Contrapasso and Divine Justice as Found in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

By Rachel Balfoort, Sydney Cannioto, Jenna Doolan, Thomas Gillingham, Cal Hoag, Dong Won Oh, and Helen Warfle

The Eighth Circle of Hell, as described in Dante’s Inferno, is distinct due to its geographical separation into malebolge, or evil ditches/pockets, depending on the translation. The types of sin punished in the malebolge — one circle away from the Ninth circle, where Satan himself is located—are some of the most severe, according to Dante. The sinners located here are pimps and seducers, flatters, simoniacs (members of the clergy selling divine favors), diviners, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, false counselors, schismatics (those who created division in their lives), and falsifiers —each of which have their own evil pocket and their own unique punishment. 

One significant aspect of this circle is its emphasis on contrapasso, or the idea that the punishment fits the sin. Contrapasso is a sort of Newton’s Law for sin — every sin has an equal and opposite punishment in Hell. This idea of contrapasso is inherently linked to recursion, which is the idea that the output from the first iteration of an experiment, a program, or a happening becomes the input of the next iteration. In this case, the output from a human life becomes the input for determining what punishment they receive in hell—an idea that Toni Morrison certainly plays with in Beloved, the first book in a series that engages with the three books of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This idea is found in other circles, but the Eighth circle takes it to the next level. For example, pimps and seducers are whipped by demons, schismatics are split from chin to groin by swords, thieves are chased by reptiles (of an unspecified nature) and flatterers are encased in human excrement. At the architectural level, the Eighth circle is a concentric circle of ditches, each of which contains sinners experiencing their own unique form of divine justice with no way out. 

Contrapasso, as it is found in Inferno, is connected to different methods of engaging with justice. In Dante’s piece, Hell operates on a system of divine justice that is often incomprehensible to mortal humans. Morrison engages with contrapasso in a similar way, as the punishments for Beloved’s characters do not make sense to them or readers of the novel. Instead, it operates under a different set of rules set by an incomprehensible higher power as a commentary on the morality of oppression and the meaning of justice.

Morrison’s characters are thrown into situations that parallel those in the Eighth Circle of hell—albeit with a twist on the sense that Morrison’s characters, unlike the characters in Dante’s Eighth Circle, do not necessarily deserve their punishment. Paul D’s imprisonment is rooted in his attempted murder of the slaveowner Brandywine, a crime that would be justified in many other contexts. This sense of justice in Beloved, however, is conversing with Dante’s sense of divine justice: what is just is not the same as what may be morally acceptable to the average person. Divine justice is inherently determined by higher beings, and is thus indecipherable by humans. In Morrison’s novel, particularly the Paul D imprisonment chapter, white men are positioned as the divine and Paul D is punished according to their sense of justice, which is usually actually unjust. 

During his imprisonment, Paul D is forced into a chain gang and made to wear an iron bit in his mouth. The forty six prisoners are inflicted with similar punishments as the sinners in Canto XVIII: “there we were and from where I stood I saw souls in the ditch plunged into excrement / that might as well have been flushed from our latrines.” In describing Paul D’s predicament, Morrison writes, “in the boxes, the men heard the water rise in the trench and looked out for cottonmouths. They squatted in the muddy water, slept above it, peed in it […] Above him, rivulets of mud slid through boards of the roof.” The mud (filled with human excrement) and the cottonmouths directly parallel the punishments of flatterers, who are encased in human waste, and thieves, who are chased by reptiles. 

In the wider context of Beloved, Paul D’s imprisonment is significant because of the way it reflects Morrison’s overarching themes that concern the morality of oppression. The novel’s protagonist Sethe, an enslaved person who ran away, like Paul D, committed infanticide out of fear that her child would be forced into the imprisoned life Sethe worked so hard to escape. Paul D’s imprisonment chapter allows for parallels to be drawn between Paul D’s and Sethe’s crimes and their punishments—as Morrison says in a 1987 interview, although they each did the right thing, they had no right to do what they did. By going into vivid, excruciating detail regarding the imprisonment’s grotesque nature, Morrison expresses the irony behind punishing someone for fighting to be treated as a person rather than an object.

