Chapter 9 contrasts two philosophies of dealing with pain. One is represented by Baby Suggs; Paul D and Ella espouse the other. Through her preaching, Baby Suggs hoped to help her fellow former slaves reclaim themselves, to “love their mouths” and express their feelings. While still in bondage, love was an emotional liability, but outside of slavery a person can have more trust that the object of his love will not be taken away. Yet, even when one is no longer a slave, one must deal with a certain amount of loss. Having already known more loss than they feel they can bear, Paul D and Ella have decided they would forego all real love for the rest of their lives rather than feel any more pain. When Baby Suggs tells her listeners to love their hearts most of all, she responds to Paul D’s “tin heart” philosophy. Baby Suggs’s message is that a sacrifice such as Paul D’s is not worth undertaking, because love is part of being human, and humanity should not be sacrificed for the sake of emotional survival. It is questionable whether life without love constitutes “survival” at all.
Sethe’s reaction to the news of Halle’s fate reveals her strategy for coping with pain and love. She wavers and is tempted to suppress her feelings as Paul D does. Ultimately, though, she supports Baby Suggs’s wise words. Having loved Halle so deeply, the news of his psychological breakdown causes Sethe great pain. Yet facing his pain and her own allows her to heal and move on. Instead of moving to a new, unhaunted house, Sethe had stayed at 124 in the hope that her husband would join her someday. As she begins to reexamine the past, Sethe contemplates constructing a new family and life with Paul D. Her decision to stay with him suggests that she is ready to confront the other painful accounts that Paul D still has yet to tell her, and to tell her own stories as well. She has taken another step toward reclaiming her identity and healing her spirit.
Similarly, the sexual encounter between Beloved and Paul D causes Paul D to act against his philosophy, which suggests that it is weak in relation to that of Baby Suggs. Paul D’s engagement with Beloved may be representative of the intense encounter with his past that he is undertaking in the novel. Somehow, the encounter loosens the lid of Paul D’s “tobacco tin” heart: his pulsating chant, “red heart, red heart,” reflects the sudden overflow of passion he feels as his tin box bursts and his past pours out.
The scene between Beloved and Paul D raises many questions. Beloved’s sexuality complicates the characters’ (and the reader’s) perception of her as the embodiment of the dead baby’s spirit. Her interaction with Paul D seems to prove her power over him, but it also manifests a more vulnerable, plaintive, childlike aspect of her nature. Her insistence that Paul D call her by her name communicates her insecurity about who she is as well as her neediness. If Beloved is representative of history or the past, her actions seem to suggest that although the past has power over us, it is also in a position of dependency. If we do not care for it, acknowledge it, call it by name, it may fade and weaken, but it may also resort to a state of spiteful vengeance, keeping us captive until we bow to its demands.