A Lighter Self: Paul D’s Journey to Love and a Masculine Identity in Beloved

By: Makena Owens 

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is not simply a story about slavery. It is a complex work that details the ways in which slavery crippled its victims’ identities. But Morrison does not leave her characters void of self; by the novel’s end, some of her prominent characters indeed shape a more complete identity. One protagonist on a remarkable journey to reclaim his own masculine identity is Paul D. In order to best understand Paul D’s expedition to reclaiming the masculine self that slavery took away, one must read Morrison’s work through the lens of Italo Calvino’s essay, “Lightness.” This reading reveals that Paul D begins as an embodiment of “heaviness” and emerges from slavery and its aftereffects as an embodiment of Calvino’s “lightness,” two binaries that are also supported by certain magical elements in Beloved. This embodiment serves as a way to understand Paul D’s newly reclaimed identity founded in a deliberate choice to rely on some of the thinking principles that Calvino enumerates in his essay. Specifically, these are Paul D’s reliance on his intuition, an ability to stay slightly removed from his troubling past and his fundamental opposition to the heaviness that Beloved embodies. Through these deliberate methodologies, Paul D is able to rise out of slavery and toward a better life with Sethe.  While he enters the book as a tragic individual lacking a sense of self, suppressing the painful memories of his past and fearful of love, he concludes as a stable, self-assured man able to offer Sethe his full love and even validate Sethe’s identity in her final, fragile state.

As characters in Morrison’s Beloved escape from the clutches of their oppressive owners, slavery’s harrowing effects on their identities remain with them throughout the novel. Although Paul D transitions to a more well-defined, lighter self, it is only through an understanding of his previously heavy self that one can appreciate his journey. So too is the case with Calvino’s “Lightness.” Calvino contrasts his lightness approach to the heaviness that weighs down on his audience; this is heaviness in thinking. Therefore, his message about a value in “light” thinking is best understood after his discussion on heaviness. After establishing the contrast within the binary of heaviness and lightness, Calvino’s essay attempts to show readers the beneficial side to the notion of lightness, a term often associated with emptiness and purposelessness. He defines lightness as a particular way of thinking and understanding and as a certain approach one takes to problem solving.  This approach is exactly what Paul D comes to embody by the end of Beloved, but this can only be fully understood after an analysis of his heavy past and the weight of Beloved the ghost.

Throughout Paul D’s time under schoolteacher and Brandywine’s oppressive ownership, he is uncomfortable and unsure of his identity. His painful experiences with white slave-owners persist even after his escape and cause him to doubt the definition of masculinity as it relates to his conception of a self. He recalls the moments when schoolteacher forced his slaves to categorize themselves based on “animal” or “human” qualities and wonders if this is how one becomes a man, but concludes that this cannot possibly be the case. “Was that it? Was that where manhood lay? In the naming done by a white man who was supposed to know? No” (Morrison 147). In a further moment of contemplation, Paul D compares himself to Sixo and Halle who “were men whether Garner said so or not,” and is “troubled…that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point” (Morrison 220). As a result of this struggle to affirm his own masculinity, Paul D becomes so detached from his own self that he is unaware of his physical movements. Although perhaps a real response to suffering and anxiety, this scene is rendered magical for its emphasis on Paul D’s “split self,” an experience that most readers are largely unfamiliar with. “Paul D thought he was screaming; his mouth was open and there was this loud throat-splitting sound—but it may have been somebody else” (Morrison 129). It is especially through this passage that slavery’s detrimental affects on identity are understood.

