Summary: Chapter 20
With Chapter 20, a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues begins. Sethe speaks in this chapter, followed by Denver in Chapter 21 and Beloved in Chapter 22. Chapter 23 comprises a chorus of the three voices. In Chapter 20, Sethe begins, “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” Sethe wants to explain everything to Beloved so that her daughter will understand why her own mother killed her. Sethe cannot understand why, despite all the clues, she initially failed to recognize that Beloved was her daughter incarnate. She decides Paul D must have distracted her.
Throughout the chapter, Sethe ponders the power of a mother’s love. She remembers that her own mother was hanged, but she does not know the circumstances that prompted the lynching. Perhaps her mother attempted to run away, but without Sethe. Sethe wants to believe her mother would never have abandoned her, that she was as devoted a mother as Sethe herself is. After killing Beloved, Sethe wanted to lie down in the grave with her dead daughter. Yet she knew she couldn’t give up; she had to keep going for the sake of her three living children.
Summary: Chapter 21
Denver’s voice emerges in this chapter, which begins, “Beloved is my sister.” Denver knows that she swallowed her sister’s blood along with her mother’s milk. She confesses that she has loved Sethe out of fear, and that Howard and Buglar ran away because they, like Denver, feared that whatever it was that motivated Sethe to kill her children might resurface one day. Denver believes that Beloved returned to help her wait for her father to come home. Denver is also convinced that she must protect Beloved from Sethe. She remembers everything Baby Suggs told her about Halle, which was that he was an angel who loved things too much. The power of his love used to scare Baby Suggs because she knew that the large size of his heart made it an easy target. Denver’s youth has been comprised of her fear of her mother and her hope for her father’s arrival.
Summary: Chapter 22
Beloved’s fragmented and complex monologue constitutes the third of the first-person stream-of-consciousness monologues. She begins, “I am Beloved and she is mine.” Her patchy memories are of a time when she crouched among dead bodies. She speaks of thirst and hunger, of death and sickness, and of “men without skin.” She says all the people are trying to leave their bodies behind.
Beloved then focuses on a woman whose face she “wants” because it is hers. The rest of the monologue consists of Beloved’s description of her attempt to “join” with the woman. She wishes she could bite the “iron circle” from around the woman’s neck and mentions the woman’s “sharp earrings” and “round basket” several times. At the end of the chapter, Beloved is “in the water,” and neither she nor the woman has an iron circle around her neck any longer. She is swallowed by the woman and, suddenly, she is the woman. She sees herself swim away and says, “I am alone.” She then describes emerging from the water and needing to find a place to be. When she opens her eyes, she sees the “face [she] lost.” She says that “Sethe’s is the face that left [her].” Beloved ends her monologue by saying, “now we can join a hot thing.”
Summary: Chapter 23
Beloved’s words give way to a passage of poetic prose in which the three women’s voices come together and mingle, although not in a typical dialogic style. Beloved says that she and Sethe lost and found one another. She tells Sethe that she came back from the other side for her, that she remembers her, and that she is scared the men without skin will come back. Sethe assures her that they will not. Denver warns Beloved not to love Sethe too much. Beloved says she already loves Sethe too much, and Denver promises to protect her. Beloved begs Sethe never to leave her again and Sethe complies. Beloved laments that Sethe left and hurt her.
Analysis: Chapters 20–23
When Stamp Paid hears the unintelligible clamor outside 124 in Chapter 19, the narrator identifies the noise as “the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.” In these chapters, the “unspeakable” and “unspoken” thoughts are put into words. They are turned into literature through the use of literary devices such as imagery, allusion, and symbol, which are what allow the seemingly “unspeakable” to be verbalized. Indeed, the language in Chapters 20 through 23, which is extremely stylized to represent each character’s stream of consciousness, seems to emphasize the fact of its literariness as much as the nature of its message.
As she meditates on her murder of her daughter, Sethe makes mental and emotional connections to her own mother, whom she suspects of having tried to escape without bringing Sethe along. Sethe wants to differentiate her act of infanticide from what she imagines to be her mother’s rejection of her. She conceives of her own act as one of love, free of the disregard or contempt that would motivate an abandonment. Moreover, Sethe sees the fact that she protected her children from slavery as a step toward countering her own mother’s desertion of her. But Denver’s monologue also focuses on family bonds, and her words reveal a previously unarticulated pain at not having grown up in a complete family. She, too, seems to feel abandoned in some sense. More generally, Denver’s monologue seems to suggest that even in freedom, the black family as an institution suffers fragmentation and destruction.
The fragmented nature of each of the three monologues is representative of each character’s fragmented, incoherent identity. And when their voices mingle in Chapter 23, it is difficult to attribute each phrase to its appropriate speaker. One interpretation of this predicament is that Sethe, Beloved, and Denver have conflated and confused their identities beyond recognition. Beloved cannot cut the psychological umbilical cord that attaches her to Sethe.
Beloved’s monologue is highly impressionistic, incredibly dense, and its meaning is elusive. The cramped, dark place that she describes could be a grave full of the “black and angry dead,” like the one Stamp Paid perceived to be lingering around 124. It could also be a metaphorical, inescapable womb. The reading the text best seems to support is that Beloved is describing a slave ship transporting Africans to America. For instance, she mentions piled-up corpses. Packed in overcrowded hulls, many Africans died of disease and starvation on the journey to America. Beloved’s references to rape echo the experiences of Sethe’s mother, who was “taken up many times by the crew” during the Middle Passage. Sea-colored bread refers to the moldy, inedible provisions on board, and the “hot thing” could be a branding iron like the one that marked Sethe’s mother. The “men without skin” seem to be the white captors and masters who oppressed the slaves. Thus, Beloved reminds Sethe not only of the crime for which Sethe cannot forgive herself but also functions as a conduit for memories of the history of slavery. Within the novel, the two are certainly presented as interlinked, and Sethe needs to come to terms with both her family’s history and the history of slavery.
Of course, literariness in Beloved is not limited to these four chapters: as a larger story and work of art, the novel allows its characters, and, more important, their real-life counterparts (the generations of men and women victimized by slavery), to transcend the limits of speech and memory. The book as a whole gives voice to a suppressed history and recovers the memories that the characters themselves—both white and black—try to destroy. Morrison demonstrates literature’s ability to recuperate a history that would otherwise be lost to the ravages of willed forgetfulness and silence.
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