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Free Study Guide: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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BELOVED: FREE PLOT ANALYSIS / NOTES

CHAPTER 9

Summary

Sethe decides it is time to follow the advice of Baby Suggs to deal with her past and "lay it all down." Before Paul D's arrival, she was satisfied to live with the memories of faces of Howard and Buglar and to keep her husband in mind somewhere out there. Now, because of Paul D's revelation, she can only see an image of her husband with his face covered with butter. She knows she must exorcise such visions. Sethe decides that she must go to the Clearing to try and heal the past.

Sethe wishes Baby Suggs was still around to rub her neck and say, "Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Don't study war no more." She also wishes she could hear one of the healing sermons of Baby Suggs that would encourage her to get rid of her "knives of defense against misery, regret, gall, and hurt." She still misses Baby Suggs, nine years after her mother-in-law succumbed to her weak heart.

Before the way station at 124 Bluestone had closed down and become haunted, it had been a cheerful place, where Baby Suggs nurtured everyone. Food was always ready on the stove, and the light was always left on all night. Strangers rested there, and messages and mail were exchanged. After crossing the Ohio River, Sethe arrived at the way station with her newborn baby and felt Baby Suggs' embrace for the first time. She soon learned that her mother-in-law was an "unchurched preacher." She gave her sermons in a variety of churches in the winter; in the warm weather, she took the people to the Clearing every Saturday afternoon. Baby Suggs did not preach about sin or blessedness. She told her people that they could have grace only if they could see it. She urged them to love each other in the flesh, because outside the Clearing their flesh was despised and tortured by others. She called for them to raise up their hands and touch each other in love.

Sethe remembers the passing of Baby Suggs nine years ago. Shortly after Sethe arrived at the way station, Baby Suggs' health collapsed, and Sethe still blames herself. After she was bedridden with her weak heart, Baby Suggs became negative. Sethe remembers her saying,

"Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed and broke my heartstrings too." Shortly afterwards, she passed away, and the way station closed.

Sethe now wants to go to the Clearing to pay tribute to Halle. She takes Denver and Beloved with her. As Sethe arrives at the Clearing, she begins to sweat, just like when she woke up on the banks of the Ohio River. As she began to walk with her new baby, she came upon three black fishermen. One of them, Stamp Paid, asked her if she wanted to cross the river. When she responded positively, he noticed that the baby was a newborn and that she was in pain. The man told the boy with him to give up his coat. He then wrapped the baby in it, and gave the mother food. At dusk, the man took the mother and child across the river in a boat and led her to a shack, where he hung a white rag flag outside. Ella responded to the flag and came to help Sethe and the child. She brought her food, blankets, and a pair of shoes for her swollen feet. She also told Sethe that her three children had arrived safely at the way station.

When Sethe felt stronger, she traveled to 124 Bluestone, where Baby Suggs greeted her warmly and kissed her; but she refused to let Sethe see her own children, for Baby Suggs said she looked too bad and would frighten Buglar, Howard, and Beloved. Instead, Baby Suggs began to take care of Sethe, especially her feet, which had no feeling in them. She also made her a new dress, discarding Sethe's old ones as rags; however, she allowed her to keep the crystal earrings, the gift from Mrs. Garner. The baby Denver loved to watch them and hear them jangle.


In the Clearing, Sethe sits down on Baby Suggs' rock, while Denver and Beloved watch her from the trees. Sethe finally forces herself to accept the truth -- Halle will never come back. As the pain of this thought sinks in, Sethe silently calls out to Baby Suggs, asking her to rub her neck one more time. Then she promises she will lay it all down and "make a way out of this no way." As she bows her head, Sethe feels a light, childlike touch on her neck; it is so soft, it is almost like a baby's fingers. The fingers then grow tight around her throat until she feels herself being strangled. Denver, seeing her mother's pain, runs to her, followed by Beloved.

When Denver shouts out, Sethe feels the fingers letting go. When her mother explains what has happened, Denver says that Grandma Baby would never choke her. Beloved tries to comfort Sethe by massaging her neck and kissing it. Sethe, sensing the similarities of Beloved's touch to the previous touch on her neck, knows that her intimacy is inappropriate; she pulls away and tells Beloved she is too old for such behavior. Sethe then prepares to leave the Clearing. As she walks away, she realizes that it was the infant ghost who was choking her. She thinks that the ghost must now be living in the Clearing since Paul D has chased it out of the house.

When Sethe and the girls arrive at the house, Paul D is on the porch. As he embraces Sethe, Beloved sees them. She is jealous of their relationship and the time it takes Sethe away from her; she also hates it that Sethe has to work at the restaurant and be away from her for long hours. She wants Sethe all to herself. Since Sethe is going inside to cook a special dinner for Paul D, Beloved goes to find Denver. When she finds her, Denver accuses her of choking Sethe in the Clearing. Beloved denies the charge and says "the circle of iron" choked her. Beloved then runs away towards the stream.

