As a self-proclaimed “avid reader”, there is nothing I enjoy more than settling down with a cup of tea and a good story that has the ability to whisk me away from the troubles of the real world. When selecting the singular English class to weave into my education-heavy course load this semester, I was drawn to the Toni Morrison label. Simply just a name I’ve encountered in passing, I had absolutely no knowledge or experience with Morrison, especially paired with Dante Alighieri, whose works I only pretended to read during my Humanities course. For the first time in my Geneseo career I would be reading mostly fiction, and the naïve bookworm in me couldn’t be more excited. I say naïve because I was unprepared for the heaviness of Morrison’s words and the absolute masterful craftsmanship that she must be known for. While I stand at the threshold I must abandon any ideas I had about what this course might look like, and fully embrace the unfamiliar.
Every time I approach a new semester, I have one foot planted in the past and one foot hesitantly testing the waters before diving into the brisk and jarring cold water of what’s to come. I too am Dante lost in the dark wood seeking a guide to paradise. This semester feels different, as it is my last semester in the role of the student before I begin student teaching in the fall and take on a completely different role. This course was intentionally selected to serve as an escape from all my education courses as I hoped to find solace with like minded individuals from different career paths that share a passion for text-based discussions. So far, class discussions have completely caught my attention, making time irrelevant as comments and questions pinball around the classroom. The connections between Dante and Morrison have become increasingly clear and I can say comfortably that I’m beginning to understand how they both examine love as something with the potential to harm, and so much more. From what I’ve read so far, Beloved is such a unique and harrowing story of a brave mother facing the aftermath of the hardest decision of her life and while the connections to Dante are not apparent at first glance, with educated and scholarly discussions, the class as one singular body is able to begin unweaving the intertwined stories.
To get through this course together, the class as a whole must be willing to embark on a journey of honesty and understanding, recognizing everyone’s unique paths that have brought them here for this moment. While our destinations are all different, this class has been selected as a stop along the road, even though it might not be a straight and simple path, “‘But you must journey down another road,’ he answered, when he saw me lost in tears, ‘if ever you hope to leave this wilderness’” (Dante Canto 1). Dante, just like Sethe in Morrison’s Beloved, is on the less traveled path, encountering situations unknown to other people. Dante himself scales the body of Satan in search of paradise, and Sethe takes the life of her children into her own hands when she kills her Beloved to protect her from a life of enslavement. Each individually experiences their own personal hell and when they initially cross the threshold, nothing is the same.
Something I’ve been thinking about while reading Beloved in conjunction with Dante is the idea of each person’s individual description of hell. When our class comes together for a short period of time every week, I’m sure we all have different ideas of what hell might look like. Maybe it’s multiple exams and essays in one week, maybe it’s a long shift at work or walking all the way home in the snow. Maybe it’s something bigger like what Dante experiences when he witnesses, “These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears” (Dante Canto III). While this image is intended to haunt the reader and leave them dreading the possibility of this eternal slumber, I personally find nothing more haunting than the personal hell described in Beloved. I have read many books where the protagonist is haunted by past mistakes and while there are parallels between these characters, the pain felt by Sethe in 124 is unlike nothing I’ve encountered before. Here in this house, which was supposed to be her fresh start, she is haunted by her past life and the presence of her missing children, “‘I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running—from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth. I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something, Paul D Garner: it cost too much! Do you hear me? It cost too much. Now sit down and eat with us or leave us be”’ (Morrison, 18). While others in the book have tried to shame Sethe, saying what she did was wrong and that there was another way, nobody will ever be able to fully put themselves in Sethe’s shoes and understand the choices that she had to make were best for her children. We as a class have to strive to not assume to know someone else’s story and assume best intentions from everyone as we explore Morrison’s words.
Compared to other stories that I have read, none have forced me to be as attuned to hidden messages as I have been while reading Beloved in tandem with Dante’s Inferno. Something that was raised in class was the incorporation of the seven deadly sins into Morrison’s work. Specifically pride, as seen in both Inferno and Beloved. If I were reading this on my own, I would be reading for completion, not for comprehension or exploration of weaved messages. Sethe struggles with excessive amounts of pride, which to others like Paul D is viewed as misplaced. While I talk of assuming good intentions, I don’t see anything worth defending in Paul D, who exists in a cloud of self-righteousness talking like he knows better than Sethe, ‘“What you did was wrong, Sethe.’ ‘I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?’ ‘There could have been a way. Some other way.’ ‘What way?’” (Morrison 194). If Dante or Virgil were reading this, they would comment on the idea that all things in excess, like pride or love are punishable offenses while Sethe defends her actions, as she has had to make decisions no mother should have to. This is in contrast to the beginning when Sethe appears standoffish about her actions, referring to her baby as an “it”, never by name. This shift, where Sethe is prideful and defensive of her actions, shows that Sethe might be moving on from this loss, feeling acceptance that the choice she made was the right one.
As we approach the end of this novel, I am wondering about where Morrison will leave Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. I believe that we as a class are rather in agreement that Beloved is the spirit of Sethe’s lost baby reincarnated. I feel concern for Sethe and her newly found family and wonder what will come of them as the novel concludes. I’m very familiar with the iconic “happily ever after” that leaves me satisfied at the end of my favorite books, but Sethe herself has presented me with the idea that this might not be the ending granted to her and her family, “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love” (Morrison 54). Sethe has unfortunately become well-versed in the temporary love that enslaved people had to deal with, as they never experienced feelings of true and genuine safety, even when tasting a semblance of freedom. Morrison is preparing her audience for an ending that I can’t feel confident speaking about, and as I pick up the novel to continue, I sip my tea and wait with bated breath, hoping that Sethe, Denver, and Beloved get the endings they deserve.