Love in All Its Terrible Forms: 

Throughlines in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy and Dante’s Divine Commedia

Aubrey Ouderkirk, Mar Leeman, Kathleen McCarey, Kyra Drannbauer, Cheyanne Carney, Mia Donaldson, Owen Vincent, Rachel Cohen, Marie Naudus

In Dante’s Purgatorio, once Dante the Pilgrim has escaped from Hell with Virgil, he enters the Island of Purgatory. The island is broken up into three sections, consisting of seven total terraces of purgation. These three sections of Purgatory Proper revolve around three variations of love: Misdirected Love, Deficient Love, and Excessive Love. Movement in Purgatory is only permitted upward, and shades climbing up the mountain of Purgatory to ultimately reach Paradise. Once a soul enters the Gate of Purgatory, they enter into the zone of Misdirected Love, which consists of three of the seven terraces. These three terraces, in order, are The Proud, The Envious, and The Wrathful. Continuing the climb, Deficient Love holds only one terrace, The Slothful. The third section, containing the final three terraces, is Excessive Love, holding The Avaricious and Prodigal, The Gluttonous, and The Lustful. A soul cannot move upwards through Purgatory without purgation; repenting for their sins in life until they are free of sin and ready to enter Paradise. This upward movement through purgation is similar to the movements of Joe Trace through Manhattan and his own forms of purgation in Toni Morrison’s Jazz

The map of Manhattan can be compared to the Island of Purgatory; notably, the shape of Mount Purgatory mirrors the map of Manhattan quite well. The borough of Manhattan is broken into various neighborhoods, and in our class discussions it was noted how many maps of Manhattan left out Harlem and East Harlem, which sit above the Upper West and Upper East Sides respectively. Harlem and East Harlem were frequently left off traditional maps due to their high populations of Black residents. Throughout the novel, Joe moves from these predominantly Black neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan, down through the borough, and back home to uptown. The way that Joe has to move down through the boroughs mimics the pattern of movement through Purgatory. In order to move up Mount Purgatory, shades can only move during the day and can only move up the mountain faster if loved ones pray for them, much like how Joe receives forgiveness and support in various forms from his loved ones in order to move up his own Mount Purgatory. As Joe moves throughout Manhattan, mapping Purgatory onto the city and drawing parallels between Jazz and Purgatorio helps the reader understand how Joe’s movements emphasize his growth as a character and his movement towards Paradise at the end of the novel. Joe moves through intense stages of love, jealousy, and repentance in order to receive the forgiveness he needs from himself and Violet to move forward in his life, in love, and in the search for his Paradise.

Joe undergoes some of the most dramatic and violent growth of all the characters in the novel, and movement up Mount Purgatory can be mapped onto both his actions and his physical movement through Manhattan. Joe’s connection to Purgatory is first reflected in his seven changes throughout his life before he meets Dorcas; the number seven is repeated several times in Dante’s Purgatorio. Mount Purgatory consists of seven terraces, each of which correlate to one of the seven deadly sins. Souls have seven letter P’s carved into their forehead by an angel when they enter, and a letter is removed for each sin they purge and terrace they pass. Each of Joe’s seven changes represent the purgation of a vice, and they directly follow the order of the terraces of Mount Purgatory. According to Joe: “The first time [I changed] was when I named my own self, since nobody did it for me, since nobody knew what it could or should have been” (Morrison 123). The first terrace of Purgatory purges the sin of pride, and Joe’s decision to name himself frees him from his pride. By choosing his own name and therefore his own identity, he separates himself from a sense of pride that could come from the name and from his parents, who left him as a baby with another family. The second time that Joe claims he changes is when he is taught to hunt and track as a young man. He and his adoptive brother, Victory, are selected by a very skilled local hunter as an apprentice, and this selection satisfies a need in Joe for a father figure in his life. A lack of a father figure was a significant source of envy for Joe as a child and young man, and having someone in that role purges Joe of his envy, directly mapping to the progression of the terraces of Mount Purgatory. With each of his subsequent changes, Joe moves higher up the mountain and closer to paradise. 

