Summary: Chapter 9
Disturbed by Paul D’s information about Halle and missing the soothing presence that Baby Suggs once provided, Sethe seeks comfort in a place called the Clearing. She takes Denver and Beloved with her. Before Baby Suggs fell into a depression, for which Sethe blames herself, the older woman used to preach to the black community of Cincinnati in the Clearing. She would begin by having the people participate in a cathartic mixture of crying, laughter, and dance, and she would then preach self-love. She would instruct them to love their hands that had been bound, their mouths that had been silenced, and, most of all, their hearts.
Sethe recalls the day she arrived at 124 and met Baby Suggs for the first time. After Denver’s birth and Amy Denver’s departure, she came across a black man fishing with two boys. The man, Stamp Paid, wrapped Denver in a jacket and poled Sethe across the Ohio. On shore, he left a signal for Ella, another organizer of the Underground Railroad, which alerted her to the presence of a “passenger” who needed help. When Ella arrived, Sethe explained that she was heading to Baby Suggs’s house on Bluestone Road. Ella, noting Sethe’s attachment to Denver, voiced her opinion that one shouldn’t love anything too much.
When Sethe got to 124, Baby Suggs welcomed and bathed her before allowing her to see her two boys and her “crawling already? girl.” To amuse her daughter, Sethe jingled the earrings that Mrs. Garner had given her. During the twenty-eight days she spent in Cincinnati before her daughter’s death, Sethe enjoyed being a part of the community. In the Clearing, she had felt for the first time as though she owned herself.
As she sits on Baby Suggs’s old rock in the Clearing, Sethe calls silently for the calming fingers of her deceased mother-in-law. She begins to feel Baby Suggs massaging her neck, but the touch turns suddenly violent and Sethe realizes she is being strangled. Denver reacts with alarm, and Beloved caresses and kisses the bruises on Sethe’s neck. Beloved’s breath smells like milk to Sethe, and her touch feels like that of the baby’s ghost. Alarmed, Sethe pushes Beloved away, saying, “You too old for that.” Later, Denver accuses Beloved of strangling Sethe. Beloved runs away in anger, insisting that Sethe was being choked by the “circle of iron,” not by her.
We learn that as a seven-year-old Denver attended school lessons with other black children at the home of a woman they called Lady Jones. Denver had been studying there for a year when her classmate Nelson Lord upset her by asking, “Didn’t your mother get locked away for murder?” Denver repeated the question to her mother, but she went “deaf” before she could hear an answer. This deafness was cured by the sound of the baby ghost climbing the stairs. It was the first time the ghost had appeared. But after this first innocuous manifestation, the ghost proceeded to become spiteful, angry, and deliberately abusive. Thinking back to these acts of rage, Denver wonders what havoc Beloved might now wreak on Sethe. Yet she believes she has no power to stop her, especially since she so often feels captivated by the girl. When she goes to Beloved to seek forgiveness for fighting with her, she sees Beloved watching two turtles mate.
Summary: Chapter 10
Paul D was sent to prison in Alfred, Georgia, because he tried to kill Brandywine, the man to whom schoolteacher sold him. The prison had forty-six inmates, all of them black men. They were locked in small boxes in the ground at night and were subject to sexual abuse and chain gang work during the day. During this time Paul D began to tremble chronically, and his trembling only subsided when he was actively working and singing in the chain gang. Once, during a long rainstorm, the ground turned to mud, which allowed the prisoners to work together and escape. Linked together with one chain, they walked to a camp of ailing Cherokees, who broke their chains. They directed Paul D northward by telling him that he should follow the blooms of the flowers as the warm spring temperatures spread from south to north. In Delaware, he met a weaver woman with whom he proceeded to live for eighteen months. As time went on, he locked all his painful memories of the prison and Sweet Home into “the tobacco tin lodged in his chest.”
Summary: Chapter 11
At 124 Bluestone Road, Paul D feels inexplicably restless and uncomfortable in every room. Eventually, he is only able to sleep outside the house. He realizes that Beloved is moving him around the house like a rag doll. One night, Beloved comes to Paul D in the cold house, where he now sleeps, and says, “I want you to touch me on the inside part. . . . And you have to call me my name.” Paul D tries to resist her strange power, but he has sex with her, and the tin tobacco box breaks open. He repeats the phrase “red heart” over and over.
Analysis: Chapters 9–11
Chapter 9 contrasts two philosophies of dealing with pain. One is represented by Baby Suggs; Paul D and Ella espouse the other. Through her preaching, Baby Suggs hoped to help her fellow former slaves reclaim themselves, to “love their mouths” and express their feelings. While still in bondage, love was an emotional liability, but outside of slavery, a person can have more trust that the object of his love will not be taken away. Yet, even when one is no longer a slave, one must deal with a certain amount of loss. Having already known more loss than they feel they can bear, Paul D and Ella have decided they would forego all real love for the rest of their lives rather than feel any more pain. When Baby Suggs tells her listeners to love their hearts most of all, she responds to Paul D’s “tin heart” philosophy. Baby Suggs’s message is that a sacrifice such as Paul D’s is not worth undertaking, because love is part of being human, and humanity should not be sacrificed for the sake of emotional survival. It is questionable whether life without love constitutes “survival” at all.
Sethe’s reaction to the news of Halle’s fate reveals her strategy for coping with pain and love. She wavers and is tempted to suppress her feelings as Paul D does. Ultimately, though, she supports Baby Suggs’s wise words. Having loved Halle so deeply, the news of his psychological breakdown causes Sethe great pain. Yet facing his pain and her own allows her to heal and move on. Instead of moving to a new, unhaunted house, Sethe had stayed at 124 in the hope that her husband would join her someday. As she begins to reexamine the past, Sethe contemplates constructing a new family and life with Paul D. Her decision to stay with him suggests that she is ready to confront the other painful accounts that Paul D still has yet to tell her, and to tell her own stories as well. She has taken another step toward reclaiming her identity and healing her spirit.
Similarly, the sexual encounter between Beloved and Paul D causes Paul D to act against his philosophy, which suggests that it is weak in relation to that of Baby Suggs. Paul D’s engagement with Beloved may be representative of the intense encounter with his past that he is undertaking in the novel. Somehow, the encounter loosens the lid of Paul D’s “tobacco tin” heart: his pulsating chant, “red heart, red heart,” reflects the sudden overflow of passion he feels as his tin box bursts and his past pours out.
The scene between Beloved and Paul D raises many questions. Beloved’s sexuality complicates the characters’ (and the reader’s) perception of her as the embodiment of the dead baby’s spirit. Her interaction with Paul D seems to prove her power over him, but it also manifests a more vulnerable, plaintive, childlike aspect of her nature. Her insistence that Paul D call her by her name communicates her insecurity about who she is as well as her neediness. If Beloved is representative of history or the past, her actions seem to suggest that although the past has power over us, it is also in a position of dependency. If we do not care for it, acknowledge it, call it by name, it may fade and weaken, but it may also resort to a state of spiteful vengeance, keeping us captive until we bow to its demands.
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