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Free Study Guide: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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FREE SYNOPSIS FOR BELOVED BY TONI MORRISON

CHAPTER 17

Summary

As Paul D looks at a newspaper clipping that shows a picture of Sethe, he says over and over again to Stamp Paid that it is not Sethe's mouth. From the careful way that Stamp Paid unfolded the paper, Paul D knew that the news it contained would be upsetting. Since Paul D cannot read what the print says, he listens to Stamp Paid reading the story aloud. Even as Stamp Paid reads about the murder, Paul D will not stop looking at the picture or denying that it is Sethe.

After Stamp Paid reads the story, he blames the community for what happened on that fateful day. The neighbors could have warned Sethe and Baby Suggs about the approach of the four white men on horses. Then Sethe could have escaped with the children before their arrival. Since the community had grown jealous about Baby Suggs, Stamp Paid believes they were silent out of meanness. As Stamp Paid talks, Paul D continues to deny that it was Sethe. When Stamp Paid sees the "sweet conviction" in Paul D's eyes, he begins to wonder if it really did happen eighteen years ago. It all seems so vague to him now.

Notes

Paul D finds it impossible to accept that Sethe has tried to murder all her children and succeeded in killing one of them. As Stamp Paid reads the article about the murder to him, Paul D tries to deny it. It is certain that the article gave all of the horrid details of what happened in the woodshed since it was written by whites, all of whom tended to look down on blacks as basically savage people. The news is too much for Paul D to take in. He looks at the picture of Sethe in the article and tries to convince himself it is not really her. He says over and over it is not Sethe's mouth. In order to keep from taking in the full horror of the news, he also allows his mind to wander. He notices the pig feces on his shoes and thinks about how he walks home from the slaughterhouse through an ancient burial mound of the Miami Indians. (The ghosts of the past are present at every turn in the this novel.)

Morrison intentionally tells the story of Sethe from a different point of view. The first explanation of the murder of her child came from the prejudiced white men who came to find Sethe and take her back to slavery. Now Stamp Paid, who cares about Sethe, gives his interpretation of what happened on that fateful day. For him, it is important that the murder happened the day after Baby Suggs gave the celebration feast. The neighbors were down on Baby Suggs because she seemed to have more than they. As a result, when they saw the white men ride into town, the neighbors made no effort to warn Sethe or Baby Suggs of impending danger. He is convinced that they remained silent out of spite and meanness. If the neighbors had given a proper warning, he is convinced that the murder would have been avoided. Taken by surprise when she sees the white men, Sethe simply panicked and reacted, for she was determined that her children would never again suffer the cruelty of slavery. In her frightened mind, death seemed preferable.


CHAPTER 18

Summary

When Paul D returns to the house, he shows Sethe the clipping and waits for an explanation. She tells how her oldest girl was already crawling when she arrived at 124 with the new baby. From the very first day, Sethe had a hard time keeping the child away from the stairs, and she was always afraid she was going to hurt herself. She then tells Paul D about how Howard did not lift his head until he was nine months old. She is convinced that it was from lack of food, for the only thing she knew to feed him as a baby was milk.

As Sethe talks, Paul D sits at the table and watches her as she moves in and out of view. He listens as she discusses the difficulties of child rearing and the fact that she never had anyone to give her advice or to talk to about her children. In a matter of fact manner, she explains the difficulty of trying to raise children while working, especially since she had little or no assistance. But she cared enough about her children to get them all out of Sweet Home and away from slavery - and she did it on her own, without Halle's help. It is clear that she is trying to explain why she killed her daughter.


Sethe then explains how she loved her children more after she got them and herself to freedom. At Sweet Home, she had not been able to love them properly, for they were the property of someone else. When she came home to Baby Suggs and her children, she felt she could finally love freely and without fear. Paul D understands what Sethe is saying. When he had been in Alfred, Georgia, he had listened to the doves, but felt he had no right to enjoy them because everything was owned by the men with the guns. Paul D understands Sethe's desire to be in a place where she can love without permission. For Paul D, "that was freedom."

