Abandon All Previous Conceptions Ye Who Reads Morrison’s Books

Before the start of this class, before I looked upon the threshold, before my eyes glazed over any words of Dante, I had attempted to read Toni Morrison. I was a high school student, trying to walk through that doorway of adulthood, and I found that the only way to truly understand what it meant to be an adult was to read the stories and authors that everyone else was reading. The first Toni Morrison book I purchased was God Help The Child, and I read about half of the book then I decided that I wasn’t the right audience to enjoy the content, so when I was recommended to read Beloved I jumped at my chance to finally enjoy a Toni Morrison book. I wanted to read it simply because it was seen as a classic, not the sort of classics that we were taught in those days––not the canon––but a classic in its own right. It was a book to read if you truly wanted to be a reader. A book that would open you up to ideas and content you never bothered to read or think about. I was ready for that––or at least I thought I had been. Looking back, I realize that I never cared to read Morrison’s work because of her genius, rather, I wanted to complete it. I wanted to tell everyone that I had read a Morrison book (and Beloved nonetheless). 

I also thought that seeing what the works of a successful Black author were like would help me become the writer that I wanted to be. But I couldn’t make it through the book. I found myself at the threshold, a few pages into Beloved, excited to continue reading, but still not having the mindset or the energy to pick it up and continue. To learn about Sethe or Denver or Sweet Home. To find out if Beloved was the “crawling-already?” baby. To study Morrison’s writing and enjoy her books. I never made it past the third or maybe the fourth chapter (or maybe it was the fourth page), and the book became buried in the crates and bins with all of my other books. Long forgotten until I fished it out in response to taking this class. I was very thrilled to be reading Toni Morrison again, but I found a creeping feeling there that I would get to that initial point in Beloved where I could no longer continue for the sake of enjoyment and it would become a task simply for this class. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to walk through that doorway, that I would be stuck at the threshold. 

However, as we finish up Beloved, I find myself excited to read ahead. I find that first intrigue bubbling back up and encouraging me to read until I have reached the last page. I look back at my initial try and I think it was because I didn’t have peers to contemplate the contents of the book with that stopped me short of enjoying it fully. In the last class, we discussed what circle of betrayers would Sethe, Paul D., Denver, and Beloved fall into. From this discussion, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the main character’s motives and desires. Since Caina is the part of Cocytus dedicated to people who betrayed their relatives, we originally deemed Sethe as a member of this group since she killed her child, and attempted to kill the others––betraying the trust and love of their mother. However, when you take into account her reasoning for performing infanticide––helping her children escape slavery and the life that she had run away from––things become a bit less black and white. With that being said, can one fault her for this? As Toni Morrison said, “[Sethe did] the right thing…but she had no right to do it.” While morally, she had betrayed her children, her husband, and even Baby Suggs, how could she not have had that right when white people during this time period had the right to lynch black people? What is the difference? Where is the law? Taking all of this into consideration, I believe that Sethe may have fallen into this particular place in Cocytus, however, I also believe that Denver could be seen as a betrayer of her relatives––specifically Sethe. Denver has an inkling of who Beloved might be, but she keeps it to herself. She even goes as far as to say that “the choice between Sethe and Beloved was without conflicting,” insinuating that she would choose a stranger over her mother. That she would watch Beloved choke her mother on Baby Suggs’s rock if it meant having company and companionship because Denver refuses to go back to the overwhelming loneliness she felt before the arrival of this stranger. Could Sethe not also find herself in Tolomea––the part of Cocytus dedicated to those who betray their guests? While she doesn’t betray Paul D. or Beloved outright, can’t a withholding of information be indicative of a betrayal? She knew why all of her neighbors and the Black people in the town avoided her and Denver, but she never uttered anything of the unfortunate events surrounding her child’s death to Paul D. She allowed him to remain ignorant in his knowledge of everything and is that not a betrayal? 

Aside from the talks of the Cocytus, I am starting to understand the vast parallels between Beloved and Dante’s Inferno. When we look at the characters who mirror Virgil, acting as a guide for other characters, many people stand out. In Sethe’s life, Amy acted as a Virgil on the night surrounding Denver’s birth, guiding Sethe through the fields toward the house they spent the night in, and even further on toward the boat. Amy protects Sethe from impending death, soothing her swollen feet and beaten back, and making a makeshift sling for Denver. I also thought Amy had characteristics of Charon since she ferried her through the terrain toward the water for freedom, however, looking back now, I think someone who encompasses Charon more would be Stamp Paid. His entire job centers around carrying runaways by boat to Ella and John in hopes of helping them find freedom. He is just as much of a guide (a Virgil), but his job is done when they get across the river, which makes him more akin to the mythological character than to Dante’s companion during his trip through hell and purgatory. I have also come to think of Beloved herself as a guide for Denver. There are things that Denver never bothered to learn about her mother’s time at Sweet Home, but now she finds herself eager to know simply because Beloved wants to know. She also looks to Beloved for everything, including friendship. When Beloved disappears in the shed for a split second, Denver has a fit, not wanting this to be the end of what they have because if Beloved left––truly went back to wherever she walked out of––then Denver would find herself alone yet again and with no one’s company to enjoy. In a sense Beloved is guiding Denver’s loneliness, helping her feel like she belongs not only at 124, but also in others’ company. 

We’ve talked quite a bit about contrapasso’s which, according to Dante, is the idea that the punishment fits the crime equally. In this idea of the contrapasso, Dante the pilgrim believes that those who are in hell deserve to be there due to the makings of their own choices. This idea is brought up in Beloved when Amy is talking to Sethe and she says, “You must of did something,” which is in response to the tree on Sethe’s back. This line alludes to the idea that Sethe’s lashings were a fitting punishment for whatever crime she must have committed to deserve such a thing. This opens one’s eyes to the overall idea of slavery: that enslaved people have committed some crime to have been enslaved, which we know not to be true, but reasons well with Dante’s idea of contrapasso. We can see Dante’s inability to accept other people’s crimes and set them apart from their punishments when he goes through Cocytus. Dante relentlessly asks the suffering souls why they are there––what act they had committed––and then proceeds to pull their hair or threaten them until they tell him. He is neither sympathetic nor caring, not believing that they deserve his pity because whatever life they led is represented by the space they occupy in hell. 

All of this thinking and interpreting brings me to the forefront of this class: how are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Morrison’s Beloved (and Jazz and Paradise) coincide with one another? Is it in the form of the characters themselves? Do Morrison’s characters represent one specific character in Dante’s Divine Comedy or are there just bits and pieces of their characteristics sprinkled throughout Morrison’s trilogy? As we continue to delve into this subject and the course material, I find myself making my connections, not only to the works presented to us but also to the things I have learned in other classes. The scene when Beloved leaves the water reminds me of what happened in Lagoon when the Ayodele walks out of the water for the first time and the two witnesses watch her. While it isn’t the same thing, this can be seen as an alien (Ayodele)––or a spirit(Beloved)––taking root in not only the lives of the characters, but also in the place where everything is happening. As I stand on the threshold of this class, continuing to delve deeper into Morrison’s other works, I hope I can discard my initial thoughts of reading her books just to say I have read her/to say I am a reader of classics. I hope to find further connections between Morrison’s works and Dante’s works, and connect them back to many of the other things I have discussed, interpreted, or come across while here at Geneseo.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.