The seventh and final time that Joe changes is when he purges the penultimate sin of excessive love: lust. In order to free himself from his sin, and in jealousy, Joe kills Dorcas, the object of his lust. Dorcas provides another parallel between Joe and Dante the Pilgrim, since both characters meet the object of their affections at the peak of their own version of Mount Purgatory. In Canto XXXII, Dante meets Beatrice, a woman he loved in life. Dante says that “My lady, you know all my needs, and how to satisfy them perfectly” (29-30). This sentiment echoes how Joe feels about Dorcas, as he says that he is so enthralled by Dorcas that he feels like a new man: “I couldn’t talk to anyone but Dorcas, and I told her things I hadn’t even told myself. With her I was fresh, new again” (Morrison 123). While Joe ultimately purges his sin of lust by killing Dorcas, unlike Dante in Purgatorio, the parallels between Jazz and Purgatorio in movement and purgation establish Joe’s growth as a character as his movement up his own Mount Purgatory. 

Joe’s movement—both physical and emotional—also imprints onto the people around him, namely the women in his life. Many of his marital problems with Violet stem from her decision not to have children, though both she and Joe are fond of them; “They liked children. Loved them even. Especially Joe, who had a way with them” (Morrison 107). Violet herself is not a mother in the traditional sense of the word, rather caring mainly for her birds before Joe’s attack on Dorcas. After, she falls into a deep depression, losing what little lust for life she had, moving through her days mechanically instead of making herself confront her emotions. Before she leaves for Dorcas’ funeral, she lets her birds out of their cages, setting them free onto the streets of New York City. They all leave almost immediately, with the exception of her most beloved pet, the parrot. Violet doted on the animal to such an extent that Joe becomes jealous. In fact, it refuses to leave for many days before it disappears; “She tried not to look at him as she paced the rooms, but the parrot saw her and squawked a weak ‘Love you’ through the pane” (Morrison 92). Joe’s jealousy is the most dangerous emotion one could feel; it is more destructive than his lust and his manifestation of love.

Joe consistently exhibits jealousy from a young age. When confronted with his own adoption by his brother, he remarks: “‘they got to pick me out. From all of you all, they got to pick me.’” His conflicting emotions concerning Violet do not inspire jealousy, at least not in the beginning of their marriage. He meets Violet, marks her as a life partner, but he doesn’t seem to love her, not in the way he becomes enamored with the idea of Dorcas later on. He notes that he doesn’t blame Violet for loving him, but his hesitancy to become open with another person means that their relationship is inherently static. While Violet and Joe grow apart, they fall into a rhythm he quickly becomes discontent with. Dorcas is someone revolutionary to him, or at the very least the idea of her. When she rejects him, he protests to himself, arguing, “I know you didn’t mean those things you said to me. After I found you and got you to come back to our room one more time. What you said I know you didn’t mean. It hurt, though” (Morrison 132). Joe cannot accept that perhaps Dorcas doesn’t have the same stakes and goals in their relationship, so he hunts her. Why wouldn’t he, if it worked with Violet? Joe is actively pursuing the girl he loves, a goal he insists isn’t harmful. He justifies, “she might think it’s jealousy, but I’m a mild man… she’ll be all alone. She’ll turn to me. She will hold out her hand, walk toward me in ugly shoes, but her face is clean and I am proud of her” (Morrison 183). Dorcas, however, has not chosen Joe in this way, and doesn’t react how he wishes. He stalks her to a party, and becomes confused when he observes her with a boy her age. We don’t see Joe’s perspective on this scene, however, but rather Dorcas’. Dorcas, as she dies, thinks, “he’s here. Oh, look. God. He’s crying. Am I falling? Why am I falling?” (Morrison 192).

