by: Toni Morrison

Part One: Chapters 15–18

Analysis: Chapters 15–18

When, after many years of service, Baby Suggs asks the Garners why they call her Jenny Whitlow, she reveals a gap in her self-knowledge. However, this gap is quickly closed and surpassed. By choosing to keep the name she knows as her own despite Mr. Garner’s protestations, Baby Suggs closes the gap and asserts her independence. She takes this further in her preaching, as it enables her to spread her messages of self-love and independence to the community. In preaching, Baby Suggs takes her community as her family and finds a sense of purpose to her life as a freed person.

But the community is fickle. Although it allows Baby Suggs to rebuild for herself a sense of belonging, it does great harm to Baby Suggs’s family. The community is implicated in the infanticide because their jealousy and mistrust weighs on the feast so palpably that it hinders Baby Suggs’s perception of the “dark and coming thing.” More obviously incriminating is that, out of spite, the community deliberately fails to warn Sethe of schoolteacher’s approach. Even after Sethe murders her daughter, the community members feel Sethe is behaving too proudly, a crime for which they will continue to shun her until Denver turns to them for help in Part Three.

Morrison’s indictment of the black community in Sethe’s crime exemplifies the moral ambiguity that pervades Beloved. Like Baby Suggs, Morrison does not seem to “approve or condemn” Sethe’s act. Because Morrison centers the novel’s narrative around Sethe, and because she portrays Sethe as strong, sane, courageous, and a loving mother, we tend to sympathize with Sethe—even as she explains the circumstances of the murder. At the other extreme is the community, which completely shuns Sethe and her family after she murders her daughter. Thus, while Paul D’s initial, horrified reaction to Stamp Paid’s story is justified and understandable, it seems out of place to us because the text locates Sethe’s act outside the bounds of ethical evaluation in a way that the community does not. The text shifts the focus of the reader’s criticism from Sethe herself to the perverse circumstances that have worked upon her to transform her “too thick” motherly love into infanticide.

The book’s moral ambiguity extends beyond its central conflict to all aspects of the story. Good and evil are not split along a racial divide—we see whites performing good acts along with the bad and blacks performing bad acts along with the good. By complexly intertwining virtue and vice, Morrison makes her characters seem realistic and human, so that they rise above being simple allegorical figures. Even Beloved, the only expressly allegorical figure in the book, is an elusive character. The novel’s sole definitive moral judgment is its condemnation of all forms of slavery. Most prominently, the terror and despair slavery represents to Sethe is portrayed as the indirect cause of her act of infanticide. Even the “softer” form of slavery practiced by the Garners does not escape criticism.

The “four horsemen”—schoolteacher, schoolteacher’s nephew, a slave catcher, and the sheriff—reference the description of the Apocalypse that is detailed in the Book of Revelations. In the biblical text, the four horsemen—famine, plague, war, and death—herald the coming of the end of human existence. The horsemen in Beloved announce the end of the peaceful world that was 124. Before their arrival, Sethe lived in harmony with her family, with her community, and, for the first time, with herself. After Sethe’s attempt to murder all of her children, Baby Suggs sinks into a deep depression and never preaches again, while the community shuns 124 and its inhabitants. Sethe’s surviving children will never again trust her in the same way, and Sethe is haunted for the rest of her life—literally by her daughter’s ghost, figuratively by her deed. In a sense, schoolteacher and his posse also herald the end of coherent meaning for the book’s main characters: Sethe’s incomprehensible act ushers in an era of moral and existential doubt in the book. Paul D, who has difficulty understanding his feelings, his motives, his manhood, and his actions, is most explicitly plagued by doubt.