Entering the Firmament: Education and Social-Emotional Learning through the Lens of Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

At the beginning of the semester, I worked with a ninth-grade student during a practicum field visit in Rochester who frequently missed school due to chronic illness. We were neck-deep in their research unit, and at this point the kids were writing their final essays; but the one I was working with had fallen behind, and in the middle of March had pulled an all-nighter scrambling to find a topic, sources, take notes, and outline their paper. They were failing, hovering around 30% for the quarter, and the pressure to raise that grade was etched in their face: usually well-groomed hair flew in all directions; plum-colored bags bloomed under their eyes from the lack of sleep; their blood-orange hydro flask with Brooklyn Nine-Nine stickers smothering every free space was exchanged for a can of Monster, the black-etched logo glowering from the snow-white surface of the can. I read their work, and they were more than ready to begin the paper; but it was due tomorrow at midnight, and I imagined another restless night ahead of them, another day in school with blood-shot eyes and heavy eyelids, another day in school fighting to stay awake, fighting to claw ahead of the stacking assignments.

I spoke with the head teacher I was working with. We gave them another week; I met with the student to tell them we were going to extend the deadline for their paper, and what they had so far was great work and worthy of granting her a passing grade for the quarter out of good faith that they would turn in their essay after a week. Their tense shoulders relaxed; they breathed a little deeper and took off their glasses: “I can’t remember the last time someone said I’ve done a good thing.”

I felt upset at what they told me. How could anyone see a student trying this hard, digging themselves out of a hole they never wanted to be in in the first place, saw the effort and growth and resilience, and deny them the praise, the chance to rest, a little mercy. At the very least, a compliment. It is frustrating, as someone who wants to be a teacher, to see these flashes of exhaustion from students; but at the end of the course on “Toni Morrison’s Trilogy,” I can see more clearly why it is vital to grant our students these spaces for rest, these opportunities for both learning and safety. Morrison’s writing positions the perplexing and collaborative nature of the both/and as an act of engagement, an act of care; it is through this dynamic that we can experience learning, foster educational spaces of comfort and safety, and generate educational outcomes that go beyond content.

An underrated, or perhaps unspoken, facet of learning lies in the internal journey behind self-definition and self-love. Morrison infuses Beloved with this tension, for she reveals both the danger and tenderness of care, and it almost assaults us with the forcefulness of Sethe’s feelings; and yet, as a character, she feels deficient, and through this we can see the uncomfortable position learning can cause us to experience. Sethe’s excessive love for Beloved caused her to feel deficient, to feel the full weight of her trauma; but Paul D elicits, or guides her towards the self-realization that she is worthy of love. Sethe asserts that Beloved “was [her] best thing.” Paul D, however, in seeing how Beloved has leeched the life out of Sethe—and seeing Sethe open herself to this—both acknowledges their past trauma and motivates them to move forward; “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Sethe responds: “Me? Me?” (Beloved 347-348). Morrison forces us to look at the both/and of care, at both the violence of its excessiveness and the tenderness—the panacea—of the support and comfort another person can extend. She has withered away as a result of her love for Beloved, until Paul D gives her the space to realize that she can love herself, that she must love herself. At the heart of this dynamic lies a profound act of learning; Paul D works with her to make her see, to teach her, how to love herself.

For educators, this learning is essential for engaging our learners, for allowing learning to occur, for going beyond curriculum to motivate students on their terms. We teach more than curriculum; we teach how to care for the self, how to empower learners, how to support them and give them the space to find that energy within themselves. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher elaborate on this point, writing that “We listen and learn from the students we are currently teaching and design instruction that will move them. We start with contagious enthusiasm for both reading and writing. Joy is an intentional stance” (Gallagher and Kittle 5). We do more than teach curriculum and social-emotional benchmarks as separate entities; they are an entangled perspective, an entangled pedagogy. Providing students with spaces to rest, spaces of comfort, spaces where they can exhale the tension from their shoulders, spaces where we can tell them they have done great work and mean it, drives instruction, drives learning. We meet students where they are, and motivate them toward what they can be.

The simple act of praise—something that, to me, was a throwaway form of encouragement and support from a struggling student—meant more than anything to the student I was working with, who saw within themselves both a chance to rest and a beacon of achievement, of pride, that they can latch on to. In that moment, they realized—even briefly—that they were “their best thing.” However, in order to uplift our students, we as educators cannot view our students as wholly other. Yes, we are the more knowledgeable figure in the room from a curricular standpoint, and yes, we are the authoritative and managerial presence in the classroom; but teachers and learners are deeply entangled in a collaborative act of empowerment.

