In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, families are fractured irreparably by slavery, and each of her characters strives for normalcy after the dismantling of the institution. For newly freed people of color, this quest becomes difficult to navigate. Blacks struggle to find identity in a world of white definitions, concepts which limit and obstruct their personal experience as human beings, and they are unable to fit into white traditional norms. Paul D’s personal journey is to define “manhood.” With no father available to set a precedent, he must deduce meaning from struggles he experiences as a black man, and by analyzing definitions supplied by the people he encounters. Throughout his life, Paul D’s idea of manhood is systematically deconstructed. This continues until he learns that he must redefine manhood in terms of his own sense of self, not in terms of white society. Paul D’s best understanding is achieved through historical remembrance of his slave family, the “Sweet Home Men,” and through recognition of where he and Sethe, a woman similarly struggling to carve new meaning for herself, presently fit together in the face of slavery and racism.
At Sweet Home, under the ownership of Mr. Garner, Paul D firmly believes that he and his four fellow slaves are men, “so named and called by one who would know” (Morrison 147). Here, Paul D realizes peripherally that Garner possesses authority over the label, as though being a man is not an inherent aspect but something bestowed upon him by another. In “Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Carden explains that Paul D lives “as the child of benevolent white parents, embedded in hierarchies that modeled those of a patriarchal family. Paul D Garner, however, is not a son – Sons inherit manhood with patrilineage; Paul D borrows a provisional second-order manhood from a master” (Carden 405). According to Mr. Garner, manhood resides in the ability to wield a gun, and in the ability to make choices, although he provides limited options from which his slaves can choose. Paul D naively believes that, “in their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believed and trusted, but most of all they were listened to” (Morrison 147). Because Garner encourages his men, like paid labor, to think freely and argue their points at Sweet Home, their manhood is defined by Garner’s higher authority and in his recognition of value in their thoughts and feelings. Paul D suspects that this definition is nearly the truth. What he fails to realize, at this stage in the novel, is that Garner elevates his slaves’ status to “men” because, in maintaining control over the will of men rather than lesser animals, his sense of power increases.
Paul D must question this sense of manhood further as Sweet Home’s authority transfers from Garner, upon his sudden death, to schoolteacher. As power shifts, Paul D holds fast to the definition given him by Garner but learns quickly that his identity is constrained not only within the property lines of Sweet Home, but also by the individual perspective of white slave owners. Unlike Garner, who characterizes his slaves as men, schoolteacher’s approach is to classify the slaves as sub-human or animal. Like the wings of a bird, schoolteacher clips Paul D. “First his shotgun, then his thoughts, for schoolteacher didn’t take advice from Negroes” (Morrison 259). While offering input once valued by Garner, Paul D is now punished for what schoolteacher calls “talking back.” He becomes nothing more than a “product” to a “whiteman” who places more value in the money Paul D’s body can collect than what his mind has to offer. In the critical analysis “The Making of a Man: Dialogic Meaning in Beloved,” Deborah Sitter says, “Morrison shows how every natural instinct and emotion is in some way twisted or stunted by the experience of living in a culture that measures individual worth by resale value and the ability to reproduce oneself without cost” (Sitter 18). After overhearing his monetary worth of $900, and having nothing to compare that number with, Paul D cannot grasp his value even in these terms. The only conclusion he can draw is that Sethe is worth more because she can “breed.” While always questioning the validity of schoolteacher’s assessment, Paul D is deeply humiliated when forced to wear a collar, chains, leg irons and a bit during his transference off Sweet Home. Bound like a beast, he must march past Mister, an old rooster possessing more authority than he does. As evidence of his defeat, Paul D says, “schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (Morrison 86).
