Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could. There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep—to tell him that their chest hurt and their knees did too. Strong women and wise saw him and told him things that they only told each other: that way past the Change of Life, desire in them had suddenly become enormous, greedy, more savage than when they were fifteen, and that it embarrassed them and made them sad; that secretly they longed to die—to be quit of it—that sleep was more precious to them than any waking day. Young girls sidled up to him to confess or describe how well-dressed the visitations were that had followed them straight for their dreams. Therefore, although he did not understand why this was so, he was not surprised when Denver dripped tears into the stovefire. Nor, fifteen minutes later, after telling him about her stolen milk, her mother wept as well. Behind her, bending down, his body an arc of kindness, he held her breasts in the palms of his hands. He rubbed his cheek on her back and learned that way her sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches. Raising his fingers to the hooks of her dress, he knew without seeing them or hearing any sign that the tears were coming fast. And when the top of her dress was around her hips and he saw the sculpture her back had become, like the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate for display, he could think but not say, “Aw, Lord, girl.” And he would tolerate no peace until he had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth, none of which Sethe could feel because her back skin had been dead for years. What she knew was that the responsibility of her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands.
In the final years of American slavery, the metaphysical displacement of African Americans transcended any geographical pathway. Many ex-slaves relinquished their residencies in the south in search of a new, brighter future in the northern states, wandering across America, aching for the irreplaceable amenities of family and community, consistently omitted in any political declaration. Enter Paul D. A man engulfed by wanderlust, after his escape from bondage to a life of limitations and sadness still dubbed “freedom,” in which his appetite for women was nearly always met, joined Sethe and Denver in their quest for familial fulfillment after years of physical, spiritual, and emotional absence. Though experienced in the physical benefits of multitudes of women, he never yet embodied the soulful ambience of love. In this passage, set a few days after his arrival at 124, Sethe’s “spiteful” abode, Paul D caresses Sethe’s body, contemplating his role with the women of his life and how Sethe relates (3). In a pleasant silence, Paul D ruminates on his memories, comparing his roles with previous women to his newfound responsibility for Sethe’s physical and emotional wellbeing. The passage also indiscreetly explores the many facets of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship, including how Sethe’s “tree” largely serves as a microcosm of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship as a whole, shining light on how love, and our search for it, affects all of us.
In Paul D’s life before approaching 124, he wandered across America, searching for solace within every woman he met, exploring their emotional idiosyncrasies in order to, one day, find human affection manifested in more than “knees wide open,” but could never find his ideal until Sethe (6). His motivations and justifications largely differed from the women, however, as they primarily used him as a bed for their ever-growing emotional weight, expecting him to solve all of their problems without any reciprocal engagement from their end, he never actually held the possibility of realizing the life he desired with any of them. A voracious listener, he thirsted for insight into their anima, regardless of their personality or their intellect, taking advantage of the women who ached to tell him “things that they only told each other,” for him to cure them of the “desire in them” that “had suddenly become enormous, greedy, [and] more savage,” a correlation with a potentially stronger, more romantic relationship. However, his modus operandi pigeonholed him into a life sentenced to searching for more. In essence, Paul D hungered for a woman to “[see] him and [want] to weep—to tell him that [her] chest hurt and [her] knees did too,” and give him the responsibility of her emotional security for the future, like “the responsibility of [Sethe’s] breasts,” provided that she played a comparably active role in his life. “Although he did not understand why” they so easily trusted him, he eagerly, woman after woman, persisted in engaging in conversation in which they’d confess “that they secretly longed to die,” only hoping that the conversations would blossom into an entity greater than a conversational and sexual one-night stand. “Not surprised when” he’d witness new confessions or tears, Paul D wandered until he found a family, or at least someone willing to invest reciprocally in his emotional well being, manifesting just how we, citizens in an ever-populated yet ever-lonely world journey to encounter love within another. In fact, it is in his final quest to find Sethe in which we explore how mutual affection may transform us as people, how, once we have discovered what we’ve all aspired to embrace, it impacts us over time.
His relationship with Sethe remains an outlier among Paul D’s many relationships; when he finds her, unlike his other women acquaintances, he evolves into a receptacle for her tears, kissing “every ridge and leaf of” Sethe’s tree, while still forming with her a long-standing bond with long-term care, evident in “the responsibility of her breasts.” As Paul D caresses Sethe’s breasts, he develops the responsibility of being her rock of support, loving her unconditionally, ignorant of her past ridden with physical and sexual abuse. As “the kind of man who could walk in a house and make [her] cry,” he is an angelic guardian for Sethe, shielding “her breasts in the palms of his hands” from a world of tire and sadness, at least for a moment. Though he can easily and unregrettably abuse her emotions, as she trudges through her most fragile state, he gently and sensually rubs “his cheek on her back,” forming a skin-sealed swear to Sethe that he’ll invest hours in deciphering “th[e] way [of] her sorrow,” in order to, in the future, be able to help her resolve some of her life’s most arduous moments “too passionate for display.” Visualizing her scars as the physical manifestation of Sethe’s depression, he attempts, by fondling her back, complicated “like the decorative work of an ironsmith,” to conceive “the roots of” her sorrow—her slave-time memories of abuse—and her newer dread, engrossing her “wide trunk and intricate branches,” like her forever-unforgettable memories of breastfeeding her daughter with a “bloody nipple” (179). Eventually, after exploring her upper body, yearning to comprehend the numerous nuances of her pain, he “tolerate[s] no peace until… [he touches] every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth,” asserting that, just as a dying tree may be healed with nutrients, he must nourish her tree until it embodies the flourishing effervescence of what he anticipates to become of their relationship. Alternatively, through Morrison’s description of Sethe’s “decorative work” in “every ridge and leaf” of the tree on her back, she portrays each moment of sadness in Sethe’s life as a moment of growth within the “decorative work” that has become her body, demonstrating that, though Sethe’s tree will never disappear, remaining unescapably “dead for years,” her most onerous moments may, in the future, provide her an outlook of beauty upon the world previously unobtainable. Sethe’s tree may teach us that we always bear our mistakes and our moments of misery, but, resting as sadistic beauties upon our backsides, they provide the inevitable lesson of every person’s imperfection, allowing us to bond with the other, embracing one another’s misdeeds, in order to, “at last,” find true connection.