Morrison’s Jazz positions us as the reader specifically within the context of a learner, as we participate in the novel’s progression as both reader and character, entangled with the text as deeply as Joe and Violet are at the book’s conclusion. The novel’s conclusion demands readers to consider the participatory entanglement between reader and text, to refuse the division between the person and object, allowing us to collaborate with the book as it teaches us, educates us, on the lives and loves of its characters. The narrator launches from Joe and Violet’s rekindled acts of care to acknowledge their own needs and desires, reaching out to the reader as a participant in this journey. Morrison—from the narrator’s perspective—writes, “I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now” (Jazz 224-229). This confrontation shocked me when I read it for the first time; Morrison designed a text that speaks for itself, with a voice of its own—the book claims it desires, rather than relies on language to recreate those feelings. It demands to be seen, to be looked at, to be cared for. We look at the book, and it looks back, and because of our engagement with a text, we then free it through our touch, through our interpretation. Text and reader are no longer separate, but entangled agents as we learn from them and they—perhaps in their own way—learn from us as the language embodies new meaning through interpretation.

This practice of guidance, self-discovery, empowerment, and collaboration allows learners to work on their terms, while the teacher facilitates that learning, creates a space of care and engagement, to allow the student to flourish. We must both set high expectations and give them students space to learn, rather than demand the knowledge be immediately built into their schemas. Student choice, then, becomes an act of care and collaboration, where we work with the student to build their critical thinking and literacy by working through their own thinking. Doing so ensures that the work is “real, [is] passionate, [is] chosen…the questions remains whether or not we are harnessing this energy—these interests—in our classrooms (Roberts 123-124). Just as we are both looking at a text and being looked at, just as interpretation is fluid within the reader and within the language, student-centered pedagogy stems from the acknowledgement that students and teachers have distinct roles in the classroom, and yet, are entangled in the process of learning. I can acknowledge a student’s needs and a student’s choices and design my instruction that relinquishes some authority to drive that student’s learning; in return, the student—like the narrator in Jazz—is allowed to be free.

We are both collaborating, coexisting, learning. I meet my student where they are, giving them the space to breath and rest so that they may take back control of their learning, that they may work on their terms in a way that supports them. It is both my classroom and theirs; they are free to learn, and I am free to measure that learning, even if the measurement occurs a week later, for I know the outcome will be better with the student driving the experience. With this collaborative entanglement, we can see deeply the dangers exclusion poses in our classrooms, and the role the teacher has in their unique power to create safe spaces from which the student’s full potential can bloom.

In Paradise, Morrison entrenches us in the dangerous position of refusing to learn, refusing to collaborate; but the Convent as a single entity composed of individual characters—both singular and multiple—ushers us towards noticing the acts of care that go into uplifting and accepting the other and the learning that propagates from that comfort. In the novel, community is both harmful and healing, as Ruby commits acts of collaborative violence, and the Convent dedicates itself to rest and healing. At the center of the Convent’s evocation of paradise, however, lies Connie’s paradoxical stance of both power and submission; Morrison writes, “[w]ith the aristocratic gaze of the blind she sweeps the women’s faces and says, ‘I call myself Consolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for.’” As a result, with “Consolata in charge, like a new and revised Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst, they altered. They had to be reminded of the moving bodies they wear” (Paradise 262-263). Connie embodies the role the teacher takes as an authoritative figure, a role model, by creating the space and conditions conducive to learning, the space that catalyzes self-discovery and self-definition. By being a facilitator of the women’s ability to find their desires and self-love—to find what they yearn and hunger for, find the power within their own moving bodies—Consolata shapes the Convent into Paradise as it blossoms into a safe space conducive to this discovery, a space defined by both the community and the singular individual as one.

In this sense, then, the learner and educator do not inhabit completely hierarchical positions; our goal is to use the authority we hold to elicit deep and careful acts of learning, to create environments where learning can be nurtured. A topical example of this lies in the festering damages to American education seen in book bans; Ashley Hope Perez writes that “when adults attack books that center people with LGBTQ+ or non-white or non-dominant identities, they broadcast the message that stories about “these people” are not fit for school” (Perez). This example displays both the harms of exclusion and the necessity of inclusion. Censorship drives students into shadowy margins, drives them to feel alone, to feel unvalued, to feel unsafe. As educators, we must—like Connie—uplift our students, that they may feel at home in an environment where they can flourish, where they can grow. We may have authority, but that power does not necessitate conformity or complacency; rather, we can mobilize our position to shape spaces of safety and comfort, spaces conducive to learning.

