The Reality of Literary Sin and Consequence

By: Ashley Daddona, Allie Flanagan, Katie Haefele, Denis Hartnett, Margaret Hall, Brian Vargas, and Quentin Wall 

There is often a line when representing real life concepts in literature. Literature allows the reproduction of complicated systems in life that are far more chaotic and unorganized in the physical world outside of literature; furthermore, it enables the establishment of heavily systematic devices to represent these systems/concepts that exist in reality, because of the qualities of fiction which remove the boundaries of non-fiction in regards to complete control over creation in a story. One particularly large life concept that is often represented in literature is that of sin and its subsequent consequence; this is one of the main principles in Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno—in this work, it is Hell and its nine circles that function as a representation of sin and consequence in reality.

The Inferno, which follows the journey of the character Dante as he ventures through the Christian representation of the underworld, offers a continuous conversation on the relationship between sin and consequence by giving several examples of both fictional and historical figures that have committed sin, and received a consequence parallel to their sin. These sinners are contained in a systematic version of Hell that exists through the nine circles of Hell, which represent several levels of intensity in regards to sin and consequence. The disconnection between how this system truly functions in reality exists through Morrison’s depiction of the system in line with Dante’s straightforward and direct approach to sin and consequence. Dante’s world and system of Hell is much less realistic and reflective of real life, where moral concepts like sin and consequence are not contained systematically, but exist rather chaotically and unmanaged—no sin results in direct consequence and no consequence is the result of a direct sin, or of any sin at all. 

Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, recontextualizes material from Dante’s Inferno through the incorporation of intentionally chaotic material and complex characters, in order to reveal the realities of the systematic device for sin and consequence for life presented in Dante’s Inferno. The novel does an excellent job at depicting the chaotic disconnection between consequence and sin through a variety of complex characters that suffer and exist in a figurative Hell, but not always for obvious/direct sin or action. The consequences that parallel certain positions in Dante’s Inferno are more often the result of convoluted and complex internal character struggles and choices. Paul D is a character that enables perspective into how these consequences exist through indirect action and internal character struggles. The particular section of Dante’s Inferno that is most effectively represented through Paul D’s life, in both direct and indirect moments of sin and consequence, is the eighth circle of Hell Malebolge, which contains sinners of fraudulence.

There are several moments in the novel that actually/physically reflect the Malebolge and direct consequences that exist in it (the ditches and imprisonment, etc), which are accompanied by more convoluted reasons (or “sins”) behind Paul D’s placement there—the sections of Malebolge that are presented with Paul D are hypocrisy, panderance, and seduction. Often, there are even moments which make one question whether or not justice exists as systematically as presented in Dante’s Inferno in real life—there are several characters, even, that commit serious crimes and sins in the novel, but are not subject to any direct consequence to their sin; this more realistically reflects how consequences and sins function unfairly and are uncontrolled in the physical world outside of literature.

Paul D was sent to be imprisoned in Alfred, Georgia, after he had tried to kill Brandywine, the man that Schoolteacher had sold him to. The prison contained only forty-six inmates, all of them black men. The inmates were locked in small prison cells and forced to endure sexual abuse at night and to participate in chain gang work during the day. During the time of Paul D’s imprisonment, he began to grow very nervous and uneasy about the situation that he was in. These feelings went away only when he was active; either singing or doing work within the chain gang. 

A rainstorm took over for a long period of time, which had caused the ground to turn into mud. The prisoners saw their chance of survival and a way to escape, so they worked together to do just that. They linked together with a chain and wound up coming upon a camp that belonged to the Cherokees, who then broke their chains. Paul D was told to continue northbound and to follow the flowers that bloomed as the temperature rose and spread from south to north. Paul D ended up in an apple field that turned out to be Delaware where the weaver woman lived and he lived with her for eighteen months. As time had passed, he was able to put the memories of “Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, Schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest” (Morrison 133). Once he got to 124, he had realized that nothing in the world could ever open up his tin can heart. 

Morrison incorporated Dante’s Inferno with the character development and journey of Paul D in Beloved to acknowledge, among others, the sin of Pandering, which is found in the first ditch, or “Bolgia One” of Malebolge. Upon research we found that being a panderer has many different meanings, ranging from unlawful sexual acts, to amourous intrigues, to saying something because it aligns with what others want to hear. This range of definition alone contributes to the disconnection of sin and consequence that Morrison’s work has drawn attention to.

