Summary: Chapter 2
After twenty-five years of fantasizing about Sethe, Paul D finds the consummation of his desire to be a disappointment. He lies awake in Sethe’s bed and decides that her “tree” is nothing but an ugly clump of scars. His thoughts turn to Sixo, a fellow slave at Sweet Home, who would walk thirty miles to meet his girlfriend while Halle and the Paul brothers pined away after Sethe.
We learn that although Baby Suggs had eight children by six different men, Halle, her youngest, was the only one who wasn’t taken from her. When Halle bought Baby Suggs her freedom, she believed that, at her age, she was too old for her freedom to mean anything.
Paul D’s interested gaze reminds Sethe of Halle, whose love was more like that of a brother than that of a man “laying claim.” Sethe remembers that when she and Halle first decided to get married, she asked Mrs. Garner if they were to have a wedding, but the white woman only laughed. With nothing to make the partnership official in any way, Sethe secretly stitched herself a dress to mark the occasion. The lovers consummated their relationship in a cornfield, and the swaying corn stalks alerted the other men that Sethe had finally made her choice. That night, the other Sweet Home men ate the fresh corn that came from the stalks broken by Sethe and Halle.
Summary: Chapter 3
. . . if you go there—you who was never there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there . . . it’s going to always be there waiting for you.
Denver turns to the outdoors for comfort and contemplation. Since childhood, she has sought privacy and repose in what she calls her “emerald closet”—a bower formed by a ring of boxwood bushes that smells of cologne she once spilled there. One time, as she was returning from the bower, through the window Denver saw Sethe kneeling in prayer in Baby Suggs’s room. A ghostly white dress knelt beside Sethe with its arm around her waist. Denver interpreted the vision as a sign that the baby ghost had “plans.” Paul D, she thinks resentfully, has now interrupted those plans.
When Denver had asked her mother what she was praying about, Sethe told her she was thinking about time, memory, and the past. In Sethe’s philosophy, “nothing ever dies.” This means that past events continue to occur, not only in one’s “rememory” but also somehow in the real world. Sethe believes it is possible to “bump into” past events and places again, and her main priority is shielding Denver from these tangible, painful collisions with the past.
Sethe ran away from Sweet Home when she was pregnant with Denver. Sethe’s feet had become raw lumps of flesh by the time she collapsed in the woods, where she was found by a white girl, Amy Denver. Amy explained that she had just completed a childhood of indentured servitude and was heading to Boston to get some “carmine” velvet. Carmine, Amy explained, is what people who buy velvet in Boston call “red.” When Amy asked Sethe her name, Sethe told her a false name, “Lu.” If Sethe were caught, she could be sent back to Sweet Home. Amy led Sethe to an abandoned lean-to and massaged her tortured feet back to life. Sethe later gave birth to her baby with Amy’s help, naming the child after the compassionate girl. Because the story is about her birth, Denver loves to hear it told.
After the episode in which Denver believed she saw the baby ghost kneeling next to her praying mother, Sethe told Denver about schoolteacher, who was Mrs. Garner’s brother-in-law. After Mr. Garner died, schoolteacher came with his two nephews to run the farm. Schoolteacher used to record his observations of the slaves in a notebook. He prodded them with strange questions, and Sethe believes that the questions broke Sixo’s spirit permanently.
As Paul D repairs the furniture he damaged during his confrontation with the ghost, he sings songs he learned while in a chain gang in Alfred, Georgia. After his traumatizing prison experience, he shut down a large part of his heart and head, operating only what helped him “walk, eat, sleep, sing.” The experience of seeing Sethe again reopens the locked part of his mind, and he decides to stay at 124.
Sethe tells Paul D that after her escape, schoolteacher came to Cincinnati to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. Sethe went to jail instead and took Denver with her. Paul D does not ask her for details because the mention of jail reminds him of his experiences in Alfred. Paul D’s decision to stay gives Sethe hope for the future.
Analysis: Chapters 2–3
Chapter 2 begins with Paul D gazing at Sethe’s back and it ends with her gazing at his. These images symbolize what is taking place thematically in the chapter: the characters’ charting of their respective memories, of what lies behind them, at their backs. Sethe’s back also contains the visible scars of her whipping. The narration alternates between two time periods—the present in Cincinnati and the Sweet Home past. The Sweet Home past is presented from both Paul D’s and Sethe’s perspectives, as the narrator’s focus shifts between the two characters. The novel maps out the points of proximity and distance between them. Both characters, for example, are disappointed after having sex, and they simultaneously begin thinking about Sethe and Halle’s encounter in the cornfield twenty-five years ago. On the other hand, Paul D’s sudden, secret revulsion toward Sethe’s scars suggests an emotional distance that takes even him by surprise.
Sethe recalls that Halle loved her in a brotherly way, not like a man “laying claim.” However, beneath the surface of this seemingly positive memory is the fact of the impotence inherent to the slave condition. Even if he had wanted to do so, Halle could not have laid claim to his enslaved wife any more than she could lay claim to herself. Slaves were not permitted to become legally married because marriage means giving yourself in contract to one another, and slaves are already contracted to their owners. The prohibition of marriage also prevented the slaves from having a strong claim on their children. Baby Suggs’s loss of her eight children was nothing unusual in slave life. The names of Paul D and his brothers are also a testament to the slaves’ lack of ownership over themselves and their children. Paul D’s brothers are named Paul A and Paul F, suggesting their interchangeability in the minds of their owners. Moreover, the brothers’ last name—Garner—is that of their owner. It thus marks them as the property of another.
Sethe doesn’t feel she can lay claim to her own memories. She attributes powers of autonomy to them, and her explanation to Denver of her concept of time reveals the powerful hold that the past has on her. Sethe regards the past as a malevolent presence that defies even death. The past has damaged Sethe and Paul D so much that they wonder if it is possible to put the pieces back together. Paradoxically, Sethe tries to shelter Denver from the past by isolating her in a house plagued by the ghost of Denver’s dead sister.
In contrast, Denver will not flee the past, because she ardently desires a history. This is evident in her obsessive need to reconstruct the events of her birth in as much detail as possible. She longs for the sense of self that history provides. Similarly, her isolation from the rest of the black community impedes the formation of her identity.
Denver’s attachment to her “emerald closet” is part of the novel’s broader symbolic network of trees and tree images. For Denver, trees provide comfort and shelter. Elsewhere, the ability of trees to function as centers of solace and peace is complicated by the way white men have perverted their natural function. Schoolteacher’s men bind, burn, and shoot Sixo near the trees that he and Paul D found trusting and inviting. And while trees bear the blossoms that lead Paul D to freedom in Chapter 10, they also bear the lynching victims that haunt Sethe’s memory. Paul D regards Sethe’s scar--tissue “tree” with bitter irony. Since white men have reimagined trees as sites of brutality, thinks Paul D, Sethe cannot mask the ugliness and brutality of her wounds by seeing her scars as a tree.
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