The Nature of Paradise: Hell and Slavery in Morrison’s Beloved

By Marie Naudus, Frances Sharples, Emily Loper, Hannah Myers, Kathleen McCarey, Mia Donaldson, Owen Vincent, and Rachel Cohen

In her fifth novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison uses elements associated with Dante’s Inferno to enhance a grief-suffused narrative following characters who escaped enslavement only to deal with the turmoil of living in a country that is set against the success of Black individuals. The Hell depicted in Dante’s Inferno is made up of nine circles, each dealing with certain sins and their respective punishments that become more severe as Dante the Pilgrim moves down (and then up) through Hell, beginning with virtuous paganism and ending with the worst kinds of betrayal. In the eighth circle—reserved for those who committed fraud—Dante moves to the Malebolge, approximately translated from Italian as “evil pockets,” a series of ten ravines that each serve to punish a certain type of sinner; for the purposes of our analysis, the first, fifth, and sixth ravines will be most relevant. The first ravine is designated for pimps, panderers and seducers, where they walk endlessly in separate lines and are whipped by demons. The fifth ravine is reserved for grafters, who are thrown into a river of boiling pitch, and the sixth ravine is for hypocrites, forced to march forever with lead robes. These specific ravines fit most closely with how the residents of 124 Bluestone Road in Beloved are seen by the reader and interact with other characters. The characters of Beloved, including Sethe and Paul D, must face what could be deemed as Hell on Earth as they suffer through slavery and its ramifications on the rest of their lives. While Sethe reminisces on her time at Sweet Home, a plantation where she and Paul D were enslaved for four years together, she recounts that “there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7). This idea of slavery as Hell on Earth is most poignantly depicted in the Paul D imprisonment chapter.

“When all forty-six were standing in a line in a trench, another rifle shot signaled the climb out and up to the ground above, where one thousand feet of the best hand-forged chain in Georgia stretched” (Morrison 126); in this quote, and throughout the chapter describing Paul D’s torturous enslavement in Alfred, Georgia, we the reader are brought to consider one of the novel’s most evocative and raw depictions of slavery. In addition to back-breaking labor, the forty-six men are forced to fellate the white guards every morning, one of the several depictions of sexual assault of enslaved characters throughout the novel. Along with descriptions of the various heinous treatment that these men are subjected to, this chapter explains how Paul D escapes Georgia and moves forward to 124; following the lead of Hi Man, the man at the beginning of the chain, the men are led under and through the mud during a rainstorm to escape. By diving under the water in the trench and moving as one, the forty-six men escaped the plantation, allowing Paul D to make his way to 124 and Sethe after eighteen years of traveling, never settling in one location for too long. 

While the most vivid and shocking descriptions of Paul D’s imprisonment appear in this chapter, they provide context for the reader’s understanding of his traumas and character development throughout Beloved as a whole; his character is introduced before this unsettling scene unravels, thus the chapter provides context for both his most generous and deplorable actions toward Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Paul D’s presence in 124, too, reveals many of the damages Paul D carries with him; his contempt for Beloved provokes, in the very beginning, Paul D’s violent removal of Beloved from 124, and resurfaces time and time again throughout the novel in his need to assert dominance over women due to the emasculation he underwent in Georgia. His sense of emasculation from his severe defilement is made most clear to the reader in his sexual encounter with Beloved: “She moved closer with a footfall he didn’t hear and he didn’t hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin … ‘Red heart. Red heart. Red heart’” (Morrison 137-138). Paul D had tried to lock up his feelings in this “tobacco tin” he created for his heart, and Beloved had opened that tin without his consent, causing him to feel less than human again. Paul D was forced into a multitude of dehumanizing situations during his enslavement in Georgia, many of them sexual in nature; these dehumanizing acts led to the version of Paul D seen in 124 that is often violent and cold, and depicts the world around him as Hell. Throughout the novel, Paul D moves through the seventh, eighth, and ninth circles of his own Hell before finally coming to his own version of paradise. However, this version of paradise is not an idealized, perfect life, since the nature of Paul D’s journey and the constant presence of slavery continue to haunt him even in paradise. These moves through Hell and into paradise mirror Dante’s Inferno, thus creating a deeper understanding of the inhabitants of 124.  

Morrison artfully crafted her novel, Beloved, to mirror elements of Dante’s Inferno. This conversation between the two works can be seen in the plantation, Sweet Home, that Sethe and Paul D inhabit for four years together; given their dire circumstances as living slaves—compared to Dante who, while alive, is on a relatively clear path back to safety—Paul D and Sethe must seek unconventional means of guidance. While Dante has Virgil, a beacon of seemingly endless poetic wisdom, the characters of Beloved feel largely alone and maintain their fraught endurance on their journey through Hell via nature. Trees, for example, “guide” characters toward salvation, but also toward feelings of guilt and despair. This convergence makes itself most clearly in the comparison of Sweet Home to Dante’s seventh circle of Hell, reserved for the violent, suicides, and blasphemers; those who commit suicide specifically are transformed into trees and ripped apart by Harpies. This significance of trees is seen repeatedly throughout Beloved, most vividly in the descriptions of Sethe’s back, which is scarred and torn up by traumatic beatings during her time at Sweet Home. When Sethe, distressed and fleeing Sweet Home, is met by a young white girl, Amy, Amy is shocked by the horrific scars scattered across Sethe’s back. Unfamiliar with the extent of the cruelty that Sethe has faced, Amy is mystified by the scars and says in wonder: “‘It’s a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk — it’s red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white” (Morrison 93). Amy would later prove to be a guide for Sethe, leading her to freedom away from Sweet Home; but even with the assistance of a slew of guides, both Sethe and Paul D’s respective journeys through Hell are marked by prolonged violence.

