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Paul D’s Tobacco Tin Symbol Analysis

Paul D’s Tobacco Tin Symbol Icon
Paul D says that instead of a heart, he has a tobacco tin in his chest, where he keeps all of his painful memories and emotions. This image symbolizes his need to repress memories and hold back emotions, just as Sethe and other slaves have had to do in order to survive. Otherwise, attempting to confront the horrible realities of slavery can completely overwhelm a person, as happens to Halle and other slaves who go mad. This kind of repression is thus necessary for Paul D’s basic, physical survival as a slave and a prisoner on the chain gang. But it cannot last forever: as the novel progresses, Paul D’s tobacco tin is pried open, and his past memories catch up with him.

Paul D’s Tobacco Tin Quotes in Beloved

The Beloved quotes below all refer to the symbol of Paul D’s Tobacco Tin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Slavery Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Beloved published in 2004.
Part 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open.

Related Characters: Sethe, Paul D, Sixo
Related Symbols: Paul D’s Tobacco Tin
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul D describes his journey after escaping from the chain gang. He imagines placing memories into a tobacco tin in his chest, leaving them stored away and inaccessible.

This passage offers one example of how ex-slaves sought to confront their harrowing pasts. Here, Paul D’s strategy is to firmly seal off those memories in a metaphorical tobacco tin. He applies this process indiscriminately—to the cruel “schoolteacher” just as to his lover “Sethe” and to sensory images like butter and hickory. In contrast to the passage in which Sethe railed against how memory’s involuntary nature could easily overwhelm her, Paul D seems to maintain an impressive mastery over his mind.

Yet at the same time, Morrison hints at the fickle and uncontrollable nature of memory. In seeking to control his memories, Paul D must also sever himself from the positive ones. We should pause, similarly, at the image of the “tobacco tin.” Tobacco was one of the original crops grown by slave plantations in the United States, so the tin also serves as an implicit reference to the institution imprisoning Paul D. While this passage might seem to praise Paul D for his precise control over his past, the text both foreshadows that the tin will indeed be someday "pried open" and hints that Paul D's procedure of gaining this control may itself be deeply troubling.


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Part 2, Chapter 24 Quotes

For years Paul D believed schoolteacher broke into children what Garner had raised into men. And it was that that made them run off. Now, plagued by the contents of his tobacco tin, he wondered how much difference there really was between before schoolteacher and after.

Related Characters: Paul D, Schoolteacher
Related Symbols: Paul D’s Tobacco Tin
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

Now fully immersed in memories, Paul D questions the way he separated Garner and Schoolteacher. He thinks perhaps they were not as different as he had once thought.

This passages criticizes the way both whites and blacks would sometimes form hierarchies between slaveowners. It was and is a common practice to describe certain slaveowners as kinder than others. Here, Paul D has always believed Garner is kinder: His practices are applied to “men” instead of “children,” and they are “raised”—a relatively kind and nurturing verb—compared to the expression “broke into” used for Schoolteacher. Yet when Paul D revisits the actual content of the his memories, he realizes that this division may not actually be a significant as he had previously believed.

That “he wondered how much difference there really was” speaks to the flaws in viewing any behavior of a slaveowner in even relatively positive terms. Whether a slaveowner treated his slaves kindly or cruelly was secondary to the fact that he owned slaves at all, dehumanizing other people as "possessions" without identities other than those the slaveowner forces upon them. That this conclusion derives from Paul D having opened his “tobacco tin” speaks to the more positive results of revisiting one’s history. Though he may be “plagued” by these memories, they also give him greater clarity into his personal past—allowing him to realize the flaws in his more positive memories of Garner.

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Paul D’s Tobacco Tin Symbol Timeline in Beloved

The timeline below shows where the symbol Paul D’s Tobacco Tin appears in Beloved. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 7
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon
...the experience of having the bit. He keeps the rest of the story in “that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be.” He resolves to keep... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 10
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon
Home Theme Icon
...that it took him a long time to put this painful past away in the tobacco tin , so that “nothing in this world could pry it open.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 11
Storytelling, Memory, and the Past Theme Icon
...sleep with her. He refuses but she eventually seduces him. As she approaches him, the tobacco tin holding his painful memories begins to open. (full context)