A Sinner’s Guide Through Hell

Authors: Hailey Cullen, Madolley Donzo, Genesis Flores, Laryssa Olsen, Meghan Havens, Shauna Blochwitz, Kyra Drannbauer, and Isabelle Covert

On their journey through Hell in Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil encounter the Eighth Circle of Hell, the Malbolge, which consists of ten ditches or bolgia “ . . . cut out of stone the color of iron ore, / just like the circling cliff that walls it in” as described in Canto XVIII, lines 1-9. Dante the Poet describes the Malbolge in Cantos XVIII-XXX. The travelers cross each bolgia by crossing a bridge made out of rock. In each bolgia, they encounter sinners who are receiving punishments corresponding to their sins. As with the sinners in the other Circles of Hell, the sinners are subjected to contrapasso, meaning that the punishment meted out to the sinners in Hell matches their crimes. This idea is explicitly mentioned in Canto XVII of the Malbolge with Bertran de Born, whose head is cut off as his punishment for his cutting “the bonds of those so joined” between Absalom and David in lines 133-142.

In the fifth bolgia, grafters, or corrupt politicians, are forever bobbing in boiling tar, sometimes pushed in and under by the Malebranche devils. The imagery surrounding this bolgia is very distinct, with the sinners’ heads going under and coming up, as in line 46 of Canto XXI: “that sinner plunged, then floated up stretched out.” Dante the Pilgrim recalls first seeing the devils and Virgil protecting him: “my guide, shouting to me: “Watch out, watch out!” / took hold of me and drew me to his side.” As Dante and Virgil descend into the sixth bolgia, which punishes hypocrites by covering them in golden cloaks lined with lead to weigh them down, Virgil acts as a helpful and protective guide for Dante as their escape from the angry Malebranche continues. Dante comments in Canto XXIII lines 37 through 39, “My guide instinctively caught hold of me/ like a mother waking to some warning sound/ who sees the rising flames are getting close/ and grabs her son and runs—she does not wait.” Virgil leads Dante through Hell, discovering the sins of humankind in the afterlife.

The novel Beloved explores one of these humankind sins through man’s experience of enslavement, and of the human vices that result from the effects of those horrors. Each character struggles with trauma resulting from their enslavement, which appears in different ways. Morrison, in her novel Beloved, uses and manipulates the archetype of a Virgilian guide, which originates with Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” in ways that show that different people and characters have different ideal guides, and that the ideal guide can change as a character’s situation changes. For Paul D’s character, his circumstances place him in prison, where he utilizes a guide as he faces further horrors in his imprisonment.

Paul D’s arrival to prison began with a murder. After Sixo’s murder at the hands of schoolteacher, after the previous losses of Paul D’s best friends and family, and after Paul D was sold to another man, Brandywine, Paul D attempted to murder his new master. As a result, he was sent to prison where he, and 45 other men, experienced brutality at the hand of their captors. Paul D and the others designated their foreman as Hi Man, the “lead chain” who would come to serve a Virgilian role throughout the grueling duration of their enslavement; “With a sledge hammer in his hands and Hi Man’s lead, the men got through” (Morrison 127). With a guide established in Hi Man, as their designated savior-figure, the men were able to recognize their strength as a group which would lead to their eventual escape.

The opportunity for escape first came in the form of the rain, which turned the ground into pliable mud that allowed them to slip underneath the bars. The internal strength to take their opportunity came from each other, from Hi Man down, as they communicated with each other through the tug of the chain, “Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery” (Morrison 130). Under the bars, and into the night, through the escape they could rely only on each other. Hi Man remained their faithful guide across Georgia, leading them to the Cherokee, who broke their chains, and gave them the ability to restore some semblance of their ordinary lives, “Hi Man wanted to join them; others wanted to join him. Some wanted to leave; some to stay on. Weeks later Paul D was the only Buffalo man left-without a plan” (Morrison 132). Hi Man and the bond the men formed among themselves brought the men out of enslavement, out of their own hell, and allowed them to embark on their own journeys of self-discovery and freedom.