Throughout the novel, and through our own knowledge, it is clear that people who were subject to slavery were put into situations and forced to participate in acts that they did not want or agree to do. Paul D is a prime example of this and reminds readers of this throughout the novel through his rememory and recounting of the times he was imprisoned. Morrison takes the situational context of enslavement, the roles involved, and assigns the consequences and placement in Hell in a way that would not necessarily happen according to Dante’s standards. While imprisoned, Paul D is not only a slave of manual labor, but also becomes a slave of sexual acts, in which he and the other enslaved men were routinely forced to perform oral sex on the white guards. Morrison highlights the injustice of Dante’s system of sin and consequence by subjecting Paul D to the sin of pandering enacted by the white guards, rather than having him commit the sins himself, and then still subjecting him to the consequence of the sin. The guards acting as panderers should be the ones being placed in the metaphorical circle of Hell, yet readers do not get any insight into whether or not they faced any consequence. Rather, we see Paul D suffer the consequences of a sin that was committed against him, in which he and the other slaves are chained together and forced to march in tandem. They are constrained to unlivable quarters, and punished by physical injury, in which aligns with the consequence of pandering: being forced to march, single file around the circumference of the sinners’ circle, being constantly lashed by demons. 

However, Paul D is not free of sin in this department as a whole, which we can see in his go-between of amorous intrigues throughout the novel. Paul D is insecure regarding his own masculinity and lack of love interest in his life beyond the Sweet Home version of Sethe and the cattle that existed there. We experience Paul D fixating on finding and staying with Sethe in order to satisfy his long-standing sexual desire for her, yet he immediately indicates losing interest upon having to acknowledge the baggage that Sethe and 124 carries, and even though he does decide to stay, he eventually leaves for this same reason. On top of that, he also admits his lack of true love for the weaver woman that helped him after escaping captivity and gives in to Beloved’s sexual pressures. These acts do in fact leave Paul D subject to the consequences of pandering according to Dante. However, what still remains is the complexity of situational sin: would Paul D have resorted to these decisions had he not been subject to enslavement, garnering the baggage that pulled him into contextual situations of sin? We do not have a clear answer to this, but can acknowledge that Morrison uses the complexities of slavery to push Dante’s established boundaries. The placement in the novel’s metaphorical Hell and consequential punishment of Paul D in the imprisonment chapter reinforces the notion of Morrison using slavery, and the people subjected to it, to push Dante’s boundaries in Inferno and to reinforce the complexities of situational sin and consequence that go beyond any literary definition.

In Morrison’s Beloved, Paul D is a lot of things: a former slave, a wanderer, a friend, and a lover. Even though the reader knows Paul D to be these things, it is his imprisonment that sheds the most light on his character and his motivation. Furthermore, if one were to try and understand Paul D’s “consequence” in Beloved as a parallel to the context of Dante’s work, Paul D would be labeled as a seducer, someone who deceives women for their own advantage. However, Morrison does not want her readers to understand Paul D in the simple binary of sinner or not a sinner. Instead, Morrison creates complex situations that shape Paul D and his sins. Make no mistake, there still exists the opportunity to label Paul D as a seducer through several of his actions in the novel including, his use of Sethe, his sleeping with Beloved, and his subsequent leaving of 124. Morrsion, instead of focusing on Paul D being a sinner, tackles Dante’s depiction of sin in order to explore its complexity when applied to the real world, and in this case when applied to Paul D. 

Paul D had his humanity stolen away from him through constant abuse; his escape from imprisonment makes him desperate to reclaim it. This fact complicates Paul D being a seducer. In Dante, the man who is seen in Hell as a seducer is the greek hero, Jason. Jason left Medea, his companion and lover, after she helped him retrieve the golden fleece. He left her for the daughter of a King, completely abandoning the love that the two of them had built. Jason being a seducer is not complicated, he fits the definition perfectly. Paul D, while still a seducer, is more complicated than Jason. Paul D’s seduction is not based completely in sexualtiy or emotion, it is based on a desire to be whole after the inhumane and sadistic treatment he endured. Morrison uses Paul D’s flaws and his desire to be whole to undermine and add complexity to Dante’s definition of sin. This intentionally complicated understanding of sin and the context of sin is Morrison’s way of revealing the unrealistic system used in Dante’s Inferno

After working at Sweet Home, Paul D uses his “tobacco tin,” a symbol for his need to repress his emotions and harsh memories, as a locked storage unit in his heart to never be opened again. This compares to the hypocrites’ “heavily weighted souls” described in the Sixth Bolgia. The hypocrites’ souls have their guilt and lies weighing them down, making them weary and weak. This relates to Paul D in that he packs every traumatizing memory into his tobacco tin heart. For example, after being imprisoned, “it was some time before [Paul D] could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, Schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open” (Morrison 133). Instead of expressing his emotions, Paul D buries it in his “tobacco tin lodged in his chest.” He does not want to confront his past, and in turn pushes every negative memory away until his box will eventually explode. This represents hypocrisy by not being honest with himself about his own feelings. If he is not honest with himself, he is definitely not honest with others about his emotions and harsh memories. He will not confront his emotional obstacles, and would prefer burying them in his tin can heart.

