James Bonn, Yadelin Fernandez, Randall Lombardi, Margaret Pigliacelli, Abigail Ritz, Rickie Strong, and Eleanor Walker
Written in the fourteenth century, Dante’s Inferno has become a famous cosmological depiction of Hell, as well as a narrative interpreted by various writers throughout the centuries. Dante’s descent through the nine circles of Hell with his spiritual guide Virgil teaches Dante the consequences for sinning through the punishments he observes in each circle of Hell. After passing the first seven circles and interacting with various historical and mythological characters, Dante and Virgil arrive at the eighth circle of Hell via the monstrous Geryon. The Eighth Circle known as the “Malebolge” contains the fraudulent and malicious sinners and is organized in a succession of ten ring-shaped valleys, or bolgias, that go deeper into Hell as they get closer into the center. Each valley has punishments that are specific to the crimes that are committed in relation to fraud. There are bridges over each of the valleys that the pilgrim and guide take; however, the bridge over the sixth valley has collapsed. This collapsed bridge forces Virgil and the Pilgrim to descend into the valley, in order to continue the journey. Dante sees Jason, the Greek hero, being punished for being a seducer in the first bolgia, where the sinners are punished by being forced to walk single file forever, while demons whip them to keep order. In observing these punishments Dante’s character rediscovers his moral consciousness through the shift in his attitude towards the suffering souls. Initially only pitying few, Dante by the end of his journey through hell has developed empathy for all the souls he witnesses suffering, thus demonstrating Dante’s recovering of his moral way of life and illuminating the act of moral consideration.
Paul D’s imprisonment and escape from the jail compound in Georgia is a striking example of many of the themes of Beloved, including isolation, community, and suffering — many of which are amplified through allusions to Dante’s Inferno. The section is framed as a flashback revealed after Paul D has entered the residence of 124, much to the anger of Denver and Beloved. Paul D begins to ponder his past imprisonment, which arose because he attempted to murder Brandywine, the man he was sold to after his time at Sweet Home came to an end. He and forty-six other prisoners experienced terrible conditions such as grueling chain gang work, endless rain, and sleeping in wooden boxes at night — all aspects which are distinctly similar to the Sixth Circle of Hell in which heretics are locked in burning stone coffins. Additionally, the theme of isolation arises in this section because of how Paul D and the other men must stay in their wooden boxes dug into the ground alone. Despite this isolation, the men are all connected by a strong chain. This chain is used by the men to communicate their escape: “the chain that held them would save all or none… They talked through that chain like Sam Morse and, Great God, they all came up” (130). The chain thus serves not only as a symbol of their imprisonment but also of their unity. This moment is one example among many in which collaboration is the tool that drags characters out of Hell — another notable moment being near the end when the women of the town come together to banish Beloved from 124. The suffering of the men in Georgia and the women of 124 is intensified and characterized by their isolation from others and ultimately can only be reconciled through community collaboration.
There are many similarities to Inferno throughout the narration of Paul D’s imprisonment. The boxes that the men are held in, as well as the pits in which those boxes sit, relate to the boxes of the sixth circle, the pits of the eighth, and the baptismal font. There is also mention of the cottonmouth which is a species of pit viper. Not only does the species’ name emphasize the similarity between the pits of the Malebolge and the pits of Paul D’s imprisonment but the presence of snakes in Paul D’s pit draws attention back to the thieves in bolgia seven, who repeatedly combust and reform after being bitten by snakes. Finally, the imagery of the men swimming through mud is very reminiscent of the sludge and “ordure” that the sinners, defined as flatterers, are plunged into in the Malebolge. Thus, through craft techniques such as third-person narration, recursion, and drawing parallels to the role of Inferno as a piece of cosmology, Morrison creates a narrative in which the reader is forced to bear witness to 124’s “story [not] to pass on” (324). Beloved thereby casts her readers into the role of the Pilgrim — the text thus serving as Virgil — who must bear witness to the often marginalized narratives of black Americans.
Beloved forces the reader into the position of a Pilgrim-like figure, being led through the personal Hells of individual, yet deeply intertwined, characters. The reader, thus thrown into the middle of this Hell, acts, as Dante does, as a witness to that which was previously unknown and undiscovered. In this sense, the text is participating in a type of mapping — both of hell and of African American history — that allows for the creation of a navigation of moral meaning. This mapping includes gray areas evident from the character and their actions in the novel, such as Sethe’s murder of her “already-crawling” daughter and Paul D’s attempted murder of Brandywine. The myriad of haunting and unavoidable events and choices surrounding these events are deeply embedded within the African American experience. Through paralleling Dante, Beloved utilizes a text dominant within the Western, white canon to bring previously-lacking legitimacy to the histories the text enumerates; however, these parallels also allow for Beloved to subversively modify the dominant — that is, marginalizing — canon so as to tell these stories.
