Love Disoriented.

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.

Moving Backwards and Forwards Through Thresholds

When I entered through the threshold of English 431 (the doorway into Bailey 204) on my first day of spring semester classes, I expected to find myself steamrolling solely in the direction of the future, which for me is graduating in May and beginning to enter the workforce as a teacher. Or, at least, I expected to be focusing on my present, which consists of me taking the last English class I will ever take and a few other required courses at SUNY Geneseo. Instead, as I reread Dr. McCoy’s syllabus and browsed my previous blog posts on, I was transported to the past. 

As mere happenstance, I began, and am now ending, my college career with an English class taught by Dr. McCoy. I started my fall semester as a first-year student in Dr. McCoy’s English 203: Reader and Text class on the works of Percival Everett, and now I am finishing my spring semester senior year with English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy. This inverted symmetry reminds me of the literary device, chiasmus (a term introduced to me by Dr. Graham Drake in his class on the Bible due to its frequent appearance in biblical literature). Because of this chiasmus-like situation, I am directly confronted with how I began as a student and as a reader/writer at Geneseo as I end both journeys. 

I have been recalling how I felt and what I thought in English 203 and reflecting on how I may have a changed perspective in English 431. I remember my fears of inadequacy in my writing and in my abilities as a student in general as a first-year. Back then I wondered: What if I can’t understand the books we read? What if my writing is not at the college level? Is college even for me? Now, I feel more assured in my reading and writing abilities, but I am not free from all insecurities. I still question: Has my writing improved? Will I be able to apply the skills I have learned in college to my future career? 

In reflecting on my past experience in English 203 as I stand at the thresholds to English 431, I am reminded that a threshold, which can mean both a point of entry and/or a doorway/ gateway, swings both backwards and forwards– sometimes concurrently. In other words, when it seems like you are crossing a threshold to the future, your past may find you there, waiting for you to face it. While reading and thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the elements of Dante’s Inferno that, as Dr. McCoy notes in her class notes from February 1st, Beloved may be read as being in conversation with, I notice this forwards/backwards motion of thresholds, where when one thinks they may be moving in one direction, they are actually moving towards another. Especially in Beloved, the inescapability of the past becomes evident as characters try to cross thresholds forward. 

The characters of Beloved, whether consciously or subconsciously, resist memories of their horrific past as they attempt to make a life for themselves outside of enslavement. Paul D tucks the obscene images from a prison in Alfred, Georgia and the taste of an iron bit at Sweet Home into a “tobacco tin lodged in his chest.” Baby Suggs can only seem to recall, of all the details of her eight children, that her eldest was fond of the bottom of burned bread. And Sethe, who slit the throat of her own baby to protect her from being subjected to enslavement, has forgotten the language her own mother spoke, forgotten many memories of her two boys, and “forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl,” who she killed. Despite their resistance, however, the past haunts the characters of Beloved– literally and figuratively– as they try to move forward. 

The most obvious haunting of the past in Beloved is the arrival of Beloved, the dead daughter who was killed by Sethe, at house 124. Beloved arrives just when Sethe stands at the thresholds of possibly beginning a life with Paul D. Paul D, having just recently arrived at 124 himself, insists that he, Sethe, and Sethe’s youngest daughter, Denver, attend a visiting carnival together. At the carnival, Sethe notices how Paul D’s charming presence eases the tension between her and the rest of the community and allows fun into her and Denver’s life. She wonders if the three of them could build “a life.” It is when the three of them are walking home, and Sethe observes their shadows holding hands, that they find Beloved, “sopping wet and breathing shallow” outside 124. Sethe, trying to cross the threshold into the future, is thus directly confronted with her past. Her hellish past, refusing to be avoided, shows up on her doorstep, not in the form of tormenting memories, but as Morrison herself says in her interview with Mervyn Rothstein, “incarnate,” “the dead returned.” Sethe, therefore, cannot evade her painful past and move forward towards a pleasant life with Paul D. She must confront it head on. She must face her past– even if it’s Hell. 

This idea is reminiscent of the journey that Dante the Pilgrim takes with his guide Virgil through the Circles of Hell in Inferno. In Canto I, Virgil tells Dante that in order for him to eventually reach the hills flooded with sunlight, he must go through Hell and Purgatory. Dante the Pilgrim, similar to Sethe then, must face Hell in order to move forward towards Paradise. In fact, it is only in Canto 34, when the two travelers reach the absolute pit of Hell, underneath the frozen lake of Cocytus and clinging to Lucifer’s thigh, that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim begin to move in the opposite direction, “out once more to see the stars.” The two travelers, seemingly entering the threshold into the worst depths of Hell, unexpectedly find themselves crawling the opposite direction out. This scene in Inferno suggests two notions to me: one being that in order to escape Hell, you must pass through it and the other being the idea that a threshold can move both backwards and forwards. 

Another example of when Sethe is confronted with her past despite being at the thresholds of a new future, is when she is running away from Sweet Home and Stamp Paid ferries across the Ohio River to freedom. Upon first inspection, Sethe appears to be crossing through the threshold into freedom as she enters the free state of Ohio. That even though the image of her being ferried across the river evokes the image of Charon ferrying Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim across the River Acheron into through the threshold into Hell in Canto III, Sethe cannot be not moving towards Hell but away from it, as she has just escaped Sweet Home and is heading towards a better future, right? Except that Sethe only spends twenty-eight days living this better future until Hell appears again in the form of four horsemen seeking to return her and her children to Sweet Home. At the idea of her children living the abhorrent life in enslavement she experienced, Sethe unsuccessfully attempts to kill all her children and herself, which results in her not being taken back to Sweet Home but still trapped in Hell, the Hell of a house haunted by a child she murdered. Therefore, Sethe, despite heading one direction through the threshold towards freedom, finds herself back where she came from, in Hell once more. Interestingly, this is the exact opposite direction that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim traveled when seemingly headed through the threshold towards the depths of Hell only to find themselves escaping it on the other side.

