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Free Study Guide-Beloved by Toni Morrison-Free Online Booknotes Summary
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CHAPTER 16

Summary

This chapter reveals Sethe’s determination not to allow her children to live in slavery as she did, even if it means killing them. When four white horsemen -- Schoolteacher, nephew, a slave catcher, and the sheriff -- approach 124 Bluestone, Sethe takes matters into her own hands. When the white men go inside, they find a horrifying scene. Inside the shed in the back yard, they find Buglar and Howard, who are bleeding at the feet of "a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other." Sethe does not look at the men, but continues to swing the baby toward the wall planks. She misses and tries again. Before they can react, Stamp Paid, "the old nigger boy, still mewing," runs in and snatches the baby Denver from the mother's hand. Baby Suggs then enters the shed to tend to the wounded boys.

Schoolteacher knows immediately that there is nothing here for him to claim. He had hoped to take the "four picaninnies" back to do the work at Sweet Home, but he now sees that Sethe has gone wild. He attributes her insanity to his nephew, who had stolen her milk and beaten her for too long. He had punished the nephew by not letting him come along with him. For a moment, he thinks about taking the unharmed baby with him, but he realizes there is no one at Sweet Home to care for the infant.

As the three white men leave the sheriff behind, they think he is being left "among the damnedest bunch of coons they'd ever seen." They believe that what they have witnessed is proof that ex-slaves cannot handle their freedom. They must be owned and guided by whites in order "to keep them from the cannibal life.” The sheriff wishes he could leave too. He does not want to touch anything. He simply tells Sethe she has to come with him. Stamp Paid hands the baby Denver back to her as she departs.

Outside the house, a great number of blacks have gathered. They are silent as Sethe walks past them. Usually "the singing would have begun at once, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the house. Some cape of sound would have quickly been wrapped around her, like arms to hold and steady her on the way." Instead they wait to sing until the cart is out of the yard. Baby Suggs wants to run after the cart and tell them they cannot take the baby with them.

The cart travels along Bluestone Road. No one speaks. The baby sleeps. Sethe's dress dries in the sun "like rigor mortis." All the while, back at 124 Bluestone, Baby Suggs keeps saying, "I beg your pardon, Lord, I beg your pardon."

Notes

For the first time in the book, details of Beloved’s murder are presented. When Sethe sees the four white men coming, it is like she is witnessing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. She knows that they have arrived to take her and the children back to slavery, which makes her go crazy. Rather than allowing her children to be taken away from her and made slaves, she attempts to kill them. By the time the white men arrive, Buglar and Howard are lying at her feet bleeding, and Beloved, still in her arms, is close to death. Only Denver has escaped injury. After the white men enter the shed, Sethe continues to try and kill Denver, but Stamp Paid saves her.


Morrison takes the reader into the minds of the white men -- a slave catcher, a white sheriff, and Schoolteacher. The slave catcher does not think of the slaves as people, but as prey - wild animals to be caught and tamed and sold; Sethe’s actions just reinforce his beliefs. Schoolteacher thinks of the slaves in terms of dollar signs. His only concern is that he has lost five potential slaves to work at Sweet Home. He blames Sethe’s insane actions on his nephew and is glad that he has punished him by not allowing him to come. He does, however, wish the nephew could see the wild look on Sethe’s face; he feels it would teach him a lesson. The sheriff cannot believe his eyes and does not want to touch anything, as if he would be contaminated. All of the white men consider the blacks to be “crazy niggers” who prefer a savage existence.

The reader is horrified at Sethe’s actions, but Morrison has carefully led up to this point in the novel. Morrison has shown that Sethe is desperate to provide love and care for her children. She sent Howard, Buglar, and Beloved to the safety of Baby Suggs before she escaped from Sweet Home. After she gives birth to Denver, she is desperate to reach Cincinnati in order to get milk for her infant. Despite unbelievable pain, Sethe reaches her destination and saves the child. She is now determined not to lose them back to slavery. She knows that if they are all taken back to Sweet Home, she will never see her children. After all, she was never allowed to see or know her own mother. In addition, Sethe has been treated horribly as a slave. Raped and beaten by the whites who ruled her, Sethe does not want the same thing to happen to her sons and daughters. The reader understands that Sethe’s actions are horrible, but they are also horribly understandable.

The scene ends with the people of the community refusing to support Sethe. Hearing what has happened, they have gathered in the yard at 124 Bluestone. Normally, they would sing to Sethe and try to comfort her. But when they see her, they decide she looks too proud and remain silent until after her cart departs.

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