PDF Embedder requires a url attribute
PDF Embedder requires a url attribute
By Marie Naudus, Frances Sharples, Emily Loper, Hannah Myers, Kathleen McCarey, Mia Donaldson, Owen Vincent, and Rachel Cohen
In her fifth novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison uses elements associated with Dante’s Inferno to enhance a grief-suffused narrative following characters who escaped enslavement only to deal with the turmoil of living in a country that is set against the success of Black individuals. The Hell depicted in Dante’s Inferno is made up of nine circles, each dealing with certain sins and their respective punishments that become more severe as Dante the Pilgrim moves down (and then up) through Hell, beginning with virtuous paganism and ending with the worst kinds of betrayal. In the eighth circle—reserved for those who committed fraud—Dante moves to the Malebolge, approximately translated from Italian as “evil pockets,” a series of ten ravines that each serve to punish a certain type of sinner; for the purposes of our analysis, the first, fifth, and sixth ravines will be most relevant. The first ravine is designated for pimps, panderers and seducers, where they walk endlessly in separate lines and are whipped by demons. The fifth ravine is reserved for grafters, who are thrown into a river of boiling pitch, and the sixth ravine is for hypocrites, forced to march forever with lead robes. These specific ravines fit most closely with how the residents of 124 Bluestone Road in Beloved are seen by the reader and interact with other characters. The characters of Beloved, including Sethe and Paul D, must face what could be deemed as Hell on Earth as they suffer through slavery and its ramifications on the rest of their lives. While Sethe reminisces on her time at Sweet Home, a plantation where she and Paul D were enslaved for four years together, she recounts that “there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7). This idea of slavery as Hell on Earth is most poignantly depicted in the Paul D imprisonment chapter.
“When all forty-six were standing in a line in a trench, another rifle shot signaled the climb out and up to the ground above, where one thousand feet of the best hand-forged chain in Georgia stretched” (Morrison 126); in this quote, and throughout the chapter describing Paul D’s torturous enslavement in Alfred, Georgia, we the reader are brought to consider one of the novel’s most evocative and raw depictions of slavery. In addition to back-breaking labor, the forty-six men are forced to fellate the white guards every morning, one of the several depictions of sexual assault of enslaved characters throughout the novel. Along with descriptions of the various heinous treatment that these men are subjected to, this chapter explains how Paul D escapes Georgia and moves forward to 124; following the lead of Hi Man, the man at the beginning of the chain, the men are led under and through the mud during a rainstorm to escape. By diving under the water in the trench and moving as one, the forty-six men escaped the plantation, allowing Paul D to make his way to 124 and Sethe after eighteen years of traveling, never settling in one location for too long.
While the most vivid and shocking descriptions of Paul D’s imprisonment appear in this chapter, they provide context for the reader’s understanding of his traumas and character development throughout Beloved as a whole; his character is introduced before this unsettling scene unravels, thus the chapter provides context for both his most generous and deplorable actions toward Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Paul D’s presence in 124, too, reveals many of the damages Paul D carries with him; his contempt for Beloved provokes, in the very beginning, Paul D’s violent removal of Beloved from 124, and resurfaces time and time again throughout the novel in his need to assert dominance over women due to the emasculation he underwent in Georgia. His sense of emasculation from his severe defilement is made most clear to the reader in his sexual encounter with Beloved: “She moved closer with a footfall he didn’t hear and he didn’t hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin … ‘Red heart. Red heart. Red heart’” (Morrison 137-138). Paul D had tried to lock up his feelings in this “tobacco tin” he created for his heart, and Beloved had opened that tin without his consent, causing him to feel less than human again. Paul D was forced into a multitude of dehumanizing situations during his enslavement in Georgia, many of them sexual in nature; these dehumanizing acts led to the version of Paul D seen in 124 that is often violent and cold, and depicts the world around him as Hell. Throughout the novel, Paul D moves through the seventh, eighth, and ninth circles of his own Hell before finally coming to his own version of paradise. However, this version of paradise is not an idealized, perfect life, since the nature of Paul D’s journey and the constant presence of slavery continue to haunt him even in paradise. These moves through Hell and into paradise mirror Dante’s Inferno, thus creating a deeper understanding of the inhabitants of 124.
Morrison artfully crafted her novel, Beloved, to mirror elements of Dante’s Inferno. This conversation between the two works can be seen in the plantation, Sweet Home, that Sethe and Paul D inhabit for four years together; given their dire circumstances as living slaves—compared to Dante who, while alive, is on a relatively clear path back to safety—Paul D and Sethe must seek unconventional means of guidance. While Dante has Virgil, a beacon of seemingly endless poetic wisdom, the characters of Beloved feel largely alone and maintain their fraught endurance on their journey through Hell via nature. Trees, for example, “guide” characters toward salvation, but also toward feelings of guilt and despair. This convergence makes itself most clearly in the comparison of Sweet Home to Dante’s seventh circle of Hell, reserved for the violent, suicides, and blasphemers; those who commit suicide specifically are transformed into trees and ripped apart by Harpies. This significance of trees is seen repeatedly throughout Beloved, most vividly in the descriptions of Sethe’s back, which is scarred and torn up by traumatic beatings during her time at Sweet Home. When Sethe, distressed and fleeing Sweet Home, is met by a young white girl, Amy, Amy is shocked by the horrific scars scattered across Sethe’s back. Unfamiliar with the extent of the cruelty that Sethe has faced, Amy is mystified by the scars and says in wonder: “‘It’s a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk — it’s red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white” (Morrison 93). Amy would later prove to be a guide for Sethe, leading her to freedom away from Sweet Home; but even with the assistance of a slew of guides, both Sethe and Paul D’s respective journeys through Hell are marked by prolonged violence.
Like Dante’s escape from Hell, Paul D must continue his path down through the deepest aspects of Hell in order to reach his salvation, in this case, settling down in 124 with Sethe. After leaving Sweet Home and exiting the seventh circle, Paul D is imprisoned in Alfred, Georgia, which represents the eighth circle of Hell. The Malebolge, or “evil pockets,” are geographically very similar to the trench that Paul D and the forty-five other men were chained in. Dante describes them as “ten descending valleys,” each with their own specific and fitting punishment for the sinners trapped there (XVIII: 9). While the flatterers in the eighth circle are immersed in human excrement and corrupt politicians in boiling pitch, the men chained together in Georgia are forced to work while sinking in mud; while the thieves are chased and bitten by reptiles, the men in Georgia are on the lookout for snakes while continuing to work in conditions of heavy rain and oozing mud. Even the escape from Georgia mirrors the scenes described by Dante in the Malebolgia: “It started like the chain-up but the difference was the power of the chain. One by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping” (Morrison 130). In Canto XXII, corrupt politicians are forced to swim and submerge themselves in boiling pitch (line 30); one Navaressian politician, upon being tortured by a group of demons, dives back into the boiling pitch in order to escape their torment (XXII: 123). This mode of escape reflects how Hi Man led the line of chained prisoners under the mud and rain to freedom. While Hi Man served as a temporary guide for Paul D in Georgia, Paul D never has one permanent guide as Dante does in Inferno, thus his path to freedom and 124 is aided by several guides.
This idea of guides is prevalent in both Beloved and Inferno. Paul D relies on multiple guides in his escape from imprisonment in Georgia to his salvation in the North. In order to escape from the chained Hell that was his imprisonment, Paul D places his trust in Hi Man, as well as the other forty-four men, to lead him away from the torture. Paul D recounts how “the chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery … they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Morrison 130). Paul D’s guides soon shift once Hi Man completes his task of escaping the plantation, now shifting to his surroundings as a form of a guide. Paul D is alone in his quest up North, “when he lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him” (Morrison 133). While Paul D is forced to rely on numerous guides in his escape, these guides are short-lived compared to Virgil’s continual accompaniment of Dante all throughout Inferno and Purgatorio.