Beloved and Inferno both appear to contend that, because thresholds move both backwards and forwards, one may find themselves moving in a different direction than which they expected when crossing through a threshold. Both works also seem to suggest the notion that when journeying forward, you may find yourself in Hell, in which case you have to face it, be it climbing down Lucifer’s frozen body or reuniting with the daughter that you murdered. Still, it remains unclear to me, if Sethe, having faced her undead daughter, will begin to travel back up and out of Hell in the same way that Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim did once they reached its pits. Or if the impact that enslavement left on her is just too great for her to cross that threshold into the future and she will remain stuck in that hellish past as a result. Either way Beloved calls for us as readers to face this past with her, to acknowledge the horrors of enslavement. To closely investigate the story of just one person, of the many who were enslaved, as she tries to recover from experiencing the depths of Hell. 

As I stand at the thresholds of this class, then, looking both backwards towards my time in English 203 and forwards towards what I will encounter in English 431 and beyond, I recognize that the direction that I think I am going may not be where I end up. I also know that in order to move forward with my thinking and writing this semester, I will need to loop back and face the past. Of course, my past is not Hell nor is at all comparable to what the characters in Beloved must face. Yet, my past writing, insecurities, and perspectives can inform me as I cross the threshold into this class and journey forward. 

“Why not Climb up this Blissful Mountain Here?”: Standing at the Threshold in ENGL431

As I write this essay, I begin to think about where I have been and what I have learned in my education. I consider a simple question: how often have I found myself standing on the threshold of a class instead of simply stepping over it? I realized that in all my time as a student, I rarely stood on this threshold, because it was never something spoken of. A class, for most of my academic career, has been there to supply material to memorize and hopefully to achieve ‘good’ grades. It was only recently that I realized the importance of stopping and considering what knowledge awaits me and what I needed to be thinkING about as I cross that threshold.

I believe it is first mandatory to discuss the idea of being at the threshold of a class – something that I have felt I was planted in only once before in my educational career. To walk into the opening of a class, to step through the doorway and enter the vast room of knowledge, is one thing entirely different than to stop at the entrance, exhale, and take in the realization of the knowledge that will soon come. To stop. To take in. To step through – not run in, head-first. This concept is often foreign to students of academe, as many are taught to take a syllabus and a few ideas presented on the first day of class and only think in moments outside of mandatory memorization. To enter a threshold is to be continuously thinkiNG even after entering the course and to realize that this will be a journey of growth for every individual involved. This is a concept difficult to grasp after the experience of being taught to rush through coursework to arrive at the finish line of the class. To be asked to stand on the threshold and think is to take a breath and realize what it is all for.

This being said, there are several thresholds I believe I am standing on in this class. One of the most vital for me to grasp is the understanding the text at hand. Beloved is a text unlike any other. As we began reading, I felt as though I was getting lost in the way of Morrison’s writing and feared I would not be able to immerse myself in it fully. The character of Beloved, especially, was an aspect of the novel that I could not quite figure out – something I found both frustrating and intriguing. I am a student who yearns to understand, in every aspect. If in my reading I stumble upon an idea or concept that is unfamiliar to me, I will not move past it until I familiarize myself with it. I wanted to get Beloved. I needed to get Beloved. This was not so easily achieved, as Beloved represents everything and nothing to everyone in the story. Beloved is the inescapable, the parasitic, the gateway to growth, the holy, the malevolent, and the savior. Beloved falls into various roles that suit whichever other character she is with. She is an entity in this novel that is never quite understood, and therein lies one of the most exquisite pieces of the novel. As I sit and ponder this idea of Beloved’s various roles in this story, I am drawn to Morrison’s words … “Beloved You are my sister You are my daughter You are my face; you are me […] You are my Beloved You are mine” (Morrison 255). I allow myself forgiveness for not fully grasping Beloved as a character and as I stand on the threshold, as perhaps Beloved is not meant to be fully understood. Perhaps that is one of Morrison’s choices in the story that I was unaware of at the start. 

As we stand at the threshold, I am also thinkING about the ideas of identity and ownership. On one of the first days of this class, we read Morrison’s interview with the New York Times, and a few of her words stood out to me and remained with me as we read Beloved. Morrison stated:

“One of the nice things that women do is nurture and love something other than themselves -they do that rather nicely. Instinctively, perhaps, but they are certainly taught to do it, socialized to do it, or genetically predisposed to do it -whatever it is, it’s something that I think the majority of women feel strongly about. But mother love is also a killer.”

I think of this often. This idea of motherhood being an identity on its own is something that attaches itself to Sethe in Beloved. Before anything else, Sethe is a mother. She takes this title and thereafter her ownership of Beloved (“You are mine You are mine You are mine” (Morrison 256)) and, in a way, hides behind it. Sethe is afraid of the past and yet, is haunted by it each day.

I think about Morrison’s words – “mother love is also a killer” – and realize that one way of interpreting this is that her role as a mother is what kills her sense of self and identity, Sethe feels that Beloved is the best part of herself – she clings to this ghost of her daughter – without any real sense of identity beyond it. As I stand on the threshold, I wonder what that title of motherhood means to one’s identity. What does it mean to Sethe? Does feeling that she still has that ownership over Beloved allow her a sense of peace? A thing to soothe her aching soul, longing for the child she took away from herself? This idea of motherhood and identity … more importantly, the idea of the ownership of Beloved – I find myself thinking about what it all means, and what, truly, defines the self. What makes us whole? How much of ourselves is our own when we give over to love – whether it be a mother’s or a lover’s? Furthermore, how does the past shape this identity? Morrison also said “memory never really leaves you unless you have gone through it and confronted it head on” – and Beloved was Sethe’s physical embodiment of her past and serves to be a way of both healing and hurting her.

I realized, too, that I am not the only one crossing a threshold. As my classmates and I stand on the edge of this course, the characters within Beloved are at the threshold of something entirely different. Discovery, pain, healing, possession, love… and like us, the students, they have a guide much like Dante. I think of Virgil’s words in Dante’s Inferno when he says: “I think it best you follow me / for your own good, and I shall be your guide / and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114) and am reminded that like Virgil is Dante’s guide, like Amy was Sethe’s guide, like Beloved is a guide for all, in a way – we, as students, are each other’s guide as well as being guided by our professor in our path in understanding “an eternal place” (Dante 114) … in other words, Morrison’s works. Taking on works such as Morrison’s can be daunting, but it is vital to not feel discouraged if we feel lost at any point on our journey. As virgil says, “…why retreat to so much misery? / Why not climb up this blissful mountain here?” (Dante 76-77).

