A Guide For ThinkING in English 431

Kathleen McCarey

Dr. Beth McCoy

February 9, 2023

Thresholds Essay

431 was enticing. English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy, that is. Standing at the threshold of graduation, I already completed all of my requirements for the English major, but alas, I could not imagine a semester where I did not have an English class. We’ve already discussed in the few weeks of this class the idea of a life perseverer, something to grasp onto for dear life in times of uncertainty or when you seem to have lost your way. For me, my English classes here at Geneseo have been that life perseverer. When I become overwhelmed with school or athletics, I have always been able to ground myself in an English reading or think back to a particular lesson in class to distract me from an outside stressor. Having previously taken a class with Dr. McCoy, I knew English 431 was a class where I would be pushed to truly be thinkING in my studies. I relished in the idea of returning to a classroom where I could be stimulated in intellectual discussions, where myself and my peers were held to high standards that helped us to achieve the kind of conversations that resulted in leaving class feeling accomplished and having further enhanced our understanding of the text. This is the level of thinkING that I crave. Already in these first few weeks of class, this course has started me in the act of thinkING about Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a stand alone novel as well as its relation to Dante’s Inferno.

            Prior to starting Beloved, I had no knowledge of what the book was about. When I discovered that it would be used in conversation with Dante’s Inferno, I could not even begin to guess how these two seemingly unrelated works could share anything in common. However, I trusted that although I did not see the connection now, I would be guided and led caringly to see how intricate Morrison’s work was to include elements of Dante’s Inferno. This sense of having a guide would come to act as one of the life preservers of the two authors’ coupling of ideas.

            The elements of guides are heavily present in Dante’s Inferno and Morrison’s Beloved and was one of the initial connections that got me thinkING of the texts together in relation. At the threshold of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey in “Canto I”, he is unsure of the path to take and lost in the woods of hell, is met with beasts. Virgil speaks calmly to the lost pilgrim, stating: “I think it best you follow me/for your own good, and I shall be your guide/and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114). Lost in hell, Dante the Pilgrim relies on Virgil as he guides him through the inferno. The element of guides is present throughout Morrison’s own work. While the setting may not be an obvious hellscape as the one depicted in Inferno, the characters in Beloved need assistance in navigating their own personal levels of hell.

            In connection to Dante, the first obvious character who Morrison provides with a guide is Sethe. Having first been guided to the river by a runaway whitegirl by the name of Amy, the sick and frightened Sethe and her newborn baby are found by Stamp Paid. Like Dante the Pilgrim alone in the woods of hell relying on the help of Virgil to save him, Sethe has no choice but to place her trust in Stamp Paid. He takes her to Ohio and “he helped her up the steep bank, while the boy without a jacket carried the baby who wore it. The man led her to a brush-covered hutch with a beaten floor” and says to her “‘Wait here. Somebody be here directly. Don’t move. They’ll find you” (Morrison 107). From Amy to Stamp Paid, Sethe and her baby are entrusted in the care of Ella. Sethe is able to escape the hell that is Sweet Home and rejoin her children and mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. The beasts that Dante had to face are no match for the horrors inflicted upon Sethe by Schoolteacher and the other white men at Sweet Home. However, Dante the Pilgrim’s remark of hell as “a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer./But if I could show the good that came of it/I must talk about things other than good” resembles how Sethe struggles with returning to the memories of the torture she endured at Sweet Home and instead focuses on her happy memories when she reconnects with Paul D (Dante 7-9). Sethe recounts how Sweet Home had a “shameless beauty” and how “it never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7). Morrison’s artfully crafted work demonstrates the true meaning of hell on Earth. While Dante the Pilgrim is forced to navigate the depths of hell, Sethe must live her life in conditions comparable to hell. Both Dante and Sethe are led out of their suffering by guides who show them the way and lighten the load they are burdened with carrying. 

            While Paul D acts as a guide steering Sethe towards happiness in the opening of the novel, he also relies on a guide in his escape from enslavement, his own hell. While enslaved in Georgia, Paul D is chained to forty-five other men, all forced to work under hellish conditions. The men look to one enslaved man to guide them, Hi Man. Paul D recounts how he “believed to this day that the ‘Hiiii!’ at dawn and the ‘Hoooo!’ when evening came were the responsibility Hi Man assumed because he alone knew what was enough, what was too much, when things were over, when the time had come” (Morrison 127-128). Paul D and the other men look to this man to guide them when they themselves must endure the cruelest of punishments. It is Hi Man who ultimately leads them to their freedom as well. Paul D explains how “someone yanked the chain – once – hard enough to cross his legs and throw him into the mud” and how “one by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping” (Morrison 130). The men follow their guide blindly, believing that he shall lead them out through hell and into freedom. Paul D says how he and the other men “trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Morrison 130). Similar to how Sethe’s three guides led her out of enslavement and into the welcoming arms of her children and mother-in-law, Hi Man led the men who were chained to him, enduring the same hell on Earth he was, out of the depths of hell and into the light of freedom. 

            Just as how Morrison and Dante provide their characters with guides to lead them into freedom, the life preservers in the class that Dr. McCoy provides, enhances the understanding of the text, and offers a light at the end of the tunnel. When Morrison or Dante can seem difficult to comprehend, returning to themes such as love and justice, which were discussed in the first few class periods, as well as themes of guides and thresholds, provide a sense of understanding. As Paul D had blind faith that Hi Man would lead him out of their own personal hell, I feel as though I can place my trust in the good faith practices of this class to be guided to understandings of the connection between Dante and Morrison that I may not fully understand this early in the semester. 

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