Paul D’s stay at 124 ends his journey through the circles of Hell and allows him to make the paradoxical move from the ninth circle of Hell, the deepest and most barbarous, to paradise; but, in Paul D’s case, paradise is haunted. As he steps through the doors of 124, Paul D steps through “a pool of pulsing red light,” into “the spot where the grief had soaked him [and] a kind of weeping clung to the air” (Morrison 11). This compares to Dante’s trek through the last of the malebolge, just before he and Virgil climb the legs of Lucifer down, down, down, and then finally up and out of Hell: “Here, the weeping puts an end to weeping, / and the grief that finds no outlet from the eyes / turns inward to intensify the anguish” (XXXIII: 94-96). While 124 represents Paul D’s most stable and safe conditions from his 18 years of perilous travel, its violent, “spiteful” confines marked by “baby’s venom” (Morrison 3) present new sources of fear, proving that this hellish experience as a former slave does not afford him a sweet release akin to Dante’s paradise. Toni Morrison famously stated in an interview with Bonnie Angelo how “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Morrison artfully establishes her novel in conversation with Dante’s Inferno as a way to not only enhance her own craft but to complement Dante’s own art as well. While it is easy to dissect Beloved in an almost clinical and scientific sense, to fully analyze every detail meticulously, it would be doing a disservice to such a beautiful work to ignore the artful elements of the work. Beloved is important because it tells the true, historical story of Margaret Garner, who committed infanticide to save her children from the cruelty of enslavement. In order to depict such a heavy topic, Morrison takes to well-crafted diction and the creation of her fictionalized telling of true events to offer a raw and honest novel on a topic that is typically shied away from. While Black literature can be cast aside as a teaching in sociology, as previously stated, Beloved demands to be taught and remembered for its intricate writing and complexity of characters and themes. Each detail of her text is accounted for, building on each other and offering additional layers; one of these layers, and indeed a through line in Morrison’s trilogy, is the idea of self-sabotage. This idea can be seen in how Beloved sabotages Paul D and Sethe, creating a Hell on Earth for the two characters and forcing them to endure additional suffering. Paul D sabotages his happiness with Sethe at 124 by having sexual relations with Beloved, causing him to flee the home. Similarly, Sethe ignores her own happiness and Denver’s in order to devote her life to Beloved’s parasitic need for attention. The notion of self-sabotage and its simultaneous unfolding alongside Paul D’s descent into the inner circles of Hell calls to mind many of the questions we have been brought to reckon with in connecting Dante’s Inferno and Morrison’s Beloved, not least of which being the question of whether or not enslaved or formerly enslaved persons can ever escape these depths of Hell, and whether or not the concept of “paradise” can truly exist in the world of Morrison’s Beloved.
By Mar Leeman, Dylan Walawender, Taylor Bramhall, Kya Primm, Joe Morgan, Olive Niccoli, Jenna Brace, and Sheridan Morgan
Dr. Beth McCoy
24 February 2023
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the readers follow the current and previous inhabitants of house 124, as the novel switches between the past and the present. Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live in torment with the ghost of Sethe’s past – her infant daughter, referred to as Beloved, who was killed by her mother to protect her from what she considered a worse fate. The ghostly Beloved is banished by Sethe’s old acquaintance, Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men,” but she returns in the flesh (Morrison 7). Prior to living at 124, Sethe and Paul D were enslaved; the plantation from which Sethe and Paul D escaped, Sweet Home, is originally run by Mr.Garner. Following his death, a much crueler man known as schoolteacher takes over, leading to Paul D’s imprisonment, which serves to emphasize Morrison’s examination of the contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno.
One of the most complex circles in Dante’s Inferno is the Eighth Circle – the start of lower Hell and entry into the domain of fraud. This circle is named “Malebolge,” meaning “evil ditches” or “evil trenches,” which features an architectural and urban built environment (contrasting the circle of violence’s natural environment.) The tortured souls trapped in this circle “committed ten different varieties of fraudulent sin” (Inferno 18 – Digital Dante) and Malebolge is subdivided into ten “evil trenches” that house different variations of fraudulent sinners. Significantly, the second holds flatterers, punished by being suffocated in a ditch coated in excrement, and the filth, holding those who made a living out of fraud or trickery, are punished by being “submerged in the boiling pitch with which the bolgia is filled” (AHC). These three bolgias are key components of Morrison’s Beloved – specifically in the imprisonment of Paul D.
To contextualize the imprisonment chapter, it is important to note how Morrison builds from previous moments where Sethe and Paul D allude to their past traumas. Paul D confesses to Sethe that as her milk was stolen from her, her husband, Halle, had watched. Paul D likewise reveals that he could not speak at the time since he had an iron bit in his mouth, feeling inferior to a rooster. Even as this sharing of vulnerability brings them closer together, Paul D alludes to the “tobacco tin” in his chest, referring to the past he wants to keep hidden (Morrison 83). Morrison uses this image as a throughline in the imprisonment chapter to shape Paul D’s character.
After being sold to a man named Brandywine, Paul D attempted to kill this new master and failed. He was then incarcerated with forty-five other men, who were forced to live in wooden boxes set down in ditches. Eighty-six days passed, and a torrent of rain halted their work. Eventually, the trenches filled with mud and water, becoming dangerous; but the forty-six men escaped and reached a tribe of sick Cherokee people. Paul D was the last to leave the camp, fleeing north to Delaware. The chapter concludes with a recurrence back to this tobacco tin in Paul D’s chest, the image of his hidden trauma, where “nothing in this world could pry it open” (Morrison 145). In Paul D’s imprisonment chapter, Morrison parallels the imagery of Canto XVIII and reverses the rationale behind the punishments administered in the Malebolge. In Inferno, Dante implies you are justly punished for the sins you committed in life, while in Beloved, Morrison demonstrates that enslaved people are subjected to an undeserved, yet similar torture. Through Paul D’s imprisonment, Morrison exposes the institution of whiteness as they use their power to unjustly punish those they deem as inferior.
Morrison’s use of imagery, similar to that found in Dante’s Malebolge, is striking when reading the two works comparatively. In Beloved, the three feet of open trench in front of the gates that form the entrance to each cell, the two-foot-wide space that remains for the prisoners, covered with two feet of dirt over the scrap lumber that serves as its ceiling, is eerily reminiscent of a coffin in a grave (Morrison 125). Dante’s description of the sinners in the first bolgia as “crammed into the depths of the first ditch” is a fitting parallel, and it seems that Morrison is making a connection here to the “new suffering souls, new means of torture; and new torturers” that Dante finds there (Inferno, XVIII:22-24). Additionally, the three white guards who walk along the trench abusing the prisoners call to mind the “horned devils with enormous whips / lashing the backs of the shades with cruel delight” (Inferno, XVIII:35-36). As these trenches fill with water after nine days of rain, the decision is made to leave the prisoners locked in their wooden graves where they have no choice but to relieve themselves within the tiny confines of their cell, their feces and urine mixing with the same mud they eventually must submerge themselves in to reach freedom. Dante may as well have been standing above them, rather than the flatterers in the second bolgia, when he says, “from where I stood I saw / souls in the ditch plunged into excrement / that might well have been flushed from our latrines” (Inferno, XVIII:112-114). With this parallel relationship intact, we can see the ways in which morality and punishment operate in Inferno.
Within Dante’s Inferno, the moral concept of sin and punishment is an integral theme. It is impossible to understand Inferno without understanding that Dante was coming from a society that grappled heavily with the concept of sin and subsequent punishment within the afterlife. Why, then, is Malebolge designed this way, to provoke this particular brand of suffering? Dante’s Inferno relies on his own self-condemnation and punishment for sins he has already committed, trying to walk through Hell with a guide. Morrison turns this idea on its head in Beloved, with no guide available to her characters in this instance. She uses Dante’s examination of punishment as her baseline in Beloved on power and punishment. How can this system be fair when it directly opposes the idea of a contrapasso? Morrison seems to suggest that there is no such thing as Divine Justice, and this idea is just that: a literary device. Dante’s entire journey, led by Virgil so far, is in an attempt to keep him from eternal damnation and lead him into Heaven; in contrast, Paul D is thrown into his own Hell through no sins of his own. But are any of the sinners truly guilty? Or are they simply subject to a punishment for which they have no recourse, no way to explain, or ask forgiveness? Much like the men who run the prison in Beloved, the demons take perverse pleasure in torturing those who have less power, as Dante demonstrates: “With a hundred prongs or more they pricked him, shrieking” (Inferno, XXI: 54). This also calls into question an important idea in Morrison’s works as a whole; who has the power to inflict pain and punishment upon others?