When schoolteacher sells Paul D, in the same manner as livestock, to a slave owner named Brandywine, Paul D’s reaction manifests in an uncontrollable attack against his new owner. He “didn’t know exactly what prompted him to try other than Halle, Sixo, Paul A, Paul F and Mister. But the trembling was fixed by the time he knew it was there.” (Morrison 125). In this passage, the Sweet Home Men reference Paul D’s black ideal of manhood and inspire his fight to keep it intact. His attack reaches far beyond retaliation against the disallowance of his basic human rights. More importantly, it demonstrates the authoritative and binding power of white language. To define a slave as “man” makes him a man; to define a slave as “animal” literally makes them an animal. Because, in his selling, he is stripped of his human identity, Paul D simultaneously employs an animalistic survival instinct along side a lack of control over his own will. It is within this realm that Paul D channels Sweet Home’s rooster, Mister, attempting to claim his position as free ruler of the roost. Sadly, Paul D is unable to differentiate between Mister’s apparent freedom and his true identity as livestock owned by schoolteacher. The uncontrollable trembling Paul D experiences at the time of the attack is “gentle at first – and then wild” (Morrison 125). It begins with Paul D’s last look at a Sweet Home tree he names ?Brother? and it grows wilder the further he is distanced from that image. Sitter argues that “Paul D’s image of tree seems at all moments to be an index of his sense of his own manliness. At Sweet Home Paul D is confident that he is a man” (Sitter 24). Here Brother appears big, strong, vibrant and beautiful. The extraction of Paul D’s vibrant identity from his physical person, removing Brother from his view, is what turns him wild.
The consequence for this wild behavior, despite Paul D’s reasoning, is a perpetuation of the white deconstructive cycle, and with increased severity. Paul D is sent to a chain gang in Alfred, Georgia where the governing “whitemen” willfully dismantle any association the black man has with his humanity. When “they [shove Paul D] into a box and [drop] the cage door down, his hands quit taking instruction” (Morrison 126). His will is paralyzed by a defeat greater than the one he suffered at the hand of schoolteacher. In “that grave calling itself quarters” (Morrison 125), Paul D recognizes that his life is worth less here than that of an animal, and only slightly more than the dead. For this reason, slave welfare holds no weight when, after eight days of rain, “it was decided to lock everybody down in the boxes till a whiteman could walk, damnit, without flooding his gun and the dog could quit shivering” (Morrison 129). A dog’s warmth supersedes the physical needs of Paul D, and a whiteman in possession of a functioning gun holds the greatest power. Paul D, once able to carry his own gun in order to protect and maintain the animals at Sweet Home, now finds himself at the other end of the barrel when, in the mornings, “all forty-six men [rise] to gunshot” (Morrison 126). While tethered together by heavy ankle chains, the butt and barrel of guns demand their utmost obedience and submission to repeated oral rape. This exemplifies the enormity of Paul D’s degradation in the irresponsible hands of white authority. With Paul D’s manhood as fragile as it is, he can only make out an aspen sapling. In sharp contrast to the image of Brother, “This aspen reflects a diminished sense of self” (Sitter 24). Still, Paul D retains enough sense of manhood to escape north. An indigenous Cherokee sharing understanding in the experience of uprooting, tells Paul D to “follow the tree flowers” (Morrison 127) in order to find what he is looking for. Sitter claims that, “Paul D follows the tree blossoms not north but to Sethe who bears a once flowering tree on her back” (Sitter 26) As Garner provides the tree image of Brother for Paul D, schoolteacher and his nephews give Sethe her tree-shape scar through an abusive lashing. Regardless of the actual tree’s beauty in contrast to the repulsive scar image, both images are born from white dominance and each is in need of reinterpretation.
