Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as a Threshold

After the first few weeks of class we have talked a decent amount about thresholds; specifically what it means in terms of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in conversation with Dante’s writing. Threshold, as defined by Merriam-Webster, “a gate, door, end, boundary. The place or point of entering or beginning.” Beloved in itself serves as a threshold between Morrison’s imagination and the reality of the story of Margaret Garner. I think that, thus far, most of the plot can be seen as a threshold between freedom and imprisonment. Are Sethe and Denver really free if they are essentially homebound to 124 Bluestone Road? The house may be viewed as a personal Hell for the characters living there. It is also noteworthy to look at the similarities between Beloved and Dante’s work. It may be possible that Paul D and Beloved act as a guide through Hell for Sethe as Virgil is Dante’s guide. As discussed in class, what is Morrison trying to say about the trauma of being enslaved and the state of 124?

First, I am thinking about the novel as a whole as a threshold from our in class conversation on January 27. The Mervyn Rothstein article “Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel, Defends Women” helps contextualize the inspiration behind Beloved. Margaret Garner tries to kill all her children to save them from slavery, however, only one who actually passes away. Likewise, Sethe attempts to murder all of her children; she successfully kills her third child, Beloved. A Morrison quote from the piece says the following: “Now I didn’t do any more research at all about that story, I did a lot of research about everything else in the book- Cincinnati, and abolitionists, and the underground railroad- but I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life. I think this is where the threshold piece can be mentioned.” The novel seems to be this in between the story of Margaret Garner and fiction. So many parts of the story remain the same– the setting, giving birth on the journey to freedom, and the number of deceased children. Yet, similarities aside, Beloved has an abundance of change and fictional elements that make it hard to classify as fiction or nonfiction. I think that this may be a large-scale move to emphasize all of the plot thresholds readers will find as the book progresses. 

Morrison seems to use 124 Bluestone Road as a threshold between freedom and imprisonment. In class there was mention of enslavement being the equivalent of Hell, which would make freedom equal to Heaven. Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Denver are stuck, both literally and metaphorically, at 124. In a literal sense, Baby Suggs cannot move because of her agreement with the Bodwins. She gets the house in exchange for some work, “In return for some laundry, some seamstress work, a little canning and so on, they would permit her to stay there” (Morrison 171). The home seems to be a personal Purgatory, or Hell, for the members who live inside it. Sethe is metaphorically attached to 124. She does not want to leave because she cannot leave the spirit of Beloved. The house is haunted by the ghost of her daughter. Leaving her behind would not only be leaving her child but also her sense of pride that came with saving her from a life of enslavement. Denver, by default, is also stuck in the house. She is too ashamed to leave after one of her classmates told her what happened to her sister. Since all three women are tied to the house for one reason or another, this proposes the question of freedom. Are they really free? Half free? I may be overstepping my boundaries here, but could Morrison be trying to shed light on the iniquity of the three-fifths compromise. Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Denver are technically free but are inherently connected to 124.The threshold of freedom could be compared to how, in the eyes of the law, they are counted as three-fifths of a person. Not fully a citizen, but citizen enough to count for a partial say. Another quote from Rothstein’s article that questions the legality of both Margaret Garner and Sethe’s actions is a quote from 

Something else that I am thinking about is the significance of Dante to Morrison, and how it can be brought into conversation with Beloved. Virgil acts as a guide for Dante through Hell. Morrison makes it hard to pinpoint one character to act as a guide but both Paul D and Beloved seem to take on that role. Paul D forces Sethe to remember painful parts of her past; reliving it is like a personal Hell. He reminds her of all the hardships at Sweet Home and the trauma she went through. Paul D is able to answer some questions about Halle but not without a painful response. Sethe learns that Halle saw her whole attack; when her milk was stolen. He was hiding in the barn all along. Halle was traumatized after and became unable to go about his day to day life. Paul D gives readers the powerful image of the butter all over Halle’s face. Sethe cannot seem to get this painful image out of her head and will return back to it multiple times as the story progresses. In the sense of forcing Sethe to remember all that she has been through, Paul D puts her in a lot of pain. She has to relive her own Hell to remember the details he demands. Another character who acts as a guide is Beloved. Beloved seems to guide Sethe in all the wrong directions. She demands all of her time, care, and attention. It appears as Beloved only cares about two things: Sethe and herself. From choking Sethe in the clearing to making her late for work, Beloved seems to be getting in the way of Sethe’s ability to think clearly. Sethe is so enthralled with Beloved that she fails to realize she is spiraling out of control. With the glimmer of hope that Beloved will follow a similar path to Dante, I am optimistic to keep reading to find the Morrison equivalent of the star that Dante sees on his journey through Hell. What is next for Sethe, Beloved, and Denver? Will they escape the trauma of 124? After years of grief and isolation will they be able to work back into the community and gain a sense of belonging? 

With all of this being said, what is Morrison trying to say about the trauma of enslavement? I think that a major point is that it is generational; it affects everyone. Sethe and Paul D are able to form a close relationship even after years apart because of what they had been through together. Most of the people in town have been through similar experiences and form close bonds trying to help each other out. Baby Suggs and Sethe are not the only members of 124 who are affected by Sweet Home. Beloved ultimately lost her life to slavery while Denver lives with the trauma of it all. Denver is so afraid of the judgment of the outside world that she chooses not to hear and isolate herself in the home. Moving forward with the rest of the class I am thinkING about how Beloved will play into the other Morrison novels. I have not read the other two so I will not have as much awareness of the situation. This means a closer read, looking forward to learning something new. 

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