Morrison’s Hell House: Poetic Space in Beloved and Inferno

So far this semester, I’m thinkING about Hell as the physical manifestation of an emotional space. If Hell—both in the theological and personal sense—were real, what would it look like? What would it smell, feel, and taste like? Would it comprise specific rooms, or occupy a more nebulous, liminal space? Where Dante’s Inferno imbues stunning clarity to Hell itself, Morrison’s interpretation of the hellish experiences African-American slaves endured manifests in various places, namely 124 Bluestone Road. Morrison’s writing nearly 700 years after Dante’s Divine Comedy reached publication enabled her to make careful use of the famous poems, picking and choosing which aspects to bring into her own rendition of Hell, and which to leave behind.

To speak first of why 124 Bluestone Road holds distinct importance from the novel’s settings, most of these latter places exist only in Sethe, Denver, and Paul D’s memories; while Sweet Home, for example, does exist (as does its “shameless beauty,” that makes Sethe “wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7)), the novel’s current narration renders Sweet Home—its “lacy groves” and “‘headless brides’”—distant memories, painful as they may be. Sweet Home and the natural settings Sethe travels to before the novel’s current events are the equivalent of Dante’s Florence, harboring painful memories that precede the journey through Hell. By contrast, Morrison’s characters operate in orbit around 124 (until, in some cases, they don’t). The events that take place within its walls are not sweetened by the distance of memory, and it is, in my understanding, Morrison’s most clear version of Hell. Its confines are inherently tied to the characters’ ongoing grief regarding the circumstances of their lives and the morally dubious actions they have taken.
In The Poetics of Space, philosopher Gaston Bachelard designated the house as a source of complex intimacy, whose typical rooms (bedroom, kitchen, attic, basement, etc.) all harbor their own emotional breadth and function both singularly and in unity: “the house,” he writes, “is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space, provided, of course, that we take it in both its unity and its complexity, and […] integrate all the special values in one fundamental value” (Bachelard 3). I first encountered this analysis in a different class on poetry, and its contents seemed so attuned to Beloved that I felt I needed to do some more research to find if any scholars have already used this philosophical viewpoint to illuminate the novel’s integral setting. Sure enough, I found a few papers uniting Bachelard’s analysis with Morrison’s story, and drew my exploration most thoroughly from Andrew Hock Soon Ng’s “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Space, Architecture, Trauma,” wherein Ng asserts that “it is important to consider 124 Bluestone not merely as a metaphor of a stubborn, destructive past, but as a literal place whose haunting has to do with how its inhabitants negotiate with lived space” (Ng 232). Ng’s analysis delves further into spatial theory, citing both philosophers on the topic as well as Morrison’s literary strategies for making 124 feel so alive and “spiteful” (Morrison 1). Morrison herself notes the ways in which emotions become tangled up in a place of dwelling, and that haunted houses are just houses with more acute “personality” traits: “Yet a house has, literally, a personality—which we call ‘haunted’ when that personality is blatant” (Morrison XVIII). Houses are more than just places in which we live—they are direct reflections of our emotions. As for my analysis—or rather, what I’m thinkING about—I’d like to dissect the ways in which Morrison divides 124 into her own spaces of Hell, akin to Dante’s nine circles populated with their own pockets of sin. I’ll also note some important thematic differences between Morrison’s subject matter of slavery as a living social, political, and emotional phenomenon; while Beloved and Inferno both rely on death as a driving force, I think it is pivotal to note the difference between Dante’s fictionalized Hell and Morrison’s, which, while rooted in elements of horror and speculative fiction, draw mostly from very real terrors.

Morrison’s Hell inhabits various living people, but it is also alive in and of itself. Employing careful personification and anthropomorphism, Morrison defies what a house should be—that is, a source of comfort and safety: “Together [Sethe and Denver] waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light” (Morrison 4). 124, living and breathing out its “sour air,” operates under a similar code to Dante’s Hell; its residents are trapped within its confines for one sin or another, forced to reckon with their painful pasts as their habitation spits back at them. Like Inferno, 124 presents its horrors in ways that enable reflection. When Paul D first steps through its threshold, he is bathed in red light, which immediately disrupts the comfortable feeling of entering a home after years of travel: “Now the iron was back but the face, softened by hair, made him trust her enough to step inside her door smack into a pool of pulsing red light” (Morrison 11). These few steps are a journey of their own (“It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table”), and the emotional toll of that red light does not wane, even when Paul D successfully crosses the vestibule: “The red was gone but a kind of weeping clung to the air where it had been.” While this red light is not a “room” in Bachelard’s sense, it does signify that 124 is not any old house—it is haunted, hellish. Furthermore, light has the notable ability to pervade, unrestricted by any one confine, sticking to Paul D, Sethe, and Denver like a vicious sunburn.

