The Trouble with Dichotomies: Both Individualism and Collaboration

By Isabelle Covert

Morrison’s depictions of the struggle within individuality and solving problems in a collaborative, community-based manner shows us, as readers and as people, the importance of individualism, community, and collaboration in all that we do. Over-individuality and individualism, as it’s used here, is the belief that what one can do with others, one can do better themselves. In this, individuality can mean the presence of a strong self that can exist without others, but that can also be called simply a strong sense of self. The self is an important part of any person and it is just as damaging to attach one’s selfhood to others as it is to believe that selfhood means not relying on anyone else. Therefore, positive collaboration and community is one where each person still has a stand-alone self, with personal beliefs, ideas, and opinions, but that they understand that most often a collaborative community can be better for everyone involved than over-individuality.  It is dangerous to go too deep into collaboration – and lose yourself – but it’s also dangerous to not submit to collaboration at all – and lose your community. Throughout her Beloved trilogy, Morrison’s characters give a realistic depiction of what it’s like to go through trauma, grow, and heal from an excess and/or lack of community and individuality. Morrison’s focus on love, in this context, is very interesting in that she tends to focus on the effects of an excess of love of various types, which can often lead to excess or lack of collaboration or individuality.

In Beloved, we see Sethe lose her community after news gets out of what she did and tried to do to her children. This leads to a tough, bitter existence for Sethe and Denver, especially after Baby Suggs dies and Howard and Bugler leave. When Paul D shows up and they go to the carnival, there seems to be hope that maybe they can gain their community back while still being individuals, but then Beloved shows up. Beloved’s very existence seemed to be an extension of Sethe’s (or vice versa) and allowed no self at all in the house, an example of collaboration to the extreme – dissolution of the self and reliance on others for any semblance of that. This leads to the ruin of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship and almost killing Sethe in the process. This is an example of when collaboration goes too far – so far as it could be called the dissolution of the self in both Sethe and Beloved. This situation continues getting worse until Denver decided to get her selfhood back from Beloved and go searching in the community for a job, food, and help. The scene where Beloved disappears is most important in that it brings the community together for a common cause: to help out one of their own. “Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind…. Then Denver, running too. Away from her to the pile of people out there.” Beloved represents collaboration to the most extreme, to the loss of self and the becoming of something else entirely, Denver represents community and collaboration within that, in the perfect amount to be able to strengthen and protect one another, and Sethe herself represents individuality maybe not to the extreme, but in such a way that she thought she couldn’t or maybe just wouldn’t reach out for help when she needed it.

In Jazz, we see the same spectrum of individuality to collaboration, but in a much different way. Violet lost herself in Joe, and Joe shut himself in until he met Dorcas. At the other end of the spectrum, Joe hides within himself and refuses to get attached or identified with another person. Violet seems to be unable to be an individual for most of the book – she defines herself by her husband, her parrot, and longs to be able to be defined by a child, going so far as to almost steal a baby. She trained her parrot to tell her he loved her, because she thought she wouldn’t be able to go on in a world where she wasn’t loved. Consistently until after Dorcas’s death, she refuses to be an individual and instead longs to be part of someone else. Violet reaching out to Alice after she tried to mutilate the face of Dorcas’s corpse at her funeral, without the intention of apologizing, was Violet’s first attempt at community at a nearly-healthy level that we see in Jazz. Joe, on the other hand, longs to be free, like the woman he thinks his mother is. Growing up and not knowing his mother and hearing rumors that he was born from the woman people called ‘Wild’ because of where and how she lived, he learned that he couldn’t get used to be identified by anyone else, and was so insistent upon this that he basically closed himself off to connection until he met Dorcas, to whom he (almost immediately) became overly attached. Dorcas was open to collaboration and knew herself individually as well – she was able to navigate this spectrum well, and because she collaborated so closely with those who weren’t able to maintain their individuality versus collaboration, she was punished for it. Therefore, it’s not just the level of collaboration that matters, but who you collaborate with.

