Paul D is a former slave who, like Sethe, used to live on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky. Also like Sethe, Paul D is haunted by the horrific experiences of his past. Eighteen years before the novel’s present time, Paul D tried to escape Sweet Home with Sixo, but the two men were caught. After Paul D witnessed Sixo’s murder, schoolteacher affixed an iron bit in Paul D’s mouth and sent him to a prison camp in Georgia. As he was led away from Sweet Home he looked at the rooster named Mister and reflected that the bird had more freedom than he did. At the prison camp Paul D suffered further humiliation when he was placed on a chain gang. Eventually, Paul D escaped north to freedom. Even when he reached freedom, however, the cumulative experiences of his past left Paul D deeply traumatized, and they caused him to lock away his feelings in the “rusted tobacco tin” of his heart. In the present, Paul D represses his past by refusing to sit still. Rather than settle down anywhere for too long, he has been on the move for the past eighteen years.
Once Paul D arrives on Sethe’s porch at the beginning of the novel, things begin to change for him. After banishing the ghost that haunts 124, he enters into a romantic relationship with Sethe. This relationship has a stabilizing effect for both. Paul D’s caring manner rejuvenates Sethe, and Sethe’s affection returns to Paul D and his lost sense of manhood. However, Paul D also incites conflict. His presence makes Denver jealous, and Beloved eventually targets Paul D, driving him out of the house. Insecure in his masculinity once again, Paul D takes to drinking and keeps his distance from 124. Only after Beloved has been banished from the house once and for all does Paul D return. Paul D finds Sethe lying in the bed where Baby Suggs died, completely distraught at Beloved’s disappearance. Once again, Paul D shows Sethe much-needed care. He insists that she’s her own “best thing,” and he encourages her to let go of the past and build a new, better future with him. Thus, in the novel’s final moments Paul D plays an important symbolic role as a man who can help Sethe find some kind of redemption from her traumatic past.