Shadows and Sinners

As it was pointed out in our introduction to Dante, there are a staggering number of subtle parallels between Dante’s trilogy and Morrison’s. The one that currently holds the most interest for me, and I will be exploring it here, is the presence of ombras/shades. In Inferno, Dante’s Pilgrim encounters ombras, souls in Hell who have sinned, thus condemning themselves to the afterlife there. As a class, we came to the consensus that these souls had each “done individual things” causing their eternal punishment. It implies a kind of agency. Being trapped in Hell didn’t just happen to them.

Dr. Beth pointed out that the English translation of the Italian word “ombra” is “shade,” and that this is a word that has previously been used in the United States as a racial slur for people with dark skin. Morrison taps into these implications by using an image that came to mind when this information was presented. Before the character Beloved appears in their lives, Sethe, Paul D, and Denver seem to become a kind of pieced-together family. They attend a carnival and as they are leaving, Morrison leaves the reader with the image of the three heading home and, “although leading them now, the shadows of three people still held hands” (59). Here, we not only have a conversation with racism in the United States, but also with Dante’s sinners.

Following a Dante-influenced reading, this means that all three of the characters have sinned. We readers are left to wonder what exactly each has done. There are many hints to Sethe’s “sin,” although it has not been outright stated (and I will not here spoil it for anyone who has not finished the novel). We acquire the knowledge that Paul D was once incarcerated for attempted murder of the man, Brandywine. However, since Paul D mentions him the tobacco tin (symbolizing his heart) that has rusted shut all of his emotions and secrets from his past, I could venture to say that there may be something more weighing on his conscience for which he would be labeled one of Dante’s sinners. Perhaps having a romantic relationship with Sethe, the wife of his friend Halle?

That just leaves Denver.

As of yet, I cannot see anything beyond her possessiveness of Sethe and Beloved that is drastic enough for her to be sentenced to an afterlife in Hell. In class, we discussed not only Denver’s negative qualities but also her redeeming ones. Following that train of thought and the image I have formed of her throughout the novel so far, I cannot foresee anything so severe that she should end up eternally condemned. Perhaps we will need to read on.

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