In Paradise, we see a community held together by history and just for the sake of having a community. However, this community is lacking in collaboration and individuality. People identify themselves by their families, their ancestors, and their age more than by their actual opinions, ideas, or beliefs. There are the 8-rock families, and those who have been discarded for marrying undesirables. There are the men, and the women. They identify very strongly with these groups, but not for any real reason other than that’s the way it’s always been done. The community of Ruby is leaning heavily toward unhealthy levels of collaboration, but they are also so proud of their arbitrary identities that they think they’re the best and can receive no criticism, so they are also unhealthily individual. The women of the convent, on the other hand, initially lean so far into individuality that it’s hard to think they are even a community. Each of the women, taking her own hard path, end up at the Convent and resist the influence of the others, of the town, and of the rest of the world. However, as we can see as we get closer to the end of the story of the Convent, the women collaborate on their individuality and make an unhealthily attached community of over-individualistic people. This can be seen in K.D. Morgan, who has an affair with Gigi, one of the girls from the convent, despite the community’s expectations, but then still goes with the other Ruby men to attack and kill the convent women. The rituals or ceremonies the women participated in celebrated their over-individuality, but also dissolved them into a single consciousness. Thus, one person can be both overly individualistic and overly attached so much that your selfhood dissolves.

The things each book in the trilogy can teach us about collaboration and individualism are very important to keep in mind as we move forward in our lives, deciding who we’re going to be and how we’re going to live. Beloved teaches us that too much of a good thing is most definitely a bad thing – where both basic collaboration and community and a strong sense of self are good things, but in excess can be so damaging. Jazz shows us that the people we collaborate with or choose to be individual around can be just as important as making that decision as to the amount of individualism or collaboration to bring into our lives, because the effect that other people and their lives can have on ours is huge and sometimes pretty hard to spot until it’s too late, like poor Dorcas learned. Paradise shows us that not only can you be in excess of one or the other, individualism or collaboration, but you can have an excess of both at any point in time. This trilogy teaches about the dangers of love, but also the necessity of it, which is the same as how it is for both collaboration and individualism.

As we move on toward the end of college, we have to make decisions about what kind of life we want to live and how we’re going to achieve the life we want. I am the type of person that tends to value community and friendship and love over individualism and alone time and caring for myself. This has been cultivated by growing up in a large family, as the oldest sibling, I rarely got any time to myself but I learned to cherish it, and then I came to college where, between roommates, housemates, and classmates, it’s very easy to not have to be alone in spirit or physically. However, as I move into my senior year and have to begin to think about what happens after, I find myself terrified of not having this community that I’ve grown to love. Now at this point, I usually find myself trying to find solutions to that, ways that I can avoid being alone, but sometimes (I’ll admit, not very often) I find myself thinking about how I can grow as a person and learn to be okay by myself. I know it feels like an uphill battle right now, but I know that it’s so important for my own growth and healing to leave my comfort zone and do something different. And the way that Morrison’s characters have to go through the same kind of discomfort, and then they make it through at the conclusion of the novel – not to perfection, but to a place of solid growth and continued healing – it gives me hope and confidence that I can do the same. I want my life to be one where I have a community, but I don’t rely on them to the point where if I’m without it, I am stuck. As my friends look at graduate schools all over the country, and I look at possible jobs and master’s programs online so I can go back home, it’s easy to feel discouraged and premeditate that loneliness that I expect. However, with just a bit of positivity and effort, I am able to feel comforted in that I love what I’m going to be doing, I’ll be close to family, and I can finish figuring out the life I want to live. I will be able to find that balance between individualism and collaboration.

Cycling Up the Mountain: A Journey to Redemption

By Isabelle Covert, Meghan Havens, Shauna Blochwitz, Genesis Flores, Laryssa Olsen, Emily Loper, Madolley Donzo, Hailey Cullen

On their journey that began in Hell, Dante the Pilgrim, and his guide Virgil, reach the island of Purgatory, “where man’s soul goes to purify itself / and become worthy to ascend to Heaven” as lines 5-6 of Canto I of Purgatorio read. Purgatory is defined by the Seven Sins of Purgation, where sinners must expel their vices that have trapped them there, “where souls who wasted time must pay with time” as Dante describes in Canto XXIII line 84. As Dante encounters the shades on his ascent through Seven Terraces, he himself must purge the defined offense in order to keep along his journey. While Dante seamlessly travels without frequent delays, the shades must rely on their own strength against the sins, as well as the memories which they’ve left among the living whose prayers move them through Purgatory Proper towards Paradise.

