Halfway through his life, Dante the Pilgrim, wakes to find himself lost in a dark wood.” As a thirty-nine-year-old approaching Morrison for the first time, the opening line of Inferno is a perfect description of the way I felt as I began reading Beloved. We awake in 124 Bluestone Road, thrown into a world quite unlike our own, a world where spirits interact with the physical, and the reactions of the humans who perceive these signs— shattered mirrors, handprints in a cake, overturned furniture— often seem strangely subdued. This disorientation, the inability to find solid ground to stand on, does not seem to be a problem that Morrison is working to solve as we move through the novel but rather a deliberate feature she maintains throughout the work.
It is not in setting alone where I feel this disorientation, but also in my understanding of the characters, each incredibly complex and often contradictory in the ways they think and act. As a ghost, the “crawling already?” baby fills the house with “venom.” She is spiteful, full of rage directed not only at Sethe but at all the inhabitants of 124. She eventually drives the boys, Howard and Buglar, away, and with the death of Baby Suggs, finds herself alone in the house with Sethe and Denver. This seems to raise the question of whether she is angry with Sethe or if she just wants her all to herself since her intrusions into their lives become less violent once it is just the three of them left in the house. When Denver and Sethe attempt to conjure her once everyone else has fled from the home, “The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.” This might indicate that the ghost finds the present situation closer to ideal, but with Beloved’s emergence from the river and her subsequent treatment of Sethe, we quickly realize that the grounds we may wish to stake this claim on are not as solid as we may have imagined.
I am thinking particularly of the scene in the Clearing where Sethe asks to feel Baby Suggs fingers on the back of her neck. She does begin to feel them, but they soon change from a loving caress to an attempted strangulation. Denver understands that it was, Beloved, not Baby Suggs, who was responsible for the fingers on Sethe’s neck, and so we are once again unmoored: does Beloved love Sethe with a passion bordering on obsession, or does she want to kill her for what she did to her as a child? Perhaps both? We cannot be sure.
Morrison’s treatment of Beloved’s relationship with Paul D. is equally challenging to parse and possibly paradoxical. One of the questions I still do not feel like we get a satisfying answer to, again this may be intentional, is whether Beloved and Paul D. actually do have sex or if Paul D. only believes that they did. Either way, that particular union contradicts the way the two appear to have felt about each other up until that moment. There seems to be a mutual disdain for each other that causes each to continually be on the lookout for how one can remove the other from the home and, therefore, claim Sethe’s attention and love for themselves alone.
When Beloved approaches Paul D. in the shed and asks him, “touch me on the inside part and call me by my name,” the request is surprising considering how clearly it seems she dislikes him. Perhaps we could see this as a calculated way of getting Paul D., using that deadly sin, lust, against him in a way that would ensure Sethe’s rejection of him. A lot is going on in this scene, and I am not going to take the time here to pull it apart completely, but as it relates to the argument I am making about disorientation, I find the final few sentences of the chapter that concludes the scene especially relevant: “when he reached the inside part he was saying, “Red heart. Red heart,” over and over again. Softly and then so loud it woke Denver, then Paul D. himself” (italics are mine). When I first read this, I took this to mean that Paul D. had dreamed this entire episode and that by crying out “Red heart!” loud enough in his sleep, he woke himself from the nightmare. However, later, when he prepares to approach Sethe outside of the restaurant where she works, he is terrified to reveal to her that he and Beloved have had sex. I either missed something in between or here we find another example of action taking place that we cannot quite square with logical, temporal reality. Beloved seems to possess knowledge that, while short of omniscience, is beyond the ability of humans, while Paul D. appears to become increasingly confused by the web-like relationship he finds himself caught in. As readers, Morrison seems content to keep us closer to Paul D.’s level of understanding, at least at this point in the novel. At the very least, this interaction between the two of them adds another layer of complexity to Beloved as a character and expands what methods we can imagine as possible for her to employ to possess Sethe in the way she desires.
Another issue that I’m thinking about, specifically as a common theme in both Beloved and Inferno, took shape for me today in a conversation Owen and I were having outside of class. It is the concept of love as an emotion or principle that can move one to perform an action that we typically would associate with evil. For Dante, my sense is that this began for him as the question, “How can God, who IS love, have created hell and damned numberless souls to spend an eternity in torment there?” Dante’s Christian faith required him to see hell as yet another expression of God’s love, but how could that possibly be? Morrison, as a Catholic, may have struggled with the very same questions, but Beloved asks it from another angle. When she came across the story of Margret Garner, I imagine that what caught her was the question, “How can the love of a mother move her to murder her own child?”
I have only read Inferno, not the rest of the Divine Comedy, and when I finish Beloved this evening, it will be the only book of Morrison’s trilogy I will have read, so I am unaware of how either author attempts to come up with satisfying answers to that question. But, already in Beloved, Morrison is proving this is a question worth asking and thinking deeply about. So many of Sethe’s actions are clearly motivated by an intense, ferocious love for her children. The agony she endures as she pushes her body to the brink of death in order to be reunited with them after she risks everything to free them from slavery is just one of many moments we can point to where her self-sacrificing love for them appears undeniable. Yet somehow, her actions in the shed upon the arrival of the four horsemen seem inconsistent with her former devotion.
Paul D. represents one side of the argument that I think both Dante and Morrison see as valid: there had to be another way. As Dante circles deeper and deeper into the inferno and the torments become increasingly disturbing, he, as well as his readers, seem to be justified in assuming that a God of love, who also possesses the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence, must have had other options available for dealing with sinners. Unfortunately, for true believers, this is not an acceptable position to hold, so the struggle becomes how to understand hell, or the murder of your own children, not just as an act of love but of perfect love.
Honestly, for me, this is an impossible position to defend and is a core reason I left the fundamentalist Christian faith that I was raised in. Ever open to understanding how faith or beliefs work for others in ways they just do not seem to for me, I am intensely interested in exploring the rest of Morrison and Dante’s works to see how they continue grappling with this question. I am eager to find out if I can understand how, or perhaps if, they answer it in ways that allow them to come to peace with the version of love their God claims to be. Whatever the result, reading each author has been wonderful from an aesthetic perspective which makes the exploration of such heavy topics a delight, both intellectually and artistically. As dark and, at times, depressing as Beloved has been, there are certain moments and passages where I truly get carried away by the prose in the way that only the most talented of artists seem able to manage. Finding beauty in tragedy is something that each author is a master of, and it has been a pleasure to be a pilgrim on this voyage so far. I am looking forward to much, much more.