Moving Backwards and Forwards Through Thresholds

When I entered through the threshold of English 431 (the doorway into Bailey 204) on my first day of spring semester classes, I expected to find myself steamrolling solely in the direction of the future, which for me is graduating in May and beginning to enter the workforce as a teacher. Or, at least, I expected to be focusing on my present, which consists of me taking the last English class I will ever take and a few other required courses at SUNY Geneseo. Instead, as I reread Dr. McCoy’s syllabus and browsed my previous blog posts on, I was transported to the past. 

As mere happenstance, I began, and am now ending, my college career with an English class taught by Dr. McCoy. I started my fall semester as a first-year student in Dr. McCoy’s English 203: Reader and Text class on the works of Percival Everett, and now I am finishing my spring semester senior year with English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy. This inverted symmetry reminds me of the literary device, chiasmus (a term introduced to me by Dr. Graham Drake in his class on the Bible due to its frequent appearance in biblical literature). Because of this chiasmus-like situation, I am directly confronted with how I began as a student and as a reader/writer at Geneseo as I end both journeys. 

I have been recalling how I felt and what I thought in English 203 and reflecting on how I may have a changed perspective in English 431. I remember my fears of inadequacy in my writing and in my abilities as a student in general as a first-year. Back then I wondered: What if I can’t understand the books we read? What if my writing is not at the college level? Is college even for me? Now, I feel more assured in my reading and writing abilities, but I am not free from all insecurities. I still question: Has my writing improved? Will I be able to apply the skills I have learned in college to my future career? 

In reflecting on my past experience in English 203 as I stand at the thresholds to English 431, I am reminded that a threshold, which can mean both a point of entry and/or a doorway/ gateway, swings both backwards and forwards– sometimes concurrently. In other words, when it seems like you are crossing a threshold to the future, your past may find you there, waiting for you to face it. While reading and thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the elements of Dante’s Inferno that, as Dr. McCoy notes in her class notes from February 1st, Beloved may be read as being in conversation with, I notice this forwards/backwards motion of thresholds, where when one thinks they may be moving in one direction, they are actually moving towards another. Especially in Beloved, the inescapability of the past becomes evident as characters try to cross thresholds forward. 

The characters of Beloved, whether consciously or subconsciously, resist memories of their horrific past as they attempt to make a life for themselves outside of enslavement. Paul D tucks the obscene images from a prison in Alfred, Georgia and the taste of an iron bit at Sweet Home into a “tobacco tin lodged in his chest.” Baby Suggs can only seem to recall, of all the details of her eight children, that her eldest was fond of the bottom of burned bread. And Sethe, who slit the throat of her own baby to protect her from being subjected to enslavement, has forgotten the language her own mother spoke, forgotten many memories of her two boys, and “forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl,” who she killed. Despite their resistance, however, the past haunts the characters of Beloved– literally and figuratively– as they try to move forward. 

The most obvious haunting of the past in Beloved is the arrival of Beloved, the dead daughter who was killed by Sethe, at house 124. Beloved arrives just when Sethe stands at the thresholds of possibly beginning a life with Paul D. Paul D, having just recently arrived at 124 himself, insists that he, Sethe, and Sethe’s youngest daughter, Denver, attend a visiting carnival together. At the carnival, Sethe notices how Paul D’s charming presence eases the tension between her and the rest of the community and allows fun into her and Denver’s life. She wonders if the three of them could build “a life.” It is when the three of them are walking home, and Sethe observes their shadows holding hands, that they find Beloved, “sopping wet and breathing shallow” outside 124. Sethe, trying to cross the threshold into the future, is thus directly confronted with her past. Her hellish past, refusing to be avoided, shows up on her doorstep, not in the form of tormenting memories, but as Morrison herself says in her interview with Mervyn Rothstein, “incarnate,” “the dead returned.” Sethe, therefore, cannot evade her painful past and move forward towards a pleasant life with Paul D. She must confront it head on. She must face her past– even if it’s Hell. 

This idea is reminiscent of the journey that Dante the Pilgrim takes with his guide Virgil through the Circles of Hell in Inferno. In Canto I, Virgil tells Dante that in order for him to eventually reach the hills flooded with sunlight, he must go through Hell and Purgatory. Dante the Pilgrim, similar to Sethe then, must face Hell in order to move forward towards Paradise. In fact, it is only in Canto 34, when the two travelers reach the absolute pit of Hell, underneath the frozen lake of Cocytus and clinging to Lucifer’s thigh, that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim begin to move in the opposite direction, “out once more to see the stars.” The two travelers, seemingly entering the threshold into the worst depths of Hell, unexpectedly find themselves crawling the opposite direction out. This scene in Inferno suggests two notions to me: one being that in order to escape Hell, you must pass through it and the other being the idea that a threshold can move both backwards and forwards. 

Another example of when Sethe is confronted with her past despite being at the thresholds of a new future, is when she is running away from Sweet Home and Stamp Paid ferries across the Ohio River to freedom. Upon first inspection, Sethe appears to be crossing through the threshold into freedom as she enters the free state of Ohio. That even though the image of her being ferried across the river evokes the image of Charon ferrying Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim across the River Acheron into through the threshold into Hell in Canto III, Sethe cannot be not moving towards Hell but away from it, as she has just escaped Sweet Home and is heading towards a better future, right? Except that Sethe only spends twenty-eight days living this better future until Hell appears again in the form of four horsemen seeking to return her and her children to Sweet Home. At the idea of her children living the abhorrent life in enslavement she experienced, Sethe unsuccessfully attempts to kill all her children and herself, which results in her not being taken back to Sweet Home but still trapped in Hell, the Hell of a house haunted by a child she murdered. Therefore, Sethe, despite heading one direction through the threshold towards freedom, finds herself back where she came from, in Hell once more. Interestingly, this is the exact opposite direction that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim traveled when seemingly headed through the threshold towards the depths of Hell only to find themselves escaping it on the other side.

Beloved and Inferno both appear to contend that, because thresholds move both backwards and forwards, one may find themselves moving in a different direction than which they expected when crossing through a threshold. Both works also seem to suggest the notion that when journeying forward, you may find yourself in Hell, in which case you have to face it, be it climbing down Lucifer’s frozen body or reuniting with the daughter that you murdered. Still, it remains unclear to me, if Sethe, having faced her undead daughter, will begin to travel back up and out of Hell in the same way that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim did once they reached its pits. Or if the impact that enslavement left on her is just too great for her to cross that threshold into the future and she will remain stuck in that hellish past as a result. Either way Beloved calls for us as readers to face this past with her, to acknowledge the horrors of enslavement. To closely investigate the story of just one person, of the many who were enslaved, as she tries to recover from experiencing the depths of Hell. 

As I stand at the thresholds of this class, then, looking both backwards towards my time in English 203 and forwards towards what I will encounter in English 431 and beyond, I recognize that the direction that I think I am going may not be where I end up. I also know that in order to move forward with my thinking and writing this semester, I will need to loop back and face the past. Of course, my past is not Hell nor is at all comparable to what the characters in Beloved must face. Yet, my past writing, insecurities, and perspectives can inform me as I cross the threshold into this class and journey forward. 

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