Another aspect that I am thinkING about as I stand at the threshold of this class, albeit a more personal one, is my reluctance to fully plunge myself into my literature classes out of fear. Having student-taught last semester, I am relearning how to be a student. I had grown so accustomed to being in front of the class, that now, as I sit at my desk, I find myself wondering – am I doing enough? Am I understanding the work at the same level as my classmates? Am I speaking too much, or too little? Am I grasping the “right” concepts in each class? Is there a “right” answer to the questions asked? I feel these questions prodding me as I stand on the threshold of the class – and above all, I find myself thinking about failure. I do not want to fail the works that I read. I do not want to fail the expectations I have set for myself. To quote Morrison, this fear of failure and desire to be the same student I was prior to student teaching is my own “Something else you have to figure in before you can figure it out” – and I know that this will come in time. With each page read, I feel a connection back to my student role and find myself once more in my journey of academia.

To stand at the threshold is to be open and willing for whatever knowledge lies beyond. It is to have grace, courage, and courtesy and be prepared to take on the role of a learner as this course begins. To encourage classmates, to be consistently thinkING, and to remember that above all, this is a learning process. As this semester continues onward, I am looking forward to growing as a student and being a guest in Morrison’s novels.

The Elusive Effort of Beloved’s Beginning: A Meditation on Another Morrison Reading

One of the most common misconceptions that I have both observed and experienced in taking undergraduate literature courses is that there is a right or wrong way to approach a class—that the goal of taking a literature course is to ‘get it,’ to smooth the student’s understanding out into a nicely rounded trinket that they can take home and keep on their desk to show that they accomplished something; however, on the first day of this class, it became immediately clear to me that the intended outcome of this course is not meant to be anything nearly as linear or neatly outlined as this expectation. So far, nothing in this course has had a concrete, ‘right’ answer or approach—in fact, our class discussion has seemed to, more than anything else, emphasize the importance of not approaching a reading, assignment, or even class period with this mindset.

Even in conversations not directly pertaining to Toni Morrison, I have been brought to question simple knowledge and habits that I have often executed without thought or self-reflection. The class discussion that we had on using the term “enslaved person” versus “slave” on the first day already made me call into question the reasons that I make changes to my language and the way that I think. While I had thought that I was making a nuanced, respectful, and ‘correct’ choice by using the term “enslaved person,” that conversation brought me to remember that the outcome of these class conversations is not to decide what opinion is right or wrong, but about making a genuine effort to learn and take on good faith practices.

The first time that I read Beloved, in a high school classroom, I definitely approached my reading with this type of “I want to get it” mindset, but as I have reread Beloved again and again, I have better come to terms with understanding that reading and really experiencing Beloved is not nearly that simple. Though I was encapsulated by Morrison’s poetics and felt a strong sense of resonance with her characters like Denver and their deep desire to be cared for, I felt connected to Beloved more for craft and character development rather than trying to immerse myself in Beloved’s greater historical context and significance. While I would not suggest that White people are unable to experience a meaningful connection with books like Beloved, I was definitely not reading the book in the context that was meant to be read. Our conversation in Wednesday’s class about Morrison’s intention of writing to and for Black audiences with the understanding that non-Black readers are invited to come along contextualized my experiences as a White reader interacting with Morrison’s work. I hope to, in alignment with Morrison’s wishes, continue to approach this course with an expansive mindset rather than supposing that I concretely understand or have ownership over any knowledge regarding Morrison’s creativity, reasoning, or craft. Even entering the Major Authors Morrison and Silko class that I took last year with Professor Woidat, I was not really prepared to enter the class without these past biases and interpretations clouding my judgment. I still remember quite clearly on the first day of that class writing in a discussion post that said I was excited to learn more about Morrison’s usage of magical realism, only to learn down the road that this “magical” component of her novels was meant to be read literally, rather than in the fantastical sense that I was interpreting. While this interpretation was made in good faith, it was not one that included fruitful acknowledgment of Morrison’s intentions and is thus the sort of preconception I am moving to release on the threshold of another Toni Morrison course.

I am addressing all of these experiences and reflections at the start of this course in order to think critically not only about the thresholds we are addressing in Morrison and Dante’s work but in approaching a new opportunity for growth and learning. With that, I am thinking about the orientation with which someone embarks on a new journey, precipice, challenge, or portal. Because I have some experience with Morrison’s work already, I am trying to take a deep breath to clear my mind about what I know (or think I know) about Morrison and her work, while still trying to supplement the work that we do in this class with the biographical knowledge I have about Morrison, her writing processes, and the interdisciplinary knowledge I have regarding Morrison’s work from reading books like The Bluest Eye in women and gender studies courses. I am grateful for and reflecting very intentionally upon the preliminary work that we did on the first day of class, which felt like a meditation—not a final understanding—of how to read Morrison’s work. Instead, this class served as an introduction to treating her work the way it deserves and demands to be treated, rather than a tutorial on how to be respectful and aware throughout our readings and conversations.

This metaphorical threshold is one that lends itself well to the explicit mentions of thresholds that appear throughout what we have read so far from both Morrison and Dante. In both Beloved and Dante, we are so brought along with their literary journey that we have no choice but to be wrapped up in it. Morrison encapsulates this sentiment perfectly in the foreword of Beloved—“I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation or defense” (xviii). Of course, we see this pattern implicate itself physically and metaphorically from the very first moment of Beloved, from “124” skipping the number three to Beloved’s ghost being ripped from the house by Paul D. In this way, the threshold from which the reader enters Beloved is but a moment of recognition that something is about to change, rather than an extended rumination on what is going to happen. Morrison does not want her reader to finish Beloved sitting down with a pretty and polished understanding of it, but with an authentic experience of what it means to move through this book that contains so much. Similarly to the characters of the book, we are faced with the consumption of pain and devotion, “still full of that” (83) as we sit with Morrison’s writing and allow ourselves to move through the journey it contains, from the beginning we find ourselves in now to the ending of this course come May.

