After the episode in which Denver believed she saw the baby ghost kneeling next to her praying mother, Sethe told Denver about schoolteacher, who was Mrs. Garner’s brother-in-law. After Mr. Garner died, schoolteacher came with his two nephews to run the farm. Schoolteacher used to record his observations of the slaves in a notebook. He prodded them with strange questions, and Sethe believes that the questions broke Sixo’s spirit permanently.
As Paul D repairs the furniture he damaged during his confrontation with the ghost, he sings songs he learned while in a chain gang in Alfred, Georgia. After his traumatizing prison experience, he shut down a large part of his heart and head, operating only what helped him “walk, eat, sleep, sing.” The experience of seeing Sethe again reopens the locked part of his mind, and he decides to stay at 124.
Sethe tells Paul D that after her escape, schoolteacher came to Cincinnati to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. Sethe went to jail instead and took Denver with her. Paul D does not ask her for details because the mention of jail reminds him of his experiences in Alfred. Paul D’s decision to stay gives Sethe hope for the future.
Chapter 2 begins with Paul D gazing at Sethe’s back and it ends with her gazing at his. These images symbolize what is taking place thematically in the chapter: the characters’ charting of their respective memories, of what lies behind them, at their backs. Sethe’s back also contains the visible scars of her whipping. The narration alternates between two time periods—the present in Cincinnati and the Sweet Home past. The Sweet Home past is presented from both Paul D’s and Sethe’s perspectives, as the narrator’s focus shifts between the two characters. The novel maps out the points of proximity and distance between them. Both characters, for example, are disappointed after having sex, and they simultaneously begin thinking about Sethe and Halle’s encounter in the cornfield twenty-five years ago. On the other hand, Paul D’s sudden, secret revulsion toward Sethe’s scars suggests an emotional distance that takes even him by surprise.
Sethe recalls that Halle loved her in a brotherly way, not like a man “laying claim.” However, beneath the surface of this seemingly positive memory is the fact of the impotence inherent to the slave condition. Even if he had wanted to do so, Halle could not have laid claim to his enslaved wife any more than she could lay claim to herself. Slaves were not permitted to become legally married because marriage means giving yourself in contract to one another, and slaves are already contracted to their owners. The prohibition of marriage also prevented the slaves from having a strong claim on their children. Baby Suggs’s loss of her eight children was nothing unusual in slave life. The names of Paul D and his brothers are also a testament to the slaves’ lack of ownership over themselves and their children. Paul D’s brothers are named Paul A and Paul F, suggesting their interchangeability in the minds of their owners. Moreover, the brothers’ last name—Garner—is that of their owner. It thus marks them as the property of another.
Sethe doesn’t feel she can lay claim to her own memories. She attributes to them powers of autonomy, and her explanation to Denver of her concept of time reveals the powerful hold that the past has on her. Sethe regards the past as a malevolent presence that defies even death. The past has damaged Sethe and Paul D to so that they wonder if it is possible to put the pieces back together. Paradoxically, Sethe tries to shelter Denver from the past by isolating her in a house plagued by the ghost of Denver’s dead sister.