In the Sixth Bolgia, Virgil explains to Dante, “even if I were a mirror / I could not reflect your outward image faster / than your inner thoughts transmit themselves to me” (Inferno, XXIII: 25-27). This line perfectly describes the tin can heart– it blocks Paul D from outwardly displaying his emotions by absorbing the upsetting memories from being a slave. Continuing on their journey, Virgil and Dante found “painted people,” who wore cloaks “with hoods pulled low / covering the eyes” (Inferno, XXIII: 61). The hoods cover their eyes to hide their deceit from others and themselves. The cloaks were described as “dazzling, gilded cloaks outside, but inside / they were lined by lead, so heavy that the capes / King Frederick used, compared to these, were straw” (Inferno, XXIII: 64-66). The cloaks parallel to Paul D’s tin can heart in that on the outside, Paul D seems like a respectable man who has it all together even after a rough past, but on the inside, he is weighed down by all of his painful memories and emotions in his heart made of tin. Paul D thought that since his move to 124, his tobacco tin would never open, but was proven wrong when he was seduced by Beloved. Beloved overwhelmed him with intense emotion, causing his tobacco tin to explode, leaving him to repeatedly say “Red heart. Red heart. Red heart” (Morrison 138). Paul D’s emotional breakdown during this scene also parallels with a hypocrite who was crucified, “all his body writhed / and through his beard he heaved out sighs of pain.” Both Paul D and the crucified hypocrite were being confronted by their past decisions and could not handle the overwhelming waves of emotions.

The character of Paul D reveals masterful complexity as Morrison constructs parallels between him and the hypocrites of the Sixth Bolgia; a huge highlight of his hypocrisy can be found within his relationships with the women in the novel and his love for Sethe. Just as the hypocrites are described by the poet as having “heavily weighted souls”, Paul D too is weighed down by the repression of his emotions and memories. His love is limited as is his care for others. This can be found rooted in an internalized ideal of manliness as well as resentment at women’s assuredness of themselves. He gives off just enough of a pretense of caring and the minimal actions to portray caring, however due to his opposition to vulnerability, these actions at their foundation are hypocritical. After Denver, Sethe, and Paul D begin taking care of Beloved, Denver states “He won’t be back” (Morrison 66). When Sethe asks how she knows, she states that she just knows. Even though Paul D does come back, this instance displays an awareness from Denver about Paul D’s character. Despite the three of them working together at this moment to care for Beloved, she has a feeling that one day, Paul D is going to leave and not come back in some capacity. This can be further strengthened by the reuniting of Sethe and Paul D at the end of the book. He may have come back but there is no reassurance that he will change. An interpretation can be made that the same cycle will occur again, causing what can be identified as cognitive discourse in Paul D. 

There are instances where he expresses his love for Sethe but then is threatened by her. Debroah Ayer Sitter, in her article “The Making of a Man: Dialogic Meaning in Beloved”, identifies it as “Reflections on manhood are muffled by a stronger female voice” (Sitter 17). This can be directly supported by when Paul D asks Sethe to get pregnant, prefacing it with a thought to himself that he cannot say to her which is “I am not a man” (Morrison 151). An argument can be made that by making this request of Sethe, Paul D hopes to gain back control in their relationship. Paul D is threatened by Sethe and therefore tries to exert any level of control over her that he can. Another instance in the text that exhibits Paul D’s reaction to be overshadowed by the women in the novel, and Sethe specifically, is when he believes he is having what he calls “house fits, the glassy anger men sometimes feel when a woman’s house begins to bind them when they want to yell and break something or at least run off” (Morrison 135). The feeling of comfort and peace is foreign to him and he does not feel in control because of this. Furthermore, it is expressed about Sethe that “She came and he wanted to knock her down” (Morrison 136). Sethe’s loyalty and her power within herself is too much for him and soon he becomes disillusioned. Paul D is hypocritical in his love to Sethe by not allowing himself to be vulnerable and being resentful of the power that she possesses and the power she has over him. 

While working on this project a frequent question we came to ask ourselves was, “who is justice really for?” We found that that question has many different answers, depending on where you look. To Dante, all sin committed in life is dutifully paid for by a specific punishment in Hell. Morrison then takes this idea and applies it to a world that is closer to ours; where sins committed do not always warrant the punishment demanded. Paul D remains the best example of this. Like all characters in Beloved, Paul D is a complex, layered man that should not be judged only on his sins. Morrison uses Paul D to show that by judging humans only on sins, and nothing else, leaves no room for justice to weigh his life fairly. His life and his experiences matter. Justice should be for everybody, and most of all it should be just. Justice means taking in as much of the argument, as many facts as possible in order to provide a ruling that is most fair. Dante’s way is not fair, and if it were up to him, Paul D would be sitting and suffering in Malebolge. But we know, and Morrison knew too, that judging a person on sins alone is a binary tool. We must not be afraid to look deeper; in order to enact justice we have to be able to understand the complexities that shape human lives. We have to break through this systematic device for sin and consequence presented to us by Dante; and by doing so we can transcend his version of justice and embrace our own.

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