Morrison’s commentary on justice is seen in Beloved through the punishments inflicted upon Sethe. Her punishments include an element of contrapasso in that they deal directly with the murder, similar to how Paul D’s imprisonment is rooted in his attempted murder of Brandywine. While both Paul D and Sethe took actions to free themselves and those closest to them from danger — which was the right thing to do —they did not necessarily have a right to do it, as it involved taking other human lives. The sense of unknowable justice found in both Paul D and Sethe’s lives can be directly related to the contrapasso seen in Dante’s Eighth Circle of hell. As Dante travels further down into hell, he witnesses men whose previous sins on earth have caused eternal suffering in hell. Significantly, the last circle of Hell that Dante visits, the Ninth circle, is entirely frozen over. Similarly, the beginnings of Hell for Sethe and her daughter Denver is when they fall while ice skating. Morrison writes, “Nobody saw them falling. Holding hands, bracing each other, they swirled over the ice” (205). The trio’s fall marks the beginning of the end for Sethe and Denver, just as entering the frozen part of hell is the beginning of the end of Dante’s journey in Inferno, so the events that happen after can and should be directly linked to the themes of punishment and justice found in Inferno

Contrapasso, as seen in Dante’s Inferno, is considered justifiable since the sins done on Earth are directly reciprocated in the form of torture in hell. However, this justifiable contrapasso cannot be directly applied to Sethe and Paul D’s personal contrapasso. Beloved explores the complexities surrounding the definition of contrapasso and what actions should be considered justifiable. Because of the contradictions regarding ideas of contrapasso, the nuances of justice are examined through Sethe’s punishments. When Sethe escapes from Sweet Home — the plantation at which she was enslaved—her body is exhausted, which forces her to pause on her escape. A white woman named Amy finds her where she rests and says, “Snake come along and he bite you […] Maybe you should of stayed where you was, Lu” (94). In Dante’s Eighth circle of Hell, thieves are chased and bitten by reptiles. The notion of Sethe being bitten by a snake while resting her body is directly drawing a parallel to the punishment for thieves found in Dante’s Eighth Circle. Sethe is a thief because she stole her daughter’s life. This is evident evidence of Morrison expressing that justice is being served, but she further complicates justice when Sethe herself is likened to a snake. Morrison writes, “Down in the grass, like the snake she believed she was, Sethe opened her mouth, and instead of fangs and a split tongue, out shot the truth” (39) and “I [Sethe] was hungry to do it. Like a snake” (39). Here, justice is complicated, as Sethe is not the one being chased and bitten by a snake for her thievery; she becomes the reptile and hunts down those who stole from her. The contradictions between who is being punished and who is delivering punishment demonstrate one aspect of the complexity of justice throughout Beloved— justice is subjective. 

Justice’s subjectivity is seen in the Ninth Circle of Dante’s inferno where Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot are chewed endlessly in Lucifer’s jaws as a punishment for their sins. The idea of being chewed endlessly in Hell is paralleled in Beloved when the reader gets a glimpse into the consciousness of Sethe’s murdered daughter. Here, Morrison continuously circles back to the idea of chewing and swallowing: “[Sethe’s] face is mine   she is not smiling she is chewing and swallowing” (251) and “I reach for [Sethe] chewing and swallowing” (251). Morrison then transitions to writing about what Sethe is chewing and swallowing: “She chews and swallows me [Beloved]” (252). The way chewing and swallowing appears in a cyclical manner almost mimics the motion of chewing, which further attests to the parallel drawn from Dante’s thirty-third canto: “In each of his three mouths he crunched a sinner, / with teeth like those that help and flax, / keeping three sinners constantly in pain” (381). Here, justice is again complicated, as Beloved is the one being punished through endless chewing while Sethe is the one doing the chewing — this diverges from the parallel reading of Dante, as Sethe is the one who has committed a crime and would be who a reader would expect to be punished. That being said, Sethe is also being punished by being chewed and swallowed by Beloved, but the inversion of this dynamic at the end of the chapter from Beloved’s point of view complicates this issue. The nuances of justice in this scene demonstrate the complexity of Beloved and Sethe’s relationship as mother and daughter, but also as punished and punisher. 