Morrison includes the element of a lead chain in the imprisonment chapter by saying “and the lead chain gave it everything he had” (Morrison 127). A lead chain is what large animal owners use to move and control the animals, and by using a lead chain Morrison is relegating the prisoners to animals. This may have been influenced by Dante’s treatment of the sinners, as he also strips away the identity of the prisoners, noting how they appear as “misbegotten souls, whose faces you could not see before” (Inferno, XVII:76-77). Whereas those in the Malebolge are stuck, never atoning for their sins despite enduring eternal punishment, Morrison twists this concept on its head, bringing her characters out of their Hell and allowing them the sweet taste of freedom. Although freedom is the ideal dream for the prisoners, it comes with a cost. In the present day of Beloved, he is forced to enact the sins that correspond with the punishment he endured. For example, one of the most prominently featured sins committed by Paul D was flattery. In Inferno, the punishment for flattery is being covered in feces, which is eerily reminiscent of Paul D’s escape from prison through the mud. Shortly after his arrival at 124, he begins a sexual relationship with Sethe that is colored by his desire for her from their past at Sweet Home. While the dalliance between the two contains traces of flattery, it is the later fornication between Paul D and Beloved that takes this concept over the edge. “If he trembled like Lot’s wife and felt some womanish need to see the nature of the sin behind him,” is what Paul D thinks once Beloved begins to approach him in a sexual manner (Morrison 137). By comparing him to Lot’s wife, Morrison is implying that Paul D is aware that what he is about to do is a sin, but he physically cannot help himself. It is in his nature to be so tempted by the past that it destroys his future, just as the aforementioned biblical figure did not leave her past in the past and ended up suffering, by turning into a pillar of salt.
Unlike Dante, who championed a strict code of morals, Paul D begs for “sympathy, perhaps, for cursing the cursed,” suggesting that his sinning is not his fault, but a result of his circumstances (Morrison 137). This argument from Paul D encapsulates the reversal that Morrison is making. While Dante argued that the way one lives their life leads to the punishment they receive, Morrison heralds the belief that when one is punished, they are then shaped by those conditions and must learn to live with the weight of that torture; the moral system of Inferno does not exist in Beloved, and the system of whiteness producing enslavement and incarceration produces undeserving punishment.
Though not quite the same, the prison system within the United States today is a new eighth circle of Hell for black men and women, with incarceration rates for black Americans exceeding the rate-by-population of white Americans. Brutality runs rampant amongst prison guards, the aggressors. In an article written by Andrea Jacobs in 2004, she describes a harsh institution of brutal treatment at the hands of prison guards: “Corrections officers at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut subjected Ronald Nussle to an unprovoked and unjustified beating” (Jacobs 279). She continues on to describe his treatment in detail, which reminds one of the treatment of enslaved people almost 200 years ago. This serves as a cruel reminder that Paul D’s experience with imprisonment in Morrison’s fictional tale held true long ago and that the vestiges of slavery run rampant within American society today, particularly in the unjust justice system. For example, the 13th Amendment is widely known as that which rightfully ended slavery. However, this isn’t exactly true. It prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (U.S. Const. amend. 13, § 1.). In other words, prisoners can be lawfully exploited for unpaid labor in the United States. This is even more significant when considering that 38.5 percent of inmates are Black due to the over-policing of marginalized communities (BOP Statistics: Inmate Race). Therefore, those subject to these conditions are overwhelmingly those who already face historic and modern maltreatment.
Today, Black Americans have freedoms that Paul D, and other enslaved people were denied, but tales of horror seep out of U.S. private and public prisons, bringing us back down to the eighth circle. Dante describes the horrors of Malebolge and its own prison guards consisting of cruel devils, while Morrison draws a similar comparison in describing how the guards would shove and hit prisoners with the butt of their rifles (Inferno XVIII, Morrison 127). Looping back to unfair treatment within American prisons today and the idea of the eighth circle of Hell and the “cruel delight” of Hell’s own guards, it seems as though Morrison’s Hell outlined within Beloved never truly ended.
It is important to note that while Morrison wrote Beloved almost a quarter of a century ago, her concepts and meanings still apply to our own world. Dante’s Inferno, written six centuries before our own, also holds true in today’s society. As Morrison seems to demonstrate in drawing from Dante’s Inferno to craft Paul D’s imprisonment, by reversing the moral dynamic of contrapasso as seen in the Malebolge, there is an emphasis on the undeserved cruelty of incarceration, and enslavement, on the cruelty of white supremacy and dehumanization of Black people, and on the fictive quality of a moral system associated with constructs like punishment to prop up institutions of power.
AHC. (n.d.). Inferno. Ahc.leeds.ac.uk. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/discover-dante/doc/inferno/page/5#:~:text=In%20this%20circle%20are%20punished
Federal Bureau of Prisons. (2023, February 18). BOP Statistics: Inmate Race. https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_race.jsp.
Inferno 18 – Digital Dante. (n.d.). Digitaldante.columbia.edu. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-18/
Jacobs, A. (2004). Prison power corrupts absolutely: exploring the phenomenon of prison guard brutality and the need to develop a system of accountability. California Western Law Review, 41(1), 277-302.
Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf.
US Constitution, Amendment 13.
Authors: Hailey Cullen, Madolley Donzo, Genesis Flores, Laryssa Olsen, Meghan Havens, Shauna Blochwitz, Kyra Drannbauer, and Isabelle Covert
On their journey through Hell in Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil encounter the Eighth Circle of Hell, the Malbolge, which consists of ten ditches or bolgia “ . . . cut out of stone the color of iron ore, / just like the circling cliff that walls it in” as described in Canto XVIII, lines 1-9. Dante the Poet describes the Malbolge in Cantos XVIII-XXX. The travelers cross each bolgia by crossing a bridge made out of rock. In each bolgia, they encounter sinners who are receiving punishments corresponding to their sins. As with the sinners in the other Circles of Hell, the sinners are subjected to contrapasso, meaning that the punishment meted out to the sinners in Hell matches their crimes. This idea is explicitly mentioned in Canto XVII of the Malbolge with Bertran de Born, whose head is cut off as his punishment for his cutting “the bonds of those so joined” between Absalom and David in lines 133-142.
In the fifth bolgia, grafters, or corrupt politicians, are forever bobbing in boiling tar, sometimes pushed in and under by the Malebranche devils. The imagery surrounding this bolgia is very distinct, with the sinners’ heads going under and coming up, as in line 46 of Canto XXI: “that sinner plunged, then floated up stretched out.” Dante the Pilgrim recalls first seeing the devils and Virgil protecting him: “my guide, shouting to me: “Watch out, watch out!” / took hold of me and drew me to his side.” As Dante and Virgil descend into the sixth bolgia, which punishes hypocrites by covering them in golden cloaks lined with lead to weigh them down, Virgil acts as a helpful and protective guide for Dante as their escape from the angry Malebranche continues. Dante comments in Canto XXIII lines 37 through 39, “My guide instinctively caught hold of me/ like a mother waking to some warning sound/ who sees the rising flames are getting close/ and grabs her son and runs—she does not wait.” Virgil leads Dante through Hell, discovering the sins of humankind in the afterlife.
The novel Beloved explores one of these humankind sins through man’s experience of enslavement, and of the human vices that result from the effects of those horrors. Each character struggles with trauma resulting from their enslavement, which appears in different ways. Morrison, in her novel Beloved, uses and manipulates the archetype of a Virgilian guide, which originates with Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” in ways that show that different people and characters have different ideal guides, and that the ideal guide can change as a character’s situation changes. For Paul D’s character, his circumstances place him in prison, where he utilizes a guide as he faces further horrors in his imprisonment.