Literary critic Steven Daniels recognizes this detachment that Paul D experiences within himself and understands Paul D’s tightly sealed tobacco tin as a symbol of “emotional self-containment.” This is Paul D’s first approach to shaping his own identity, yet it is ineffective; and Calvino’s understanding of lightness and heaviness will illustrate its futility. Daniels recalls the moment in Beloved in which Paul D forces all of his traumatic memories of “Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory [and] notebook paper…into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest” (Morrison 113). The language in this passage is decidedly metaphorical, as one cannot literally place intangible memories into a physical receptacle. But the fact that this mental process renders Paul D’s character so detached from his own self brings forth a literal understanding of the memories within the tin and renders their weight heavy and burdensome on Paul D. His effort to “self-contain” and suppress his painful past as a way of solidifying is identity is futile because he is still tempted to carry and bear the weight of those memories close to his heart. Essentially, he is basing his present self that is physically free from slavery on his past oppressed self. But Calvino points out, “the fuller [something] is, the less it will be able to fly” (Calvino n.p.). Therefore, Paul D’s choice to conceal his memories tightly within himself weigh him down and prevent him from achieving the lightness necessary to conceive of his true identity. This lightness, which will be discussed more in depth later on, is the choice to move farther away from Paul D’s past and toward a new future. Furthermore, his decision is the opposite of Calvino’s light approach to thinking and understanding. Instead of Calvino’s instruction to “change [one’s] approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification” (Calvino n.p.), Paul D chooses to “self-contain” his memories tightly locked within him. While still bearing this intense weight of his own suffering, Paul D cannot possibly view his freedom or his future decisions properly. At this point, he is condemned to the heaviness and weight of his past based on his decision to shape his identity around his prior suffering.

Beloved the ghost also contributes to Paul D’s initial heaviness because she reinforces this detrimental self-containment that prevents him from achieving a self-assured masculinity. As a ghost, she is also the most blatantly magical figure that illustrates one of Calvino’s principles, but she is not a magical ghost in the conventional sense. Although the idea of a ghost is one that may generally evoke a conventional, “visual sense” (Calvino n.p.) of lightness given a ghost’s imagined weightlessness and even translucent appearance, Beloved is no such figure. In fact, according to literary critic Lynda Koolish who reads Beloved from a psychological perspective, Beloved is a “projection of the thoughts and feelings of every character who actually sees her” (Koolish 177). She is a manifestation and reminder of the pain that causes Paul D’s initial detachment, which then forces him into self-containment. Each of these reactions to pain makes the conception of a masculine self truly impossible. Koolish comments that when Paul D inquires of Sethe regarding the ghost in her house – “Good God…what kind of evil you got in here?” (Morrison 8) – that he is directly responding to the pain that Beloved represents. “His memories are so suffused with terror, humiliation, and physical, sexual, and emotional violation that it is not surprising that his response to something associated with his feelings about the past…is simply to condemn it as evil” (Koolish 172). Yet in simply “condemning” Beloved as evil; choosing to live in Sethe’s house side-by-side with the ghost, Paul D is only deciding to suppress his memories once again. He is thus further hindered from achieving a full and accurate conception of his own self and masculinity as long as Beloved is around because she only enforces Paul D’s desire to tightly suppress his memories in his tin.

The moment at which Paul D first decides to start approaching his suffering through a different method of thought, thereby entering his journey toward a lighter, more well-defined self, begins on the chain gang march to Alabama when he and his slave contemporaries rise out of the mud in escape. Before his escape, his slave owners forced an identity upon him. Once he begins journeying away from their oppression, Paul D is able to consciously struggle to independently conceive his identity. As he and the other slaves join together and literally rise out of the mud that bogs them down in oppression. “…they all came up. Like the unshriven dead, zombies on the loose, holding the chains in their hands, they trust the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Morrison 130). This image of metaphorical “zombies” rising up and out of the mud enforces a more magical—and thereby metaphorical—reading of the mud as an oppressive situation or state of mind. In that sense, the escape from the mud of slavery is akin what Calvino talks about in “Lightness” with regards to the meaning of a text. He writes about “the lightness” as “something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power” (Calvino n.p.). Although this is specifically related to value rising up out of a piece of writing, the idea can nonetheless be applied to Paul D’s emergence from the mud of slavery, because he will finally be away from those that seek to define his identity on his behalf.

Although Paul D struggles to conceive his own identity early in the novel, he is nonetheless immediately juxtaposed against the heaviness that is Beloved. After all, it is Paul D who arrives at 124 Bluestone Road and drives the ghost out of Sethe’s house, “whipping the table around until everything was quiet” until “it was gone” (Morrison 22). Paul D’s role as the character with the ability to eliminate the heavy ghost positions him as a naturally lighter figure against the magical, heavy elements of the haunted house and the ghost. This alludes to the fact that Paul D will eventually come to embody lightness, even if his preliminary character is decidedly heavy.