The idea that Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is like punisher and punished also extends to Denver, which follows the significance of threes in Dante, especially Satan’s three faces. At the beginning of the novel, when Paul D, Sethe, and Denver go to a festival, their three shadows are described as holding hands independently of the actions of their physical counterparts. Morrison later reveals that those three shadows were actually Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, not Paul D. Denver is never explicitly “chewed and swallowed,” but it is clear that she is also being punished by Beloved by being shut out of her mother’s life and being forced to leave the relative safety of 124—Sethe’s house—to support her family and free her mother of Beloved’s influence. Denver is as much a casualty of Beloved and Sethe’s dynamic of punishment as the pair themselves, like Satan having three faces in Inferno. Denver is engaged in contrapasso, though it is unclear what her crime is. Thus, the idea of contrapasso being incomprehensible to those being punished, as well as the reader, continues. 

Dante’s Inferno is revered as both a study of justice and the divine, a privilege not yet meted out to writing in black literature. Toni Morrison’s act of writing Beloved in its conversation and dialogue with Inferno challenges what is established as justice by reframing justice and punishment as something more nuanced than those in the good and evil. 

In a 1989 interview with Bonnie Angelo, Morrison states, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form”. Dante’s Inferno is meant to be read with a more critical and equally serious tone by readers, as it has been classified as a classic canon text. These texts are usually written by white men and are treated as an art form. Black literature oftentimes is not. These works are commonly read and criticized as being about race, slavery and or black history in general and are only read as sociology, not as art. While some works by black authors are prominent in American literature, Beloved included, other perspectives are generally left out, which results in missing parts of history and the creation of a single story. We most commonly see the teaching of these “canon” books in schools across America, which can cause closed-minded thinking. By diversifying the texts implemented in classrooms, people are taught how to respect and accept one another despite the differences they may have.

 Pairing Inferno with Morrison’s Beloved makes reading her work an equal task of serious criticism and places it in a completely different perspective. Reading Inferno alongside Morrison’s text forces us to abandon the tendency to read black literature from a sociological lens and look at it as a work of art instead. On a related note, reading these classic and literary texts together was at first quite challenging to make connections, as some of us did not have any prior knowledge of Dante. Learning the two alongside each other, however, has made it easier to make interesting connections in Beloved

A potential link to current events is the recent case of Cyntoia Brown, in which a black girl who was victim to sex trafficking by a white man was trapped in a justice system that sentenced her to life in prison despite the fact that her crime was fighting back against the man keeping her captive. This echoes Paul D’s crime, as he also attacked a person who was mistreating him. For both Brown and Paul D, the justice system worked against them, as justice treats all crimes as equal even when they are not. The idea that Morrison introduced in Beloved, of people doing the right thing that they had no right to do, and the difficulty of assigning a just punishment, whether it be in the divine or mortal system, is clearly still a problem that needs to be addressed and is yet another reason that reading Beloved beyond its classification as black literature is a worthy effort.

When engaging with Morrison’s Beloved accompanied by Dante’s Inferno, it should be recognized why these works pertain to not only Geneseo’s curriculum but to an overall social framework. The atrocities performed by slave owners and the notion of slavery of which Morrison writes on is not an easy novel to view analytically. Systematic racism that has been instilled in America is a repercussion of slavery and by recognizing this novel as a gateway into a further understanding of not just race relations but broader themes of justice, as is found in Inferno and many other classic texts, we feel that we were engaging in the Geneseo learning outcomes of critical thinking, creativity and creative thinking, leadership and collaboration, diversity and pluralism, and global awareness and engagement. By thinking critically about Beloved beyond the sociological level that is often ascribed, we were able to move into more complex realms of thinkING and engage in multiple learning outcomes at once. 

Along with these other learning outcomes, Geneseo students are expected to demonstrate broad and specialized knowledge. We have all come into this class with “broad knowledge” about Physical and Life Sciences; Behavioral and Social Sciences; Arts, Languages, and Humanities—all of which are embedded into Geneseo’s general education requirements. This gives us the opportunity to bring our different experiences and ideas to the table while constructing what we know, or what we think we know. Although Geneseo broadly defines specialized knowledge as “To develop deep understanding of a body of specialized knowledge,” we believe that we have all strived to become experts on Beloved and its relevance in terms of Dante’s Inferno. Without the skill of leadership and collaboration, we would not have been able to actively participate in this process in good faith. 

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