When Paul D finds Sethe at 124 Bluestone Road, it is Beloved, a physical manifestation of Sethe’s ghost daughter, who challenges Paul D’s manhood more so than any white slave owner. In an effort to make him leave and keep her mother to herself, she supernaturally moves him out of the house, making him reason that “if schoolteacher was right, it explained how he had come to be a rag doll ? picked up and put down anywhere any time” (Morrison 148). His inability to resist her lands him on a pallet in the shed, where he lays like an animal rather than in the bed of his lover, Sethe. “The danger was in losing Sethe because he wasn’t man enough to break out” (Morrison 149). To counter Beloved’s manipulation, Paul D recalls the times he has been a man, most honorably when he watched another man, [Sixo,] whom he loved better than his brothers, roast without a tear just so the roasters would know what a man was like” (Morrison 148). Reinforcing his sense of identity, he adds, “And it was he, that man who could not go or stay put where he wanted in 124 ‘shame” (Morrison 148). Beloved’s successful seduction, particularly in light of Paul D’s ability to display the most stoic resolve, is the ultimate transgression, and his lack of resistance proves him feeble. “Whenever she turned her behind up, the calves of his youth (was that it?) cracked his resolve” (Morrison 148). Unable to see the sparing of Sethe from his sexual urges at Sweet Home as an act of kindness, a true testament to his manhood, he instead views himself as one of the animals he communes with. Beloved locates his bed in a shed, exiling him from the house. Bringing to the surface sore reminders of the past while enslaving him in the present, she demeans and defeats Paul D’s manhood at the deepest level yet.
Before Beloved fully pushes him away from Sethe, Paul D makes a failed attempt to seek Sethe’s help against Beloved’s manipulation. In essence, his failure to be honest with her proves that Beloved’s effect has fully taken hold. In the wake of honesty’s departure, and unable to combat Beloved on his own, Paul D asserts “his manhood in a different but standard way: He wants to prove himself a man by way of being a father” (Sitter 24), suggesting that Paul D falls back on traditional definitions of manhood rather than what must work solely between himself and Sethe. There is truth in this as no normal experience can exist between two such fractured people. This realization makes all the more dramatic Paul D?s shaken sense of fatherhood by learning of Sethe’s infanticide. Mary Carden, in “Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison?s Beloved,” argues that, “in American culture, ‘man’ signifies head of household, protector of wife and children, giver of law, guardian of culture. But black men, as travelers driven to ‘secondary routs’ had no such foundation on which to identify” (Carden 404) After saying to her, “I want you pregnant, Sethe. Would you do that for me?” (Morrison 151), Paul D quickly learns that he will never reach that traditional goal of becoming head of the house. Sethe has filled that role far too long for Paul D to take her place, and she is too strong to need his rescuing. Sitter describes this idea in the form of a failed fairy tale, “When the maiden steps outside her assigned role the hero’s manhood is threatened” (Sitter 24). This new round of defeat is evident when Paul D leaves 124 Bluestone Road and, by choice, sleeps on the church basement floor. Before Beloved manipulates him, Paul D is able to reject all crimes committed against him. Now robbed of the ability to define his own terms as a man, especially as man of the house, he takes on the characterization of animal others place upon him, treating himself with the same degradation he has learned from them.
Having been pushed from Sethe’s house by Beloved, and leaving Sethe altogether for his fear of Sethe’s “safety with a handsaw” (Morrison 193), Paul D’s thoughts return to his friends at Sweet Home, “Sixo, and even Halle; it was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not” (Morrison 260). In this observance, false layers of white manhood are peeled away. White influence is problematic when the struggle for normalcy lies in the defining. Nothing can be normal in a world where white language determines worth, identity and acceptance of black people in the aftermath of slavery. Sixo and Halle don’t find their manhood in their possession of guns or through ownership of people; rather they have respect for life, nature, and the ability to care for another in the absence of ownership. Halle works for years to buy his mother’s freedom and fervently plans to deliver his family from the stranglehold of slavery. Sixo goes to great lengths to care for the Thirty-Mile Woman. He communes with nature, dancing naked without the restriction of his slave clothes, and protests the language of his slave holders by returning to his natural, native tongue. According to Sitter, “Through these associations Morrison subtly introduces the values of another culture” (Sitter 23). This seems particularly true as Sixo, the strongest, is also the blackest man of the Sweet Home Men with the thickest native language, Morrison’s symbolism that the superior form of manhood is also the most African (Sitter 23).
