excessive pride.
The final scene of the chapter, in which Sethe tries to kill Edwin Bodwin, seems to be an echo of the scene in which the schoolteacher comes to 124 to reclaim Sethe and her children. However, whereas that event led to the destruction of a family and its place in the community, this situation leads to healing and reintegration. In this scene, members of the community have come to offer help rather than turn away as they did when the slave catcher came for Sethe. Additionally, the white man coming to take Sethe's child this time is coming to help rather than to hurt. Finally, Sethe chooses to destroy the perceived threat here rather than sacrifice Beloved for a second time.
The combination of all these elements leads to Sethe leaving Beloved on the porch and rushing into the crowd of women, followed closely by Denver. Beloved watches Sethe and Denver disappear into the "hill of black people, falling" which is overshadowed by the white man with a whip. This image is obviously one of slavery — the massive number of blacks who have been dominated by the slave master's whip. Sethe and Denver blend into this image; they cannot escape the ramifications of slavery any more than any other African American. However, as we have seen with Denver throughout the chapter, past oppression and suffering do not mean that people cannot build new lives for themselves.
Ironically, Edwin Bodwin, a well-off white gentleman, shares the horror of slavery to the degree that he and fellow Quakers have warred against it. As it did for Paul D, Stamp Paid, Ella, Lady Jones, and Sethe, the inhumanity of the slave era has drawn Bodwin and his associates into the fray. His generosity with the Bodwin family home led to local scandal after Sethe, his tenant, murdered her child. When Sethe was jailed, quick-witted Quakers "managed to turn infanticide and the cry of savagery around, and build a further case for abolishing slavery."
new stitches perhaps, decorative handwork or new clothes.
chippy a prostitute.
Wilberforce a black college in Wilberforce, Ohio, named for William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a noted abolitionist who moved the English government to end the slave trade in the British Caribbean.
normal school a teacher's college.
sweet thorny place was made up of paper scraps containing the handwritten names of others the symbolic nest at Lady Jones's house where Denver enters the sisterhood of other black women, who are providing ample food and bits of paper containing their identities so that Denver can return food containers to their owners.
a blackboy's mouth full of money a derogatory knickknack that depicts a black youth on his knees, his mouth spread as wide as a cup to hold loose change.
mouth harp a primitive monotonal metal musical instrument that is held by the lips and vibrated against the teeth.
a hairy white thing Ella's deformed child fathered by her white owner.
Society the Society of Friends or Quakers, prime movers in the abolitionist movement.