Beloved’s narrative style serves, in a sense, as a type of Geryon, carrying the reader into a consistent unknown. Through third-person narration that constantly alters between characters throughout the text with little to no signaling in her vocabulary, the text removes control from the reader, as we have no control or knowledge of where or when the text is going to change narrative or character. Thus, Beloved forces us to bear witness to stories that would otherwise not be witnessed due to their marginalization and assimilation into dominant narratives. The story of Margaret Garner, of Sethe, of a mother’s love, could not have been witnessed, passed on, processed and moved on from if it were not for Morrison’s reimagining of a real life tragedy.
Through creating a confusing and jumbled narrative, Beloved forces the reader to witness an undefined and all-encompassing newness. This parallels Dante’s varying style, as can be seen in Teodolinda Berolini’s note, in Digital Dante, that “One of the key features of Dante’s Inferno, notable in Malebolge, is the extraordinary narrative and stylistic variatio that makes turning the page into a new canto a continual encounter with the new.” The consistent and unexpected newness throughout Beloved thus creates characters that the reader is unable to fully categorize and thus unable to dominate; this inability to categorize does seem to, in some way, go against the rote categorization-like mapping that Dante undertakes throughout Inferno. Unlike Dante, this text is not creating Hell but rewriting it, remaking it to encompass the experience of black Americans; through creating a map of the world, of Hell, that is undefinable and uncategorizable, Beloved creates a narrative that is unable to be dominated, unable to be repurposed for anything other than to bring attention to the specific struggle of African Americans. This undefinability can be extended beyond Beloved’s narrative style into the narrative and paratextual structure of the book itself, which transitions between past and present, character to character, setting to setting with little textual or paratextual signaling, as the text lacks chapter number and names. Through this disorientation we are forced into the process of thinkING.
The reader’s lack of control and inability to define any one aspect of the narrative emphasizes that we are nothing more than a witness to the events of the narrative. Just as Dante is an outsider in Hell, so too are we an outsider looking in upon the Hell of 124. The limits to categorization within the textual structure guide us upon a specific path through the narrative — because we, the reader, engage with the text or participate in its creation through our reading of it, we are, in some sense, participating in the text, as we imagine and compose the characters and events of the narrative within our minds. However, the structure directs the manner in which we see the narrative, similar to Dante’s conversations with shades in Hell. This lack of control additionally means that we are stuck in Hell with Beloved’s sinners, we journey with them, alongside them.
The consistent recursion, defined as when output from one iteration of a thing becomes input for the next iteration, throughout the narrative additionally reinforces this feeling of disorientation and of being stuck. This feeling of being stuck is a feeling of unbecoming, a feeling of not being or, in the case of Hell, being not. Hell, in both Beloved and Inferno, is defined by this lack of movement, this continual inability to move forward and move beyond. This recursivity halts progress and process, mirroring Sethe’s knowledge when she explains her murder of her daughter to Paul D “that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn’t get it right off — she could never explain” (192).The text’s recursivity can be seen in the consistent reiteration of certain phrases in relation to characters: Paul D trembles, Denver is worn out, Sethe’s daughter was “crawling already?” (159). This recursivity is further found in repetitive motifs Morrison utilizes throughout the text, many of which parallel or draw upon Inferno, even if not overtly — indeed, this recursion can be said to relate to the fractal-like repetitiveness of the pits of the Malebolge. The primary motif we are referring to, however, is that of snow and ice throughout the text, and a primary moment of recursion within this motif, is when Sethe, Denver, and Beloved skate. Throughout this section, they are falling and “nobody saw them falling.” (207, 208). Only once does any one of them — Sethe — get up from their fall; there is a primary focus on the act of falling and continuously falling, a consistent descent. The reader of the text parallels the descent of these characters, continuously caught in a process of descent until the narrative works with us to lead us, alongside the characters, up, away from the recursive falling. That this falling is paired with the idea that “nobody saw them,” reiterates the isolation of this stuckness, of their unbecoming. In being alone, they are fragmented and unmoving.