Joe’s major sacrifice is not even his own, but rather an attack on his teenage lover. He loses someone he loves, but he has no right to steal Dorcas’ life from her. In Dorcas’ case, Joe’s emotions—his jealousy, his frustration with Violet, his listlessness—and subsequent action—murder—have fatal consequences. Dorcas acts explicitly as a guide for Joe, but at the expense of her own agency and, ultimately, her physical form; where Joe can repent because he remains alive, Dorcas’ capacity for repentance is stripped from her as a consequence of Joe’s emotional disarray. This is another significant way in which Dorcas can be seen as analogous to Virgil in Purgatorio; both Virgil and Dorcas served as guides for repenting characters, yet neither of them receive the ability to live or repent themselves, providing more throughlines between Jazz and Purgatorio. When Joe reflects on his relationship with Dorcas, he acknowledges the betrayal he enacted against Violet, and that he viewed Dorcas as an object that incited significant and necessary change in his life:  “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it. I saw you and made up my mind. My mind. And I made up my mind to follow you too… I talk about being new seven times before I met you” (Morrison 135). This connection is, in Joe’s estimation, remarkable and physical, to such an extent that he sees it as a form of religion: 

“‘I looked at your knees but I didn’t touch. I told you again that you were the reason Adam ate the apple and its core. That when he left Eden, he left a rich man. Not only did he have Eve, but he had the taste of the first apple in the world in his mouth for the rest of his life… You looked at me then like you knew me, and I thought it really was Eden, and I couldn’t take your eyes in because I was loving the hoof marks on your cheeks” (Morrison 133).

 Joe needs a Virgil-esque guide to show him the way up and out of Purgatory, but he romanticizes Dorcas into a twisted form of a guide to the point of objectifying her. Since he can no longer see Dorcas as a guide to follow up and out of Purgatory, he finally sees her as the thing pulling him down, and decides to kill her. In conversation with Dante, both Dorcas and Violet parallel the figure of Beatrice; Joe abandons Dorcas and continues living, but he also betrays her in life through infidelity, much like Joe and Violet. And, like Dante, Joe is initially listless without his source of guidance: “Strange as it was, people finally got used to him, wiping his face and nose with an engineer’s red handkerchief while he sat month after month by the window without view or on the stoop, first in the snow and later in the sun” (Morrison 118); “We found ourselves without Virgil… All the delights around me, which were lost / by our first mother, could not keep my cheeks, / once washed with dew, from being stained with tears” (XXX: 49-54). While Joe undergoes guidance and, eventually, repentance through his highly physical relationship with Dorcas (as a misguided response to his wife’s plight), this trajectory relies on his stealing Dorcas’ life and body: ““Somewhere in Springfield only the teeth were left. Maybe the skull, maybe not… No lips to share with the woman she had shared them with. No fingers to lift her hips as he had lifted others. Just the teeth exposed now, nothing like the smile that had made her say, ‘Choose.’ And he did” (Morrison 86). In Beatrice’s words: “‘Still, so that you may truly feel the shame / of all your sins—so that, another time, / you will be stronger when the Sirens sing— / master your feelings, listen to my words, / and you shall learn just how my buried flesh was meant to guide you in another way’” (XXXI: 43-48). When Joe chooses to uphold his relationship with Dorcas, seeing it as a source of physical and spiritual guidance, he also chooses to neglect his relationship with Violet and, ultimately, chooses to deprive his guide of her own body. This action is the ultimate form of love-driven betrayal, and thus requires a great deal of repentance: “‘penitence poured forth in guilty tears’” (XXX: 145). The purgation of lust-driven violence fulfills the requirements of the final terrace of Purgatory, allowing Joe to move out of Purgatory and into Paradise. 

