Stamp Paid tells Paul D about the recent events at 124. The old man says he no longer hears the voices around the house that he used to and that Beloved disappeared in the chaos that followed Sethe’s attempted attack on Mr. Bodwin. A small boy said he saw a naked woman running through the woods with fish for hair, but no one has seen her since.
Paul D asks Denver if she believes Beloved really was her baby sister who had come back from the other side. Denver replies that she believes Beloved to have been her sister, but, at times, she thinks Beloved was more. Denver continues to work for Miss Bodwin, who is giving her informal academic training in the hopes of sending Denver to Oberlin College. Denver warns Paul D to speak kindly to Sethe, who has not yet recovered entirely. Paul D walks to 124 and thinks about the series of escapes he has undertaken in his life. He ran from Sweet Home; he ran from Alfred, Georgia; and, during the war, he worked for both sides and ran from both. After the war, he thought he was free to walk the roads, but he saw dead blacks strewn everywhere, including women and children—he still had to keep running. Paul D wonders why he ran from Sethe.
When Paul D reaches 124, he senses that Beloved has left forever. He finds Sethe lying in Baby Suggs’s bed with vacant eyes. He fears that, like Baby Suggs before her, Sethe wants simply to lie down and wait for death. He tells her that he wants to help Denver take care of her. She replies miserably that her “best thing” has left her again, and Paul D wonders at the range of emotions that Sethe inspires in him. Sixo once told him that his Thirty-Mile Woman inspired his love because she gathered up the jumbled pieces of him and gave them back to him in order. Paul thinks that Sethe does the same for him. She helps him to stop being ashamed of his past, and he notes that when he is with her, the memories of being collared and muzzled like a beast no longer have the power to steal his manhood from him. He tells her they have more of “yesterday” than they need and that they need more “tomorrow” to make the “yesterday” bearable. Taking her hand, he tells Sethe that she shouldn’t consider Beloved’s departure to be the departure of her “best thing.” Sethe, and not her children, is her “own best thing.”
As though Beloved were a bad dream, everyone tries to forget her. The community sees her as the representative of an implacable loneliness that cannot be soothed or rocked away. Never satisfied, it roams and devours. Sethe, Denver, and Paul D take longer to forget Beloved than the townspeople do. Nevertheless, after a while they realize they cannot remember or repeat a single thing she said. In fact, they cannot say with certainty that she was ever really there.
When Paul D first showed up at the doorstep of 124, he seemed aware of the necessity of confronting the past in order to escape its grip. He assured Sethe that with him there to pull her out, she should feel safe about venturing “inside” her painful memories. When Beloved’s arrival forces Sethe to face the past, these memories begin, as Sethe feared, to consume her completely. Only with the help of those around her can Sethe escape Beloved’s hold. Denver keeps Sethe alive, the community helps to expel Beloved, and Paul D supports Sethe by telling her that she, and not her children, is her own “best thing.” By dealing with the past, Sethe and Paul D secure the possibility of enjoying a future together.
Beloved performs a similar function. The novel catalogs a past that contemporary readers must contend with before moving forward. Through most of the book, the narrator filters almost all of the story through the various perspectives of Sethe, Paul D, Denver, Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid, schoolteacher, Lady Jones, Mr. Bodwin, Beloved, and Ella. In the short, closing chapter of the book, Morrison returns the narration to a more universalized, abstracted, and distanced voice. The result is poetic: words rhyme and phrases repeat, affecting an almost trancelike state in the reader. Morrison punctuates these mesmerizing, cadenced paragraphs, describing how everyone gradually forgot Beloved, with the blunt explanation, “It was not a story to pass on.” Enigmatically, this phrase evolves, by the chapter’s end, into a warning: “This is not a story to pass on.” And yet Beloved does pass that story on. Its purpose is to restore a history to a people whose history has been erased by centuries of willed forgetfulness and forced silence. The narrator’s warning is intended to remind us that it is not easy to keep that history in our memory. Nor is it necessarily helpful for us to remember that history if it is not conveyed with responsibility and sensitivity. Resurrecting the past is a painful process, and Beloved is an emotionally painful book to read. Like its title character, it is a difficult entity to contend with, one that can inspire or distress the reader with equal intensity. Yet, by engaging with this disturbing, unrelenting force in a conscientious way, we may begin to understand the past, as well as its impact on our present.