The Evil Ditches: On the Dynamic of Punishment in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

By Mar Leeman, Dylan Walawender, Taylor Bramhall, Kya Primm, Joe Morgan, Olive Niccoli, Jenna Brace, and Sheridan Morgan
Dr. Beth McCoy
24 February 2023

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the readers follow the current and previous inhabitants of house 124, as the novel switches between the past and the present. Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live in torment with the ghost of Sethe’s past – her infant daughter, referred to as Beloved, who was killed by her mother to protect her from what she considered a worse fate. The ghostly Beloved is banished by Sethe’s old acquaintance, Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men,” but she returns in the flesh (Morrison 7). Prior to living at 124, Sethe and Paul D were enslaved; the plantation from which Sethe and Paul D escaped, Sweet Home, is originally run by Mr.Garner. Following his death, a much crueler man known as schoolteacher takes over, leading to Paul D’s imprisonment, which serves to emphasize Morrison’s examination of the contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno.

One of the most complex circles in Dante’s Inferno is the Eighth Circle – the start of lower Hell and entry into the domain of fraud. This circle is named “Malebolge,” meaning “evil ditches” or “evil trenches,” which features an architectural and urban built environment (contrasting the circle of violence’s natural environment.) The tortured souls trapped in this circle “committed ten different varieties of fraudulent sin” (Inferno 18 – Digital Dante) and Malebolge is subdivided into ten “evil trenches” that house different variations of fraudulent sinners. Significantly, the second holds flatterers, punished by being suffocated in a ditch coated in excrement, and the filth, holding those who made a living out of fraud or trickery, are punished by being “submerged in the boiling pitch with which the bolgia is filled” (AHC). These three bolgias are key components of Morrison’s Beloved – specifically in the imprisonment of Paul D. 

To contextualize the imprisonment chapter, it is important to note how Morrison builds from previous moments where Sethe and Paul D allude to their past traumas. Paul D confesses to Sethe that as her milk was stolen from her, her husband, Halle, had watched. Paul D likewise reveals that he could not speak at the time since he had an iron bit in his mouth, feeling inferior to a rooster. Even as this sharing of vulnerability brings them closer together, Paul D alludes to the “tobacco tin” in his chest, referring to the past he wants to keep hidden (Morrison 83). Morrison uses this image as a throughline in the imprisonment chapter to shape Paul D’s character. 

After being sold to a man named Brandywine, Paul D attempted to kill this new master and failed. He was then incarcerated with forty-five other men, who were forced to live in wooden boxes set down in ditches. Eighty-six days passed, and a torrent of rain halted their work. Eventually, the trenches filled with mud and water, becoming dangerous; but the forty-six men escaped and reached a tribe of sick Cherokee people. Paul D was the last to leave the camp, fleeing north to Delaware. The chapter concludes with a recurrence back to this tobacco tin in Paul D’s chest, the image of his hidden trauma, where “nothing in this world could pry it open” (Morrison 145). In Paul D’s imprisonment chapter, Morrison parallels the imagery of Canto XVIII and reverses the rationale behind the punishments administered in the Malebolge. In Inferno, Dante implies you are justly punished for the sins you committed in life, while in Beloved, Morrison demonstrates that enslaved people are subjected to an undeserved, yet similar torture. Through Paul D’s imprisonment, Morrison exposes the institution of whiteness as they use their power to unjustly punish those they deem as inferior. 

Morrison’s use of imagery, similar to that found in Dante’s Malebolge, is striking when reading the two works comparatively. In Beloved, the three feet of open trench in front of the gates that form the entrance to each cell, the two-foot-wide space that remains for the prisoners, covered with two feet of dirt over the scrap lumber that serves as its ceiling, is eerily reminiscent of a coffin in a grave (Morrison 125). Dante’s description of the sinners in the first bolgia as “crammed into the depths of the first ditch” is a fitting parallel, and it seems that Morrison is making a connection here to the “new suffering souls, new means of torture; and new torturers” that Dante finds there (Inferno, XVIII:22-24). Additionally, the three white guards who walk along the trench abusing the prisoners call to mind the “horned devils with enormous whips / lashing the backs of the shades with cruel delight” (Inferno, XVIII:35-36). As these trenches fill with water after nine days of rain, the decision is made to leave the prisoners locked in their wooden graves where they have no choice but to relieve themselves within the tiny confines of their cell, their feces and urine mixing with the same mud they eventually must submerge themselves in to reach freedom. Dante may as well have been standing above them, rather than the flatterers in the second bolgia, when he says, “from where I stood I saw / souls in the ditch plunged into excrement / that might well have been flushed from our latrines” (Inferno, XVIII:112-114). With this parallel relationship intact, we can see the ways in which morality and punishment operate in Inferno.  

Within Dante’s Inferno, the moral concept of sin and punishment is an integral theme. It is impossible to understand Inferno without understanding that Dante was coming from a society that grappled heavily with the concept of sin and subsequent punishment within the afterlife. Why, then, is Malebolge designed this way, to provoke this particular brand of suffering? Dante’s Inferno relies on his own self-condemnation and punishment for sins he has already committed, trying to walk through Hell with a guide. Morrison turns this idea on its head in Beloved, with no guide available to her characters in this instance. She uses Dante’s examination of punishment as her baseline in Beloved on power and punishment. How can this system be fair when it directly opposes the idea of a contrapasso? Morrison seems to suggest that there is no such thing as Divine Justice, and this idea is just that: a literary device. Dante’s entire journey, led by Virgil so far, is in an attempt to keep him from eternal damnation and lead him into Heaven; in contrast, Paul D is thrown into his own Hell through no sins of his own. But are any of the sinners truly guilty? Or are they simply subject to a punishment for which they have no recourse, no way to explain, or ask forgiveness? Much like the men who run the prison in Beloved, the demons take perverse pleasure in torturing those who have less power, as Dante demonstrates: “With a hundred prongs or more they pricked him, shrieking” (Inferno, XXI: 54). This also calls into question an important idea in Morrison’s works as a whole; who has the power to inflict pain and punishment upon others?

