Summary

Part Two: Chapter 19

Summary Part Two: Chapter 19

Sethe’s memory of Sixo launches a series of other memories about Sweet Home and slavery. One is so painful that Sethe has told it to no one but Beloved: schoolteacher treated the slaves like farm stock, measuring their body parts and studying them like biological specimens. Once, Sethe overheard him giving a lesson to his nephews about her in which he instructed them to categorize each of her characteristics as either human or animal. Schoolteacher again manifested his cruelty again when, after Baby Suggs’s departure, he stopped Halle from doing any more work outside Sweet Home, thus depriving him of the chance to pay for the rest of his family’s release from slavery. This incident sparked the family to plot a secret escape. But their plan met with a tragic conclusion: Halle went insane, Paul A was hanged, Sixo was burned, and Paul D ended up with a bit in his mouth. Sethe recalls one night when she and Halle discussed the days of Mr. Garner’s rule of Sweet Home, the days before schoolteacher and his sadistic nephews arrived. Halle had surprised Sethe by saying that he saw no real difference between Garner’s kind of slavery and schoolteacher’s.

When Stamp runs away from 124 without knocking, he believes that the “undecipherable” voices he hears from the porch of the house belong to the “black and angry dead.” The chapter ends with Stamp’s thoughts about how slavery dehumanizes everyone involved, including whites. By defining the blacks as “jungle”-like, the whites “plant” resentment among the blacks that burgeons into a real, “jungle” anger. The whites, in turn, become so frightened of their own creation that they, too, began to behave brutally, like animals. The jungle, Stamp thinks, touches everyone, but it is normally hidden. Only from time to time does it manifest itself in rumblings such as the ones he hears emanating from 124.

Analysis

In this chapter, Stamp Paid’s feelings of guilt are interspersed with Sethe’s memories of schoolteacher and Sweet Home. The result is a sort of dialogue centering on issues of responsibility and blame. The majority of the black characters in Beloved are unhappy, but it is unclear whether the white people are solely responsible or whether the blacks’ sorrows are to some extent due to their inability to come to terms with themselves and their pasts. The chapter also raises questions about what the black community owes to itself and about the ties that bind people who are no longer slaves.

The complex, confused dynamics of Beloved’s behavior—alternately weak and strong, vulnerable and invincible, loving and malicious, needy and omnipotent—represent the irony and contradiction inherent in Stamp Paid’s portrait of the black psyche. Stamp Paid believes that black people feel the need to work extremely hard because they wish to dissociate themselves from white people’s image of them as a savage, animalistic species. Yet, Stamp Paid notes, the harder they work to demonstrate their humanity, the more bitter and angry they become. In the end, that rage begins to threaten the very humanity they had been trying to protect and emphasize. In this way, thinks Stamp, the whites succeed in creating a kind of savagery where there was none before, and that savagery in turn spreads to the whites themselves. The result is a snarled and anarchic jungle in which questions of blame and guilt can seem almost impossible to unravel. Stamp Paid’s meditation on the tangled network of guilt and retribution that forms racism’s “jungle” expands the chapter’s focus from individual characters and the local black community to the black community at large.

Although, as his chosen name signifies, Stamp Paid used to believe that his own suffering and deprivation freed him from future obligations, he now begins to realize that it may be his responsibility to look out for Denver’s and Sethe’s welfare. He also decides that Baby Suggs is to blame for her own depression, which he saw as her surrender to her oppressors. In Stamp’s mind, when Baby Suggs decided to stop speaking “the Word,” she made a choice to “wear the bit,” even though Baby Suggs herself blamed the whites for her suffering and cited the intrusion of the four horsemen as the beginning of her emotional deterioration. Stamp Paid reminds himself that the black community contributed to Baby Suggs’s eventual descent by failing to warn her of schoolteacher’s approach, thus hindering her ability to prevent the tragedy. These memories end up muddying his formerly clear-cut understanding of Baby Suggs’s plight.

Sethe, too, deals with issues of guilt. Although she tells herself that she does not need to explain to Beloved what led her to murder a daughter because Beloved already understands, Sethe nonetheless continues to detail her motivations mentally, which suggests her need to justify her actions to herself. Sethe has invested all of her identity in motherhood. Every sacrifice she made was for her children and every abuse she suffered she felt as an offense against her children because, in Sethe’s eyes, her children are extensions of herself and vice versa. Her behavior—plotting out how to explain her act of infanticide to Beloved and to herself—suggests that however much Sethe blames her murder of Beloved on the oppression of slavery, she in fact places a good deal of the blame for the murder on her own shoulders.