Paul D’s arrival to prison began with a murder. After Sixo’s murder at the hands of schoolteacher, after the previous losses of Paul D’s best friends and family, and after Paul D was sold to another man, Brandywine, Paul D attempted to murder his new master. As a result, he was sent to prison where he, and 45 other men, experienced brutality at the hand of their captors. Paul D and the others designated their foreman as Hi Man, the “lead chain” who would come to serve a Virgilian role throughout the grueling duration of their enslavement; “With a sledge hammer in his hands and Hi Man’s lead, the men got through” (Morrison 127). With a guide established in Hi Man, as their designated savior-figure, the men were able to recognize their strength as a group which would lead to their eventual escape.
The opportunity for escape first came in the form of the rain, which turned the ground into pliable mud that allowed them to slip underneath the bars. The internal strength to take their opportunity came from each other, from Hi Man down, as they communicated with each other through the tug of the chain, “Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery” (Morrison 130). Under the bars, and into the night, through the escape they could rely only on each other. Hi Man remained their faithful guide across Georgia, leading them to the Cherokee, who broke their chains, and gave them the ability to restore some semblance of their ordinary lives, “Hi Man wanted to join them; others wanted to join him. Some wanted to leave; some to stay on. Weeks later Paul D was the only Buffalo man left-without a plan” (Morrison 132). Hi Man and the bond the men formed among themselves brought the men out of enslavement, out of their own hell, and allowed them to embark on their own journeys of self-discovery and freedom.
The Paul D imprisonment chapter is evocative of Dante and Virgil’s time in the Malbolge. When Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim enter the bolgia, they see “two files of sinners,” which is reminiscent of the prisoners in Georgia, chained up in a single file line, and being forced to dig ditches. Ditches make an appearance in Inferno since each group of sinners is placed into different ditches based on what Dante would considered their deserved punishment. This ties into Dante’s idea of contrapasso because, in Beloved, the white guards believe that the Black men deserve their imprisonment for the crimes they committed against their slave owners, however, the similarities of these beliefs change. Morrison’s novel is rooted in the sense that enslavement and Paul D’s imprisonment weren’t something that the characters who experienced it deserved, but one that is happening to them; without their consent. As the rain rages on while the men are being forced to work, the guards lock them away in holes, which is representative of the sinners who were stuffed into holes shaped like baptismal fonts with their feet burning. Though the prisoners aren’t on fire, they do find themselves stuck in a hole, awaiting whatever fate befalls them. When the ditches begin to flood, the prisoners are able to escape without a trace due to the heavy rain. In another section of Malebolge, Dante watches the sinners “without an escort, [moving] along, one behind the other, like minor friars bent upon a journey,” which is distinctive of how Morrison explains the escape of the prisoners. They tug on their chains, following Hi Man out of the hole to freedom, one behind the other, and continue on in a single-file line until they reach the Cherokee people.
Aside from the many similarities between Paul D’s imprisonment and Dante’s cantos on Malebolge, Morrison also manages to recapitulate Inferno by mirroring her characters after those Dante the Poet used in Inferno; she uses the traits and characteristics of his characters to create more realistic and complicated characters of her own. When looking at Beloved, it is common to want to assign one of the characters as Virgil; someone who may guide the characters throughout the entirety of the novel just as Dante the Pilgrim’s guide leads him through the layers of Hell. However, as the pasts of Morrison’s characters get revealed, one realizes that there isn’t a singular Virgil. The characters in Beloved––Paul D and Sethe––all have different guides throughout the novel who help them through different aspects of their lives. In the Paul D imprisonment chapter, Paul D is guided by Hi Man, the Cherokee people, and the flowers he follows towards freedom in the North. When Sethe decides to escape from her enslavement, she relies on Amy to guide her through the night and help her give birth in the boat.
Not only does Morrison’s usage of a Virgil character differ from Inferno, but also the characters’ interactions with their Virgilian guide drastically varies from how Virgil and Dante interact on their journey through Hell. Since Sethe initially wasn’t expecting to gain help or support from someone on her journey to freedom, she was very wary of Amy, especially since Amy was a white woman. Through the night, Sethe’s uneasiness abates, allowing her to be more appreciative of Amy, even going as far as naming her newborn daughter after this guide. Through their time together, Amy and Sethe never divert from the path, whereas, Paul D seems to constantly stop following the flowers as a guide. He is a traveler at heart, and he knows (without really knowing) that they are taking him to 124––to Sethe––so he finds himself stepping off the path every now and then, but eventually he gets where he needs to be. Most of Morrison’s main characters seem to rely heavily on their guides, whereas, in Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim doesn’t think he relies on Virgil. Though he follows Virgil through the layers of Hell, Dante is under the impression that he’s the one in charge. Virgil also doesn’t have a moralistic ground as Dante’s guide, allowing Dante to stay rooted in his beliefs of contrapasso; treating the souls however he wishes and forcing them to retell their stories so he can write them down.
Paul D, specifically, changes in his experiences with guides in Beloved, from his time at the prison to the end of the novel. Paul D heavily relies on Hi Man as a guide both inside the prison and during the escape. Inside the prison, Paul D and all the prisoners rely on Hi Man in a literal sense because they follow his verbal signals to start and stop working but also in an emotional sense as his consistency helps them get through the torture they endure at the prison. In their escape, Paul D and the other prisoners are led by Hi Man towards salvation. As his story continues and his situation changes, however, Paul D begins to rely less on guides like Hi Man, and becomes a guide himself. He acts as a guide towards Sethe when he first arrives at 124, providing her support and the promise of a new, happier life together. His role as a guide for Sethe culminates, though, in his return to 124, when he helps Sethe move forward from her horrific past of killing Beloved by reminder her that she is her own “‘best thing.’” By showing that Paul D both needs a guide and can be a guide in Beloved, Morrison manipulates the Virgilian guide archetype. She shows that unlike in Inferno, where Virgil is indisputably the guide figure and Dante the Pilgrim is the follower, the characters of Beloved can be interchangeably guides and followers. In doing so, Morrison creates a more complex and realistic portrayal of human beings, especially for human beings who have experienced something as evil as enslavement.
In Beloved, we see conversations about characters and morality/ideology/belief in the ideas of Virgilian guides and of Contrapasso. Guides and mentors are something that everyone has in common. Anyone can tell you someone that influenced them, helped them, or guided them at some point in their life. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim finds the ultimate, true guide in Virgil, who is obviously someone who Dante the poet found really influential. However, Morrison brings in the idea that no guide can be true or perfect, because people’s needs and wants in a guide changes as they do. Morrison embodies this by giving each character several guides that are different depending on where the character is in their life and journey.
Showing that no guide in Beloved is perfect leads to one of the main themes in both Beloved and Inferno, which is what it means to be a good person. Dante’s solution to this is Contrapasso, where all people are punished in Hell in ways that are equal to and reflect their sins, so they have earned that punishment with their actions. Morrison seems to be really aware of this ideology as she thinks through Beloved and the specific challenges that her characters face. Obviously, the hell that was enslavement was not earned by anyone who was enslaved; however, this may not be Morrison’s main conversation with contrapasso, as she said in her interview with Mervyn Rothstein that this book is not about enslavement. A lot of the conversation seems to be revolving around the events that led to Paul D’s imprisonment and the events that transpired when Sethe killed her daughter. Paul D is sent to prison for attempting to kill his enslaver, which, in itself, is a justifiable action. His punishment for this, the prison in Alfred, Georgia, is cruel and barbaric, and is not at all justified by his “crime.” Sethe’s action in trying to kill her daughter and attempting to kill her other children is best moralized by Morrison’s statement in this interview: “It was absolutely the right thing to do… but she had no right to do it.” While the actions that Paul D and Sethe did are, by definition, similar, the contexts and situations could not have been more different. Sethe felt, and continues to feel, justified in her actions, but the “punishment” she faces in the violent ghost of the baby and the parasitic physical presence of Beloved that almost kills her is not in any way equal to what she does. This question of morality, sin, and punishment is one that tends to haunt us as people, as we move through life, and Morrison seems to be assuring her readers that their “punishments” may not be in any way connected to or reflecting the ways in which they have sinned.
