Paul D is damaged goods with a heart of gold. Think dark, tall, handsome, and sensitive. Jackpot.
But he wasn't always this way. In fact, it's not until he gets to 124 and Sethe that he starts to turn into leading man material. Why does it take him so long for him to become the heartthrob he was meant to be? The answer has a lot to do with finding (a) home.
Before 124, Paul D leads the life of a lonely wanderer, someone so unsettled that he can't really develop as a man.
First, there's his life at Sweet Home, which was never all that sweet despite the fact that it was as close to a home Paul D ever had. In fact, his memories of Sweet Home make him question his manhood under Mr. Garner's benevolent rule:
Garner called and announced them men—but only on Sweet Home, and by his leave. Was he naming what he saw or creating what he did not? […] It troubled [Paul D] that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point. Oh, he did manly things, but was that Garner's gift or his own will? What would he have been anyway—before Sweet Home—without Garner? (24.220)
Sure, Paul D was allowed all sorts of freedoms and responsibilities at Sweet Home, but was he ever truly a man there? We can't be sure. But all his questions seem to show us just how insecure Paul D is about his masculinity.
It doesn't help that he compares himself to Halle and Sixo, two men whose manhood he never questions:
That was the wonder of Sixo, and even Halle; it was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not. (24.220)
So why is Paul D so insecure? What does he not have that Sixo and Halle seem to have in spades?
Maybe it has something to do with family. Paul D never really knew his parents, after all, especially his father. Plus, once he's at Sweet Home, he doesn't get the chance to do what Sixo and Halle do: be with a woman and start a family of his own. In fact, the only first-hand experience Paul D has with sex at Sweet Home is when he gets with the calves on the plantation (1.10). (All together now: ew.)
Unlike the other guys, Paul D never gets another outlet for his raging hormones on the plantation. We don't need to tell you how that might kill any young man's self-confidence.
After Sweet Home, things don't get any better. When Paul D is on the chain gang for attempting to kill Brandywine, he experiences so much trauma that he can't even speak of it: between sleeping in ditches and being forced to perform oral sex on the white men, it's no wonder he couldn't feel like a man. How is it possible to think about becoming a man when you're not even treated as human?
When Paul D finally does meet a woman while traveling, he's unable to commit to her. He can't resist her advances because she offers him things he needs like food and shelter, but that doesn't mean he's emotionally available. After all, the woman passes him off as her nephew (10.113), which kind of makes him into the younger (read: kept) man. Not the most masculating experience.
It's only when Paul D finds Sethe and 124 that things change for the better for him. In fact, upon his arrival, he does a few things he could only have dreamed of doing prior to arriving at 124: he sleeps with Sethe, on whom he's always had a crush; he gets rid of 124's dead baby ghost; he finds a paying job; he even gets Denver to warm up to him after he takes her and Sethe to the carnival.
There's no better definition of a manly-man—no wait, nix that, a family man—than Paul D at this point in the novel. But leave it to Beloved to mess this all up for him.
It's never quite clear exactly why Paul D slowly moves out of the house and into the shed. Is Beloved using some supernatural mojo to play with Paul D's mind and body? That's at least what Paul D leads us to suspect. Check out Chapter 11, which begins with Beloved's power over Paul D: "She moved him" (11.114). And then the following:
But she moved him nonetheless, and Paul D didn't know how to stop it because it looked like he was moving himself. Imperceptibly, downright reasonably, he was moving out of 124. (11.114)
There might be something to this account. Remember, Beloved can pick up a chair with one hand even though she looks like she can hardly walk. If that's the case, then Paul D is more or less like furniture with Beloved around. And not even big, massive furniture. More like a portable footstool or a plastic end table from Ikea.
The skeptic in you is probably thinking that's just an easy way for Paul D to excuse the fact that he's a typical guy? One who is so totally attracted to Beloved, "gilded and shining" (7.64), that he ends up sleeping with her repeatedly. And you know what? You might be right. But it all depends on how you view Beloved's actions, which definitely aren't all that innocent either.
Whoever's to blame, it isn't a bad thing to think about why Paul D seems so totally powerless once Beloved arrives. Or, for that matter, why sex with Beloved is able to open Paul D's rusty, tin-box heart (yes, go ahead and think of the Tin-Man):
She moved closer with a footfall he didn't hear and he didn't hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didn't know it. What he knew was that when he reached the inside part he was saying, "Red heart. Red heart," over and over again. (11.33)
Yeah, it's a freaky scene, especially if you've seen The Shining http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081505/ and can hear echoes of "red rum, red rum" in your ear. But sleeping with Beloved, even if it's a really sucky thing to do Sethe, seems to get Paul D to appreciate Sethe that much more.
In fact, it's almost as if Beloved inadvertently leads Paul D back to the heart of his matter: his love for Sethe. For all of you romantics, go ahead and sigh. For the rest of you all, this is that opportunity to reflect deeply about how love (and men) can be incredibly flawed.
Paul D knows he's flawed. He can't help questioning what kind of man he is for doing what he did to Sethe or, for that matter, feeling ashamed about all his experiences up to sleeping with Beloved (13.125-126).
But for all his self-knowledge, for all of the things he's done and seen, none of it seems to matter once he learns about Sethe's past. His big fight with Sethe is enough to let us know that, at this point in the novel, Paul D's just not ready for the kind of heavy, complicated, "thick" (18.164) love that Sethe can offer.
He doesn't (yet) have the empathy or understanding of that leading man Sethe needs. Oh, and a quick word of advice? Never tell a girlfriend she's got "two feet, not four" (18.165). There's really no going back after a comment like that.
So what's a guy to do once he's screwed up as royally as Paul D does with Sethe?
Apparently, get drunk, sit outside a church, and contemplate a life devoid of love. But all that time away from Sethe and all that thinking leads Paul D to a crucial point in his development. "His coming is the reverse route of his going" (27.263). And so it is.
If Paul D's "going" follows the path of leaving his lady love behind at 124, then his return is the recovery of both his love and his wonder at life:
First he stands in the back, near the cold house, amazed by the riot of late-summer flowers where vegetables should be growing. Sweet william, morning glory, chrysanthemums. (27.270).
Yep—Paul D has finally found his sensitive side.
The clincher, though, is when he discovers Sethe all bed-ridden in Baby Suggs's old room. Break out that box of tissues because his words to Sethe at the end—"'You your best thing, Sethe. You are'" (27.273)—is enough to make even the most macho man cry. It's like he offers Sethe back to herself, only all whole and lovely, the way he sees her, rather than broken-down and beaten, which is how Beloved leaves Sethe.
There isn't much more we could expect or want from a character like Paul D—a guy who, by the end of the novel, is ready to do the difficult, totally un-macho (but much more manly) work of bringing Sethe back to life without Beloved.