The Paul D imprisonment chapter is evocative of Dante and Virgil’s time in the Malbolge. When Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim enter the bolgia, they see “two files of sinners,” which is reminiscent of the prisoners in Georgia, chained up in a single file line, and being forced to dig ditches. Ditches make an appearance in Inferno since each group of sinners is placed into different ditches based on what Dante would considered their deserved punishment. This ties into Dante’s idea of contrapasso because, in Beloved, the white guards believe that the Black men deserve their imprisonment for the crimes they committed against their slave owners, however, the similarities of these beliefs change. Morrison’s novel is rooted in the sense that enslavement and Paul D’s imprisonment weren’t something that the characters who experienced it deserved, but one that is happening to them; without their consent. As the rain rages on while the men are being forced to work, the guards lock them away in holes, which is representative of the sinners who were stuffed into holes shaped like baptismal fonts with their feet burning. Though the prisoners aren’t on fire, they do find themselves stuck in a hole, awaiting whatever fate befalls them. When the ditches begin to flood, the prisoners are able to escape without a trace due to the heavy rain. In another section of Malebolge, Dante watches the sinners “without an escort, [moving] along, one behind the other, like minor friars bent upon a journey,” which is distinctive of how Morrison explains the escape of the prisoners. They tug on their chains, following Hi Man out of the hole to freedom, one behind the other, and continue on in a single-file line until they reach the Cherokee people.

Aside from the many similarities between Paul D’s imprisonment and Dante’s cantos on Malebolge, Morrison also manages to recapitulate Inferno by mirroring her characters after those Dante the Poet used in Inferno; she uses the traits and characteristics of his characters to create more realistic and complicated characters of her own. When looking at Beloved, it is common to want to assign one of the characters as Virgil; someone who may guide the characters throughout the entirety of the novel just as Dante the Pilgrim’s guide leads him through the layers of Hell. However, as the pasts of Morrison’s characters get revealed, one realizes that there isn’t a singular Virgil. The characters in Beloved––Paul D and Sethe––all have different guides throughout the novel who help them through different aspects of their lives. In the Paul D imprisonment chapter, Paul D is guided by Hi Man, the Cherokee people, and the flowers he follows towards freedom in the North. When Sethe decides to escape from her enslavement, she relies on Amy to guide her through the night and help her give birth in the boat.

Not only does Morrison’s usage of a Virgil character differ from Inferno, but also the characters’ interactions with their Virgilian guide drastically varies from how Virgil and Dante interact on their journey through Hell. Since Sethe initially wasn’t expecting to gain help or support from someone on her journey to freedom, she was very wary of Amy, especially since Amy was a white woman. Through the night, Sethe’s uneasiness abates, allowing her to be more appreciative of Amy, even going as far as naming her newborn daughter after this guide. Through their time together, Amy and Sethe never divert from the path, whereas, Paul D seems to constantly stop following the flowers as a guide. He is a traveler at heart, and he knows (without really knowing) that they are taking him to 124––to Sethe––so he finds himself stepping off the path every now and then, but eventually he gets where he needs to be. Most of Morrison’s main characters seem to rely heavily on their guides, whereas, in Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim doesn’t think he relies on Virgil. Though he follows Virgil through the layers of Hell, Dante is under the impression that he’s the one in charge. Virgil also doesn’t have a moralistic ground as Dante’s guide, allowing Dante to stay rooted in his beliefs of contrapasso; treating the souls however he wishes and forcing them to retell their stories so he can write them down.