However, Sethe’s “back skin [that] had been dead for years,” despite its potential to join together people of ignorantly similar backgrounds, may justify Sethe and Paul D’s actions toward each other, both peaceful and belligerent, in this one moment and beyond. Despite his immense care for Sethe, evident in his hands’ sensual exploration of her outside body to grasp the essence of her lifelong depression, because Sethe’s skin was “dead for years,” some may claim that Paul D’s love can never be reciprocated. Although Paul D attempts to reach Sethe metaphysically, “raising his fingers to the hook of her dress, [knowing] without seeing them or hearing any sigh that the tears were coming fast,” her tears may not reveal a fully lit map of the labyrinth of her emotions, as any potential sensuality he pursues, by the mere fact that the touch of her skin is only sensible to him, can never truly come to fruition within both parties. In fact, because she cannot feel anything he does, she may cry merely at her lost chance of sensuality, as only when “he [holds] her breasts in the palms of his hands” may she sense any of what he attempts to nonverbally portray. This may key into the dramatic irony that, at this moment, Paul D had never read the quintessential “piece of paper—newspaper—with a picture of a woman who favored Sethe,” further expanding the contradiction of Sethe’s insensibility of Paul D’s touch and his ignorance of her murder-ridden past (183). In fact, just as Sethe’s tree would forever rest on a foundation of agony, so would the roots of their relationship rest in misconceptions, only fully understandable when Stamp Paid let Paul D “[slide] the clipping from under [his] palm” (183). This contradiction on which the tree of Paul D and Sethe’s troubled relationship lay would only soon lay ground for the “forest [that springs] up between them… locking the distance between them, giving it shape and heft” (194). And as Sethe would eventually “[murmer] from the far side of the trees,” her dead skin would grow a new branch, shining light unto the newest contradiction of their relationship: although he aims to nourish her tree back to life, he, in their ignorant, yet intimate, relationship, only ameliorates the arbor of her agony, aiding in her hidden tree’s transformation to a nearly tangible forest dividing them (195). However, though Sethe’s tree is physically bound to her back, Paul D, even after he abandons her, forever carries Sethe’s tree—her memories, her growth, her tears—within himself, reminding himself, even in her absence, of the sunlight that, regardless of the tree’s condition, he has taken the responsibility to provide. Indeed, during Sethe’s worst of moments, he returns to her, creating a covenant with her to forever live with her as one, intertwining the branches of the tree within Sethe’s skin and the newly growing one in his own heart: “I’m a take care of you, you hear?” (320). As he aids her in recovering, all she wonders is the order of her body parts which he’ll “rub now,” once again: “First her face, then her hands, her thighs, her feet, her back? Ending with her exhausted breasts?” (321). By massaging her after so much time spent away, he sews the severed seam of their relationship, beginning with attempting to alleviate her ailments, in her face, hands, thighs, and feet, later graduating to, once again, return to her tree, in order to heal himself of the overwhelming heartache of their many mistakes, and finally reaching her breasts, the body part for which he holds such integral “responsibility” in her life, which, unlike her tree, which grows to represent the many contradictions of their lives, both of them can sense and both of them can love. While he treats some of her ailments, he realizes that “she gather[s the pieces he is] and give[s] them back to [him] in all the right order,” finally experiencing the genuine love for which he strived his entire life (321). Thus, Paul D’s return to Sethe and their suddenly speedily sprouting love from a seemingly dying amorous sentiment demonstrates how easily we may underestimate the true power of our love for others and how our relationships maintain the potential to alter our anima forevermore; by embracing and genuinely caring for other people, we open ourselves to the drastic emotional and psychological growth that love may, one day, catalyze.
Paul D and Sethe’s relationship and its growth has repercussions that transcend far beyond those of ex-slaves “claiming ownership of [their] freed sel[ves]” in a new life of love (111-12). It pulls us, despite its fictional roots, to face the nearly permanent realities of our lives, interrogating us as to our genuine priorities and how we discover fulfillment, forcing us to abandon the misconceived truth that we may be destined to live in a life of arduous wandering, waiting for some entity greater than ourselves to emerge. If Paul D had never found 124, his heart would have forever held an ignorant space of a life never lived; if he had never returned, his thirst for love could never have been quenched by the ultimate connection he would form with Sethe in a relationship that would otherwise be considered unfixable, riddled with deceit, abandonment, and emotional adultery. Just as Paul D arrived at Sethe’s doorstep for the first time, so may we cross new boundaries in our lives, in order to irrevocably discover the lurking fulfillment we may one day experience. Just as Paul D returned to Sethe, so may we mend our transgressions and return to our paths of never-ending joy.