Sethe realizes that she is circling around the truth without being able to get to the point. She does not want to tell Paul D what happened. She was working in the garden when she saw the horsemen. She immediately recognized Schoolteacher's hat and panicked. All she could think or say was "no" over and over again. She quickly "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 through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them." She wanted to put her babies where they would be safe and free from slavery.

Finally accepting that Sethe has really murdered her daughter, Paul D hears a roaring in his head. He is sick and confused. He had thought he had gotten rid of the ghosts at 124 Bluestone and made it a safe and comfortable place to be. He had thought Sethe was like Halle -- obedient, shy, and hard working. Suddenly, however, he does not know the woman in front of him; and it is not so much what Sethe has done, but how she sees it that scares him.

Paul D tells her that her plan did not work, for her children were not safe. She replies that it did work because her children are not at Sweet Home or with Schoolteacher. Paul D tells her that there are worse places to be. He then tells Sethe she did wrong and reminds her, "You got two feet, Sethe, not four." His words cut Sethe to the core; and as a result, "a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet." Paul D later wonders what made him say such a cruel thing to her. After all, he was also filled with shame because of his cold-house secret.

As Paul D prepares to leave, he looks up the stairs and sees Beloved watching. At the door, he tells Sethe to put his supper plate aside because he will be late. Sethe thinks it is sweet of him to think saying goodbye would break her. She says so long, believing Paul D is gone forever.

Notes

Not surprisingly, Sethe has trouble admitting that she has killed her daughter. In an effort to explain her action, she talks about her deprivations. Because of the horrible institution of slavery, her son was so underfed that he could not hold his head up until he was nine months old. As a young and uneducated mother, Sethe knew nothing about child rearing and had no one to answer her questions; she simply had to do her best, which was difficult when she had to work all day long and then try to care for her children. Longing for a better life for them, she managed to send Howard, Buglar, and Beloved away from Sweet Home and slavery to live with Baby Suggs until she could escape to Cincinnati. Even when Sethe arrived at 124 Bluestone, life was difficult as she worked and tried to care for four children without the help of a husband.

When Sethe saw Schoolteacher and the other white men approaching 124 Bluestone, she decided she would do anything to keep her children from returning to slavery. In her frightened state, she felt that death was a better option for them than returning to Sweet Home. As a result, she took matters into her own hands.

Paul D cannot believe what Sethe is saying. He thinks that she does not know where the world stops and she begins. He is describing something that psychologists term individuation. It is a process in childhood whereby children gradually differentiate between themselves and their mothers as well as between themselves and the world around them. Before individuation, the child lives in an undifferentiated world where everything is connected. The path to individuation is helped by a significant other, usually the mother, who grants recognition and individualism to the child. Since Sethe never received recognition as an individual from her own mother, she was never able to grant it to her own children. At the moment she attempted to kill Howard, Buglar, Beloved, and Denver, she was really inflicting the pain on herself. To Sethe, her children were simply part of herself. Paul D criticizes her for loving her children "thickly" and for acting like an animal in trying to "save" them from Schoolteacher.

Paul begins to see Sethe in a new light that he cannot accept. He realizes her potential for destruction is as deep as the slave system that destroyed the men and women of Sweet Home. He cannot resolve this new image of Sethe with the one he has kept during all of his years in exile; he still wants her to be a young, naïve, and obedient woman, but now he knows she is the murderess of her own daughter. Unable to accept this image or her rationalizations, Paul D feels he has to leave 124 Bluestone. He cannot, however, tell her goodbye. He simply says she should not make his dinner, for he will be late. As he departs, he sees Beloved watching him from the top of the stairs.

Paul D's desertion of Sethe at the point when she trusts him enough to tell him the truth sets her on a self-destructive course. Under slavery, Sethe and her family were commodities, treated no better than animals that were bought and sold. When Paul D tells her she acted like an animal when she killed her baby, he makes her a slave once again. She feels completely betrayed, just when she needs Paul D the most.


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