Morrison includes the element of a lead chain in the imprisonment chapter by saying “and the lead chain gave it everything he had” (Morrison 127). A lead chain is what large animal owners use to move and control the animals, and by using a lead chain Morrison is relegating the prisoners to animals. This may have been influenced by Dante’s treatment of the sinners, as he also strips away the identity of the prisoners, noting how they appear as “misbegotten souls, whose faces you could not see before” (Inferno, XVII:76-77). Whereas those in the Malebolge are stuck, never atoning for their sins despite enduring eternal punishment, Morrison twists this concept on its head, bringing her characters out of their Hell and allowing them the sweet taste of freedom. Although freedom is the ideal dream for the prisoners, it comes with a cost. In the present day of Beloved, he is forced to enact the sins that correspond with the punishment he endured. For example, one of the most prominently featured sins committed by Paul D was flattery. In Inferno, the punishment for flattery is being covered in feces, which is eerily reminiscent of Paul D’s escape from prison through the mud. Shortly after his arrival at 124, he begins a sexual relationship with Sethe that is colored by his desire for her from their past at Sweet Home. While the dalliance between the two contains traces of flattery, it is the later fornication between Paul D and Beloved that takes this concept over the edge. “If he trembled like Lot’s wife and felt some womanish need to see the nature of the sin behind him,” is what Paul D thinks once Beloved begins to approach him in a sexual manner (Morrison 137). By comparing him to Lot’s wife, Morrison is implying that Paul D is aware that what he is about to do is a sin, but he physically cannot help himself. It is in his nature to be so tempted by the past that it destroys his future, just as the aforementioned biblical figure did not leave her past in the past and ended up suffering, by turning into a pillar of salt.

 Unlike Dante, who championed a strict code of morals, Paul D begs for “sympathy, perhaps, for cursing the cursed,” suggesting that his sinning is not his fault, but a result of his circumstances (Morrison 137). This argument from Paul D encapsulates the reversal that Morrison is making. While Dante argued that the way one lives their life leads to the punishment they receive, Morrison heralds the belief that when one is punished, they are then shaped by those conditions and must learn to live with the weight of that torture; the moral system of Inferno does not exist in Beloved, and the system of whiteness producing enslavement and incarceration produces undeserving punishment. 

Though not quite the same, the prison system within the United States today is a new eighth circle of Hell for black men and women, with incarceration rates for black Americans exceeding the rate-by-population of white Americans. Brutality runs rampant amongst prison guards, the aggressors. In an article written by Andrea Jacobs in 2004, she describes a harsh institution of brutal treatment at the hands of prison guards: “Corrections officers at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut subjected Ronald Nussle to an unprovoked and unjustified beating” (Jacobs 279). She continues on to describe his treatment in detail, which reminds one of the treatment of enslaved people almost 200 years ago. This serves as a cruel reminder that Paul D’s experience with imprisonment in Morrison’s fictional tale held true long ago and that the vestiges of slavery run rampant within American society today, particularly in the unjust justice system. For example, the 13th Amendment is widely known as that which rightfully ended slavery. However, this isn’t exactly true. It prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (U.S. Const. amend. 13, § 1.). In other words, prisoners can be lawfully exploited for unpaid labor in the United States. This is even more significant when considering that 38.5 percent of inmates are Black due to the over-policing of marginalized communities (BOP Statistics: Inmate Race). Therefore, those subject to these conditions are overwhelmingly those who already face historic and modern maltreatment.

 Today, Black Americans have freedoms that Paul D, and other enslaved people were denied, but tales of horror seep out of U.S. private and public prisons, bringing us back down to the eighth circle. Dante describes the horrors of Malebolge and its own prison guards consisting of cruel devils, while Morrison draws a similar comparison in describing how the guards would shove and hit prisoners with the butt of their rifles (Inferno XVIII, Morrison 127). Looping back to unfair treatment within American prisons today and the idea of the eighth circle of Hell and the “cruel delight” of Hell’s own guards, it seems as though Morrison’s Hell outlined within Beloved never truly ended.

It is important to note that while Morrison wrote Beloved almost a quarter of a century ago, her concepts and meanings still apply to our own world. Dante’s Inferno, written six centuries before our own, also holds true in today’s society. As Morrison seems to demonstrate in drawing from Dante’s Inferno to craft Paul D’s imprisonment, by reversing the moral dynamic of contrapasso as seen in the Malebolge, there is an emphasis on the undeserved cruelty of incarceration, and enslavement, on the cruelty of white supremacy and dehumanization of Black people, and on the fictive quality of a moral system associated with constructs like punishment to prop up institutions of power.


AHC. (n.d.). Inferno. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from 

Federal Bureau of Prisons. (2023, February 18). BOP Statistics: Inmate Race.

Inferno 18 – Digital Dante. (n.d.). 

Jacobs, A. (2004). Prison power corrupts absolutely: exploring the phenomenon of prison guard brutality and the need to develop a system of accountability. California Western Law Review, 41(1), 277-302.

Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf.

US Constitution, Amendment 13.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.