Dante’s writing, too, demands this same level of dedication; just as Beloved’s journey from the afterlife and back again is unavoidable both to Beloved’s audience and characters, Dante the pilgrim embarks on an unimaginable expedition into the depths of Hell, all the while keeping the reader by his side with remarkable prose and observation. While both works of literature accomplish this imperative severity, I find myself thinking more about the implications of Beloved’s stakes in a world where tragedies like the death of Keenan Anderson continue to occur every day. In her lifetime, Morrison knew and understood the consequences of the fact that, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” When I first read Beloved in a high school classroom, it was the only book by a Black author my class was taught that year—the book was not chosen to recognize the artistic meaning and implication of Morrison’s work, but to check a box of having a Black author on a high school syllabus. Morrison implored us to treat Black literature seriously, part of which means to meet her novels where they’re at—thus, it is important that we enter Beloved without much sense of direction at all, which I am striving to let loose of at this class’ precipice. This threshold, just as Morrison described, is elusive and difficult to grasp; however, it is a meaningful scaffold that I intend to stay rooted in throughout this semester.

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. 

A Singular Body

As a self-proclaimed “avid reader”, there is nothing I enjoy more than settling down with a cup of tea and a good story that has the ability to whisk me away from the troubles of the real world. When selecting the singular English class to weave into my education-heavy course load this semester, I was drawn to the Toni Morrison label. Simply just a name I’ve encountered in passing, I had absolutely no knowledge or experience with Morrison, especially paired with Dante Alighieri, whose works I only pretended to read during my Humanities course. For the first time in my Geneseo career I would be reading mostly fiction, and the naïve bookworm in me couldn’t be more excited. I say naïve because I was unprepared for the heaviness of Morrison’s words and the absolute masterful craftsmanship that she must be known for. While I stand at the threshold I must abandon any ideas I had about what this course might look like, and fully embrace the unfamiliar.

Every time I approach a new semester, I have one foot planted in the past and one foot hesitantly testing the waters before diving into the brisk and jarring cold water of what’s to come. I too am Dante lost in the dark wood seeking a guide to paradise. This semester feels different, as it is my last semester in the role of the student before I begin student teaching in the fall and take on a completely different role. This course was intentionally selected to serve as an escape from all my education courses as I hoped to find solace with like minded individuals from different career paths that share a passion for text-based discussions. So far, class discussions have completely caught my attention, making time irrelevant as comments and questions pinball around the classroom. The connections between Dante and Morrison have become increasingly clear and I can say comfortably that I’m beginning to understand how they both examine love as something with the potential to harm, and so much more. From what I’ve read so far, Beloved is such a unique and harrowing story of a brave mother facing the aftermath of the hardest decision of her life and while the connections to Dante are not apparent at first glance, with educated and scholarly discussions, the class as one singular body is able to begin unweaving the intertwined stories.

To get through this course together, the class as a whole must be willing to embark on a journey of honesty and understanding, recognizing everyone’s unique paths that have brought them here for this moment. While our destinations are all different, this class has been selected as a stop along the road, even though it might not be a straight and simple path, “‘But you must journey down another road,’ he answered, when he saw me lost in tears, ‘if ever you hope to leave this wilderness’” (Dante Canto 1). Dante, just like Sethe in Morrison’s Beloved, is on the less traveled path, encountering situations unknown to other people. Dante himself scales the body of Satan in search of paradise, and Sethe takes the life of her children into her own hands when she kills her Beloved to protect her from a life of enslavement. Each individually experiences their own personal hell and when they initially cross the threshold, nothing is the same.

Something I’ve been thinking about while reading Beloved in conjunction with Dante is the idea of each person’s individual description of hell. When our class comes together for a short period of time every week, I’m sure we all have different ideas of what hell might look like. Maybe it’s multiple exams and essays in one week, maybe it’s a long shift at work or walking all the way home in the snow. Maybe it’s something bigger like what Dante experiences when he witnesses, “These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears” (Dante Canto III). While this image is intended to haunt the reader and leave them dreading the possibility of this eternal slumber, I personally find nothing more haunting than the personal hell described in Beloved. I have read many books where the protagonist is haunted by past mistakes and while there are parallels between these characters, the pain felt by Sethe in 124 is unlike nothing I’ve encountered before. Here in this house, which was supposed to be her fresh start, she is haunted by her past life and the presence of her missing children, “‘I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running—from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth. I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something, Paul D Garner: it cost too much! Do you hear me? It cost too much. Now sit down and eat with us or leave us be”’ (Morrison, 18). While others in the book have tried to shame Sethe, saying what she did was wrong and that there was another way, nobody will ever be able to fully put themselves in Sethe’s shoes and understand the choices that she had to make were best for her children. We as a class have to strive to not assume to know someone else’s story and assume best intentions from everyone as we explore Morrison’s words.

Compared to other stories that I have read, none have forced me to be as attuned to hidden messages as I have been while reading Beloved in tandem with Dante’s Inferno. Something that was raised in class was the incorporation of the seven deadly sins into Morrison’s work. Specifically pride, as seen in both Inferno and Beloved. If I were reading this on my own, I would be reading for completion, not for comprehension or exploration of weaved messages. Sethe struggles with excessive amounts of pride, which to others like Paul D is viewed as misplaced. While I talk of assuming good intentions, I don’t see anything worth defending in Paul D, who exists in a cloud of self-righteousness talking like he knows better than Sethe, ‘“What you did was wrong, Sethe.’ ‘I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?’ ‘There could have been a way. Some other way.’ ‘What way?’” (Morrison 194). If Dante or Virgil were reading this, they would comment on the idea that all things in excess, like pride or love are punishable offenses while Sethe defends her actions, as she has had to make decisions no mother should have to. This is in contrast to the beginning when Sethe appears standoffish about her actions, referring to her baby as an “it”, never by name. This shift, where Sethe is prideful and defensive of her actions, shows that Sethe might be moving on from this loss, feeling acceptance that the choice she made was the right one.