Just like the characters in Beloved, we, as students, will experience different forms of guides in English 431 as we grow and change throughout the course. We have Dr. McCoy as a guide for navigating the intricate concepts with Morrison’s work and, for many of us, encountering Dante for the first time. We also have our peers to guide us as we work collaboratively, showing each other new ways to interpret the texts and reexamine our original thinking. But, analogous to Paul D switching from needing a guide during his time in prison to becoming a guide for Sethe at the end of the novel, we can take on the role of guide ourselves in this course. We can guide each other by giving feedback, inspiring/encouraging each other, and managing conflict if/when it arises, which are all behaviors that help to develop the competencies for career readiness that NACE states college graduates should strive for when entering the workforce. We can also guide ourselves by keeping ourselves on task, communicating clearly, and reflecting on our own strengths/weaknesses, more behaviors suggested by NACE. In this way, we can take the idea of guides as depicted in Beloved in relation to Dante’s Inferno, and develop lifelong skills that will help us tackle what we learn in English 431 and what we encounter in the workforce and beyond.
As I stand at the threshold of this course, nervous but ready to explore both the differences and similarities between Dante and Morrison’s work, I am wondering what will I be able to contribute to this course? What will my role in this journey be? What will I gain out of it? How will I view things after this course? Most importantly, who will I become after this course? I have so many thoughts and questions running through my mind while taking part in this course so early on. I am sure to have these questions answered throughout the course and surely will be able to reflect upon it at the end of the semester.
I have no background knowledge or experience in working with Dante besides hearing things from peers and friends who have taken courses about Dante. This far into the course I have already been able to see and connect references in Morrison’s Beloved to Dante’s works. When I have missed some connections my classmates sometimes would see things I was not and that was very stimulating and helped me to think about text’s more deeply and in different points of views. Through the course I am looking forward to challenging myself and improving my reading, writing, and observation skills. As I am standing in the threshold of this course I will continue to venture on with an open mind.
When reading the first Canto in Dante’s Inferno I must admit I was somewhat lost. The difficulty I was having spiraled from the thoughts “what is this really saying?”, “how does this have anything to do with Morrison’s Beloved?”, and the overwhelming thought of “wow this is the most challenging work I have ever read”. With all of these overwhelming thoughts of having to make connections from two completely different time periods, it took me taking a deep breath and realizing I can only try my best and I am not in this alone, that I was then able to start making and understanding connections.
One of the class discussions that has really resonated with me, is the connection of the seven deadly sins. The relationship between the seven deadly sins and the characters (or their actions) in Beloved relate to Dante as well. Dante encounters many different souls who are being punished for the deadly sin in which they are most guilty of during their life and are bound to eternal punishment. The sin that stood out to me the most in Beloved was pride. Sethe demonstrates pride in many ways throughout one is how prideful she is about killing her child and saving her from the enslaved life she lived. Right in the beginning of the reading I was already thinking “how can a mother love their child so deeply that killing them to protect them seems like the best choice they have?” In the article by the New York Times “Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel, Defends Women” we read “But mother love is also a killer” (paragraph 6). In the novel Sethe seems to hold onto her pride and almost lets it consume her bow because she was not allowed to feel that before. However, Paul D. challenges her pride when she is telling her story of her having enough milk for all her children. He tells her that she has two legs and not four and then leaves (Dr. McCoy’s class notes from February 8th). After the class discussion on this I was thinking more about how a mother’s love can be a killer? Is it because of the sacred bond of growing a human being inside of you that can make some mother’s love dangerous? Can it be over barring?
I am someone who finds numbers very important and meaningful so, when we were discussing number three in class it has had me thinking about it ever since. A thought that came to mind after class while I was driving to work was “bad things come in threes” and the opposite of the “good things happen in threes”. I have heard people say it both ways all my life and to me I thought about the relationship between Beloved, Sethe, and Denver. From pages 236 to 256 we hear from Sethe, then Denver, then Beloved, then on page 256 Beloved ends by saying “You are mine, You are mine, You are mine” these words gave me the chills. As Beloved says “You are mine, You are mine, You are mine” (256), she is describing the complexity of their relationship by saying it three times sticking to our theme of things coming in threes. Sethe plays the role of a mother to Beloved and Denver, Beloved plays the role of sister and a guide for Denver but to Sethe she is her “second chance” because she is making up with Beloved for her guilt she holds within. Denver plays the role of the guide and sister to Beloved, but also the “forgotten” because Sethe is not a very present mother to her like she is to Beloved. This forms a love triangle between the three of them. I am wondering if in the rest of the trilogy (seeing how trilogy means three) will we see the number three be an important factor until the end?
Standing in the threshold of what I feel will be a really great experience, class thus far has started calming my anxieties of starting a new course with new classmates and a new professor. As someone who worries about letting others around them down, the first couple weeks have ensured me that I will not do so in the duration of this course, instead I will be heard and guided through a journey. The class environment alone has made me feel as though I can relax and be involved in class without being criticized or made to feel inferior. I have much to learn and I am looking forward to having further small group discussions and collaboration along with full class discussions. I am looking forward to challenging myself to find connections between different texts and seeing myself grow as a not only a student but as a person as well.
Standing at the threshold of this course and an exploration of the commonalities between both Morrison and Dante’s text, the first word that comes to mind would be conversations. How are we in conversation with each other, with our own thoughts, and among our individual interpretations? Additionally, how are the texts we read in conversation with each other? This is one question which I know based on the dynamic of our course already will certainly be answered by the firmament.
Where my background in Morrison’s work is limited, my understanding of Dante’s work supplements this and I feel that this understanding of Dante will assist me in making the connections between Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Based on even these first few classes, I began to see how these texts are in conversation with each other as we read Beloved and recognize the parallels in Inferno. I’m most curious about explorations into the inspiration Morrison found in the 14th century epic poem and how this influenced her writing.
One conversation which I feel has proved my peers and I some difficulty, which only leads to further discussion and exploration, would be how a 14th century text could relate to a novel from the 20th century. At first glance, it was challenging to relate the two based on not only their differences in times of publication but in the authors and the stories they’re telling further. From such different eras and perspectives, how to analyze the texts even to begin with is a vastly different approach. However, when it came time to read Beloved, with my experience reading Dante it seemed to click and make sense even without these connections and conversations being introduced within our class meeting period. When we did discuss these texts together rather than separately, these connections became more comprehensible.
One of the connections that has occupied my thoughts while reading and analyzing both works would be the significance of numbers and the role they play amongst the words of both Morrison and Dante. What is the relevance of Dante’s 33 cantos among three books, the division of the parts of hell, and that first line of Beloved, “124 was spiteful” with a lack of the number three- similar to the absence of Sethe’s third child? In particular, Morrison’s conversations of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved between pages 236 and 256 revolving around these characters and their relationship to Beloved I saw to highlight this importance of three- especially the ending lines of this excerpt repeated thrice, “You are mine, You are mine, You are mine” (256). Here is where I truly began to more closely examine Morrison’s craft and how the relationships of these characters are shaped by their experiences, both past and present, on their journey. I related this much to Dante’s journey through the three parts of Hell and how his pilgrimage also takes place at a point in his life where there is a notion of confusion and being lost at a midpoint in life.
