Already in the first chapter, the reader begins to gain a sense of the horrors that have taken place. Like the ghost, the address of the house is a stubborn reminder of its history. The characters refer to the house by its number, 124. These digits highlight the absence of Sethe’s murdered third child. As an institution, slavery shattered its victims’ traditional family structures, or else precluded such structures from ever forming. Slaves were thus deprived of the foundations of any identity apart from their role as servants. Baby Suggs is a woman who never had the chance to be a real mother, daughter, or sister. Later, we learn that neither Sethe nor Paul D knew their parents, and the relatively long, six-year marriage of Halle and Sethe is an anomaly in an institution that would regularly redistribute men and women to different farms as their owners deemed necessary.
The scars on Sethe’s back serve as another testament to her disfiguring and dehumanizing years as a slave. Like the ghost, the scars also work as a metaphor for the way that past tragedies affect us psychologically, “haunting” or “scarring” us for life. More specifically, the tree shape formed by the scars might symbolize Sethe’s incomplete family tree. It could also symbolize the burden of existence itself, through an allusion to the “tree of knowledge” from which Adam and Eve ate, initiating their mortality and suffering. Sethe’s “tree” may also offer insight into the empowering abilities of interpretation. In the same way that the white men are able to justify and increase their power over the slaves by “studying” and interpreting them according to their own whims, Amy’s interpretation of Sethe’s mass of ugly scars as a “chokecherry tree” transforms a story of pain and oppression into one of survival. In the hands of the right storyteller, Sethe’s marks become a poignant and beautiful symbol. When Paul D kisses them, he reinforces this more positive interpretation.
The chapter provides other similar examples of the way that Paul D’s presence works to help Sethe reclaim authority over her own past. Sethe has always prioritized others’ needs over her own. For example, although she suggests in her story that schoolteacher’s nephews raped her, Sethe is preoccupied with their theft of her breast milk. She privileges her children’s needs over her own. When Paul D cradles her breasts, Sethe is “relieved of their weight.” The narrator comments that the “responsibility for her breasts,” the symbols of her devotion to her children, was Paul’s for a moment. Usually defined by her motherhood, Sethe has a chance to be herself for a moment, whoever that may be. Paul D reacquaints Sethe with her body as a locus of her own desires and not merely a site for the desires of others—whether those of the rapists or those of her babies.
Paul D’s arrival is not comforting to Denver because Paul D threatens Denver’s exclusive hold on Sethe’s affections. He also reminds Denver about the existence of a part of Sethe that she has never been able to access. Although she is eighteen years old, Denver’s fragile sense of self cannot bear talk of a world that does not include her. She has lived in relative isolation for her entire life, and she…