As a result, through Morrison’s trilogy, I have seen the ways in which educators can meet students where they are to offer responsive praise and empowerment, the ways in which the collaborative entanglement between the student and teacher creates learning, the ways in which the necessity of safe spaces that bloom from the authority educators hold, can change a classroom’s culture, redefine the education we design.

A student should not wither away in the performance of their work. A student should not feel so neglected that we forget to give them praise, forget to uplift them. A student should not feel so marginalized, so separated and excluded from their learning, that they feel unvalued. The student I was working with was at this point of collapse, this point where—like Sethe—they could either continue to bear the pressure of their learning or engage in some form of rest, some form of encouragement, some form of healing. In that moment, I wanted to give the student their space, show the student the self-worth within them, show the student that we are working together in their learning and that they can drive their education, that in my classroom they can find comfort in a space conducive to their learning. The alternative was to leave them behind, to let another sleepless night build and build until they snapped, until learning was no longer enriching and mindful, but instead violent and harmful. It is through the collaborative both/and lens of Morrison’s trilogy and the social-emotional designs of educative spaces that we can achieve this empowerment, and shape a pedagogy that uplifts and facilitates learning.

Works Cited

Gallagher, Kelly and Penny Kittle. 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Heinemann, 2018.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 1987.

—. Jazz. Vintage, 1992.

—. Paradise. Vintage, 1997.

Perez, Ashley Hope. “DEFEATING THE CENSOR WITHIN: How to Hold Your Stand for Youth Access to Literature in the Face of School Book Bans.” Knowledge Quest, vol. 50, no. 5, 2022, p. 34–.

Roberts, Nora. A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student Centered Learning, and Choice. Heinemann, 2018.

“To Be or Not to Be the Furrow:” Interpretation and Collaboration in Toni Morrison’s Paradise

Taylor Bramhall, Frances Sharples, Jenna Brace, Sheridan Morgan, Joe Morgan, Hannah Myers, Olive Niccoli, Kya Primm, Dylan Walawender

Dr. Beth McCoy

ENGL 431: Conversations: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

29 April 2023

“To Be or Not to Be the Furrow:” Interpretation and Collaboration in Toni Morrison’s Paradise

The Eagle of Divine Justice in Dante’s Paradiso appears in the Pilgrim’s progress toward Paradise, informing him of the futility of mankind to interpret God’s intentions for redemption and presenting the reader with the paradoxical presence of the One and the Many. The Eagle’s physical composition reflects this dilemma. The Eagle is composed of a number of souls, with its brow composed of key male figures from history: Trajan, the Roman emperor; the Biblical Hezekiah; the Roman emperor Constantine; William II of Sicily; and Ripheus the Trojan. In the pupil shines King David (“Baptism” Barolini). What baffles the Pilgrim in Canto XIX, however, is not so much the Eagle’s body, but rather the manner in which he speaks; he states, “for I could hear the beak and see it move; / I heard its voice use words like I and Mine / when in conception it was We and Ours” (Par. 19.10-12). Teolinda Barolini cites this perplexing duality as a recurring theme within Paradiso; divinity seems to exist outside and within the self, to be expressed as “the One and the Many– oneness and difference” paradoxically coexisting (“Con-sort” Barolini). The Eagle, then, personifies a collaborative essence that populates Paradise; even as it is a single body, it is likewise multiple, composed of individuals, inhabiting the text as both a living community and a structure made of the many. This collaborative ideology appears in Paradise; however, the Eagle presents a second conversation unpacked in Morrison’s novel: the question of interpretation. 

When Dante expresses confusion about the nature of justice after noticing that two of the inhabitants of the Eagle’s brow– Trajan and Ripheus– are saved pagans, the Eagle responds by saying “Now who are you to sit upon the bench, / to judge events a thousand miles away, / when your own vision spans so brief a space?” (Par. 19.79-81)). This response demonstrates the futility of interpretation within the question of divine justice, that all humans are incapable of judging divine justice. Therefore, while the Eagle as a literary figure directs us toward the paradoxical nature of collaboration within the dialogue of the “One and the Many,” its advice toward Dante calls into question the nature of interpretation in suggesting that it is futile to wholly ascertain or understand the mechanisms of divine justice. This sentiment appears in Morrison’s Paradise, where the conflict around the Oven calls into question this relationship between interpretation and collaboration.