The concept of the journey is one which I can both observe in our readings as well as have experienced in my own life, connecting back to the idea of the conversations that we can engage in with literature. Class discussions have led me to understand the journey that these characters choose, such as Denver being confined to 124 and all she’s known and her departure or Paul D and his return following his egress. The journeys of the characters of Beloved and how they seem to serve somewhat ironically can be mirrored within my own journey recently. As a childhood education major, the culmination of my undergraduate studies I’ve always anticipated as student teaching my final semester and finishing my degree in the classrooms that I will someday soon be teaching in. However, having completed student teaching prior to my final semester and returning to college classes to finish my concentration in English almost seemed backwards initially as I stood at the threshold of the semester. I’ve been preparing myself to teach and felt so comfortable in that position that I was anxious upon returning to the routine of college classes and once again becoming a student. Nonetheless, I’ve found that to be far from the case even only a few short weeks into the semester. I’ve regained my confidence in working with peers to examine the literature we read outside of class and what we can then bring to our class discussions to work through the language and our different interpretations. This current part of my journey is one which I was apprehensive of, and although initially I was anticipating teaching so much so it’s all I wanted to get right back into following my experience in the classroom this past semester, it’s one I’ve found easy to settle back into. I’ve even found that this part is exceedingly rewarding, much like teaching has been for me. I enjoy the time I’m able to sit down and read literature which I know I won’t be focusing on necessarily as I teach third graders how to multiply and divide or about precipitation cycles. Where I was anxious to return back to the classroom as a student rather than a teacher, I’m reminded that one of the highest beliefs I hold as a future educator myself is that learning and growth is never linear and definitely as a teacher I also hold the role of student simultaneously. This reminds me of the duality of Dante as both pilgrim and poet, and myself as both a teacher as well as a student, and how these roles must be considered both separately as well as together.
I feel the conversations which I have engaged with in this class have all the more increased my sense of belongingness, that despite being ready for this next chapter of my life I am fully anticipating as well as cherishing the threshold that we stand in not only at the beginning of a new term but also as many of us are preparing for careers, new paths that we may not have planned for, the semester in general, or any of the journeys we face throughout our lives. I’ve enjoyed the many different interpretations of Beloved and Inferno based on not only our experience or lack thereof with these texts but also how our connections to the text can be made with our lived experiences. I’ve appreciated hearing and coming to a better understanding of the individuals that make up our class as this is valuable awareness to have especially in a class where it’s our relationships we bring to the texts we read that make these conversations all the worthwhile.
All in all, while thinking of the conversations which we have already began to discuss along with the collaborative projects that will be done this semester, I feel that the comfortability with looping back in this course proves to our advantage and reinforces my thoughts on the journeys we are taking within the course and outside- and how these may be more related than it may appear initially. At this threshold, I am eager to challenge myself and my thinking through the connections and conversations that arise from both Morrison and Dante’s work and am anticipating my final semester of my journey here at Geneseo to be most influential and transformative!
In the first few weeks of this semester’s classes, I have been thinking a lot about Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The concept of the story gripped me the moment I heard it. I was initially worried about the theme of infanticide, because it’s a very difficult thing for me to read, but once I read about the inspiration for the book, it became much easier to read about. The thing that most disturbs me about the topic is the sheer brutality of the action, but after reading Mervyn Rothstein’s article “Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel, Defends Women” in class, I was able to separate the violence of the action from the intention. Where as I had at first assumed that the murder of the child would be a villainous act with the intent to hurt them, my worries had been assuaged by the revelation that the act was one of mercy. The act as a whole, intentions and all, is neither wholly good nor bad, it rests in a moral threshold between admirable and admonishable. Sethe’s goal was not to hurt the child or abandon it, but to protect it, and due to the trauma she received in slavery, the best way for her to do that was to end its life. The context surrounding the topic made it easier to stomach it. I’m the kind of person who views the world in shades of gray rather than put everything into a category of black or white. Most things fall somewhere in the middle, on the threshold between good and bad, much like Sethe’s actions in Beloved.
A threshold isn’t just a middleground where point A meets point B, a threshold could be an entrance to a different place, literally and metaphorically. These first few weeks of the semester have been a threshold that I must cross in order to succeed in my classes. I must transition from my habits and the mindset I had been in over winter break into a mindset that will keep me motivated in my classes. It’s not an easy transition, and I tend to struggle with it every single semester, even after going to school for the last fifteen years of my life. I would say my biggest problem has been feeling as though I have to do everything by myself. Afterall, how am I going to prove that I am capable if I can’t do it on my own without any help or assistance? This mindset has not only affected my schoolwork but also how I deal with interpersonal problems and my own mental health. If I faced a problem by myself and manage to come out the other side, then I proved to myself that I could, and therefore, did not need any help going forward. This is not true. This only makes my life harder. A goal I have set for myself this semester is to stop doing that. I must recognize the fact that if I am the “Sethe” or “Dante” of my own story, I don’t have to traverse “Hell” by myself. I can look for help and find my “Stamp Paid” or “Virgil” to guide me through it and provide assistance when I need it.
Which now brings me to the topic of this essay. I think the way this class is graded is an excellent way of guiding students through a daunting level-400 english course while also ensuring they take responsibility for their own learning. It removes a significant amount stress from the class, allowing us to fully focus on the course material. Being graded on our growth puts emphasis on self improvement. The goal of the class is no longer to get an A, but to actually learn something from the class. It’ll allow students to fully absorb the material without fear of failure because the act of putting effort into learning is what their grade is based on. It puts the professor in the position of Virgil leading Dante through a dark and unfamiliar situation, which makes the “Hell” of schoolwork easier to bear. Without the burden of needing this essay to be perfect, I am able to get my thoughts out on paper and know that I will have the opportunity to improve my writing skills for future assignments. All this to say that I deeply apologize for the non sequitur that I’m about to move onto.
One topic that we discussed in class that I found interesting was that of Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death. In class, “social death” was defined as being targeted by the law without being protected by it. Obviously, this is specifically about slavery, but I see that idea present in all forms of oppression. In general racism that continues into modern day, there’s housing discrimination such as redlining and gerrymandering, there’s overpolicing of non-white neighborhoods, and strict drug laws that disproportionately affect people of color due to that very overpolicing. Social death also happens to women in the case of Roe v. Wade’s recent overturning. Women’s bodily autonomy is being restricted without further legislation to give them options in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. When it comes to transphobic legislation, lawmakers in many states are making gender-affirming healthcare less accessible without enforcing any legal protections for trans people, who are now in even more danger without being able to transition.
All in all, I’m looking forward to the rest of this class so that I may improve my structure when it comes to long essays like this one.
For my past seven semesters here at Geneseo, I have approached settling into my classes for the most part in the same way, with small variations as I advanced in my college career. Things like memorizing my class schedule, picking my “unassigned assigned” seat, deciding how to feel best prepared for each class, and so on. Now, three weeks into my final semester at Geneseo, one thing that has been made abundantly clear to me is how strongly I relied on found communities within my clubs and classes to ensure a successful semester. More specifically, a community within a classroom environment has been invaluable to me. Most commonly, my classmates and I may have a different reading of the text which in my experience requires trust on behalf of both parties that neither will intentionally act in bad faith. As a result of these found communities, I have established relationships that have kept me grounded throughout my college career which were particularly helpful during the pandemic and as we transitioned back into the in-person format. In this regard I would go on to say that pillars of community rely on trust to take care of each other. As I reflect on the communities that have impacted my life and my college career, I think it’s only fitting that we explore the communities that we witness throughout Toni Morrison’s novel: Beloved.
Despite House 124’s first depiction being “spiteful” (3), the audience learns that prior to the death of Beloved, the house served as the center of the community. At 124, the main way they interacted with their community revolved around the feasts and the labor of meals. For example, the audience follows Stamp Paid as he makes a treacherous journey to get blackberries for Baby Suggs: “He walked six miles to the riverbank… Scratched, raked and bitten, he maneuvered through and took hold of each berry.” (160). Here, the reader recognizes that Stamp Paid has risked his safety and well-being for the berries, and as several of my peers pointed out during in-class discussion, Stamp’s act of sharing the berries was incredibly nurturing, selfless, and neighborly. Luckily, Baby Suggs was thankful for his efforts so, “She had decided to do something with the fruit worthy of the man’s labor and his love.” (160). Through Baby Suggs, Morrison effectively conflates the act of labor to love, and thus, it was something that should be shared, just as Stamp Paid had done. This act of labor from Stamp Paid not only fed 90 people but it strengthened their community: “124, rocking with laughter…Giving advice, healing the sick, hiding fugitives, cooking, cooking, loving…” (161). What began as sharing love, transformed house 124 into a literal safe haven for members in their community. During these feasts, their comfort with each other encouraged them to be vulnerable, express their problems and receive advice – just as they would do for others. The community began to rely on each other for food, advice and joy. However, this sense of community at 124 was short-lived.