As we approach the end of this novel, I am wondering about where Morrison will leave Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. I believe that we as a class are rather in agreement that Beloved is the spirit of Sethe’s lost baby reincarnated. I feel concern for Sethe and her newly found family and wonder what will come of them as the novel concludes. I’m very familiar with the iconic “happily ever after” that leaves me satisfied at the end of my favorite books, but Sethe herself has presented me with the idea that this might not be the ending granted to her and her family, “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love” (Morrison 54). Sethe has unfortunately become well-versed in the temporary love that enslaved people had to deal with, as they never experienced feelings of true and genuine safety, even when tasting a semblance of freedom. Morrison is preparing her audience for an ending that I can’t feel confident speaking about, and as I pick up the novel to continue, I sip my tea and wait with bated breath, hoping that Sethe, Denver, and Beloved get the endings they deserve.

A Guide For ThinkING in English 431

Kathleen McCarey

Dr. Beth McCoy

February 9, 2023

Thresholds Essay

431 was enticing. English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy, that is. Standing at the threshold of graduation, I already completed all of my requirements for the English major, but alas, I could not imagine a semester where I did not have an English class. We’ve already discussed in the few weeks of this class the idea of a life perseverer, something to grasp onto for dear life in times of uncertainty or when you seem to have lost your way. For me, my English classes here at Geneseo have been that life perseverer. When I become overwhelmed with school or athletics, I have always been able to ground myself in an English reading or think back to a particular lesson in class to distract me from an outside stressor. Having previously taken a class with Dr. McCoy, I knew English 431 was a class where I would be pushed to truly be thinkING in my studies. I relished in the idea of returning to a classroom where I could be stimulated in intellectual discussions, where myself and my peers were held to high standards that helped us to achieve the kind of conversations that resulted in leaving class feeling accomplished and having further enhanced our understanding of the text. This is the level of thinkING that I crave. Already in these first few weeks of class, this course has started me in the act of thinkING about Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a stand alone novel as well as its relation to Dante’s Inferno.

            Prior to starting Beloved, I had no knowledge of what the book was about. When I discovered that it would be used in conversation with Dante’s Inferno, I could not even begin to guess how these two seemingly unrelated works could share anything in common. However, I trusted that although I did not see the connection now, I would be guided and led caringly to see how intricate Morrison’s work was to include elements of Dante’s Inferno. This sense of having a guide would come to act as one of the life preservers of the two authors’ coupling of ideas.

            The elements of guides are heavily present in Dante’s Inferno and Morrison’s Beloved and was one of the initial connections that got me thinkING of the texts together in relation. At the threshold of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey in “Canto I”, he is unsure of the path to take and lost in the woods of hell, is met with beasts. Virgil speaks calmly to the lost pilgrim, stating: “I think it best you follow me/for your own good, and I shall be your guide/and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114). Lost in hell, Dante the Pilgrim relies on Virgil as he guides him through the inferno. The element of guides is present throughout Morrison’s own work. While the setting may not be an obvious hellscape as the one depicted in Inferno, the characters in Beloved need assistance in navigating their own personal levels of hell.

            In connection to Dante, the first obvious character who Morrison provides with a guide is Sethe. Having first been guided to the river by a runaway whitegirl by the name of Amy, the sick and frightened Sethe and her newborn baby are found by Stamp Paid. Like Dante the Pilgrim alone in the woods of hell relying on the help of Virgil to save him, Sethe has no choice but to place her trust in Stamp Paid. He takes her to Ohio and “he helped her up the steep bank, while the boy without a jacket carried the baby who wore it. The man led her to a brush-covered hutch with a beaten floor” and says to her “‘Wait here. Somebody be here directly. Don’t move. They’ll find you” (Morrison 107). From Amy to Stamp Paid, Sethe and her baby are entrusted in the care of Ella. Sethe is able to escape the hell that is Sweet Home and rejoin her children and mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. The beasts that Dante had to face are no match for the horrors inflicted upon Sethe by Schoolteacher and the other white men at Sweet Home. However, Dante the Pilgrim’s remark of hell as “a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer./But if I could show the good that came of it/I must talk about things other than good” resembles how Sethe struggles with returning to the memories of the torture she endured at Sweet Home and instead focuses on her happy memories when she reconnects with Paul D (Dante 7-9). Sethe recounts how Sweet Home had a “shameless beauty” and how “it never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7). Morrison’s artfully crafted work demonstrates the true meaning of hell on Earth. While Dante the Pilgrim is forced to navigate the depths of hell, Sethe must live her life in conditions comparable to hell. Both Dante and Sethe are led out of their suffering by guides who show them the way and lighten the load they are burdened with carrying. 

            While Paul D acts as a guide steering Sethe towards happiness in the opening of the novel, he also relies on a guide in his escape from enslavement, his own hell. While enslaved in Georgia, Paul D is chained to forty-five other men, all forced to work under hellish conditions. The men look to one enslaved man to guide them, Hi Man. Paul D recounts how he “believed to this day that the ‘Hiiii!’ at dawn and the ‘Hoooo!’ when evening came were the responsibility Hi Man assumed because he alone knew what was enough, what was too much, when things were over, when the time had come” (Morrison 127-128). Paul D and the other men look to this man to guide them when they themselves must endure the cruelest of punishments. It is Hi Man who ultimately leads them to their freedom as well. Paul D explains how “someone yanked the chain – once – hard enough to cross his legs and throw him into the mud” and how “one by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping” (Morrison 130). The men follow their guide blindly, believing that he shall lead them out through hell and into freedom. Paul D says how he and the other men “trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other” (Morrison 130). Similar to how Sethe’s three guides led her out of enslavement and into the welcoming arms of her children and mother-in-law, Hi Man led the men who were chained to him, enduring the same hell on Earth he was, out of the depths of hell and into the light of freedom. 

            Just as how Morrison and Dante provide their characters with guides to lead them into freedom, the life preservers in the class that Dr. McCoy provides, enhances the understanding of the text, and offers a light at the end of the tunnel. When Morrison or Dante can seem difficult to comprehend, returning to themes such as love and justice, which were discussed in the first few class periods, as well as themes of guides and thresholds, provide a sense of understanding. As Paul D had blind faith that Hi Man would lead him out of their own personal hell, I feel as though I can place my trust in the good faith practices of this class to be guided to understandings of the connection between Dante and Morrison that I may not fully understand this early in the semester. 