After rising out of the mud and out of the final, physical heaviness of slavery, Paul D journeys closer to an embodiment of lightness when he travels to “Free…Magical…Welcoming, benevolent North” (Morrison 132). This scene initiates Paul D’s “search for lightness” in the form of his masculine identity “as a reaction to the weight of living” (Calvino n.p.) under slavery and its aftereffects. The lightness in this scene is not only in the precision of Paul D’s journey, but also in the floral imagery evoked in the text that guides him toward a more free existence. When he asks the Cherokee how to proceed north, the Indian instructs Paul D to “Follow the tree flowers…Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go” (Morrison 133). First, the imagery of Paul D following springtime flowers suspended in trees is an example of Calvino’s “lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless” (Calvino n.p.). This is also the magical element of the text that is associated with lightness. Although floral trees are indeed real elements, successfully following their path to a certain destination is somewhat lofty, and therefore magical. Furthermore, the direction in which Paul D is going contributes to the lightness of this passage: he is following the flowers north toward freedom, a better life and toward a place where he can begin to form his identity without the oppressive bonds of slavery. In terms of this scene as an insight into Paul D’s embodiment of lightness, his decision to follow the flowers involves “precision and determination, not …vagueness and the haphazard” (Calvino n.p.), another one of Calvino’s tenets of lightness. Even when Paul D would lose sight of the flowers “and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him” (Morrison 133). Paul D even goes as far as to climb up into the trees—remaining slightly above his journey to gain the best perspective on the floral path—something that Calvino also emphasizes as a value in lightness. As such, Paul D’s journey out of slavery further shows his embodiment of Calvino’s “Lightness,” because he begins to think with an efficient deftness and is willing to change his visual perspective to accomplish his goal of reaching “Free North.” Since north is the place where Paul D will finally be able to independently shape himself, this journey amongst the flowering trees to get there is an essential part of understanding his expedition toward a more self-assured identity.

At this point it has been shown that Paul D can only conceive of his masculine identity by encompassing certain principles of Calvino’s “Lightness.” In doing so, he will release the heaviness of the tobacco tin and begin to view his suffering in a more productive, future-oriented way. Interestingly, however, Koolish views Paul D’s sexual encounter with Beloved as the moment at which he “is reminded of…the self whom he has suppressed, the self who is unafraid to love big” (Koolish 189). She understands Beloved as a force that “opens up the rusted-shut seams of his tobacco tin, allowing his red heart to emerge” (Koolish 189). Koolish maintains that it is through this encounter that Paul D is able to join his painful past with his present; that by unlocking his tin, he releases the memories necessary to shape his self-assured, masculine identity. In that sense, Koolish views Paul D’s realization of his identity as an isolated moment in Beloved and not as the process that this paper has indicated. Although this is a pivotal moment in Morrison’s text, it cannot be Beloved exclusively that helps open the tin to allow Paul D to conceive of his self. In fact, it is Beloved who further pushes Paul D to question his masculinity and feel like a “ragdoll…picked up and put back down anywhere any time by a girl young enough to be his daughter” (Morrison 148). Calvino’s principles of lightness would vehemently disagree with Koolish’s interpretation of this scene in the novel. For Paul D to conceive of his own masculinity through an intimate involvement with the very figure that resembles his traumatic past means that he is too heavily focused on his suffering. By contrast, Calvino would suggest that Paul D gain a perspective that puts him farther away from–and not closer to–his past experiences as a way to assure his masculine identity.

