Chapter 4 returns to a third-person limited narrative, this time from the perspective of Lina. The chapter opens by describing how Lina had always been wary and unimpressed by the enormous house that Jacob was building, and had refused to go near it. Now that Jacob has died there, Lina thinks that his ghost will haunt the house. Lina thinks the house Jacob lives in now is perfectly serviceable, and there is no need for another.
As the narrative takes up Lina’s perspective, Morrison makes it clear that Lina has a very different sense of priorities and ownership than the other characters. Unimpressed by and uninterested in shows of wealth and status, Lina is skeptical of Jacob’s choice to build his house.
At first, Rebekka did not seem especially enthusiastic about the new house either. But at least, she thought, building the house would mean Jacob would be around more, instead of away trading. As the house was being built, Rebekka constantly had a smile on her face. Everyone else was in good spirits too. Lina thinks she never saw Jacob happier, not even when his children were born.
Lina seems perplexed by the level of happiness that Jacob feels as he builds his new house, showing again her completely different value system. When Lina thinks that Jacob was happier building the house than when his children were born, it seems as if Jacob has replaced offspring with material wealth.
Lina describes Jacob’s choice to build the house as a decision to “kill the trees and replace them with a profane monument to himself.” She thinks that killing that many trees without asking the trees’ permission is a recipe for bad luck. Lina sees Jacob’s illness as the result of this choice. Lina finds his desire to build the house highly European and perplexing.
Lina’s alternative sense of morality and religion becomes clearer as she discusses the danger of killing trees. Lina’s belief that Europeans are perplexing also undermines traditional (and colonialist) views of European systems of ownership as rational and sophisticated.
Lina also wonders why Rebekka sent Florens to find the Blacksmith rather than swallowing her pride and asking the Anabaptists for help. After all, Lina thinks, if Florens finds the Blacksmith safely, she will not want to come back to the farm. Lina remembers watching Florens and the Blacksmith’s courtship, starting with the first day the Blacksmith came to the farm. She thinks of Florens’s startled face as they met him in the field, giving him directions to the house. Rebekka had come towards them, leading a cow behind her, and asked what the Blacksmith’s business was.
When Lina cannot understand why Rebekka will not ask the Anabaptists for help, she shows that she clearly does not understand the animosity between Rebekka and the Anabaptists over their religious differences. To Lina, these religious differences are minute. Through her confusion, Lina shows how these religious divides, which are often the source of violence among Europeans, are arbitrary and unnecessary.
The Blacksmith did not look at Florens, who was holding a milking stool and looking mesmerized. Though Lina noticed Florens’s crush, she thought for sure that the Blacksmith would be attracted to Sorrow, not Florens. When Lina learns from Rebekka that the Blacksmith is a free man, not a slave, she gets anxious knowing that he can marry and move about freely.
Lina harbors anxiety about the idea of the Blacksmith and Florens being together, concerned about the possibility that the Blacksmith could marry her and take her away. Lina clearly mistrusts men and romantic relationships, and worries about Florens’s wellbeing.
During the meeting, the Blacksmith removed his hat and looked Rebekka in the eye, something that Lina has never seen an African do. Lina, who had been told that culturally Africans could only look children and loved ones in the eye out of respect, realizes that this is not true. Lina remembers that after her village was wiped out, she was taken to a town where a show of defiance from an African would be punished with a whipping. Lina sees this as one of the many contradictions in European culture. She thinks of Europeans as highly violent, but also occasionally warm, like Rebekka.
The fact that Lina had been told that Africans do not make eye contact out of respect shows how racist ideas were being traded not only among white people, but also were being peddled to natives. Although natives like Lina would be described among white Europeans in the 17th century as “savage,” Lina’s horror and confusion at their violence shows how white Europeans are, in fact, often the savage ones.
Lina thinks about the destruction of her village, wishing that she had known more about healing at the time so she could have helped ease her family’s pain. She remembers her family lying on mats near the lake and thrashing around in blankets. The babies in the village died first, and then gave the disease to their mothers.
As Lina thinks about the destruction of her village due to smallpox, it’s important to remember that smallpox arrived in North America as a result of the European colonization. In some places, smallpox was intentionally used to wipe out native people.
Lina recalls fighting off the crows that came to scavenge the bodies, along with two young boys who also survived. They finally gave up when the wolves came and climbed a tree for safety. The next day, European soldiers arrived, shot the wolves, and set the village on fire. The boys in the tree with Lina screamed, and the soldiers caught the boys in their arms as they jumped from the tree.
