Paul D, who has been sleeping in the basement of the local church, is filled with despair. He reflects on his past and notes that his two half brothers, Paul A and Paul F, are the only family he has ever known. He does not remember his mother and never saw his father. Throughout his life, whenever he met large black families living together, he loved to hear them describe to him how they were related. Paul D’s thoughts turn to Mr. Garner, who always said that he treated his slaves as real men. In his mind, Paul D has contrasted schoolteacher’s emasculating and dehumanizing treatment of him and his fellow slaves with the more humane treatment of Mr. Garner. Now Paul D begins to follow Halle in questioning whether there was any difference in the slaves’ condition under the two men.
Paul D partially blames his despair on his previous belief that he could build a life with Sethe. He believes that he set his goals too high and has consequently suffered a great fall. Yet he locates the beginning of his downfall far in the past, in the tragic outcome of the slaves’ escape plan. Halle and Paul A failed to appear at the appointed meeting time, and in their places stood schoolteacher, his nephews, and other white men, waiting for Paul D and Sixo. Sixo’s lover, the Thirty-Mile Woman, had escaped, and after he was captured Sixo behaved so maniacally that schoolteacher became convinced he would never again be a suitable slave. While schoolteacher tried to burn him alive, Sixo only laughed—the first time Paul D ever heard him do so. He shouted “Seven-O!” over and over, referring to the baby the Thirty-Mile Woman escaped with inside her.
Schoolteacher and the other men dragged Paul D back home, where he encountered Sethe. Despite the recent disaster, she still intended to run. That was the last time the two saw each other, and Paul D concludes that Sethe’s rape and the theft of her milk must have taken place directly afterward. It was in the aftermath of the failed escape that Paul D first learned the price he fetched: nine hundred dollars. The knowledge forever affected his understanding of himself. He wonders what Paul F’s price was and what Sethe’s would be. He questions whether his life since his aborted escape has been worth it, whether he should have thrown himself into the fire with Sixo.
Stamp Paid visits Paul D in the church and finds that Paul D has been drinking his troubles away. A white man stops by to ask if the men know Judy of Plank Road. Though Stamp knows her, he feigns ignorance. The white man reprimands Paul D for drinking on church grounds and then rides away. Stamp Paid tells Paul D that during the year that his young master slept with Vashti, Stamp’s wife, Stamp Paid did not touch her. When Vashti came to him one night to tell him that she had returned for good, he felt the terrible urge to break her neck. Instead, he changed his name. The conversation turns to 124, and Stamp Paid tells Paul D that he was present when Sethe tried to kill her children. He defends Sethe’s actions, saying she only wanted to “outhurt the hurter.” Paul D replies that Sethe scares him but that Beloved scares him more. Stamp Paid asks if Paul D left 124 because of Beloved, but Paul D does not answer.
Although Stamp’s act of renaming himself signals a kind of spiritual rebirth and reclamation, his new name also testifies to the trauma he has endured under slavery. There is an element of loss in what is otherwise a gesture of strength and self-affirmation. Indeed, in many ways the renaming might be seen as a metaphorical suicide: Stamp had initially wanted to kill one of the masters rather than surrender Vashti, but Vashti had insisted that this would lead only to Stamp’s own death and begged him not to undertake the murder. Thus, although Stamp preserved himself out of respect for Vashti’s wishes, he denied his natural feelings of rage and assumed a new identity free of emotional ties or bonds. Stamp estranges himself emotionally from Vashti and devotes the rest of his life to helping others pay off “whatever they owed in misery.” While Stamp’s new identity is assuredly a positive one, it is still born at the expense of the old.
Like Stamp Paid, Paul D is estranged from himself. Since slavery, Paul D has developed emotional coping mechanisms—such as the “tin heart”—that discourage him from loving too passionately and require him to keep his feelings and memories locked away. The novel is full of evidence of Paul D’s self-alienation. For example, on one occasion in Georgia, Paul D was unable to tell whether the screaming he heard was coming from himself or from someone else. He often questions his worth, as he does in Chapter 24, and he frequently seems unsure of why he does certain things. For example, he cannot explain why he succumbs to Beloved’s seductions, or why he suddenly suggests that he and Sethe have a baby together.