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After he has been in the house for three days, Denver asks Paul D how long he plans to "hang around." Both Sethe and Paul D are taken aback by her rudeness, and Sethe tells her so. In order to ease the strain, Paul D invites them both to a carnival that has set up nearby. They will go on Thursday, the day black people are allowed on the carnival grounds.
As the three of them walk together towards the carnival, Sethe is obviously excited. It is the first time that she has been out socially in eighteen years. She hopes that people will not think she is "putting on airs" by dressing up. As she walks with Paul D and Denver, Sethe notices that they "were not holding hands, but their shadows were." Looking at the shadow, Sethe thinks that they may be able to make a life together after all.
At the carnival, Paul D is upbeat and friendly to everyone. His positive attitude infects both Sethe and Denver. Before long all three of them are enjoying themselves. When they watch the performances of the clowns and the freaks, they laugh at the "whitefolks making a spectacle of themselves" amidst a show of violence and destruction.
The depth of Denver’s pain comes out in this chapter. After tolerating Paul D for three days, she can no longer take it in silence. She rudely demands to know how long he plans to stay. Her tone clearly indicates that she hopes it is not for long. Sethe is horrified at her daughter’s rudeness and scolds her like a child, even though she is already an adult. To make peace in the family, Paul D suggests that he take the two women to a nearby carnival. They cannot go until the next day, for Thursday has been set aside for blacks to attend; even though they are now “free,” they are still restricted. In spite of having to wait until the next day, both Denver and Sethe are excited about the outing.
Because of the pain of the past and a fear of being hurt again, Sethe has isolated herself and Denver from the community. The visit to the carnival is the first social contact they have experienced in eighteen years. In a short time, Paul D has obviously had a positive influence on Sethe, for she trusts him enough to go out with him. In fact, Paul D has promised her they he will catch her if she falls, a promise that has many levels of meaning.
As they head towards the carnival, Sethe notices the shadows of Paul D, Denver, and herself on the sidewalk. In the shadow, it looks like the three of them are holding hands. The image makes Sethe think that perhaps the three of them can make a future together. It is one of the most positive thoughts that she has had since leaving Sweet Home. In the past, she has not dared to imagine tomorrow, which has always held hurt and uncertainty for Sethe.
In Paul D’s presence and because of his upbeat attitude, Sethe finds that she can still have a good time. All three of them enjoy themselves and laugh at the white performers, who are dressed as clowns and freaks. In contrast, they are shocked to see images of violence and destruction as they watch the snake charmer, the fire- eater, and the sword swallower. Sethe is comforted, however, when she notices that Paul D seems to be admired and accepted as trustworthy by the people who have ostracized Sethe and Denver for so many years. In order to heal, Sethe must re-enter the community, and she senses that Paul D can help her to do this. Sethe also feels that she will be able to trust him herself, and if she finds him trustworthy, she will be able to share the pain of her past with Paul D. By coming to grips with her past, she will further heal herself. Amazingly, as she heals herself, Sethe will also heal a rift in the African-American community of Cincinnati.
The idea of a carnival is very significant to Morrison's novel. A carnival is literally a feast for the body. The root of the word is the Latin word "carne," meaning flesh. In the Roman Catholic calendar, Carnival is celebrated just before Lent, the time when flesh is taken away (when no meat is eaten) in order to better meditate on God’s blessings and to heal the broken spirit. Before the fasting of Lent begins, however, the people are allowed to celebrate and feast; they gather at “carnival” to eat, drink, and be merry.
The carnival that Sethe and Paul D attend is a symbolic foreshadowing of what will soon happen to them. They go to the carnival to celebrate and have fun - before they get down to the work of healing their spiritual wounds. It is significant that embedded in the carnival’s festivities, there are images of violence, destruction, and savagery - reflections of their slave past. It is these dark reflections that Sethe must overcome in order for the healing to begin.