This seeming stuckness of the narrative is emphasized by the consistent use of the past tense throughout the text — which parallels Dante’s use of the absolute past tense, particularly in relation to Lucifer, as can be seen in Berolini’s notes on Canto 34 — indeed, this use of the past tense is only noticeable when the narration suddenly shifts into the consistent present tense. This transition to the present only occurs when Sethe is about to attack Edward Bodwin and Beloved will disappear: “Her [Beloved’s] smile was dazzling. Sethe feels her eyes burn” (308, emphasis our own). In this moment, Sethe attempts to right the wrongs of her past — murder the man coming for her daughter rather than murder the daughter to save her from the man. Only through this act, with the rest of her community behind her to support her, is Sethe about to be freed from her memories, about to escape Hell, and finally ready to enter the realm of the becoming. This transition is present even in the final paragraphs of the narrative, as Morrison writes “It was not a story to pass on,” followed by, “This is not a story to pass on” (324, emphasis our own). The transitions from past tense to present signal the acknowledgement of all of Sethe and all of the text: past becomes present, fragment becomes whole, and both Sethe and the text are ready to finally follow Baby Suggs’ advice and “lay it all down (101).”
Through these textual aspects, the narrative as whole — though particularly as it comes to a close — shows us, the reader, that it is impossible to escape Hell on our own regardless of how strong we think we are. No matter how strong Sethe, or Denver, or Paul D think they are, it is impossible for them to escape their unbecoming without the assistance of both one another and their community. Only through witnessing, processing, accepting, and moving beyond their individual experiences and pasts are they able to come into the present and accept the help of those around them to begin to live again. As Paul D says, “Sethe…me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322). With this statement, Paul D acknowledges the long and arduous journeys that have got them to where they are, while simultaneously stating the necessity of their exit from their recursive Hell into a state of becoming. For both of them, the healing begins with being able to share their past experiences, becoming a “we” instead of a “me” or “you.”
As readers outside of Morrison’s intended audience — that is, black readers — we are outsiders in the Hell that she has created for her characters. We do not understand all of the trials and tribulations her character’s have gone through because of the privileges we have been afforded in our lives. In the novel, we are faced with characters who are punished because of the choices they have made, but these characters are forced to choose between two evils. Paul D had to choose between continuing a life of enslavement or taking the life of another human. To us as outsiders, it might seem that this choice is a hard choice to make, but for someone who had already suffered through the things Paul D had, perhaps the choice was obvious. Just like Dante’s paradoxical presence in Hell, white readers’ presence within the context of this story can also be characterized as puzzling.
The luxury of holding moral judgements in moments like these is more often than not only afforded to those who will never be forced to make any choice like it. Morrison’s story was not meant for white readers, yet it traverses this boundary through the emotions and experiences of her characters that white readers must witness. When it comes to harm towards others, humanity as a whole, that is including every race and gender and sexuality, tends to try and forget it or set it aside especially if it doesn’t affect us directly. That isn’t to say that everyone does it, there are people who voice the struggles, but we, mostly white Americans, put on a face of disbelief and refuse to see that such hate can exist in the world. Epistemophobia (fear of knowledge) and epistemophobia (fear of knowledge) are always clashing back and forth, sadly the former is more prevalent in hate crimes towards minorities, but it’s important to show this ignorance to the rest of the world, and by talking about the tragedy of even just one life, awareness is spread, and a new viewpoint shines into the light.
Our positions as outsiders — specifically as non-Black Americans — make our need for collaboration even more essential. Over the course of this project we found that we did not need to merely collaborate with each other, but also with Morrison herself and the characters in Beloved. By casting us as the tourist as we have argued earlier, the text actually forces us not only to witness but to participate in the narrative — after all, we can never truly witness anything without in the process affecting it. Our mere presence necessitates our involvement.We argue that it is the text that casts us in this way rather than Morrison because although Morrison is the creator of the text, we are not her intended audience. This knowledge forces us to consider our exact positionality to the text and the idea that although we are deriving an interpretation from this text, we occupy a position that is outside of what Morrison intended. This fact does not make our interaction with the text any less real, but it is important to us to recognize that we are connecting with what has been created and what we continue to create through our reading, rather than with Morrison herself. As we noted earlier, collaboration is an integral part of the creation, understanding, and content of Beloved. Beloved is itself the result of a collaboration of black and white as Morrison drew on Dante’s Inferno. Their collaboration resulted in a reconciliation of sorts, as African American narratives that have often gone untold are tied directly to one of the most famous pieces of literary canon, thereby occupying at least a portion of that space. The characters within the text learn the importance of collaboration as the only thing that will truly drag them out of Hell — simultaneously learning the evils of isolation. Finally, we as students, all representing different backgrounds, ways of thinking, new perspectives, and complex individualities of our own needed to come together and bridge our gaps through discussion and understanding. Through this process we were able to emerge “to see — once more — the stars.”