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This chapter is largely about Sethe’s daughter, Denver. Feeling lonely and sad, she goes out behind the house and sits amongst the boxwoods, communing with Nature and contemplating past experiences. She remembers a time when she had seen her mother kneeling in prayer. Next to her was a white dress. Denver also remembers Sethe telling her about how she never really knew her parents, for all slave children on a plantation were raised away from their mothers. Denver next thinks about the story of her own birth. At this point, Sethe’s voice blends into Denver’s thoughts as she begins to relate the story. Sethe, a plantation slave, ran away from Sweet Home while she was pregnant with Denver. During the journey, she almost died; but Amy Denver, a young white indentured servant girl who was also running away, hid Sethe in a lean-to, nursed her to health, and helped her to deliver her baby. Denver was named in honor of her.
The narrative next switches to Sethe. When she wakes up the morning after her first night with Paul D, she wonders what it means to make plans. She has not had the luxury of planning for eighteen long years. In fact, running away from Sweet Home was the only set of plans she ever made. As Sethe looks around the room, she notices the dullness of her house. The only color she sees is found in two patches of orange on a quilt. She acknowledges, however, that colors are not important to her, like they were to Baby Suggs. Usually when she thinks about colors, she thinks of her dead child. She associates the color red with the baby and the color pink with the baby’s headstone.
Sethe overhears Paul D singing and goes to find him. She thinks about the change that has occurred in the house since his arrival; everything seems heavier and more masculine. When she approaches Paul D, he is thinking about how he traveled from Sweet Home in Kentucky, down to Georgia, then up to Delaware, and finally to Ohio. He tells Sethe that he may now settle down in the Cincinnati area and look for work. He asks her about where he might find employment. He also asks Sethe if Denver would mind his staying. Sethe knows that Denver is very attached to her, for they have been inseparable. She tells Paul D about how Denver was with her when she went to jail. Paul D turns away at the mention of jail, for the word reminds him of Alfred, Georgia.
Sethe, thinking about the future and imagining a life with Paul D, knows that she must keep her mind off the memories. In order to keep moving forward, she must avoid thinking of the past.
Again in this third chapter, a few more vague details about Sethe’s past are added. Also the pattern of retelling a previous story, giving more information, is being established. This circular patter of development is very effective.
The reader learns that Sethe never really knew her mother, for as a slave child she was taken away from her parents to be communally raised with the other children. In reaction to her own childhood in isolation from her mother, Sethe has fought to keep Denver close to her. Even when Sethe had to go to jail, she took Denver with her. Because the two of them have spent so much time together, they are very close. Now Denver sees Paul D as a threat to the relationship she has with Sethe. As a result, she is feeling sad and lonely and goes out to sit amongst the boxwoods in the back yard. It is the place where she feels she can commune with Nature and get in touch with her emotions.
During the chapter, Sethe reveals that she is haunted by the horrors she experienced at Sweet Home. She knows that if she is to have a normal future, she must work to keep the past at bay. Because her memories are so painful, she has not willingly shared many of them with her daughter. Denver, however, is perceptive enough to sense her mother’s pain. When she sees Sethe kneeling in prayer, with a white dress by her side, she intuitively knows the dress is significant to her mother. The reader assumes the white dress is the one that Sethe made and wore for her marriage. Her prayers were probably for Halle, her missing husband.
When Sethe wakes up after her first night with Paul D, she sees her house in a different perspective. It seems heavier and more masculine to her. She also notices the lack of color for the first time in eighteen years. Her failure to previously notice the absence of color symbolizes Sethe's repression of her emotions, such as desire and love. She has been so occupied all these years in pushing down the bad memories, especially the red ones of her dead infant, that she has not been able to life her live in the present; she has led a colorless existence.
Sethe is not the only one who has been living a reduced emotional life due to repressed trauma. Paul D has his own frightful memories. He thinks about how he fled from Sweet Home in Kentucky, to Georgia, to Delaware, and then to Ohio. When Sethe mentions going to jail, Paul D turns away, for it causes him to think about his painful time in Alfred, Georgia, when he trembled in a box underground. Like Sethe, Paul D wants to put the horrible past behind him. He hints that he would like to stay in the Cincinnati area with Sethe, but he is concerned about Denver’s reaction to the idea. He has obviously sensed that Denver resents his presence. Sethe, however, allows herself to imagine a future with Paul D.
Both Sethe and Paul D continue to give only tidbits of their painful past, building suspense for the reader. Sethe does not explain when, why, or for how long she goes to jail. Paul D does not elaborate on his painful experience in Georgia. As the novel proceeds, however, the characters will gradually feel safe enough to deal with their memories by revealing everything about them so that they can put them to rest.