Like Dante’s escape from Hell, Paul D must continue his path down through the deepest aspects of Hell in order to reach his salvation, in this case, settling down in 124 with Sethe. After leaving Sweet Home and exiting the seventh circle, Paul D is imprisoned in Alfred, Georgia, which represents the eighth circle of Hell. The Malebolge, or “evil pockets,” are geographically very similar to the trench that Paul D and the forty-five other men were chained in. Dante describes them as “ten descending valleys,” each with their own specific and fitting punishment for the sinners trapped there (XVIII: 9). While the flatterers in the eighth circle are immersed in human excrement and corrupt politicians in boiling pitch, the men chained together in Georgia are forced to work while sinking in mud; while the thieves are chased and bitten by reptiles, the men in Georgia are on the lookout for snakes while continuing to work in conditions of heavy rain and oozing mud. Even the escape from Georgia mirrors the scenes described by Dante in the Malebolgia: “It started like the chain-up but the difference was the power of the chain. One by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping” (Morrison 130). In Canto XXII, corrupt politicians are forced to swim and submerge themselves in boiling pitch (line 30); one Navaressian politician, upon being tortured by a group of demons, dives back into the boiling pitch in order to escape their torment (XXII: 123). This mode of escape reflects how Hi Man led the line of chained prisoners under the mud and rain to freedom. While Hi Man served as a temporary guide for Paul D in Georgia, Paul D never has one permanent guide as Dante does in Inferno, thus his path to freedom and 124 is aided by several guides. 

This idea of guides is prevalent in both Beloved and Inferno. Paul D relies on multiple guides in his escape from imprisonment in Georgia to his salvation in the North. In order to escape from the chained Hell that was his imprisonment, Paul D places his trust in Hi Man, as well as the other forty-four men, to lead him away from the torture. Paul D recounts how “the chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery … they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Morrison 130). Paul D’s guides soon shift once Hi Man completes his task of escaping the plantation, now shifting to his surroundings as a form of a guide. Paul D is alone in his quest up North, “when he lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him” (Morrison 133). While Paul D is forced to rely on numerous guides in his escape, these guides are short-lived compared to Virgil’s continual accompaniment of Dante all throughout Inferno and Purgatorio.

Paul D’s stay at 124 ends his journey through the circles of Hell and allows him to make the paradoxical move from the ninth circle of Hell, the deepest and most barbarous, to paradise; but, in Paul D’s case, paradise is haunted. As he steps through the doors of 124, Paul D steps through “a pool of pulsing red light,” into “the spot where the grief had soaked him [and] a kind of weeping clung to the air” (Morrison 11). This compares to Dante’s trek through the last of the malebolge, just before he and Virgil climb the legs of Lucifer down, down, down, and then finally up and out of Hell: “Here, the weeping puts an end to weeping, / and the grief that finds no outlet from the eyes / turns inward to intensify the anguish” (XXXIII: 94-96). While 124 represents Paul D’s most stable and safe conditions from his 18 years of perilous travel, its violent, “spiteful” confines marked by “baby’s venom” (Morrison 3) present new sources of fear, proving that this hellish experience as a former slave does not afford him a sweet release akin to Dante’s paradise. Toni Morrison famously stated in an interview with Bonnie Angelo how “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Morrison artfully establishes her novel in conversation with Dante’s Inferno as a way to not only enhance her own craft but to complement Dante’s own art as well. While it is easy to dissect Beloved in an almost clinical and scientific sense, to fully analyze every detail meticulously, it would be doing a disservice to such a beautiful work to ignore the artful elements of the work. Beloved is important because it tells the true, historical story of Margaret Garner, who committed infanticide to save her children from the cruelty of enslavement. In order to depict such a heavy topic, Morrison takes to well-crafted diction and the creation of her fictionalized telling of true events to offer a raw and honest novel on a topic that is typically shied away from. While Black literature can be cast aside as a teaching in sociology, as previously stated, Beloved demands to be taught and remembered for its intricate writing and complexity of characters and themes. Each detail of her text is accounted for, building on each other and offering additional layers; one of these layers, and indeed a through line in Morrison’s trilogy, is the idea of self-sabotage. This idea can be seen in how Beloved sabotages Paul D and Sethe, creating a Hell on Earth for the two characters and forcing them to endure additional suffering. Paul D sabotages his happiness with Sethe at 124 by having sexual relations with Beloved, causing him to flee the home. Similarly, Sethe ignores her own happiness and Denver’s in order to devote her life to Beloved’s parasitic need for attention. The notion of self-sabotage and its simultaneous unfolding alongside Paul D’s descent into the inner circles of Hell calls to mind many of the questions we have been brought to reckon with in connecting Dante’s Inferno and Morrison’s Beloved, not least of which being the question of whether or not enslaved or formerly enslaved persons can ever escape these depths of Hell, and whether or not the concept of “paradise” can truly exist in the world of Morrison’s Beloved.

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