In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, a large brick oven that serves as a community kitchen and gathering place plays a central symbolic role in much the same way as Dante’s Eagle. Originally built by the founders of the town of Haven, the Oven meant so much to its inhabitants that when a majority of the residents decided to move hours away to establish a new town, Ruby, they broke the oven into pieces and carried them with them to be reassembled at the new location. One of the most meaningful features of the Oven was an inscription in its foundation. While most of the phrase remained intact after the move, the crucial first word of the epigraph was lost, and unfortunately forgotten. The question for all Ruby residents then became what that first word, vital to the original intended meaning was. That phrase concluded with “… the Furrow of His Brow,” but whether the first word was “Beware” of “Be” becomes a hotly contested issue that divides the residents along generational lines. The Oven is reminiscent of Dante’s Eagle of Divine Justice in that it is made up of individual bricks that come together to form a unified symbol. The Eagle in Dante’s Paradiso is formed from the souls of just rulers throughout history who assemble themselves into the image, which parallels the fact that the original creators of the Oven put their own souls into the work of making each brick, and lovingly assembled them into a structure that would serve as a cultural and symbolic center for the members of their community. 

Therefore, in Paradise, interpretation and collaboration interact in that the divisive interpretations of the lip of the Oven create pockets of collaboration– within the Convent and the town of Ruby, working toward addressing this division– that create the conflict central to the novel. As such, Morrison could suggest that to build a community, one must allow for the division of multiple interpretations, to acknowledge the pleasures and struggles of the self, and create communication and discussion rather than exclusion. 

In Morrison’s Paradise, the words written on the Oven hold a varying degree of significance for each of those who look upon it. It served as the town’s own divine eagle of justice which became a “shrine the Ruby men revered for its illegible yet prescriptive sign” (Morrison 103). As stated, the debate on what is written across this oven’s lip is divided by a generational line – with some believing the oven’s words to be “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” and others believing it to say “Be the Furrow of His Brow” (Morrison 84, 87). While one functions as a warning to behave and obey under the rule of God, the latter, instead, offers encouragement to be one with God and exist with the same power and freedom. It is a matter of obedience and moral autonomy. As it was originally constructed by Ruby men to restrict the behavior and social engagement of Black women, the Oven promoted an idea of the constraining of womanhood, sexuality, and liberation. Hence, the younger generation finds power in breaking free of the original meaning behind the Oven, such as when Harper Jury explains: “Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ‘Be’ means you putting Him aside and you the power” (Morrison 87). These interpretations show the divide between devotion to harmful tradition and the desire to be the flames within the Oven to break free from that institution and reclaim it as their own. The diverging interpretations arise once the audience recognizes how rigid the original phrase was: “The twins believed it was when he discovered how narrow the path of righteousness could be that their grandfather chose the words for the Oven’s lip” (Morrison 14). The phrase was made with one person’s interpretation of righteousness, and thus it would be impossible to recreate. Even if the citizens of Ruby were able to write the same phrase, there is no way of knowing if their interpretation of righteousness was the same as the originators. Perhaps if an effort was put forth into mending the world broken by rejection, denial, and escapism from ecological damages, a real and true world of ‘wonder’ would not be as forlorn as previously thought – and rather, a glimpse of what could be. Audiences can work to identify with the plight of the Ruby citizens if they consider the recent pandemic. While we were all immersed in the pandemic at the same time, no two experiences were the same, and thus it would be impossible to define the general “pandemic experience.” 

The Oven might similarly be interpreted as a symbol of righteousness that, in many ways, holds the community together. Though character relationships and much of the novel’s plot spurs from the division in how the town interprets the Oven’s message, the physical presence of the Oven insists upon an aligned value of the townspeople; the prevailing nature of this symbol is clear, too, in moments of the text that suggest disagreement, but, in between the lines, offer clarity on the town of Ruby’s strongest principles. In interrupting a disagreement between Deacon Morgan and Sargeant Person, Richard Misner interjects, “‘Whoa, whoa!…Brothers. Sisters. We called this meeting in God’s own house to try and find—’ ‘One of His houses,’ snarled Sargeant. ‘All right, one of His houses. But whichever one, He demands respect from those who are in it. Am I right or am I right?’” (84). In this moment of tension between town members, there is still a wholly united goal of respect for a higher power.

