In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison delves into not only her characters' painful pasts, but also the painful past of the injustice of slavery. Few authors can invoke the heart-wrenching imagery and feelings that Toni Morrison can in her novels, and her novel Beloved is a prime example of this. Toni Morrison writes in such a way that her readers, along with her characters, find themselves tangled and struggling in a web of history, pain, truth, suffering, and the past. While many of Toni Morrison's novels deal with aspects of her characters' past lives and their struggles with how to embrace or reject their memories, Beloved is a novel in which the past plays an exceptionally important role. Most often, it is Beloved's main character Sethe whose relationship to the past is examined through her murdered daughter Beloved. However, Paul D's painful past and memories are intricately linked to both Sethe and Beloved and should be examined as well. Paul D's very conscious struggles to suppress his past are represented through a prominent, reoccurring symbol in Morrison's text, and are also mediated through his contact with Sethe's life and past as well as through story telling.
The most explicit way in which Paul D's relationship to the past is represented in the text is through the metaphor and symbol of the tobacco tin in his chest. As readers, we are first introduced to this symbol on page 72, immediately after Paul D finishes telling Sethe a story, and we are told by the narrator that Paul D "
would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut" (p 72-73). This introduction to the tobacco tin in Paul D's chest, in place of where his heart should be, allows us to understand that Paul D seems to negotiate with his past through the symbol of the tobacco tin. His negotiation is designed in such a way that he has allowed himself to hold on to all the various pieces of his past, yet not to think about the pieces or feel any of the pain and anguish associated with the pieces. We see this process and negotiation more explicitly on page 113, where after learning of several sorrowful occurrences in Paul D's past, the narrator tells us, It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open (p 113). Therefore, through the symbol and metaphor of the tobacco tin, we learn that Paul D has clearly made a conscious effort to control and shape his past, as well as his present, and intends for the tobacco tin to contain and repress every past memory that is meaningful or painful for him. For example, further on in the novel, after Paul D's tobacco tin has been opened, which I will discuss later, we learn just how much the tobacco tin served as a method of conscious control and comfort for Paul D. On page 218, we see Paul D sitting on church steps with his "wrist between his knees" because he has "nothing else to hold on to". This is not only literal, but also figurative in that at this point, Paul D's tobacco tin has been "blown open," and was spilling "contents that floated freely and made him their play and prey". In this moment, Paul D is no longer able to hold onto his past and keep it contained in his tobacco tin. He feels exposed, and therefore feels that his inability to control his emotions and thoughts about his past makes him vulnerable, like prey. Paul D's sense of defeat and loss of control over his past is illustrated further when we learn via the narrator, that when Paul D "was drifting, thinking only about the next meal and night's sleep, when everything was packed tight in his chest, he had no sense of failure
Now he wondered what all went wrong" (p 221). Through...
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