When the European soldiers burn the village, although they do it to prevent contagion, they come across as violent and destructive. However, they also catch the boys as they jump, showcasing the hypocrisy and contradiction that Lina sees as a key aspect of European ideology.
Lina does not know where the soldiers took the boys, but knows that they took her to live with Presbyterians. The Presbyterians liked her because she worked hard. They believed native men, unlike native women, were lazy. The church leaders told Lina that the sickness that infected her village was the result of God’s anger at their laziness.
The church leader’s assertions that God infected Lina’s village because of their laziness comes across as highly ironic—since smallpox was brought to the Americas by Europeans and is a viral infection—but it also shows the way religious belief can be twisted to justify almost anything.
Because Lina did not want to be cast out by the Presbyterians, she adopted their faith and habits. Lina stopped bathing in the river and eating with her hands. She stopped mourning in front of others, since the Presbyterians thought of grief as sinful idleness. The Presbyterians gave Lina a European dress and cut her hair. She was not allowed to go to Sunday church services with them, but she did partake in daily prayers. Finally, the Presbyterians abandoned Lina when she did not follow their teachings well enough.
While Lina is living with the Presbyterians, it becomes clear to her that she must adopt their religion and customs in order to be accepted. Here, Morrison shows how religion is used as a colonial practice that divides native people like Lina from their customs and native faith. That Lina is not allowed to attend services with them also shows how religion reinforced racist policy.
Later, alone at Jacob’s farm, Lina tried to remember the healing knowledge she learned from her mother before she died. Being the only person working on the farm, with Rebekka not yet there, Lina was incredibly lonely and struggled with survivor’s guilt and the memory of her trauma. Lina still feels anxiety whenever she is around fire, as it provokes memories of the destruction of her village.
Lina’s attempts to remember her mother’s remedies suggest the existence of an alternative system of knowledge and healing to Protestant prayer. Meanwhile, the destruction of Lina’s village was an enormous trauma for Lina, leaving Lina, like Jacob, orphaned.
Lina remembers Jacob’s burst of activity as he waited for Rebekka to arrive from Europe. When she would bring him his dinner, she would occasionally find him in despair about his lack of success as a farmer. Lina helped Jacob plant the vegetables and take care of the livestock. She taught Jacob how to fish and keep pests away from the crops. However, neither Jacob nor Lina knew how to deal with the unpredictable weather. Jacob was not a skilled farmer: impatient, unable to tell the difference between weeds and crops, unwilling to seek advice. Jacob also ignored Lina’s advice, resulting in a disastrous harvest.
Although Jacob still likes to think of himself as a farmer, Lina’s account of their life on the farm offers an alternative perspective. Far from the romantic farm life in rural America that Jacob imagined, farming is difficult and unpredictable. Lina’s view of Jacob’s farm shows that the pastoral paradise Jacob desired is not possible without hard labor. Jacob’s pride and unwillingness to listen to Lina causes his failure.
Lina found life on the Vaark farm unrewarding. Lina was not especially verbose with Jacob and she continued to process her memories of her village before the sickness and fire, working through her trauma and loss. When Rebekka finally arrived, Lina had mostly sorted through her past, reinventing herself.
Lina’s trauma from the loss of her family and the destruction of her village continues to sting. 17th-century America does not have much space for grief— the Presbyterians see grief as sacrilegious, while farm life with Jacob requires constant attention.
With Rebekka now sick, Lina tries to use native remedies to heal her, putting magic stones under her pillow and brewing a medicinal tea for her to drink. She does not repeat the healing prayers she learned from the Presbyterians because they did not work on Jacob.
Lina’s use of native rituals and remedies to heal Rebekka offers the reader an example of religion in 17th-century America outside of variations of European Christianity.
Lina remembers how they opened the iron gate to the new, big house to bring Jacob in to die in it, per his final wish. Although Lina sees the iron gate the Blacksmith made as a complete waste of time, she admires how he saved Sorrow’s life. Lina ponders Sorrow, who Jacob had agreed to take from some lumberjacks that found her half drowned. Sorrow never told them where she came from, or her real name. The lumberjack’s wife named her Sorrow and decided to get rid of her after realizing that she was unable to work effectively. When Sorrow arrived at the house, it annoyed Rebekka, but she knew also that they could use the help.
When Lina expresses her belief that the iron gate in front of Jacob’s new house is a complete waste of time, it comes on the heels of her assertion that Christian prayer does not work. This is significant because the iron gate that Lina finds useless is loaded with Christian imagery: it is topped with a snake, evoking the story of Adam and Eve and the idea of sin. Lina’s dislike of the iron gate reflects her generally skepticism toward Europeans and European religion.