Denver thinks about how the ghost has lived and disturbed the peace at 124 Bluestone. Even though she and Sethe called up the ghost and tried to reason with it, nothing changed. She is amazed that Paul D has succeeded in chasing off the ghost to "take its place for himself." Denver knows, however, that she prefers the baby ghost to Paul D. She also knows that she prefers Beloved over Sethe; this fact, however, is troubling to her, especially since she now believes that Beloved wants to harm her mother. She then thinks about how she and her mother have always been shunned in the community and remembers being questioned by Nelson Lord: "Didn't your mother get locked away for murder? Wasn't you in there with her when she went?"

Denver sees Beloved upstream. She approaches her to ask for forgiveness. Beloved is staring at two turtles mating. When she sees Denver, she drops the hem of her skirt into the water.

Notes

The moving passages about Baby Suggs reveal an important aspect of a slave becoming free. Although the black slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they did not know what to do with their freedom. Since they had been enslaved for three hundred and fifty years, they did not know how to mentally free themselves from the oppression that they had suffered for so long. Baby Suggs realizes what the freed slaves need to do. In her sermons, she teaches them to love themselves - every part of their bodies. She also cajoles them to resist hatred and to help each other. Her sermons about claiming true freedom always had a healing touch. Her listeners respond by singing, dancing, shouting, and crying.

Baby Suggs was a very special woman. When Sethe arrived at her way station, she took her in with loving arms and nursed her back to health. She also preached to her, telling her to lay down her past and give up her weapons of hatred. Soon after Sethe's arrival, however, something terrible happens that breaks the strong spirit of Baby Suggs. As a result, she succumbs to her weak heart and soon dies. Sethe admits that she has always felt that she caused her death, which makes her feel guilty.

When Sethe calls the spirit of her baby girl a "chastising ghost," she indicates her sense of guilt over the baby's death. Although the details of the story are not given until a later chapter, it becomes more clear in this chapter that Sethe has killed Beloved. Morrison delays telling the whole story of Beloved's death in order to prepare the reader to understand Sethe's actions and to empathize with her character. Before all the details are revealed, Sethe must try to heal herself. She goes to the Clearing, where Baby Suggs used to preach, to try and lay down her past.

In the clearing, Sethe sits on Baby Suggs' rock and admits to herself that Halle is never coming back. She then calls out to her mother-in-law to give her a neck rub in order to ease the pain. Since Sethe believes in ghosts, she fully expects Baby Suggs to hear her plea and respond. Suddenly, she feels tiny, childlike hands touching her neck, even though no one is present near her; Sethe is not surprised. Once again Morrison is employing magical realism, a matter-of-fact style of artistic expression in which the magical is represented as if it were real. It was also magical realism that brought back Beloved, first as a child ghost to haunt 124 Bluestone and then in the living flesh.

The childlike touch on Sethe's neck quickly becomes a strangling grip. When Denver realizes what is happening to her mother, she runs towards her mother and shouts. Immediately, the fingers ease their grip and go away. Sethe is thankful that Denver and Beloved have come along with her to the Clearing so that she is saved from strangulation. After she recovers from the incident, Sethe realizes that she called forth the ghost of her child, not Baby Suggs. She assumes the child ghost has come to live in the Clearing since Paul D has run it out of the house.

Beloved tries to comfort Sethe, by stroking and kissing her neck. Sethe senses a connection between the touch of the ghost and the touch of Beloved and pushes the girl away. Sethe will soon realize that Beloved is the incarnation of her lost baby. For now, she merely entertains the thought for a moment and then dismisses it from her mind. The reader begins to realize, however, that the baby ghost and Beloved are one in the same, and they both want revenge. They strangle her physically, while Sethe strangles herself mentally. Until Sethe can deal with her past and heal herself, she will continue to be strangled by it.

Denver, knowing who Beloved really is, accuses her of choking Sethe. Beloved denies that she did it and says that a circle of iron choked Sethe's neck. The allusion is clearly a reference to slavery, when blacks were frequently chained. Although Beloved never experienced slavery, she is very sensitive to it because she was killed as a result of it. She also knows that the painful memories of slavery are strangling her mother.

Another piece of Sethe's story is revealed in this chapter. It is hinted that she was put in jail for the murder of her child. Additionally, Denver has monstrous dreams about her mother and seems to fear something about her. The pieces of the puzzle about Beloved are beginning to come together into a whole.

The chapter ends with the image of turtles mating as Beloved watches them in fascination. The embrace of the turtles reminds her of the embrace of Sethe and Paul D, which she witnessed earlier on the porch. Both of these embraces seem to be a foreboding foreshadowing of things to come.


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