Thresholds, Empathy, and Morrison

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.

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