Thresholds: Beginnings, Ending & Everything in Between

Thresholds, in the literal sense of the word, are strips of wood, metal, or stone forming the bottom of a doorway and crossed in entering a house or room. Threshold can also refer to the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested. These are all accurate representations of the word threshold, but thinking in a more abstract way, thresholds can be much more valuable in this sense than when seen materially. Thresholds are an invitation to a transformation, whether that be spiritually, emotionally, mentally or even physically.

The idea of being on a threshold of sorts when looking at different beginnings and finales that occur throughout my life as a living, breathing human being is so bizarre and fascinating to me. At this point in my life, I am taking steps forward and leaving things behind as I continue to grow intellectually and emotionally through my college journey. Opening my mind and thinking about entering this course as an equivalent of crossing over a threshold I made a short list of other things that are thresholds for me right now. I am at a threshold with all three of my English courses this semester, it is my last semester of my senior year at Geneseo, I am going to be transitioning from being an undergraduate student at college to being a full-time teacher AND graduate student by the end of this year, and I have just recently finished my journey of student teaching and have successfully made the transition back to being the student in the classroom and not the teacher! There are so many events that could be considered thresholds, and “when one door closes, another one opens!”

There are many ideas that I have been actively thinkING about recently in regard to what I am most excited about for this course. I mentioned before that I have never read works by Morrison or Dante and I am super excited to get to make connections between the two. I like that a lot of this course involves collaboration, and I am hoping that we will be involved in more discussions that lead to “aha moments.” An example of an “aha moment” in a collaborative setting is exactly what happened in class today. We were all discussing the importance of numbers in both Morrison and Dante’s writing. When we were realizing just how repetitive the use of the number three is in both works and everyone in the class was astonished! Being able to share these moments of realization and appreciation for an author’s creation is something that I am really looking forward to doing more. I have already loved so many aspects and perspectives brought about in the literature we have read so far and I cannot wait to continue on this adventure as the semester progresses. Morrison’s craft and care embedded in “Beloved” thus far has really brought me in and made me want to explore more. Morrison’s characters are flawed and fragile and human. These characters have feelings, desires, hopes, fears, pasts, presents and futures that are known just like it is impossible to look ahead fifty years and see exactly where we will be and what we will be doing in that exact moment in time. When Sethe talks about Sweet Home in the very beginning of the novel, she wonders if hell is a pretty place (Morrison 7). This was amusing and shocking to me because Sethe now knows that Sweet Home was not a good place, but it was pretty and first impressions are usually what guides what we do next. Sethe has the same thought process that living, breathing people in her place would have and it allows readers to put themselves in her position while watching her story unfold.

Another quote that I noted in the text was when Sethe met Amy and sobbed when Amy massaged her swollen feet. Amy said “Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” and I remembered this quote when Beloved came through the water and was sick for the next several days. Beloved dealt with pain in her lungs the most (from the water) and even after she felt better she speaks in a raspy voice. I thought back to what Amy said about the dead coming back to life and how much pain can be involved in that journey. Beloved is thought to be Sethe’s deceased child that has come back to Earth to be with them and their family, and the idea of her being once dead and now alive and sick at first directly correlates to what Amy was saying about Sethe’s swollen feet.

Watching all of the characters in this novel develop and cross thresholds of their own made me stop and reflect on what thresholds I have crossed and will cross as I continue to grow as a person. Morrison’s characters have real-life feelings during events that act as starting points and closings throughout their story, and this is something I think a lot of us can connect to, as we are taking on explorations of our own and feeling similar ways. I have come to the realization of how many doorways I have walked through to get where I am today. Anything can be a threshold: beginnings, endings and everything in between.

Virgilian Intimacy at the Threshold of Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

At the threshold of Hell, Dante the Pilgrim—in Canto III shaken by the epigraph to “abandon all hope” and the sounds of agony, “sighs, cries, and shrieks of lamentation”—expresses sorrow at the start of his journey. Later, as he closes in on Hell’s exit in Canto XXXI, at the icy expanse  of Cocytus, he feels his “fear [take] on more shape.” However, Dante is not alone; guiding him through Hell, drawing sorrow and misery from his body like sucking poison from a forearm, Virgil inserts himself. At both turning points in Dante’s Inferno, Virgil uses intimacy to guide the Pilgrim out of despair: at the threshold of Hell, he uses a slight touch of the hand and a smile; at Hell’s exit, Virgil “lovingly took Dante by the hand,” and led him forward. In an inclusio of intimacy, Dante Alighieri utilizes this connection as a fulcrum enabling the Pilgrim to progress through Hell; as a literal and emotional guide, Virgil evokes the philia between himself and Dante to guide them through the agony, misery, and pain of Hell.

I feel that Toni Morrison, likewise, uses intimacy as a generative, guiding force. In her novel Beloved, even as characters harm themselves and others out of love, intimacy functions as a mode through which they navigate their pains and traumas. At the threshold of Morrison’s trilogy—passing out of Beloved and beyond—I am thinking deeply about the intimacy and love she shapes between her characters, and the ways in which these entanglements—like Virgil’s touch, his smile, his gaze—guide characters out of the catalog of aches that burden their bodies, memories, and thoughts.

I see the ideas that Audre Lorde presents in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” as a throughline entangling the characters Morrison shapes and the love they engage with. She describes how systems of power can place limits on, restrict, and suppress the erotic—the “resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling”—as a form of control. Lorde’s definition functions in several ways; she writes that it provides “the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharer…and lessens the threat of their difference.” When this joy is experienced and shared, the individuals in tune with their eros becomes “less willing to accept powerlessness, or…resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”

Intimacy in all of its forms enables the sharers to endure Hellish structures, to survive cruelty and violence. Although Beloved’s depictions of love are not restricted to eros—agape, philia, storge, pragma, philautia all find their places in the novel, and are often joined together as a chimera to enhance the characters and their relationships—and although the love each character holds is both tender and violent, intimacy nonetheless behaves as a Virgilian construct, guiding Sethe in particular through the Hell of her “rememory.”

Beloved’s Virgilian intimacy often reacts to—as described by Dr. Beth McCoy—the ways in which the past and present are in a state of “churning.” The dual Hells of 124 and the past flood Morrison’s characters with grief, tension, and conflict, as the trauma of their past constantly recoils into their consciousness.