The interpretation around the Oven’s message initiates collaborative efforts that become earthly in the divine “resurrection” of Connie, as well. The openness of “…the Furrow of His Brow” mobilizes the collaboration entangled with discussing texts even as it fuels the conflict in Ruby given its refusal to be categorized (Morrison 93). This amorphous perspective compels readers to reject the binary of God as separate from the self that lies at the heart of the conflict over the Oven’s lip; rather, it suggests both can exist in “oneness and difference” (“Con-sort” Barolini). Therefore, we can read the interpretation of “…the Furrow of His Brow” as a calling on Ruby to participate in collaboration as though the ellipsis begs for dialogue, for communal engagement. 

Connie, by the end of the novel, embodies this dynamic as she both becomes and engages with divinity. Connie undergoes a resurrection late in the novel after turning to drink and isolation to cope with the death of Mother and the hurt she feels after her past romance; Morrison writes, “She has the features of Connie…but they are sculpted somehow.” Moreover, she embodies an impenetrable sense of power, stating ““I call myself Concolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for” (262). This transformation renders the interpretative message of “…the Furrow of His Brow” into physical form, as Connie calls upon the divinity within herself she communes with “the One and the Many,” and community and collaboration thus manifest from the relationship between the self and the Other, between “oneness and difference,” in communion rather than division.

These religious tones continuously propel the collaboration and community represented in Paradise in all settings of the novel. In Ruby, Misner’s perspective, and the spiritual influence that his character represents within the novel, continues to define the narrative of collaboration in the town. The division Misner discusses appears in the fraught conversation between himself and Pat, a character who records and deeply influences family and connection in Ruby. Pat and Misner’s tense correspondence during the practice for the Christmas play further entrenches this conflict in the spiritual, featuring interruptions in their conversation with explicit Christian references. As Pat reflects on their conversation later in her section, we receive more background into how this divided interpretation intersects with the town’s collaboration on building community and stability in Ruby’s future: “It wasn’t God’s brow to be feared. It was his own, their own. Is that why ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’ drove them crazy? … Did they really believe that no one died in Ruby?” (217) The question of how this division impacts the future of Ruby is another example of how collaboration acts as an attempt at reconciliation in the town’s moral and religious distress. 

With Connie as the initiator of the Convent’s healing, the community she creates becomes stronger, as if Morrison suggests that interpretation interacts with collaboration to create both division and community around caring for each other. Connie insists that the women lay naked on the floor, where she paints outlines around each woman’s body. As the women do this, there is a feeling that the “accusations to the dead and long gone are undone by murmurs of love” (Morrison 264). Moreover, the women paint the empty space of their bodies. This acts as a physical expression of both the women’s hurts, grief, and vulnerability as well as love, and acts as the way in which Connie facilitates self-love. Thus, with “Consolata in charge, like a new and revised Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst, they altered. They had to be reminded of the moving bodies they wear” (265). As a result, both Connie and the Convent become a physical image of the “One and the Many,” for through the development of their ability to love themselves through expressions of grief and acceptance, they engage in an act of collaboration built on the refusal to divide. They mobilize healing, community-building, and collaboration; but this stems from the openness of the interpretation of the Oven’s message as “…the Furrow of His Brow.” 

Collaboration, however, does not always indicate a wholly cooperative or positively aligned philosophy or approach to action; there are many times throughout Paradise where the town is divided in perspective, seen most coherently in town meetings and moments of tension between different members of the community. Richard Misner, as a leader and character of spiritual influence, described an element of this divided consciousness in questioning the state and nature of Ruby halfway through the book:

“What was it about this town, these people, that enraged him? They were different from other communities in only a couple of ways: beauty and isolation…When he arrived he thought their flaws were normal; their disagreements ordinary…Or used to be. Now, it seemed, the glacial wariness they once confined to strangers more and more was directed toward each other” (160-161).

Misner’s acknowledgement of the division of Ruby is significant; just as the Oven defines the spirituality of the town, Misner tracks how disagreement about the Oven’s wisdom impacts how collaboration functions in the town. Where Ruby was once a tight-knit community that protected and nurtured its residents, there is here an allusion to what collaboration, or the growth and evolution of Ruby as a haven or paradise of sorts, means in the overall context of the novel.