As the community flourished, the envy of some of its members caused an irreparable rift. While most of the community members appreciated the abundance of their feasts, a select few became envious: “Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess.” (163). The envious members maintained this position that Baby Suggs for one reason or another was not deserving of the abundance that she had, and consequently shared. And it was that envious attitude that can be identified as the direct cause for the death of Beloved, and thus the dissolution of the community. In that, if you excessively talk negatively about someone – consciously or not, you will act or fail to act on behalf of those feelings. The community of 124 was no different as they failed to warn Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid that the four horsemen had returned looking for Sethe. As Stamp Paid recounted the death of Beloved to Paul D, the audience learns why Stamp Paid couldn’t stop Sethe: “Not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in…Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special” (184-85). Here, we see that gone unchecked, the envy of some within the community prevented the saving of Beloved.
Although most of the novel centers around 124, Morrison is deliberate in demonstrating other communities to the audience through Paul D. He formed a community with 45 other enslaved men after he tried to kill Brandywine. While community typically has a positive connotation, in reality, that is not always the case. Sometimes, you build bonds of trust as a means of survival in situations that you are otherwise forced to be. In the case of Paul D, he was chained together with 45 men, so they needed to rely on each other. Here, the men were so in-tune with each other that they were able to communicate with their eyes: “They were the ones whose eyes said, ‘Help me, ‘s bad’… A man could risk his own life, but not his brother’s. So the eyes said, ‘Steady now,’ and ‘Hang by me.’” (128-29). As I researched the etymology of community and communication, it was no surprise that they both originate from the word “common,” but this just affirms to the audience how vital communication is to a community. Here, the men relied on their communication to keep each other alive. On the other hand, if anybody from the community at 124 had warned Baby Suggs about the arrival of the four horsemen, Beloved could have been saved. As we move forward in the semester and the novel, I look forward to exploring how communication may work to save communities, just as communication eventually freed the 46 chained men.
At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention the found Community or relationship between Denver and Beloved and its relation to Dante. As a result of her sister’s murder, she and Sethe were essentially isolated from the rest of the world, “I can’t live here…Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by.” (17). It is only when Beloved returns that Denver feels she finally has a companion who she cares for in house 124, “Denver tended her, and, out of love and a breakneck possessiveness hid…Beloved’s incontinence” (64). Immediately following her sister’s arrival, Denver was protective but also kept Beloved’s secret which involves layers of trust and intimacy often found in a community. However, when there is an exchange of trust between people, there is an opportunity for betrayal. As demonstrated in the chart of Dante’s Inferno, the ninth circle of Hell, also known as Cocytus, contains “Caina,” otherwise known as betrayers of kin. Following 18 years of solitude, Denver is incredibly attached, and even feels a sense of ownership over Beloved, so the mere thought of Beloved leaving her causes her to become upset. Upon losing her in the shed, and between tough swallows, Denver says, “Don’t. Don’t go back…I thought you left me. I thought you went back.” (145). Considering that Denver and Beloved are one of only pairs of siblings, I believe we are on the threshold of an upcoming betrayal between the two of them. My beliefs are confirmed even more when we consider Cocytus, the ninth circle of Hell, which Dante depicts as a lake of ice. Similarly, Morrison depicts a scene where Beloved, Denver and Sethe all venture out to skate on the ice near 124: “Holding hands, bracing each other, they swirled over the ice. Beloved…Denver… step-gliding over the treacherous ice.” (205). This scene shows them recklessly skating over the dangerous ice which signals to me that they are again dangerously close and have arrived at the threshold of betrayal.
On the thresholds of this class, my hope is that I can continue my tradition of establishing a community built on trust with my peers. As we saw with the communities from 124, with Paul D and between Beloved and Denver, they rely on each other’s vulnerability. And as Morrison depicts, the communities that thrived were the ones who communicated with each other. Being that this is only my second Morrison novel, I am excited to see how the other communities within the novel and the trilogy unfold as she continues to make intricate connections to Dante.
Bailey 204 is a vestibule. A room we will inhabit for the present moment that will lead us into our future selves. As current and future writers, graduates, and productive citizens, this room and its inhabitants stand on a threshold of understanding. These first few weeks of class, we have had valuable conversations in class, that makes me feel confident that, as a group, we will come to a fuller understanding of the texts we engage with, the symbolic implications of that text, and the practical skills that will come from comprehending that text and applying our self-evaluative skills as well as our writing abilities. Of the text as we begin our journey into Morrison’s work and engage with “Beloved,” I have found the text to be profoundly insightful and empathetic to the plight of its characters. The text is heavy, as discussions of slavery are due to the horrors enacted under it. Still, beyond that, I believe the text provides a deep understanding of human flaws and how they exist due to how a person’s circumstances shape them and how they respond to the individual traumas levied at them. At the beginning of this class, the threshold I stand in will take me toward empathy, skill, and comprehension, both as a lesson from the pieces and from the practical application as I foray into our self-evaluative and communal discussions.
At my first ingress into Morrison’s work, I noted the article concerning the historical inspiration for “Beloved” as extremely valuable to my experience, particularly as it gave context for the novel’s events alongside the actual events which touched real people in history. The article “Margaret Garner and the Complexities of Slavery and Gender” by Jessica Parr details another author who wrote about Margaret Garner, Niki M. Taylor, and Taylor’s impressions of Garner’s story, considering the legal facts of the trial as well as the response she was given by the public, and the reaction to the trauma of slavery which caused Garner to take action. Parr wrote, “As a society, we are not generally conditioned to feel sorry for a woman who kills her child.” This quote stuck with me because it accurately depicts how the dominant culture behaves; we often ignore the reasons behind an action in favor of the direct moral dilemma in front of us. In this instance, in particular, Margaret Garner’s act was reprehensible. Still, as I discussed earlier, this preconceived notion concerns the threshold to empathy and understanding. Margaret Garner was operating under impossible circumstances, one that was, and should not have been, coopted by racist ideology. Her actions came from a place of love and fear that her children would have to experience the slavery she had fought to protect them from. Works like Morrisons give a symbolic voice to those oppressed and vilified and implore its readers to understand the reasons behind the actions and how the pressures of circumstance may incline someone to undertake heinous acts.
Parr’s article, as paired with the piece “Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel, Defends Women” by Mervyn Rothstein, gave me, as a reader, an insight into the historical context and writing process that I would not have otherwise had. Rothstein details Morrison’s writing process in this quote: “The novel is not, she said, about slavery. ‘Slavery is very predictable,’ she said. ‘There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it, or you don’t. It can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.’” Morrison’s depiction of slavery is striking and upsetting, but the piece is not about slavery; as she stated above, slavery is the conduit of trauma that shaped how the players in the novel operated and how they lived their lives. This was valuable to me at the outset because of how often slavery is mentioned in the piece, how the horrors of slavery become their own setting, their own presence in the novel, and this early reading showed me that despite the heavy presence looming overhead, that fundamentally, slavery had been a trauma, one that affected the characters, and real people to this day; however, slavery did not permanently take away the agency of the enslaved people who operated under it, and at the core, enslaved people were always first and foremost people, with their own faults and traumas and hopes and dreams, which Morrison aims to highlight in this piece.
Reading the novel has been an exceptional experience, as it is a profound exploration of its characters, its history, and the masterful way Morrison writes and creates an environment that simultaneously marks the flaws of its characters while providing an explanation for why they behave in the way that they do as individuals and socially. Reading the novel, I was caught off guard by the sensitive topics depicted in the novel, as they are difficult to imagine and harder still to know these atrocities impacted real people, but I think Morrison’s handling of the topic was essential in allowing her readers to understand her characters, the trauma they experienced, and their rationale for the actions they took throughout the novel, even if- and indeed when, those actions exceeded the bounds of decency.
