When Sethe and Beloved hear the women begin to sing, they go outside to the porch. The women see Sethe, small and shrunken, standing next to a beautiful, naked, pregnant woman. Sethe spots Mr. Bodwin coming up the road and mistakes him for schoolteacher. She rushes from the porch waving an ice pick, leaving Beloved alone. Beloved watches as Denver also leaves her side to chase after Sethe. All the women rush to prevent Sethe from killing Mr. Bodwin. At the beginning of the next chapter, we will learn what happened next through the narration of Stamp Paid: apparently, Ella punched Sethe before she could attack Mr. Bodwin, and the women held her down; then, after subduing Sethe, the women looked up to find that Beloved had disappeared.
As Sethe’s only remaining child, Denver represents the future. In Part Three, Denver transforms from a girl into a woman and begins, for the first time, to develop an independent sense of self. She serves as a bridge between Sethe and the rest of the community, and she provides Sethe with an opportunity to escape the haunting memories and sins of the past. She feels a sense of responsibility for her mother, who grows weaker and weaker in the shadows of Beloved’s power and of her own guilt. Ironically, Sethe’s regression toward infancy triggers Denver’s maturation.
While Denver represents the future, Beloved, of course, represents the past. Throughout the book, Beloved stands for the haunting legacy of slavery. As her presence becomes a danger to the whole black community, we see that the consequences of slavery haunt not only individuals but whole networks of people. Correspondingly, Beloved’s exorcism will provide a catharsis for the town’s entire black population as well as for Sethe. It is significant that it will take the community as a whole to rid 124 of Beloved—to exorcise the universal ghostly presence of slavery.
At the same time, it takes one woman, with her own personal sense of past suffering, to organize and lead the exorcism. Due to her own painful relationship with the past, Ella is the most attuned to the invasive and harmful aspect of Beloved’s resurrection. When Ella decides to rid the community of Beloved’s presence, she leads an exorcism of past traumas as well as of past sins. She wipes away the legacies of slavery’s evils and the memories of the evils that slavery induced in its victims, such as Ella’s own rejection of her baby.
Sethe’s mistaking of Mr. Bodwin for schoolteacher during the exorcism indicates the extent to which she is immersed in the past. Instead of repeating the past by running to protect her own children, Sethe does what she wishes she had done before: she attacks the perceived enemy. Schoolteacher is not really present, though, and Sethe’s violence is misdirected. She nearly kills Mr. Bodwin, who not only helped Baby Suggs but also fought for Sethe’s release from jail and is now trying to help her daughter find work. While Sethe does reenact her past mistake in a way, this time the mistake will not prove tragic; instead, it opens the door to potential growth. Just as this episode gives Sethe the chance to revise and emend the actions that have haunted her for eighteen years, it also grants the townswomen the opportunity to revisit and adjust their own past behavior. One of the reasons schoolteacher’s visit years ago ended so tragically was that the community had failed to warn Sethe of his approach. Now, the townswomen take action to stop Sethe from doing something she will regret later. The individual and the community work together to learn from past mistakes and to heal themselves.
In many ways, Beloved itself functions as a kind of exorcism. Morrison creates a space for both the victims and the perpetrators of oppression to confront and narrate their pasts. As readers and as heirs to American and world history, we are able to gain understanding of, and thus control over, prior sorrows and crimes. Through the confrontation of a dehumanizing past, humanity can be affirmed. Morrison suggests that we must learn to confront the past both as individuals and as a community before we can truly begin to extinguish its dangerous legacies.