Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.4 (2002) 349-367
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Putting "His Story Next to Hers":
Choice, Agency, and the Structure of Beloved
Steven V. Daniels
When, near the end of Beloved, Paul D "wants to put his story next to" Sethe's (273), his desire points the reader toward the structural and, perhaps, thematic core of Toni Morrison's intense and challenging narrative of slavery's effects and aftereffects. Paul D's statement has been cited often in published criticism of the novel, but its suggestiveness has not actually been much explored. 1 Putting Paul D's story and Sethe's side by side can, however, restore a rich parallelism that is obscured by the shifting points of view and multiple pasts of the narrative. It also can serve to restore Paul D to a position of importance in the novel often denied him and to give particular prominence to the choices Morrison presents to and through her characters, mostly, ironically, while they are subject to and subjects of slavery and therefore ostensibly without autonomy. 2 The most important of these choices comes in the implicit juxtaposition of Sethe's choice of death for her children and herself, rather than return to slavery, with Paul D's choice of life when he finds himself in circumstances that present him with the same options.
The juxtaposition of stories is a task left to the reader, already tested by the choice of whether to proceed through the bewilderments of the novel's beginning and by the problem of how to emerge at the end from the emotional and thematic ambivalences of the passing of Beloved and concurrent questions of whether the tale told is "a story to pass on" (274-75). 3 The juxtaposition will not answer all, perhaps not any, of these questions, but it aligns the novel with the view that Morrison forcefully affirms in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," her most substantial discussion of African American literature: "We are not Isak Dinesen's 'aspects of nature,' nor Conrad's unspeaking. We are the subjects of our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, 'other.' We are choices" (208). "You got to choose," Stamp Paid tells Paul D late in the novel (231), at a moment that hardly warrants the urgency the statement appears to have. [End Page 349] All that is at stake here are the options for relief from the cold and damp church basement in which Paul D has sought shelter after fleeing 124 Bluestone Road. But the remark is a reminder, and its burden is Morrison's best means of constructing and conveying the human dignity she wishes her characters to have. Both Sethe and Paul D "got to choose," and in their subsequent lives they are haunted by the choices they made. But in their suffering, their acceptance of responsibility for their opposing choices, lies the measure of their dignity.
If we take events in their narrated (rather than chronological) sequence, there is for both Sethe and Paul D an escape attempt, indeed a richly reported heroic escape, before the account of their crucial choices. Sethe's solitary march to free Ohio may be compared with the perfectly synchronized plunge by Paul D and his fellow chain-gang prisoners through the mud of their flooding cages. Sethe is pulled forward, despite a physically abused body and the absence of a guide, by the emotional bond to her children ("All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl" ); Paul D, at least initially, by "the power of the chain" (110) that binds him for success or failure to the bodies of forty-five other men. Paul D reaches freedom alone, while Sethe joins her family and a welcoming community of free, freed, and fugitive Blacks. Each has been aided, Sethe by a "throw-away" (84) White woman on a journey to Boston, Paul D and...