The idea of sins in the novel was interesting because the characters often exemplify the 7 deadly sins in their behaviors. Sethe, for example, is a highly prideful character. She does not ask for help or sympathy and feels justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect the things she is proudest of- her children. Paul D. is lustful, having a sexual relationship with the woman his partner sees as a daughter. Denver is slothful; she always stays home and does not work. Beloved is greedy, particularly for attention, especially from Sethe, and she is also envious of Paul D. and drives him out for it. These sins are all explained by the individual’s past and how the events that have occurred previously have triggered a response in those committing the sin. Sethe couldn’t be proud because of the effects of enslavement, so she clung to her pride the moment she was allowed to have it, even to her detriment. Paul D. spent years unable to marry because he was constricted by enslavement.
Denver is slothful because she fears her mother and waits for her father, ““All the time, I’m afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again… Whatever it is, it comes from outside this house, outside the yard, and it can come right on in the yard if it wants to. So I never leave this house, and I watch over the yard, so it can’t happen again, and my mother won’t have to kill me too.” (Morrison 306) Beloved is greedy because she was taken from her mother multiple times, craves that affection (while also resenting Sethe for the abandonment), and is envious because she wants to be noticed by the mother she was separated from. These reasons do not excuse the sin but demonstrate why the sins happened in the first place. This character complexity is a brilliant part of Morrison’s work, and I think it reflects the way we should approach people in good faith by not necessarily excusing the sin but understanding why the sinner sinned in the first place and having empathy for the traumas that they experienced.
One of the things I thought was notable from our class discussion on Wednesday was the idea of possession around Beloved, Denver, and Sethe, which is demonstrated in the quote, ““You are my sister/ You are my daughter/ You are my face; you are me/ I have found you again; you have come back to me/ You are my beloved/ You are mine/ You are mine/ You are mine” (Morrison 322). The possession in the way that Beloved, Denver, and Sethe talk about each other really resonates because, from the perspective that Beloved was a young child when she died, she was still physically in a development state where she needed her mother, to the point of identifying herself and her mother as one person. Still, more than that, when there is a home full of people who have never been able to love fully, completely, and without reserve, it follows that at the first opportunity, they want to exert all of the closeness they had been closed off from. Sethe had never been able to experience such intimacy because of her enslavement, where she could have lost anyone or anything at any time; Beloved had only one love in her mother, which she could not experience fully because of her separation from her mother (in escape and in her death); Denver could only love her mother from a distance because of her fear of her that if Sethe could kill one child, she could kill another. Unfortunately, this love is not healthy, as demonstrated by the similarities to Satan (three heads on one body), as discussed in class, and how this possession of each other allows them to lose their individuality.
In this class, I am excited to continue exploring the material and its meaning, especially as I find our discussions in class to be thought-provoking and productive. Exercises such as this essay, the writing of which was a challenging experience without a direct point to make or prove, feels like an exercise that will allow me to grow as a writer and better understand my limits and goals. This threshold into the semester has been exceptional, and I look forward to pushing forward further into the material and the semester.
Something that I have been thinking about during these first few classes is how intertwined our lives and fates can be with one another. The idea that humans are so deeply connected with one another can be terrifying to think about, yet also so fascinating. You never know when meeting someone if they will end up being an important part of your life, whether that ends up being negative or positive. While I have not yet read the entirety of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this already seems to be a prevalent theme throughout the novel. All of the characters’ lives are so deeply intertwined with each other, some on multiple levels, that both their actions and feelings greatly affect those around them. As the main character, Sethe has the most connections. She has deep and complex relationships with Denver, Beloved and Paul D, as well as many of the other characters in the novel. Despite knowing each character for different lengths of time and having very different types of relationship with them, Sethe still has intense connections with each one of them.
Being in close proximity to one another causes all four of these characters’ fates to be intimately connected in ways both seen and unseen in the novel. Every decision, whether it is positive or negative, will also end up affecting the other three people who live in the house. A big example from Beloved is when Paul D shows up on their doorstep to see Baby Suggs, and Sethe lets him stay. This action not only impacts Sethe but also greatly affects Denver’s everyday life, as well as Beloved when she shows up a little while later. Almost immediately after being welcomed into their home, Paul D ends up scaring the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby away, something that very much displeases Sethe and Denver. The addition of Paul D into 124 causes immediate disruption of the daily life that Sethe and Denver have come to know. While Sethe does not really seem to have a problem with this in the beginning, Denver clearly does not like having Paul D around. Despite her daughter’s clear discontent, Sethe does not make Paul D leave or do all that much to stop him from treating her a certain way. Paul D being in the house also impacts Beloved’s life, even if Sethe does not really know it. Paul D’s presence at 124 is basically the catalyst for the entire narrative of Beloved because he scares the ghost baby away and causes Beloved to essentially rise from the dead.
Along with this, I have also been thinking about how these connections with those around us can inform our actions and emotions in many different ways. Sethe wanted to keep her children safe and out of slavery, which led to her killing one of her children. Halle saw his wife get assaulted and did nothing to stop it, causing him to go mad. Denver immediately feels protective of Beloved even though she did not fully know that they were sisters. The people around us can greatly impact who we are and the things we do, even if we do not realize it. This can be both positive and negative, and many of the examples that Morrison gives us lean more towards negative. These connections can also end up causing tensions in relationships. The biggest example of this from Beloved that I can think of is Sethe’s difficult decision to murder her infant daughter in order to protect her from the horrendous life of slavery. This decision, while made with the best of intentions, ends up affecting Sethe’s relationships with almost every other character in the novel, as well as with seemingly everyone she knew. One of the most obvious examples of this is with Paul D, who at first staunchly refuses to believe that Sethe would have the capacity to do something so horrific. When Stamp Paid is trying to tell him about what happened, he just keeps denying what is right in front of him, saying that the woman in the picture cannot be Sethe, refusing to see her for the person who actually is: “‘This ain’t her mouth. I know her mouth and this ain’t it.’ Before Stamp Paid could speak he said it and even while he spoke Paul D said it again. Oh, he heard all the old man was saying, but the more he heard, the stranger the lips in the drawing became” (Morrison 183). When he finally comes to terms with the fact that this is something she did and that she does not seem to be very regretful of it, in fact she is almost proud of her decision, he leaves 124 and essentially abandons Sethe, Denver and Beloved. Paul D is completely unable to understand Sethe and why she does the things she does, and this misunderstanding between the two creates distance that may not ever be filled. I think it is very interesting how there are some people who you can fully understand the actions and feelings of, and then there are others who make no sense to you as people, who you are consistently baffled by. There are many people in my life who I feel that I understand pretty well, and yet there are also many who I do not understand at all and regularly am bewildered by, even if I have known them for a long time. Sometimes there are just people who you will never fully understand. While that is something that can certainly be frustrating, I think it is also really fascinating because there is always more to learn about them and their perspective. Not understanding someone completely can be a new opportunity to listen and try to see the world or a situation in a different way. It is important to keep an open mind, which is something that Paul D definitely does not have when it comes to Sethe. When Paul D looks at Sethe, all he can see is the person who he wants her to be, and the strong woman that she is does not fully fit with that idea. He is not even open to the idea of hearing her reasoning and will not keep in mind that she was put in an impossible situation.
I am very interested to see how this theme may continue to occur in Morrison’s other works, as well as possibly in Dante or some of the other pieces that we will be reading this semester. This is a theme that I feel is often in many works of art, however it often seems to be overlooked by a lot of people. The basis of it is all about human connection, which is something that has always intrigued and interested me. The ways in which we interact and inform each other’s lives is something so beautiful and interesting that is purely a product of the human condition. Our lives can be extremely intertwined with those around us, yet we can also be completely separate from someone and know nothing about them. Much of the time we do not even know the ways in which we affect other people’s lives, especially with people we do not personally know very well. Even with people we know, sometimes those connections go deeper than we could possibly see. The fact that humans’ lives are so intrinsically weaved together is endlessly fascinating to me, and I always enjoy seeing it represented in different types of media. Individual stories always have a different way of showcasing the complexity of human relationships, and Morrison’s version of this really interests me. I am very excited to see how this theme may be relevant to the stories in Jazz and Paradise, as well as how similar yet different the connections between characters will be to those in Beloved.