Summary: Chapter 15
After Sethe first arrived at 124, Stamp Paid brought over two pails of rare, deliciously sweet, blackberries. Baby Suggs decided to bake some pies, and before long the celebration had transformed into a feast for ninety people. The community celebrated long into the night but grew jealous and angry as the feast wore on: to them, the excess of the feast was a measure of Baby Suggs’s unwarranted pride. Baby Suggs sensed a “dark and coming thing” in the distance, but the atmosphere of jealousy created by the townspeople clouded her perception.
From Sethe’s arrival at 124, the narration goes even further back in time to Sweet Home. Although it meant leaving behind the only child she had been able to see grow to adulthood, Baby Suggs allowed Halle to buy her freedom because it mattered so much to him. Once she left Sweet Home, Baby Suggs realized how sweet freedom could be. While Mr. Garner drove her to Cincinnati, she asked him why he and Mrs. Garner called her Jenny. He told her that Jenny Whitlow was the name on her bill-of-sale. She explains the origin of her real name—Suggs was her husband’s name, and he called her “Baby.” Mr. Garner tells her that Baby Suggs is “no name for a freed Negro.” He takes Baby Suggs to Ohio to meet the Bodwins, two white abolitionist siblings who allow Baby Suggs to live at 124 Bluestone Road in exchange for domestic work. Baby Suggs is unable to learn anything about the whereabouts of her lost children.
Summary: Chapter 16
One day, about a month after Sethe arrived at 124, schoolteacher showed up at the house with one of his nephews, the sheriff, and a slave catcher. In the woodshed, they found Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, lying in the sawdust, bleeding. Sethe was holding her bleeding “crawling already?” daughter, whose throat she had cut with a saw. Stamp Paid rushed in and grabbed Denver before Sethe could dash her brains out against the wall. Because none of the children could ever be of any use as a slave, schoolteacher concluded that there was nothing worth claiming at 124 and left in disgust. Sethe’s older daughter was dead, but Baby Suggs bound the boys’ wounds and struggled with Sethe over Denver. Denver nursed at Sethe’s breast, ingesting her dead sister’s blood along with her mother’s milk. The sheriff took Sethe, with Denver in her arms, to jail.
Summary: Chapter 17
Stamp Paid shows Paul D a newspaper clipping with a drawing of Sethe, but Paul D, refusing to believe that the woman depicted is Sethe, insists, “That ain’t her mouth.” Paul D can’t read, so Stamp Paid tells him the story of Sethe’s tragedy. Stamp Paid leaves some parts of the story out, though. He doesn’t tell how Sethe grabbed her children and flew with them to the woodshed “like a hawk on the wing,” nor does he mention that, out of jealous spite, the community neglected to warn Sethe about schoolteacher’s approach.
Summary: Chapter 18
She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them . . . away, over there where no one could hurt them.
When Paul D confronts Sethe with the newspaper clipping, she begins to circle frantically around the room in a manner that parallels the circular manner in which she unravels her story for him. She tells Paul D how, at 124, she began to love her children with renewed force, because she knew finally that they were fully hers to love. When she recognized schoolteacher’s hat outside the house one day, she felt hummingbird wings beating around her head and could think only, “No. No. Nono. Nonono.” Killing her children was a way of protecting them from the horrors of slavery she had herself endured, a way to secure their safety.
Paul D tells her that her love is “too thick.” He feels distanced from Sethe and condemns her act, saying, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” by which he suggests that she acted like a beast in attempting to murder her own children. His anxiety increases when he sees Beloved standing on the staircase. He leaves 124, and Sethe simply says, “So long.” Although he does not say so, Sethe knows that Paul D isn’t coming back.
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.
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