Paul D, specifically, changes in his experiences with guides in Beloved, from his time at the prison to the end of the novel. Paul D heavily relies on Hi Man as a guide both inside the prison and during the escape. Inside the prison, Paul D and all the prisoners rely on Hi Man in a literal sense because they follow his verbal signals to start and stop working but also in an emotional sense as his consistency helps them get through the torture they endure at the prison. In their escape, Paul D and the other prisoners are led by Hi Man towards salvation. As his story continues and his situation changes, however, Paul D begins to rely less on guides like Hi Man, and becomes a guide himself. He acts as a guide towards Sethe when he first arrives at 124, providing her support and the promise of a new, happier life together. His role as a guide for Sethe culminates, though, in his return to 124, when he helps Sethe move forward from her horrific past of killing Beloved by reminder her that she is her own “‘best thing.’” By showing that Paul D both needs a guide and can be a guide in Beloved, Morrison manipulates the Virgilian guide archetype. She shows that unlike in Inferno, where Virgil is indisputably the guide figure and Dante the Pilgrim is the follower, the characters of Beloved  can be interchangeably guides and followers. In doing so, Morrison creates a more complex and realistic portrayal of human beings, especially for human beings who have experienced something as evil as enslavement. 

In Beloved, we see conversations about characters and morality/ideology/belief in the ideas of Virgilian guides and of Contrapasso. Guides and mentors are something that everyone has in common. Anyone can tell you someone that influenced them, helped them, or guided them at some point in their life. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim finds the ultimate, true guide in Virgil, who is obviously someone who Dante the poet found really influential. However, Morrison brings in the idea that no guide can be true or perfect, because people’s needs and wants in a guide changes as they do. Morrison embodies this by giving each character several guides that are different depending on where the character is in their life and journey.

Showing that no guide in Beloved is perfect leads to one of the main themes in both Beloved and Inferno, which is what it means to be a good person. Dante’s solution to this is Contrapasso, where all people are punished in Hell in ways that are equal to and reflect their sins, so they have earned that punishment with their actions. Morrison seems to be really aware of this ideology as she thinks through Beloved and the specific challenges that  her characters face. Obviously, the hell that was enslavement was not earned by anyone who was enslaved; however, this may not be Morrison’s main conversation with contrapasso, as she said in her interview with Mervyn Rothstein that this book is not about enslavement. A lot of the conversation seems to be revolving around the events that led to Paul D’s imprisonment and the events that transpired when Sethe killed her daughter. Paul D is sent to prison for attempting to kill his enslaver, which, in itself, is a justifiable action. His punishment for this, the prison in Alfred, Georgia, is cruel and barbaric, and is not at all justified by his “crime.” Sethe’s action in trying to kill her daughter and attempting to kill her other children is best moralized by Morrison’s statement in this interview: “It was absolutely the right thing to do… but she had no right to do it.” While the actions that Paul D and Sethe did are, by definition, similar, the contexts and situations could not have been more different. Sethe felt, and continues to feel, justified in her actions, but the “punishment” she faces in the violent ghost of the baby and the parasitic physical presence of Beloved that almost kills her is not in any way equal to what she does. This question of morality, sin, and punishment is one that tends to haunt us as people, as we move through life, and Morrison seems to be assuring her readers that their “punishments” may not be in any way connected to or reflecting the ways in which they have sinned.

Just like the characters in Beloved, we, as students, will experience different forms of guides in English 431 as we grow and change throughout the course. We have Dr. McCoy as a guide for navigating the intricate concepts with Morrison’s work and, for many of us, encountering Dante for the first time. We also have our peers to guide us as we work collaboratively, showing each other new ways to interpret the texts and reexamine our original thinking. But, analogous to Paul D switching from needing a guide during his time in prison to becoming a guide for Sethe at the end of the novel, we can take on the role of guide ourselves in this course. We can guide each other by giving feedback, inspiring/encouraging each other, and managing conflict if/when it arises, which are all behaviors that help to develop the competencies for career readiness that NACE states college graduates should strive for when entering the workforce. We can also guide ourselves by keeping ourselves on task, communicating clearly, and reflecting on our own strengths/weaknesses, more behaviors suggested by NACE. In this way, we can take the idea of guides as depicted in Beloved in relation to Dante’s Inferno, and develop lifelong skills that will help us tackle what we learn in English 431 and what we encounter in the workforce and beyond.

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