Connection is imperative to manhood as proven by couples Halle and Sethe, Sixo and the Thirty-Mile Woman, all joined one to another in their respective pairs. Paul D recalls Sixo’s thirty mile trip to see his woman, recognizing Sixo’s avid determination to make that connection, and thinks, “Now there was a man” (Morrison 26). Paul D becomes painfully aware that his lack of dedication to any one person provides no comparison. The most time spent in one place, prior to his residence with Sethe, is eighteen months with the woman who “helped him to pretend he was making love to her and not her bed linen” (Morrison 154). There is no evidence of a heart connection between him and this woman because, at that time, his heart is still jammed shut in its tobacco tin. In his presently fractured connection with Sethe, Paul D is ashamed for leaving the only woman who ever made him want to stay. “When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed” (Morrison 315). Paul D’s perception of himself through Garner’s eyes doesn’t allow for the abnormality of the situation. Sethe, in saving her children from the fate of schoolteacher by way of murder, feels that taking them “through the veil” is the most loving and protective act she can perform as a mother. Paul D, initially seeing this act through a white lens, insists Sethe’s love is too thick and that there must have been an alternative to killing her daughter. With utter disapproval, Paul D counts Sethe’s feet telling her she has “two, not four,” reminding her how schoolteacher categorized her as animal in his lesson plan. Until Paul D is willing to accept the new terms of Sethe’s womanhood as it exists, through her strong and protective mother love as it battles the hell of slavery, the two cannot merge. Sitter also takes this stance saying, “The dialogue between their two stories constructs the context in which Morrison conducts a deeper dialogue with the social meanings of words which have the power to liberate or enslave” (Sitter 17). This struggle requires alternate thinking and acceptance that white standards don?t apply to them. Through Sixo’s eyes, rather than Garner’s, Paul D knows what he must to in order to redeem himself fully, finally freeing himself from the white language that binds his manhood.
Paul D leaves the church basement and returns to Sethe after recalling what Sixo says about the Thirty-Mile Woman, “She is a friend of my mind.. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order” (Morrison 321). When Paul D offers this kind of reconstruction to Sethe, after Beloved has broken her will to live, she wonders, “If he bathes her in parts will the parts hold?” In those places where both have become so fractured, like their families and their shattered hearts, it takes one to piece the other together. Carden argues that while:
In some ways, Paul D’s rescue bespeaks a return to patriarchal scripts. In other ways, however, we can see in this ending the potential for unconventional romance: Paul D’s expression of openness to alternative models of manhood gains credence when Sethe connects his proposal to “take care” of her to Baby Sugg’s care for her. (Carden 421)
Because her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, was able to nurse Sethe back to health after her escape from slavery, perhaps Paul D can nurse her back from the sickness caused by Beloved, her parasitic past. He can now return the grace Sethe offered him when schoolteacher punished his attempted escape with a collar: “She never mentioned or looked at it, so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that” (Morrison 322). Paul D’s manhood, unlike its characterization by white men or ghosts of the past, resides in the tenderness offered by Sethe when she looks past the shackles that bind him like an animal, seeing him for who he truly is. It also resides in his ability to return this ever important gesture.
This connection between Paul D and Sethe is an integral part of their discovery of a new identity. Individually searching for the meaning of manhood and womanhood, Paul D and Sethe only find balance in their exploration together. One story cannot be validated without the other. By opening to the past, living in the present, and searching for a future, a person experiences life as a whole individual. To deny any part of that experience means a part of that person dies with each lost memory or hope. While Paul D is unable to experience all three on his own, he learns to feel again along side Sethe, and she with him. “He wants to put his story next to hers” (Morrison 322) because together they allow for the full experience of life. Helping each other to digest the past, one holds the pain of the other when it is too much to bear. Through their reciprocal and intimate love, honor, respect and new understanding, Paul D discovers his true sense of manhood. He simply cannot recognize it until Sethe shows him how to look beyond binding language. Through Sethe’s love and acceptance, Paul D has the strength to face all parts of himself as both a whole man and his own man, and he is that man because he offers the same to Sethe in return. Morrison tells their stories along side one another because when both stories are read as one, the struggle of an entire culture is revealed.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, 2004.
Carden, Mary Paniccia. “Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Twentieth Century Literature. 45.4 (1999): 401-427.
Sitter, Deborah Ayer. “The Making of a Man: Dialogic Meaning in Beloved.” African American Review. 26.1 Women Writers Issue (1992): 17-29