Throughout the past three weeks of class, I’ve become intrigued with a number of themes and interpretations on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Right now, in accordance with the class structure, I’ve been focusing on Dante Aligeri’s Divine Comedy and seeing how Morrison, in the twentieth century, drew from these texts and used them as inspiration for her characters in the trilogy that begins with Beloved. I suspect these comparisons will become clearer as the semester goes on and we move forward with the rest of the novels, but for now, I find myself lost in the woods, so to speak, with interpreting this story inside this set context. I know that this prompt and course interpretations are meant to be more open ended, but I like to set strict guidelines for myself in writing. I’m a person who requires a plan, and this is, admittedly, throwing me for a bit of a loop. Morrison’s work necessitates careful examination and study, and every day I dig deeper, but I’m still struggling a bit with mapping Dante characters and major themes of the Divine Comedy onto Beloved. There are a few major ones I’ve noticed at this point, but I feel its prudent to remind any reader that this analysis is already necessarily in the preliminary stages. The mapping of Dante and Morrison’s trilogies onto one another has just embarked beyond its threshold.
For this paper, I chose to focus on the idea of exile and the pain that this causes. Dante, in Inferno and beyond, moves through worlds where he does not belong as of yet. At the end of Inferno, he remarks “through a small round opening ahead of us/I saw the lovely things the heavens hold,/and we came out to see once more the stars” (Inferno, Canto 32). This maps, albeit loosely (a caveat that applies to most comparisons here), onto Paul D’s internal thoughts when he hears Sethe talking about love while enslaved versus in freedom. He feels, rather than thinks, “so you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own” (Morrison 191). All of Morrison’s characters in Beloved are inherently in exile. Forced from their families and their lives, Sethe and Baby Suggs, in an attempt to regain what they have both lost, settle at 124 to build themselves back up once more. Baby Suggs, after her son Halle purchases her freedom, is ‘taken in’ by the Bodwins, white people connected to the Gardeners who claim that they detest slavery. Yet they require her to perform domestic labor for them in exchange for renting 124. She is not truly free, even if she is no longer considered enslaved. She has been taken from one bad situation to another, knowing that they are different but neither good nor truly allowing for her own independence.
Nevertheless, she persists, carving out a life for herself in Cincinnati. She makes a reputation for herself, much like a preacher one might encounter in Paradiso, as a pillar of the community. Things start to feel dangerous, though, after she is given blackberries by Stamp Paid, an arguable candidate for Virgil’s counterpart. Stamp takes responsibility for the entire community, “[extending] this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery” in much the same way that Virgil cares for Dante, focusing on his charges with a single minded love and affection (Morrison 218). They both acknowledge that the journey for the protagonists will not be easy; “‘But you must journey down another road,’/he answered, when he saw me lost in tears,/ ‘if ever you hope to leave this wilderness’” (Inferno, Canto 1). Baby Suggs’ ideals and tentative peace begin to dissolve when Stamp Paid gives baby Denver 2 buckets of blackberries, and she prepares a feast; soon after, she notices the frostiness and even anger of those around her, noting that “her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess” (Morrison 163). But the last straw for her idyllic freedom comes, of course, when the schoolteacher and his posse come to attack and kidnap Sethe’s family, leading her to take the drastic but understandable act of protection her attempted murder is. Afterwards, “strangers and familiars were stopping by to hear how it went one more time, and suddenly Baby declared peace. She just up and quit” (Morrison 208). Her heart has shattered, and she, like Dante, experiences the words of Dante in Paradiso, “You shall leave everything you love most dearly:/this is the arrow that the bow of exile/shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste/of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know/how hard a path it is for one who goes/descending and ascending others’ stairs” (Paradiso, Canto 17).For instance, when Baby Suggs sees that baby Denver is still alive, grabbed from Sethe’s grip just before her death, she breaks down, making “a low sound in her throat as though she’d made a mistake, left the salt out of the bread” (Morrison 178).
Like Baby Suggs, Sethe originally has high hopes for 124, hopes that are seemingly confirmed when she arrives. Upon recollection, she describes her arrival off the wagon as the time when she finally feels that she can love her children with all her heart, her heart that is no longer taken from her and locked away. She remarks, “maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon- there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (Morrison 190-191). This optimism, of course, is crushed by the reality of their situation. Forced into a hellish situation, Sethe made an impossible choice, and has spent the time since her child’s death paying the price for it every moment of every day. Ostracized by both her community and her family, Sethe is left to linger in her sorrow for eighteen years; as Dante states, ““I did not die -I was not living either!/Try to imagine, if you can imagine,/me there, deprived of life and death at once” (Inferno, Canto 34, 25-27). How can her remaining children trust her? Her former friends now rebuke her for the killing of her child, and are careful to keep their distance, although they started to inch away before this.
Yet how could anyone condemn her? It is only when Paul D arrives that Sethe is confronted with the reality of someone who shares her past experience in the brutality of enslavement and simultaneously does not yet not know what she has done, what she would have done. Her life seemingly becomes idyllic, with her Beloved daughter returning. Beloved, however, only scares the community more. Denver, initially excited for her sister and only friend to return in a physical form, not merely as a companion in the river, reminding her, “‘don’t you remember we played together by the stream?’” (Morrison 89). But Beloved lives up to her name, particularly with Sethe, who begins neglecting Denver in favor of the baby that she lost and has seemingly been returned. Denver, separated from her self proclaimed purpose of protecting others and herself from Sethe, is lost and without purpose. In her exile, she feels without purpose, just as Dante feels when Virgil discovers him in the woods, fearing the she-wolf “that in her leanness/seemed racked with every kind of greediness” she sees hidden in Beloved (Inferno, Canto 1). Denver is the one character who makes it out of the ordeal relatively unscathed, and yet even she is traumatized by the supernatural horrors and greed that she has seen. Much like Dante, this journey is required for her to grow into the woman she becomes, but this baptism by fire is disheartening for readers of the Divine Comedy and Beloved alike.
My question therefore is, how can we move forward from here? Are we as readers “getting closer to the center/of the universe, where all weights must converge,/and I was shivering in the eternal chill” (Inferno, Canto 32). It is clear that there is more to come, both in the Divine Comedy and Morrison’s trilogy, but I am curious to see if parts of Inferno will come back into play in Morrison’s work, as well as looking back and seeing the parts of Purgatorio and Paradiso that we may have missed by virtue of simply not having the context to understand Morrison’s clever usage of Dantean principles and themes in her work. I am aware that we have not yet finished Inferno, so this may also impact my interpretation of this relationship in the future. Overall, as we stand at the threshold of both the class and the trilogies, I find myself thinking more than analyzing what can come next. The themes of exile and leading/being led through the darkness are already so prominent, but I wonder how much farther they can extend.