In her novels, Morrison presents her protagonists in insulated environments, relearning how to interact with the wider world in a manner that encourages them to open up their minds and their hearts. As these characters embark on their journeys, we do so alongside them; we, as readers, writers, and interpreters of text, are told to challenge the ways that Morrison’s characters confront their own concepts of collaboration, imploring us to ask the question: how can we defy these notions and foster a positive environment of collaboration? Collaboration is a seemingly straightforward process, however it contains a host of nuances that when successfully implemented, can lead to a fruitful bounty of shared skills and knowledge. In order to gain this wealth of knowledge, one must first know the components that are vital to a positive collaboration. Considering that one of the most commonly used environments for collaboration is the workplace, it is fitting that the most prominent are the eight competencies highlighted in the NACE Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce, all of which play a role in orchestrating a successful collaboration. While each competency is essential, two competencies that play larger roles are communication and critical thinking. Of the two, communication is the more obviously essential element, for after all, if there is no communication, how can one collaborate in the first place? NACE defines communication as “clearly and effectively [exchanging] information, ideas, facts, and information with persons inside and outside of an organization.” Communication should always be the first step in a collaboration, as it gives each group member the opportunity to throw out their initial ideas before coming to a collective agreement on how to proceed. That being said, just as collaboration is not a stagnant process, neither are the competencies; they should be revisited throughout the process to ensure that the group does not lose track of their common goal. In terms of critical thinking, this refers to the ability to “identify and respond to needs based upon an understanding of situational context and logical analysis of relevant information.” Due to the emphasis on understanding and logic, critical thinking plays a large role in the problem solving element of a collaboration. Even if the group that is working together does not have any issues with each other, there may come a point where a roadblock appears that impedes their progress. The ability to use one’s judgment fairly and gather information from diverse sources also play a role in the success of the critical thinking aspect of a positive collaboration. Once again, it is important to reiterate that despite the remaining competencies not being mentioned, they still hold an equal weight in the collaborative process, and it is necessary for each member of said process to uphold them. In fact, each and every one of these skills was used in the making of this essay! Even though the group may not progress through the process explicitly naming each competency as it is completed, perhaps it has reached the point where each burgeoning literary scholar’s individual consciousness has melded into a collective pelago, where all ideas can be unleashed and accepted, losing the chains that bind them to land and taking the form of lovely, interesting conversations that guide the way into the unknown. 

We need look no further than the three collaborative essays we have written for this course to see how valuable collaboration can be when attempting to interpret complex ideas, texts, or principles. We do not simply vote on who has the best interpretation and put our names to it, rather through conversation we create entirely new ways of interpreting a text as ideas bounce off of one mind to another, are captured, altered, and released again back into the group for further revision. The final product is an essay that could not exist without the input of each of the group members. As the product of a collective of people with diverse viewpoints who have worked together to create and support a common thesis, these papers possess an authority that simply could not result from the work of any of the co-authors working alone.

Collaborative interpretation is the process by which nearly all of our values, laws, belief systems, even our identities have come into being. Is it always wrong to kill another human being? How do we distribute governmental resources? What is gender? While these are broad and varied questions, the way that we have often answered them as a society is through collaborative interpretation. At scale, reaching a consensus on these types of issues is much more difficult than the preceding example of our work in the classroom this semester; however, Paradise contains the idea that our ability to continue to peacefully coexist as members of a community depends on our capacity not to be torn apart when generational, or any other differences, make consensus difficult. No one in Ruby knew for sure if the inscription on the oven was commanding them to “Be” or “Beware” “the Furrow of His Brow” and the reality was that it was impossible to know which was correct. What did have very real consequences was how the residents handled their disagreement. The oven was meant as a tangible symbol of unity, a place where the community could come together to share food and strengthen relationships. It was a cultural center where people had positive interactions with one another. For us, that center has been the classroom, but as we move beyond that, and into the broader world we would do well to recognize the value of conversation and collaboration and to remember that we are at our best when we truly listen to and genuinely seek to understand one another.

Works Cited

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 19: Injustice On The Banks Of The Indus.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-19/

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 20: Baptism In Troy.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-20/

Dante Alighieri. Paradiso. Translated by Mark Musa, Penguin Classics, 1985. 

Morrison, Toni. Paradise. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1998. 

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.”