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Not surprisingly, Sethe has trouble admitting that she has killed her daughter. In an effort to explain her action, she talks about her deprivations. Because of the horrible institution of slavery, her son was so underfed that he could not hold his head up until he was nine months old. As a young and uneducated mother, Sethe knew nothing about child rearing and had no one to answer her questions; she simply had to do her best, which was difficult when she had to work all day long and then try to care for her children. Longing for a better life for them, she managed to send Howard, Buglar, and Beloved away from Sweet Home and slavery to live with Baby Suggs until she could escape to Cincinnati. Even when Sethe arrived at 124 Bluestone, life was difficult as she worked and tried to care for four children without the help of a husband.
When Sethe saw Schoolteacher and the other white men approaching 124 Bluestone, she decided she would do anything to keep her children from returning to slavery. In her frightened state, she felt that death was a better option for them than returning to Sweet Home. As a result, she took matters into her own hands.
Paul D cannot believe what Sethe is saying. He thinks that she does not know where the world stops and she begins. He is describing something that psychologists term individuation. It is a process in childhood whereby children gradually differentiate between themselves and their mothers as well as between themselves and the world around them. Before individuation, the child lives in an undifferentiated world where everything is connected. The path to individuation is helped by a significant other, usually the mother, who grants recognition and individualism to the child. Since Sethe never received recognition as an individual from her own mother, she was never able to grant it to her own children. At the moment she attempted to kill Howard, Buglar, Beloved, and Denver, she was really inflicting the pain on herself. To Sethe, her children were simply part of herself. Paul D criticizes her for loving her children “thickly” and for acting like an animal in trying to “save” them from Schoolteacher.
Paul begins to see Sethe in a new light that he cannot accept. He realizes her potential for destruction is as deep as the slave system that destroyed the men and women of Sweet Home. He cannot resolve this new image of Sethe with the one he has kept during all of his years in exile; he still wants her to be a young, naïve, and obedient woman, but now he knows she is the murderess of her own daughter. Unable to accept this image or her rationalizations, Paul D feels he has to leave 124 Bluestone. He cannot, however, tell her goodbye. He simply says she should not make his dinner, for he will be late. As he departs, he sees Beloved watching him from the top of the stairs.
Paul D's desertion of Sethe at the point when she trusts him enough to tell him the truth sets her on a self-destructive course. Under slavery, Sethe and her family were commodities, treated no better than animals that were bought and sold. When Paul D tells her she acted like an animal when she killed her baby, he makes her a slave once again. She feels completely betrayed, just when she needs Paul D the most.