Jacob had bought Lina, on the other hand, from the Presbyterians when she was fourteen. He searched through the slave advertisements in town before finding her. When Rebekka arrived on the farm later, Lina remembers that there was immediately tension between the two of them. Rebekka was annoyed by Lina’s health and beauty, while Lina did not like Rebekka’s air of authority.
Lina and Rebekka’s initial animosity is due to the competition encouraged between women under male-dominated systems: Rebekka dislikes Lina because of her beauty, perhaps worried that she will attract Jacob’s attention. Though Lina follows Jacob’s orders, she resents Rebekka’s female authority.
However, the animosity between Lina and Rebekka dissipated when Lina delivered Rebekka’s first child. They became friends, confiding in each other and providing one another with company. Together they completed the farm chores, stumbling their way through them. They learned together how to work the farm and care for Rebekka’s children. Rebekka, unlike Jacob, liked farm-work.
Motherhood unites Lina and Rebekka, ending their competitive relationship and showing how motherhood can bond women together. Lina and Rebekka use each other for help and company, showing how female community can be an invaluable source of support for women.
When Jacob brought Sorrow back to the farm, both Lina and Rebekka were unhappy about it. Rebekka found Sorrow useless, while Lina thought that she brought bad luck. Lina watched as Rebekka trained Sorrow to sew. She kept quiet when Jacob decided that Sorrow needed to sleep by the fireplace, a choice that made Lina suspicious. Lina was not jealous, however, since she learned to build shelter in all weather from her tribe.
Lina’s suspicion when Sorrow is brought to sleep at the fireplace seems to stem from her belief that Jacob is sleeping with Sorrow. Sorrow serves as a point of contrast to Lina and Rebekka: she is unable to bond with other women, in part because she is constantly giving into the pursuits of men that support her instead.
The chief of Lina’s tribe had predicted the Europeans would eventually die or leave the native’s land. However, he was wrong, and he apologized for his error eventually. The chief had then predicted that the Europeans would continue to ravage the land forever, ruining the natives’ sacred spaces and the ecosystem with their capitalist land system. Lina, however, having seen how Jacob and Rebekka ran their farm, believed that they were an exception to this prophecy. Jacob and Rebekka seem to Lina to be more respectful of the earth.
This section shows the devastation that European colonization and the European system of land ownership has wrought for the environment and for the native tribes who lived on the East Coast. Interestingly, Lina sees Jacob and Rebekka as counterpoints to this prophecy of the effect of Europeans. Jacob and Rebekka, according to Lina, are the “good” kind of European (although readers can see how they too are very complicit in the violence and oppressive systems of their peers).
Lina returns to thinking about Sorrow. She remembers one time when they trusted Sorrow, who was pregnant at the time, with milking the cows. When she did not handle the udders right, a cow had kicked, and Lina had had to leave the sickroom (it is unclear whether it is Jacob’s or Rebekka’s) to milk the cow herself. With Sorrow pregnant, she is even less reliable. Lina thinks that Sorrow brings misery wherever she goes. Lina feels certain that the deaths of Rebekka’s infants are due to Sorrow’s bad energy.
Lina’s dislike for Sorrow becomes extremely clear in this section. When Lina describes how she believes Sorrow brings bad spirits with her, Morrison shows the side of Lina’s spiritual beliefs that, like the European sense of religion, excludes and persecutes people who are different or marginalized.
One day while they were preparing mincemeat, Lina told Rebekka that she believes Sorrow carries bad spirits with her. Rebekka told Lina her baby died of a fever, not Sorrow’s influence. They finished making the mincemeat, sealing it in a jar to cure for Christmas.
Rebekka, meanwhile, rejects Lina’s belief that Sorrow brings bad spirits with her, as well as the Christian belief that her babies died because of God, instead preferring the more rational view that they died of fever.
Now, Lina thinks, Sorrow is pregnant again, and her baby will possibly survive this time. Lina wonders what will happen if Rebekka dies, and where she and Sorrow will go. The Baptists in the neighborhood are no longer on good terms with the Vaark family, because Rebekka blames them for refusing to baptize her babies. Lina thinks that Sorrow’s presence also contributes to the bad relations between the Baptists and the Vaarks. Previously, the Baptists would bring gifts of food to the house, but now, with the contagious sickness around the house, they stay away.
When Lina wonders where she and Sorrow will go if Rebekka dies, she reveals the insecurity of her position as a slave. Lina is unable to live freely, so if Rebekka dies, her legal situation is very precarious. Meanwhile, although Rebekka clearly does not have strong religious feeling at this point, she does stop speaking to the Baptists when they refuse to baptize her children.