Joe’s emotions, specifically within his intimate relationships, can be related to Dante’s three different types of love—misguided, deficient, and excessive. Morrison uses love as a throughline in both Beloved and Jazz to show how each can affect relationships for the better or for worse. Jazz opens with neighbors talking about Joe’s actions, driven by misguided love. Joe and Dorcas’ relationship falls into Dante’s misguided love, particularly the all consuming nature of Joe’s adoration and lust. This also ties into the idea of excessive love, where Joe simultaneously makes consistently poor decisions and justifies them to himself. Dante perhaps expresses this best when he writes, “now you understand / how much my love for you burns deep in me, / when I forget about our emptiness / and deal with shadows as with solid things.” (XXI: 133-136). Joe’s relationship with Dorcas inherently harms his marriage, with his love for Dorcas being that which eclipses much of his emotions for Violet. His affair that takes place within the shadows feels much more tangible to him than the life he’s actively worked to build. He thinks to Dorcas; “Just for you. Anything just for you. To bite down hard, chew up the core and have the taste of red apple skin to carry around for the rest of my life” (Morrison 134). Therefore, the most logical conclusion for his character is either to fully repent or exit the story altogether. He chooses the former, although it is unclear if this is for his own sake or for Violet’s. Much like Dante chooses to embark on his journey through Mount Purgatory, so too does Joe decide to repair his relationship with his wife. He’s certainly not perfect by any means, but “the will to rise, alone, proves purity:/once freed, it takes possession of the soul/and wills the soul to change its company” (XXI, 61-63). Joe Trace must choose his own path of love to follow. 

As Dante enters the level of Deficient Love, Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great-great grandfather, explains the extent of loss Dante will encounter on his journey through exile:  “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 each others’ bread, how salty it is, and know/how hard a path it is for one who goes/descending and ascending others’ stairs” (XVII: 55-60). Dante must first experience extreme loss before he gets to experience Excessive Love, the third level of love within Purgatory. Much like Dante, Joe Trace has to understand the gravity of his choice of “descending and ascending others’ stairs” (XVII: 60). As Dante moves through the three levels of love, Joe does as well; ascending and descending the staircase of all the relationships he feeds into: falling in love with Dorcas and then murdering her, marrying Violet and then cheating on her, causing Violet to fight for him in his relationship and in turn, the “bitter taste” of making her turn into “Violent”. The parallel between Joe Trace and Sethe within Beloved lies within Sethe’s relationship with Denver; Denver longs for love she will never receive from Sethe, as she is too focused on putting all of her love into Beloved. Denver and Violet both long for love from someone unwilling to give it to them, instead having Joe Trace and Sethe “descend and ascend” other staircases that benefit their own needs. Sethe is continuously “descending and ascending” the staircase within 124, experiencing the different levels of love through her relationships with Paul D, Denver, and Beloved: Paul D represents Misguided Love with his longing for a child of his own, Sethe represents Deficient Love in her relationship with Denver by neglecting her needs in order to give her attention to Beloved, and Beloved receiving the unrequited love from Sethe represents Excessive Love.

Love itself serves as the throughline throughout Morrison’s trilogy. Sethe, from Beloved, shows all three types of love with the people around her. Her relationship with Paul D is misguided, as they are involved for the wrong reasons. They channel all of their energy into reflecting on the past and Sweet Home, building a bond based on trauma. Eventually, Paul D wants to have a child with Sethe to fulfill his need to have some kind of ownership over her. His intentions are selfish and eventually Morrison will show that misguided love is not sustainable as their relationship comes crashing down. Sethe’s love encompassing Beloved can be seen as excessive; it drains her. Sethe is quite literally obsessed with Beloved and starts to neglect her day to day life and her motherly obligation to Denver. Similar to Dante’s deficient love, this then forces Denver to begin fending for herself. Much like Joe and Violet, Sethe ignores the love she already has in pursuit of another, less satisfying relationship, one that inevitably ends in tragedy.

By drawing connections between Jazz, Purgatorio and ultimately, Beloved and Inferno, we are learning how to “join the conversation,” as noted in the course syllabus. As most of us don’t have any experience with Dante, and often more limited experience with Morrison’s work, it can feel incredibly daunting to make bold assertions across cherished and respected texts. Embarking upon complicated analysis as budding scholars requires boldness, but also discussion; working with texts in conversation with one another also necessitates that we converse with one another. This sharpens skills not only in textual analysis, but with synthesizing varying ideas within a large group. We found ourselves presented with a huge number of ideas—after all, each reader will glean something slightly different from a given text. 

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