Of 124’s many landmarks, the staircase, kitchen, bedroom, and Denver’s hideout operate under their own distinct rules. Like Dante’s travel through Hell, a tour of 124—with Dante’s singular perspective swapped for Sethe, Denver, Paul D and, later, Beloved—offers space to sin. The kitchen operates as a dwelling for lust, but also for vulnerability. It is the place where Sethe cries in front of Paul D, remembering feelings of betrayal and humiliation after her breast milk was stolen from her. This is a rare moment of comfort for Sethe, though her thoughts remained tinged with worry and regret:

“Would there be a little space, she wondered, a little time, some way to hold off
eventfulness, to push busyness into the corners of the room and just stand there for a
minute or two, naked from shoulder blade to waist, relieved of the weight of her breasts,
smelling the stolen milk again and the pleasure of baking bread” (Morrison 21)?

For both Morrison and Dante, nakedness is vulnerability. Unbeknownst to Sethe, these early moments in her renewed relationship with Paul D, wherein she longs for a space dedicated to comfort, are actually her first steps into the punishing journey through Hell. For Dante, these punishments amount to a slew of incomprehensible horrors, from maggots to boiling blood:
“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, dripped to / and disgusting maggots
collected in the pus” (Inferno III: 62-67)

Morrison’s hellish landscape involves moments of distinct, rather than ongoing violence, and their effects are far-reaching. Unlike Dante’s inhabitants, the characters of Beloved commit atrocious acts (namely Sethe’s act of infanticide) on account of their being a part of a system of violence and exploitation which drives them to make rash decisions. Slavery operates in Beloved as a sort of Hell within Hell; as mentioned, it exists for Sethe and Paul D largely within memory, but their painful experiences and the atrocities they committed still must be repented for, even if they were not always directly at fault for them: in Bachelard’s words, “[a]n entire past comes to dwell in a new house” (Bachelard 4). For Sethe, this journey starts with the kitchen, but extends further into the house’s hellish confines.
Preoccupied with the enormous emotions the kitchen presents, Sethe does not always take notice of the other significant spaces within the home that are suggestive of repentance and renewal. The staircase, for example, stands in sharp contrast to the house’s pervasive redness. Shortly after Paul D is smothered in pulsing red light, he notices the luminous stairs: “Out of the dimness of the room in which they sat, a white staircase climbed toward the blue-and-white wallpaper of the second floor […] The luminous white of the railing and steps kept him glancing toward it. Every sense he had told him the air above the stairwell was charmed and very thin” (Morrison 13). Denver implicitly recognizes the staircase’s capacity for contemplative renewal when she sits on the steps to eavesdrop on her mother and Paul D: “Denver sat down on the bottom step. There was nowhere else gracefully to go” (Morrison 15). This moment also foreshadows Denver’s role as the only primary character within the narrative to recognize that she must escape 124—thus, escape from Hell—in order to repent. Simultaneously, a last-resort and a source of hope, the staircase is a threshold in Morrison’s Hell.

When he enters Hell through a “dark wood,” Dante is simply a visitor. The inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road are not mere visitors: Hell is their home. Where houses should be places of comfort and safety, 124 is, well, “spiteful.” It actively harms those who live within it, forcing them to move away as a means of reaching salvation, as with Denver and Sethe’s other children, or to stay put and accept its forceful journey. When Paul D, initially an outsider to 124, attempts to make it a home for himself after staying for dinner—moments after comforting Sethe in front of the stove—the house revolts: “It took him a while to realize that his legs were not shaking because of worry, but because the floorboards were and the grinding, shoving floor was only part of it. The house itself was pitching” (Morrison 21). Hell does not benefit from its inhabitants attempting salvation. Those who suffer within Dante’s Hell do not believe that they have done wrong, and they do not take any steps to amend their mistakes. What would happen if they fought Hell itself, the way Paul D did? Perhaps it would look something like the violent revulsion demonstrated by 124. Nonetheless, Sethe recognizes the peculiar situation of Hell being her home, compared to Dante’s inhabitants, who merely reside within it alongside strangers and significant participants of their sin, rather than a family: “This house he told her to leave as if a house was a little thing—a shirtwaist or a sewing basket you could walk off from or give away any old time” (Morrison 26-27). In Sethe’s view, leaving 124 would mean leaving behind the life she built for herself as a reaction to her enslavement and her subsequent sin. Ultimately, she must recognize its true role as a vehicle for punishment in order to achieve any degree of salvation.

124 Bluestone Road’s venom comes as a direct result of human atrocity. Its confines and the various spaces within them represent a cycle of violence, one that exists far beyond Sethe’s primary sin. Like those who are punished for hypocrisy, 124’s inhabitants are doomed to an eternity of cyclical violence lest they recognize their capacity for sin, tragic as this realization may be: “Below that point we found a painted people, / who moved about with lagging steps, in circles, / weeping, with features tired and defeated” (Inferno XXIII: 58-60). When Paul D enters 124, its weeping clings to him. Perhaps the most divine punishment of all comes from realizing that Hell is your very home.

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