Willard and Scully, the indentured servants who sometimes work on the Vaark farm, stay away too. Lina is saddened by this, but chalks up their lack of loyalty to the fact that they are European. Willard is still working off his indentured servitude. He does not want to disobey and extend his service like he did in his younger days, when he tried to run away.
Lina’s sadness that Willard and Scully do not go to the farm shows how close they have become. At the same time, Morrison shows the injustice and lack of liberty that indentured servants faced because of the strict conditions of their bondage.
Scully, meanwhile, is trying to finish his contract, hoping to be free before he is old like Willard. Scully inherited his state of bondage from his mother, who was sent to the colonies for her “lewdness and disobedience.” Scully is unsure of exactly when his service is legally over, but he believes it is soon, because there is a contract supposedly saying so. Lina suspects, however, that Scully has not seen the contract and cannot read it if he has. Scully hopes that the “freedom fee” he will receive when liberated will be enough to let him start a new life as a free man.
The fact that Scully cannot be sure of the end of his contract because he cannot read shows how literacy is dangerous to the preexisting power structures of the 17th century. Illiteracy is used to ensure that white landowners can exploit their slaves and indentured servants, preventing people like Scully from advocating for themselves and keeping slaves and servants from sharing ideas.
Lina knows that Scully and Willard sleep together “when sleep was not the point,” meaning that they have sex. Lina thinks this is why Jacob will have no men working on his property. Now, however, the plan seems to have backfired. Rebekka is sick, Sorrow is pregnant, and Florens is lovestruck and running after the Blacksmith.
Morrison heavily emphasizes the potential danger of romantic relationships between men and women throughout her book. Scully and Willard offer the reader a happy vision of what romantic love could be like outside of the constraints of heterosexuality.
Lina implores Rebekka not to die, wondering what will become of herself, Florens, Sorrow, and Sorrow’s baby if they are left alone without a master. None of them are legally allowed to own property. Lina imagines the farm being claimed by the Baptists. Lina thinks that, although she liked being part of such a small family originally, it was prideful and stupid for Rebekka and Jacob to think they could survive on their own. Now Lina sees that they were never a family after all— just orphans that banded together.
Lina thinks again about what will happen to her, Florens, and Sorrow if Rebekka dies, drawing attention to the legal problem of their situation. Because of their status, there is no real place for Lina, Florens, or Sorrow in American colonial society unless they are owned by a white man, or at least a white person.
Lina looks out the window in Rebekka’s sickroom. Rebekka mumbles feverishly, and Lina follows her gaze to her trunk that contains her luxury items. In the trunk, on top of a pile of silk, there is a mirror. Rebekka asks for it, and Lina picks it up hesitantly, not wanting to let Rebekka look at herself. Lina seems to harbor the superstition that, even if she were not sick, looking at her reflection would be bad for Rebekka’s soul. Rebekka begs Lina for the mirror, and Lina reluctantly brings it to her. Lina feels certain Rebekka will die, and knows that her own life depends on Rebekka’s, which depends on Florens finding the Blacksmith.
Lina’s native spiritual beliefs show up again, as Lina believes that looking in a mirror will be bad for Rebekka’s soul. Morrison brings up the idea of reflection and self-image here, an idea that repeats throughout the book. Rebekka here reflects on her religious beliefs and her lack of religious devotion, a fact that will become clearer later. Through the idea of self-reflection, Morrison suggests how misguided people’s self-image can be.
Lina ponders Florens, thinking of when she first saw her when she arrived at the farm. Florens was frightened and quiet at first. Lina immediately became attached to her. Lina decided to protect Florens, trying to keep her from Sorrow and from the Blacksmith. Lina saw how Florens was attracted to the Blacksmith immediately, and saw the potential danger of it. No one else complained about him, because Rebekka was so happy that Jacob was home, and Jacob liked the Blacksmith immediately.
Lina’s attachment to Florens is described like a form of motherhood— Lina tries to protect Florens from the people she thinks are dangerous, like Sorrow and the Blacksmith. Lina’s fear of men and romantic relationships is very clear, as Lina is the only one concerned about Florens’s budding relationship with the Blacksmith.
Lina remembers Jacob and the Blacksmith amicably talking while Jacob sliced an apple, and Jacob offering him a piece. Lina thinks she was the only one who foresaw the Blacksmith making Florens fall in love with him. Lina tried to temper Florens’s expectations of his commitment, telling her she is only one “on his tree.” Florens, however, responded that she is “his tree.”
