Part Two: Chapters 19-21

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Last Updated April 11, 2023.

Chapter 19

The chapter is told from the contrasting viewpoints of Stamp Paid and Sethe. After finding out that Paul D had left 124, Stamp Paid realizes that he did not consider Sethe’s or Denver’s feelings before acting. He recalls the days after Baby Suggs died, where Sethe and the mourners from the community spurned each other throughout the proceedings. Stamp Paid wonders if at some point the townsfolk's disdain for Sethe had rubbed off on him.

Stamp Paid visits 124 to try and make amends. As he arrives at the front door, however, the experience of knocking fills him with an overwhelming sense of alienation. Due to his profession of helping slaves, he is used to other people feeling indebted to him. He would not have to knock at any other house in the community because his presence is generally welcomed. Now, standing outside 124, Stamp Paid feels like a stranger who owes something to the people who live there. He leaves, then tries to knock on six different days but each time walks away, overcome with weakness.

Meanwhile, Sethe finds three pairs of ice skates and takes Beloved and Denver to a frozen creek, where they play on the ice together. They tumble and fall repeatedly but each time respond with joyous laughter. Content, they return home and gather around a fire. Beloved hums a song that Sethe recognizes, as it is the very same song she made up for her children—one only she and her children could possibly know. This causes Sethe to realize that Beloved can only be her eldest daughter, back from the dead.

Stamp Paid reflects on the world-weariness of Baby Suggs. He recalls how she refused to go back to her unique ways of preaching, saying she now preferred to think about harmless things, such as the colors blue and yellow. Stamp Paid had accused her then of trying to punish God, to which she replied all she knew was that white people came into her yard. Now, Stamp Paid feels only empathy toward Baby Suggs. Though he has seen his fair share of violence in his life, what makes him understand is an item he once found in a river: a red ribbon with hair attached to a bit of black scalp. Since then, he has kept that ribbon as a reminder of the cruelty of white people.

Back at 124, Sethe’s heart fills with gladness because Beloved seems to harbor no resentment towards her. She is also relieved that she does not have to explain the past to Beloved because her daughter already knows it. She cooks breakfast and enjoys time with her daughters, causing her to be late to work for the first time in sixteen years.

Stamp Paid visits John and Ella to ask if they know anyone new living at 124. Their conversation quickly reveals Ella’s unmitigated disdain for Sethe; she goes so far as to imply the possibility that Sethe is an imposter pretending to be Baby Suggs’s kin. Stamp Paid asks where Paul D is and finds out that he has been sleeping in a church cellar.

On her way back from work, Sethe recalls more of her days at Sweet Home. She remembers being measured by the schoolteacher and overhearing his class talk about her “animal characteristics.” The schoolteacher had also forbidden Halle from working outside of Sweet Home, refusing to allow Halle to work harder to earn his family’s freedom. The realization that her children were going to grow up in Sweet Home, and thus become slaves, is what pushed Sethe to action.

Chapter 20 

The narration returns to Sethe, who is expressing her private feelings toward Beloved. She calls Beloved “mine” and explains that now that Beloved is back in her life, she feels she can look at the world again, appreciating its colors as Baby Suggs did. She recalls the physical deterioration of Mrs. Garner, and how Mrs. Garner cried when Sethe told her about being raped. She says she would have recognized Beloved instantly, had it not been for Paul D’s distractions. 

Looking at her daughter, Sethe scoffs at Paul D’s previous comments that her love was “too thick” and that there must have been some other way. As the experience of being beaten, whipped, and raped is still fresh in her mind, she explains that she wanted to keep her children away from that type of suffering no matter what. On top of that, Sethe reveals that she had planned to kill herself after killing her children—something which she had also told Baby Suggs, who had only prayed in response.

Chapter 21

 Denver narrates her feelings about her mother and Beloved. She confides that, ever since she found out her mother tried to kill her children, she’s been afraid of her. Her brothers, Howard and Buglar, gave her advice on how to kill their mother, should she ever try again. She warns Beloved not to love their mother too much, as she is dangerous.

At night, Denver regularly experiences dreams of being decapitated by Sethe. In the dream, Sethe takes her bodiless head and braids her hair. Denver has a strong feeling that she is not allowed to sleep until Sethe finishes with her hair. It’s only when she sleeps in Baby Suggs’s room that she escapes her nightmares of Sethe.

Denver resents Paul D for chasing away Beloved and for not being her father. She says that Baby Suggs described her father Halle as a good and hardworking man who loved dipping bread in runny eggs. Denver is glad that Beloved has returned so they can wait for their father together. She imagines that the three of them, her, Beloved, and Halle, will make a complete family; as for Sethe, Denver expresses indifference about what happens to her.

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Part One: Chapters 15-18

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Part Two: Chapters 22-25