Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, first published in 1987, is not easily classifiable in terms of genre. Set in America in the late 19th century, after the American Civil War, the narrative spans the wars and covers many pre-war incidents through the memories of the characters. The novel contains elements of horror, spirituality, the macabre, post-colonial sociology, familial issues, romantic love and gender juxtapositions, but it is most commonly considered in terms of femininity in an oppressed and enslaved – or recently freed – patriarchal society. What is less frequently considered, however, is the transformation of masculinity apparent in the character of Paul D. This essay will consider the ways in which this masculinity changes from a conventional form of masculinity, at the time, to a more liberating sort. The primary focus within this analysis will be the issues of control and power in terms of identity, language and narrative movement.
The issues of control and power, firstly, are central to the novel as a novel of slavery, but also as a means of forming identities. Control, in this sense, refers also to ownership. A crucial aspect of Paul D’s changing conceptualisation of masculinity is his progression from a position of power and pride to one of powerlessness and humility. For example, his understanding of a man as someone who “could do what he would” (Morrison, 2005: 148) without being moved is challenged by Beloved who forces him around the house so that he “[cannot] go or stay put where he want[s] to in 124” (Morrison, 2005: 148). Not only does Beloved challenge his physical control within the house, she also challenges his cognitive and emotional perspectives on the past, thereby “blow[ing] open” his “tobacco tin” heart (Morrison, 2005: 258) – the metaphorical representation of his hidden memories and repressed emotions. His consideration of the “contents of his tobacco tin” (Morrison, 2005: 260) causes him to reconsider his masculinity and his identity as a whole. His primary concern is where his idea of manhood came from. While he believes that Sixo and Halle “were men whether Garner said so or not” (Morrison, 2005: 260), he is not sure if his own masculinity, the title of ‘man’, is inherently his or if it was given to him by his late owner, Mr. Garner. The primary questions which plague Paul D are whether his manhood is “Garner’s gift or his own will”, and whether “a whiteman saying it make[s] it so” (Morrison, 2005: 260).
Regarding free-will and choice, Paul D is juxtaposed against the women in the narrative – particularly Sethe. The end of the 19th century, according to Robyn Muncy, was a time when “Americans […] associated “dependence” with women and black men, and “independence” with white men only” (Muncy, 1997: 24). The narrative offsets the independence of Sethe against this socio-cultural background, but increasingly melds the character of Paul D into it. As Paul D becomes aware of his inability to control situations, and the contrasting capabilities (of Sethe and the Delaware Weaver woman) upon which he depends, his perceptions of being apart, from stereotypical dependent slaves, or “other” [Wal65] are broken down. Though both Sethe and Paul D attain freedom, Paul D is dragged into it “by the power of the chain” (Morrison, 2005: 130) which pulls him out of his cage. Sethe, by contrast, frees herself. She walks out of Sweet Home alone and unaided with her baby on her back. Granted, she later receives assistance from Amy Denver, the young white girl, and Stamp Paid, but her departure (escape) from Sweet Home was her own doing – “[she] birthed them and [she] got them out and it wasn’t no accident” (Morrison, 2005: 190). She successfully frees herself and forges a new identity as a free woman, whereas Paul D fails to do either. Rather, he wanders aimlessly around the country fending (or fumbling) his way around without direction or purpose, amassing painful memories which he suppresses in “the tobacco tin lodged in his chest” (Morrison, 2005: 133). Being “picked up and put back down anywhere any time by a girl young enough to be his daughter, […] being moved”, humiliates him more than his sexual “appetite” (Morrison, 2005: 148) for her, and forces him into awareness of his lack of control. Through her “misandric subjugation” [Kan03] of Paul D, Beloved blows open his “tin” which “nothing in this world could pry […] open” (Morrison, 2005: 133), and forces him to question the origin of his percieved manhood.