Lina’s skepticism towards the Blacksmith’s treatment of Florens suggests, even at this point in the novel, that Lina has been through her own romantic troubles. Romantic love, to Lina, is the potential to be hurt. For Florens, who has never been in love before, it is exciting.
Lina returns to thinking about when Florens arrived at the farm, quiet and shy, on the heels of Patrician’s death. Though Lina and Rebekka had competed for Patrician’s affection, Lina was the only one who paid attention to Florens. Unlike Sorrow, Florens can read and write, quickly completes chores, and responds well to affection and praise. Lina remembers lying down together at night, when Lina would tell Florens stories. Florens especially liked stories about protective mothers.
When Lina compares her love for Florens to her and Rebekka’s affection for Patrician, Lina aligns her relationship with Florens to Rebekka and Patrician’s maternal one. Lina performs the traditional functions of a mother, like telling Florens stories. Morrison uses Lina to show an example of surrogate motherhood, one unattached to blood ties but no less powerful.
Lina remembers one story that Florens especially liked. In the story, an eagle lays eggs in a nest high up away from predators. However, the eagle cannot protect her eggs from men. One day, a man climbs the nearby mountain and claims everything he can see as his. All of the creatures hear the word “mine” and wonder what it means. The echo of the man’s words reaches the nest. The eagle tries to attack the source of the noise, but the man hits her with a stick. The eagle screams and falls. Florens asked where the eagle is now. Lina responded that she is “still falling.” When Florens asked if the eggs survived, Lina responded, “we have.” Florens fell contentedly asleep. Lina feels that she and Florens are connected through their mutual desire for a mother, and Lina’s desire to be one.
Lina’s story about the eagle and the traveler showcases the problems that she and other native people see in the European system of land ownership. Lina’s description of the man, who seems to be European, as a “traveler” suggests that he does not belong in the place that he claims is his. Meanwhile, the natural world around him clearly does not understand itself in terms of ownership. Lina identifies her people with the eagle’s eggs in the story, suggesting that, although now “motherless,” they are still surviving in the oppressive colonial system.
Lina returns to the present and Rebekka, sick, seeing her face in the mirror. Lina leaves the room to do chores and to find Sorrow, so she can tell her to muck out the stalls. Lina goes into the cowshed and looks at the place where she and Florens used to sleep. Lina looks at Florens’s rabbit skin shoes, which Lina made for her herself. Lina leaves, feeling shaken, and stands at the door. She decides to go find Sorrow at the river, where Lina knows Sorrow goes to talk to her first child, which was stillborn.
Morrison continues to give the reader examples of Lina’s motherly love and care for Florens when she describes Lina looking at the shoes that she made for her. When Lina mentions Sorrow’s motherhood and her stillborn child, she offers a small window into the potential heartbreak of motherhood with the sad image of Sorrow talking to her dead baby.
At the river, Lina does not find Sorrow. She does, however, smell fire. Moving towards the smoke, Lina sees a group of people camping beneath the trees. Lina recognizes them as the other passengers from Florens’s wagon. Lina begins to worry about Florens. She greets one of the passengers, saying she recognizes them from the wagon and asking what happened to Florens. One of the women says she got off the wagon at the tavern and went into the woods. Lina is confused, but decides not to ask more questions. The group gets ready to journey on, packing up their things and heading toward the river. One of the men asks Lina not to say anything about seeing them, and Lina agrees to keep quiet.
When Lina stumbles upon the travelers from Florens’s wagon, her immediate concern is for Florens. Again, Morrison shows that Lina has become a kind of foster mother for Florens, illustrating how motherhood is not necessarily a blood relationship, but rather a bond of caring. When Lina agrees not to say anything about the travelers, she exemplifies the fact that, prior to intense racial division, lower class 17th-century Americans (indentured servants and slaves) were much more likely to help each other as a class.
Lina walks back toward the house, happy that nothing bad has happened to Florens yet but worried that soon something will. She then goes back into Rebekka’s sickroom, where Rebekka is praying. Lina wonders what Rebekka is praying for, since Rebekka has never been especially religious. She thinks Rebekka’s deathly illness is giving her a sudden burst of faith. Lina returns to worrying about Florens, wondering how she will get by on her own. Lina reassures herself that Florens has everything she needs to find the Blacksmith safely. She wonders, though, whether Florens will return, whether he finds him or not.
Lina recognizes Rebekka’s religious awakening, a phenomenon that Morrison explores more in Rebekka’s chapter. Rebekka’s prayer surprises Lina, since Rebekka’s religious apathy has been consistent since Lina first knew her. Lina, as previously stated, has found Christian prayer unhelpful, and so her confusion is compounded with a mistrust of Christianity.