With this element of Calvino’s perspective in mind, one of the greatest indicators that Paul D has begun to form a more assured self is when he decides to tell Sethe about his sexual encounter with Beloved—not the moment at which the sexual encounter takes place. In this scene, Paul D exercises his intuition in his communication with Sethe instead of relying on the heavily rationalized, rehearsed speech he initially prepared. This scene is a more compelling illustration of Paul D’s formation of a masculine identity because it involves a conscious decision to rely on intuition and stay slightly removed from his past. In preparation for his talk with Sethe, he fumbles with his words–“Well, ah, this is not the, a man can’t, see, but aw listen here, that ain’t that, it really ain’t…what I mean is–” due to his fear of “losing Sethe because he was not man enough to break out” (Morrison 149) of his suffering, preventing him from loving Sethe fully. Calvino would classify this over-thought, ill-articulated speech as “heavy” due to its vagueness and isolated emphasis on a past, problematic event—sex with Beloved. But when Paul D finally meets with Sethe, instead of burdening himself with his long-rehearsed talk, his mentality shifts to a much lighter perspective. He impulsively, yet consciously, chooses to ask Sethe to mother his child; “And suddenly it was a solution: a way to hold on to her, document his manhood and break out of the [Beloved’s] spell–all in one” (Morrison 151). The “suddenness” of Paul D’s request implies a reliance on his own intuition and not a dependence on the over-rehearsed, rationalized speech that weighed him down before. His desire to “break out of Beloved’s spell” is further founded in the ghost’s heaviness and the way she reminds Paul D of his painful, burdensome past. Therefore, his new choice to act on intuitive, quick thought and speech as a way to reclaim his “manhood,” or masculinity, depicts an important transition from Paul D’s initial embodiment of heaviness to his new, lighter and more self-assured identity.

Paul D’s journey from a heavy individual to a one of a lighter mindset ends at the close of the novel when he once again returns to 124 and Beloved is gone. He notices that the house is immediately different, likely because Beloved’s heavy, burdensome weight of pain has been eradicated. Paul D’s path from slavery to freedom has been a process to find his own masculinity and it is only through this affirmation of his identity that he can fully and completely love Sethe. When he sees Sethe and the physically and psychologically harmful effects that Beloved has had on her, he is not afraid. It is Beloved’s magical effects on Sethe that allow Paul D to showcase the progress he has made in understanding himself and others so that he can fully love them. No longer must Paul D conceal his pain—and his identity—from Sethe in the tin near his heart. Through his journey to a lighter self, that tin has been pried open, releasing the weight previously burdening Paul D; and enabling him to consciously “put his story next to hers” (Morrison 322). When Paul D tells Sethe, “We need some kind of tomorrow,” and that “You are your best thing, Sethe. You are” (Morrison 322), he is affirming both Sethe’s identity as well as assuring her that he has found the masculine assurance necessary to love Sethe fully and completely. Paul D is showing Sethe that is not Beloved, or, Sethe’s past suffering, that defines who she is. Rather, it is her present and future self that she must develop her identity around. Only through Paul D’s journey as an individual with a heavy focus on his past to one with an appreciation of his present can he provide Sethe with this type of reassurance.

Paul D’s transition from a tragic individual burdened by his previous, traumatic experiences in slavery to a character with a self-assured sense of masculinity and his own intuition is best manifested in his ability to finally love Sethe. Through an illustration of this journey based on Calvino’s essay, “Lightness,” one can see that it was Paul D’s conscious choices to move farther away from his heavy past locked within his tobacco tin and move forward deftly and intuitively toward a future with the woman he loves. This notion of a choice to view one’s past differently is one that Daniels’ explains well. He writes, “Memory, we are repeatedly reminded, is also a matter of choice in the novel, but that choice is present in how we remember, now in whether we do” (Daniels 363). Paul D’s choice to remember his suffering as a way to “put his story next to Sethe’s” and not as a way to frame who he is and encumber his notion of self is a true testament to his character’s embodiment of lightness by the end of Beloved.

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. “Lightness.” Six Memos for the New Millennium. New York: Random House,

  1. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.

Daniels, Steven V. “Putting “His Story Next to Hers”: Choice, Agency, and the Structure of

Beloved.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 24.4 (2002): 349-367. JSTOR. Web.

21 Dec. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40755370&gt;.

Koolish, Lynda. “”To Be Loved and Cry Shame”: A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison’s

“Beloved”” MELUS 26.4 (2001): 169-95. JSTOR. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.


Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print.


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