The origin of his perception of masculinity clearly lies with Mr. Garner who called his slaves “men”[Ton05] when other white men, such as schoolteacher, refuse to acknowledge so much as their humanity. The question which plagues Paul D is whether Mr. Garner had the authority to make such a proclamation. Paul D questions the legitimacy of the “naming done by a whiteman who was supposed to know” (Morrison, 2005: 147, emphasis added). The legitimacy of all names is thus brought into question along with the authority of the ones who give the names. As Cynthia Lyles-Scott notes, “Sethe’s name has masculine origins while the D at the end of Paul’s name denotes his being fourth in a succession of male slaves all named Paul” [Lyl08]. Of the “men” who belong to Garner, Paul D, “Halle, Sixo, Paul A, Paul F, and Mister” (Morrison, 2005: 125), Halle is the only one with a non-generic name, and Mister – who is, in fact, a deformed rooster – is the one with the greatest degree of autonomy and freedom. Freedom, of course, is defined in the novel as “a place where you could love anything you chose [not needing] permission for desire” (Morrison, 2005: 191). The genericism, of the Pauls’ and Sixo’s names, is contrasted with the specificity and individuality of Sethe’s name – given to her by her mother whose authority is virtually unquestionable by comparison. If even Paul D’s name, then, is a generic label, which is characteristic of a product of possession, he must question how he can own anything, least of all his own conceptualisation of masculinity which was given by those who are “other” to him [Dur07]. As schoolteacher’s beating of Sixo shows: “definitions belong to the definers – not the defined” (Morrison, 2005: 225). This idea is what requires Paul D to reconsider his past and redefine himself as a man.
Issues of identity are also developed through the use of language and narrative movement in the novel. For example, words such as “whiteman”, “blackman”, and “schoolteacher” [Ton05] show the union of things which should not be joined, but are made that way by the “definers” (Morrison, 2005: 225). Whereas ‘white’ or ‘black’ would normally be used as an adjective to describe ‘man’ or ‘woman’, they are combined here to form nouns. This causes the descriptor to become an integral part of the described and hints at the forced nature of definitions. By contrast, Beloved’s ‘thought language’ is very disjointed, quite unstructured, and almost childish, lacking punctuation and solid connections between thoughts. This suggests the childish innocence (though innocent is relative regarding Beloved) of perspective which is clearly not present in the other characters. Sethe has poor, if not misandric, expectations of men, Denver has a clear hatred of Paul D, and Paul D claims to only have been “grateful to a woman” (Morrison, 2005: 154) twice in his life. This challenges the formed identities and highlights the imposition of definitions on the ‘other’ in order to make it qualitatively different from the self. Paul D must then realise that his identity is inextricably linked to the other and can only be defined in terms of relation to it. Thus, he cannot remain undefined – he cannot accept the definition of “blackman”, “slave”, “nigger” or even “man” [Ton05] given to him by former masters, so he must redefine his identity and masculinity as separate from them.
Similarly, the narrative movement and changes in tense simulate the turmoil of identity in Paul D’s pre- and post-war experiences. Tense and focal changes, such as the move from a past-tense description of Denver’s relationship with Beloved to a present-tense description of the two girls’ interaction, show the displacement of sequence and the temporal turmoil which affects the characters. Similarly, there are no chapter numbers or identifiers as the narrative jumps forward and backward in time rather indiscriminately. This perpetual vacillation creates a sense of loss and uncertainty – one might call it a Diaspora of thoughts and previously-held certainties. Much like the scars of Sethe’s “wrought-iron back” (Morrison, 2005: 322), which Amy Denver calls a “tree”, the narrative’s convoluted mass is viewed differently by different characters at different times, and has no visible roots. Yet both direct identity and stem from the same issue: the subjugation of one person’s identity in order to create or maintain that of another. What Sethe displays openly on her back, Paul D hides in his “tobacco tin” heart, and when the two come together the secrets are drawn out. Paul D thus comes to realise that he must accept the “yesterday” which they share in order to have “some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison, 2005: 322), and that he cannot remain in the turmoil of liminal identity but must distinguish between the inherited, farcical, manhood of the past and the naturalised love of the future.
Thus it may be asserted that the changes in masculinity displayed by the character of Paul D, which are illustrated though language and the narrative content and structure, are representative of black masculinity at the time. Through the portrayal of the characters and their journeys to respective freedoms, presuming death is a form of freedom, the conflict of inherited versus naturalised identity, and thus masculinity, may be seen. Summarily, it may be concluded that Paul D’s masculinity moves from an acquired form in which strength, immovability, respect and obedience are valued, to a self-determined one in which freedom of choice, responsibility, and love are dominant.
Wal65: , (Odajnyk, 1965),
Kan03: , (Kang, 2003),
Ton05: , (Morrison, 2005),
Lyl08: , (Lyles-Scott, 2008),
Dur07: , (Durkin, 2007),
Ton05: , (Morrison, 2005),