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 is angered and disturbed by Paul D’s sudden intrusion.
The events of the novel unfold on two different temporal planes: the present of Cincinnati in 1873, and Sethe’s time at Sweet Home during the 1850s, which is narrated largely in flashback. In this first chapter, Morrison plants the seeds of the major events that will unfurl over the course of the novel: Sethe’s encounter with schoolteacher and his nephews; the slaves’ escape from Sweet Home; the story of Amy Denver; and the mystery of Sethe’s baby’s murder. These past events are told in a nonlinear manner, fading and resurfacing cyclically as the characters’ memories reveal more and more to the reader and to the characters themselves.