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Beloved | Part 1, Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

As the flashback continues, four men come to 124: schoolteacher (the slave owner at Sweet Home who replaced Mr. Garner), his nephew, a slave catcher, and a sheriff. They see a woman and an old man both staring at the woodshed. When they go in, they find two bleeding boys and a woman holding a blood-soaked baby while swinging another baby, trying to smash it against the wall. Rushing through the door, the old man rescues the baby from the mother just in time.

Schoolteacher thinks Sethe has gone wild, like an abused animal, made so by another nephew who overbeat her. He thinks that none of them—Sethe or her children—are any good to him now and leaves. The sheriff attempts to arrest Sethe but is interrupted by Baby Suggs, who enters the shed and rescues the boys. Sethe will not give up the dead baby girl in her arms. Meanwhile, the sheriff sends for a wagon.

Baby Suggs gets everyone back into the house, cleans up the two boys, and binds their wounds. Then she gets Sethe to exchange the dead baby she is holding for the living one who needs nursing. Baby takes the dead baby into the keeping room and then returns to find Sethe feeding the baby from a nipple still covered in the blood of her sister. When the wagon arrives, Sethe, still holding Denver, climbs into the cart with the sheriff. Onlookers see the pride in the way Sethe holds her head, and they do not sing for her.

Analysis

The opening words in this chapter—"When the four horsemen came"—are an allusion to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse who are described in the Bible in the book of Revelations. They represent famine, war, pestilence, and death and, according to the Bible, will appear at the end of the world. It is an accurate symbol for the arrival of schoolteacher, his nephew, the slave hunter, and the sheriff and for the events that follow.

This chapter can be considered the climax of the pieces of the story of Sethe's past life, which are the memories she has been determined to keep buried. The events described illustrate the reality of the Fugitive Slave Law, which permitted slave owners to hunt down escaped slaves—even those in free states—and haul them back into slavery. In Sethe's case, schoolteacher came for her and her children. The community, still resentful for Baby Suggs's over-the-top celebration, did nothing to warn Sethe. This resentment and the proud way Sethe carries herself explain why the community does not sing in support of Sethe as the cart takes her away.

Sethe's act of killing one child and attempting to kill the others is a strong statement about the cruelty of slavery and a mother's love: she would rather see her children dead than enslaved. This one event brings the pieces of the puzzle together. The reader now knows why Sethe fights the memories of the past so vigorously. It also gives insight into the reasons for the family's isolation and the collapse of Baby Suggs.

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