Intimacy in Beloved behaves—similar to Lorde’s description of the erotic, in which the sharing of an experience bridges the sharers together to empower them—as a means of guiding Sethe out of the depravity created by the conditions of her past. When Paul D visits her at 124, she describes the assault on her body that engrained Sweet Home’s memory as a malicious one. “After I left you,” she says, “those boys came in here and took my milk,” and after reporting the incident to Mrs. Garner, Schoolteacher lashed Sethe’s back, the scar resembling a chokecherry tree (21). However, Paul D’s touch guides Sethe out of the pain of her past. Paul D stood behind her as she was baking bread for him, pressing his cheek into “the branches of her chokecherry tree,” becoming the “kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry,” his body an “arc of kindness.” As he rubbed his cheek and lips over her back, holding her breasts in his hands, tracing the roots and branches and trunk of her scars, he undid the top of her dress. Paul D would “tolerate no peace until he had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth,” and she leans into his touch, feeling that “the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (22).

The tenderness of the scene—the careful touch of Paul D’s cheek and lips on the scarred, chokecherry flesh, that symbol of the cruelty of Sweet Home, the mark on her body that carries the weight of her memory intruding her mind and her home—carries Sethe from the threshold of the cruel conditions of her “rememory.” Despite Paul D’s own role in inflicting wounds—sleeping with Beloved, closing himself off to Sethe by pushing everything into the “tobacco tin” in his chest, leaving Sethe behind after learning about her infanticide—he does eventually realize the love that went into the murder, and that he loves this woman.

At the end of the novel, he recognizes the depth of Sethe’s love, the thickness that drove her to kill her “crawling already? baby” because she refused to let her die in the hands of bondage and violence, and accepts her. How if Sethe hadn’t killed her she would have died as a nonhuman in the eyes of the white men who came to 124 to claim Sethe and her family as theirs (256). How at the sight of schoolteacher she gathered “every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe” in death (209). An act of violence produced from “true love” (320). With Beloved’s departure, Sethe lies sick and weary and wearing away, unwashed, and sorrowful. Paul D returns and wants to “put his story next to hers.” He grabs her hand, touches her face, and says “You your best thing, Sethe” (348).

Paul D—in this moment, in a repetition of his intimacy in the beginning of the book—gives her rest, gives her love, and allows her to be vulnerable, sharing the weight of their past aches, to find “some kind of tomorrow” (348). Intimacy guides Sethe out of the Hell of her churning past that surfaces in a physical manifestation as 124, then in the flesh as Beloved, and—like the loving touch or kind words of Virgil, like the shared resiliency and empowerment of Lorde’s eros—shares the weight of her past with Paul D, leans again into his touch, and allows herself to heal, to be loved, and to give her love in return. Both characters, traumatized by their past, in this moment are made accountable for their actions, and with the intention to share love between them, evoke Lorde’s erotic to begin the work of escaping their Hell.

I am, however, wary of Morrison’s love; even as I am drawn to the way it operates in her craft—as relief, as tenderness, as healing—that love is likewise harmful. Love, in excess, and coming from a place of possession, can be violent, and encircles her novel in another Hellish ring.

It is crucial to Lorde’s essay that the erotic is a shared experience, and when characters in Beloved evoke love as possessive and excessive devices, violence brews as a result of a lack of intention to share this love. Paul D leaving 124 at the news of Sethe’s infanticide causes a shift into the first person, where we receive the interior thoughts of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, all three of which express possessive desires. Sethe, realizing Beloved is her dead daughter made flesh, both fiercely protects her children—as she recalls her intention to bring her and her children to the “other side” to keep out of returning to bondage under schoolteacher—and desires to possess them, as she remarks how “She come back to me, my daughter, and she is mine” (261). Denver, fearing that she and Beloved will be murdered by Sethe like the baby was, fiercely resigns to protect Beloved from her mother, saying that she drank her blood and her mother’s milk at once the day she was killed, saying “She’s mine, Beloved. She’s mine” (268). Beloved herself notes seeing Sethe’s facing, the “face she lost” and has finally found, and states that she “will not lose her again. She is mine” (275). Towards the end of the book, when Denver, Sethe, and Beloved’s narratives converge into a chant of “you are mine,” the language becomes a possessive, violent, and harmful expression of love in excess.

The act sharing—as defined by Audre Lorde in her discussion of eros—therefore acts as one of the through lines connecting me to the rest of the trilogy. Passing out of Beloved—crossing the threshold into a new novel and a new phase of the course, out of Hell and into Purgatory—I am struck by (moved by, impacted by, allured by, shocked by) the forcefulness of the intimacy Morrison constructs. Sethe’s character endures the Hell of her past and present through her entanglements with others, and just as Paul D’s touch, his kindness, guides her from becoming a lost soul wandering the terrain of her own thoughts, I too am led through Morrison’s work by her love, both violent and tender, destructive and resilient, sacrificial and comforting, fragmented and whole.

At the threshold of the course and Morrison’s trilogy, I am thinking—and feeling—the weight of intimacy, the forcefulness of the senses tied to this emotion, the mechanisms that construct this love, both within Beloved and out into Jazz, and eventually Paradise. I am thinking about sharing that love, how love functions within the self and out, out into the loved from the loving, pulsing through her sentences, her prose, her characters, her conflicts like a heartbeat, guiding us through her works, “working, dough. Working, working dough.”

Color in Beloved: A Threshold

In my reading of Beloved by Toni Morrison so far, I noticed that colors seem to have a lot of importance. From what has shown so far, colors are very important in cluing the reader into mood and linking events across the narrative. The concept of color itself is as important, with color being very infrequently mentioned and only are mentioned in narratively and thematically important moments, for the most part. This is in addition to specific colors. The important colors I’ve seen so far in the narrative are pink, red, blue, and green. I want to make a note that I have not been tracking the colors white, gray, or black throughout the novel because most of the time that white or black is being used, they are referring to people or skin tones, and because these colors, in addition to grey, seem to be indicative of a lack of color through the lens I’m looking through – as in the white and gray exterior of the house at 124. I am also aware that other colors, such as yellow, purple, and orange, are mentioned, but their rarity and irregularity made them very difficult to connect across the narrative. This tracking and analysis is also not accounting for the change in Sethe’s view of color after she realizes that Beloved is her lost daughter, but this essay is working from the outer edge of the threshold that Sethe crosses in the second part of this novel.

The very first mention of pink was when Baby Suggs was dying, and asked for color in the Ohio winter. “Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t” (Morrison, 4). When dying, people often want comfort, which is what color seems to bring Baby Suggs. Another very important mention of the color pink is in the dead baby’s gravestone – “Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips” (Morrison, 5). Pink is used once again in the blossoms, the flowers, that Paul D. follows North to freedom after escaping the prison camp. “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 of white in the leaf world that surrounded him” (Morrison, 133). Pink also appeared in the form of ‘rose’ in the fabric that Mrs. Garner gave to Sethe, which she wanted to make into a ‘shift’ for her daughter, the one who she killed, since she decided to do it before she left Sweet Home. She forgot this fabric, and then had to make her daughter clothes from a different fabric, with no color mentioned, once she got to 124. In all the instances of the color pink appearing in the text, it seems to indicate something to do with home, kinship, or comfort.

As for the color red, the most recurring mention of the color red comes when discussing the death of Sethe’s daughter. This happens may times throughout the book, including during the recounting of the actual event. Sethe’s “wet red hands” (Morrison, 178) are mentioned when the sheriff was going to bind them, and again when Baby Suggs tried to get Sethe to clean the blood off of herself before nursing Denver, she “slipped in a red puddle and fell” (Morrison, 179). Another important moment in which the color red is mentioned is when Paul D enters 124 for the first time, into the back room, where he had to walk through a “pool of red and undulating light” (Morrison, 10), which was attributed to the baby’s ghost. So far, it seems that the color red is attached to conflict in the narrative, though I think it goes farther than just physical conflict and includes personal, internal conflicts. One could argue that the attempted murder of her children was an internal conflict, because that can’t be an easy decision to make, but there are more explicit examples of inner conflict coinciding with the color red. One point in which the color red indicates inner conflict is when Paul D talks or thinks about the stories he will never tell, he says or thinks of it as “that tobacco tin in his chest where a red heart used to be” (Morrison, 86). And then, when he was deciding whether or not to have sex with Beloved, and does, “he was saying, ‘Red heart. Red heart. Red heart,’ over and over again.” This conflict within Paul D applies to his thinking about Mister, the rooster, as well. He mentions that Mister had a “comb as big as [his] hand and some kind of red,” and then goes on to contemplate the freedom and autonomy that even the rooster had that he wasn’t allowed to. This shows the common thread that the color red ties together so far in Beloved, which is conflict, both physical and internal. Another interpretation of this I can see well is the fear within love – Sethe’s love for her daughter and vice versa, and Paul D’s love (or something close to it) for Sethe.

The color blue shows up in the text a lot less frequently than pink or red. The first place I noticed blue in the text is in the setting of their house, 124: “on Bluestone road” (Morrison, 4). There’s also a mention of blue in the color of the wallpaper of the second floor of 124. Another place where the color blue is used several times in a short section of text is when Sethe is recounting the birth of Denver, with the ‘whitegirl’ Amy helping. After Denver was born in the boat, the surroundings are described in this sentence: “Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines” (Morrison, 99), in which the repetition of the word ‘blue’ stands out because of the mostly-colorless descriptions elsewhere in the novel. On the same page, ‘bluefern’ and ‘silvery-blue’ are repeated once more, further reinforcing the linking of the color to this scene. Blue is also mentioned by Baby Suggs, when she’s contemplating color talking with Stamp Paid, and she says “Blue. That don’t hurt nobody” (Morrison, 211). I think this statement really encapsulates the mood that the color blue is supposed to indicate in this novel. Another important place where blue is mentioned is the chapter where Beloved is talking or thinking in broken sentences, and the blue seems to be referring to the ocean, in which the bodies of those who didn’t survive the passage, presumably from Africa to the Americas, were thrown. This seems to be repeating the logic that Sethe uses to justify her actions when the schoolteacher came to take her and her children back to Sweet Home, that it’s better and safer to be dead than to be enslaved. If blue’s line snaking through the novel is one of safety, than it seems like the symbolism is working toward 124 being a place of safety, at least from the kinds of danger that come with enslavement. Even though the characters weren’t physically safe at 124 – the children from their mother and the inhabitants from the ghost of the murdered daughter – they were safe from enslavement, as even though they were found, none of them ended up going back to Sweet Home or enslaved anywhere else. In that same vein, blue could also mean something like freedom, as (even though Amy Denver was speaking to Sethe with harmful, racist words, tones, and phrases) without Amy Denver’s help, the reader is left wondering whether Sethe and Denver would have made it to freedom, to 124, at all.

The last important colors that I saw throughout the novel, though fairly sporadically, was green. One place where the color green seems to have a lot of importance is that it is used to describe Denver’s ‘emerald closet’. Made of bushes that had grown high and together, it was a big, closed-off room where ”bent low, Denver could crawl into this room, and once there she could stand all the way up in emerald light” (Morrison, 34). The novel states that Denver was “veiled and protected by the live green walls” (Morrison, 35). This color seems to evoke at once protection and nature. Another place in the novel in which ‘green’ was mentioned many times was when Sethe, Denver, and Beloved went to the Clearing where Baby Suggs used to ‘call.’ It’s first described as “the green blessed place” (Morrison 105), and then the path they take to get there is referred to as “a bright green corridor of oak and horse chestnut” (Morrison, 105). The clearing was holy to Baby Suggs and everyone who went to hear her speak, and the greenness of it is definitely asserted. As the three are leaving the clearing, the path is referred to as “the green corridor” once again. Interestingly, in both cases of green being used as the major descriptor of the scene, though they both take place in nature, words for manmade structures were used to describe them. It might be alluding to the kind of fortitude one can find in building, or it may be that the importance and protection that is found in these places is manmade by those who inhabit or inhabited it.

Color is a luxury. On Baby Sugg’s deathbed, all she asks for is color. Color is a luxury that Sethe seems to have lost when she lost her daughter, except for in very significant moments. Sethe, standing at the threshold of belief versus skepticism, starts seeing colors again in regularity when she begins to cross that threshold. Before she crossed, the moments color was mentioned are especially important, if only because of their rarity.