Arriving at the Gluttony terrace, Dante encounters a long-deceased friend, Forese Donati, who speaks of his ascension thanks to the prayers of his wife, Nella, from the earthly plane. “‘It was her pious prayers and her laments / that raised me from the slope where souls must wait, / and set me free from all the other rounds”’ (Canto XXIII). With Virgil at his side, Dante is able to fast-track the sins of Purgatory, and expresses his surprise that Forese is one who has spent so little time but has gotten so far. It is well known amongst the shades that they are limited to traveling only when the sun shines upon them, and Dante is instructed by Cato of Utica who says, “‘When you are ready to begin to scale / the mountainside, do not come back this way; / the rising sun will show you where to climb”’ (Canto I). Unlike the souls who are confined by the cycles of day and night, Dante is able to move freely, manipulating the laws of Purgatory. As they leave Cato, he leaves Virgil with one final instruction: to bind a reed around Dante’s waist. The reed will represent Dante’s successful purgation of each sin that he comes across. Upon completion of the first sin, Virgil exclaims, “‘Oh, miracle!’ When he pulled out the reed, / immediately a second humble plant / sprang up from where the first one had been picked” (Canto I). This is a symbol of Dante’s necessary humility going forward, in harsh contrast to the self-confidence he emanated throughout Inferno.

The novel Jazz by Toni Morrison explores the movement of its characters in a journey toward atonement and redemption, both through the characters’ emotional progression and their physical progression through the island of Manhattan and what this means in relation to the island of Purgatory.

The novel Jazz by Toni Morrison explores the movement of its characters in a journey toward atonement and redemption, both through the characters’ emotional progression and their physical progression through the island of Manhattan and what this means in relation to the island of Purgatory. 

The novel establishes very clearly the general area in which Violet and Joe live in: Harlem, more specifically, on Lenox Ave. Despite having a somewhat deceptively positive sounding name, it is a neighborhood that has a “tarnished” reputation. Harlem is in uptown Manhattan, where most, if not all, of the Black and other marginalized groups live. Which in turn means that all the white people live in downtown Manhattan. That being said, it is very interesting to note when looking at a map of Manhattan, the downtown area has far more neighborhoods and distinctions, whereas uptown Manhattan has bigger and fewer neighborhoods. This causes the Black people uptown to travel downtown for work, because that is where it is easier for them to get jobs and make more money, compared to the jobs uptown. As they traveled downtown during the day, the white people traveled uptown at night for entertainment. Essentially, one group travels out of their neighborhood out of necessity, while the other does so for pleasure. 

In the characters’ emotional journey through Jazz, and thus Purgatory, the novel represents this journey in part through the representation of rest. In Purgatorio, the souls cannot move up the mountain during the night, only being able to progress during the day. This is demonstrated by Joe and Violet, as in the beginning of the novel they are both hung up on Dorcas, who can be qualified as representative of their sins: Joe for the affair and the violence that led to her death, and Violet for her envy and attempted violence against the dead girl. This obsession with Dorcas causes both Violet and Joe to frequently lose sleep, alternately getting up “two or three times during the night” to stare at her picture in their living room (Morrison 12). As the novel progresses and Felice, Dorcas’ best friend, helps guide Joe and Violet through their grief and into their atonement, the couple is finally better able to rest: “Because of Joe’s work—Violet’s too—and other things as well, they have stopped night sleeping—exchanging that waste of time for short naps whenever the body insists, and were not surprised by how good they felt” (Morrison 223). This is exemplative of their growth throughout the novel, as Joe and Violet have symbolically moved through their Purgatory as they have each wept and atoned for their past sins. 

Morrison’s use of cycling, in the character’s movements around the city, their arcs, and the narrative structure of the book itself, recapitulates Dante’s cycles in Purgatorio. Progress in Jazz is much more fluid than in Purgatorio, where it seems very static. Morrison’s notions of Justice are based more in humanity than divinity, therefore sin and punishment are more ambiguous and forgiving.

While Morrison’s Jazz and Dante the Poet’s Purgatorio both discuss the journey that sinners take to paradise as they confront their past vices and attempt to make amends for their sins, the physical embodiment that represents purgatory in Jazz follows a different set of rules from that of Purgatory. In Purgatorio, people who have been damned to Hell can’t ever make it out of Hell. They are forced to stay there for the rest of their existence, suffering with no end, while those in Purgatory can reflect and atone for their sins as they make their journey to paradise. In Morrison’s novel however, the characters aren’t banned from entering the City—which seems to represent Purgatory. They have free reign to move there and settle down; to make a life for themselves that differs from where they were before. Though it isn’t explicitly stated that where Violet and Joe lived before moving to Manhattan was a Hell of its own making, readers can infer that it was Hell in comparison to the City. In Virginia, Black people were being run out of communities by white people, they weren’t making as much money and working laborious tasks, and always had to move around for work. However, the City offered so much potential: “The money to be earned for doing light work … got you in a day more money than any of them had earned in one whole harvest …. there were streets where colored people owned all the stores … steel cars sped down the streets … and if you saved up … you could get one and drive as long as there was road” (Morrison 106). Looking at Jazz as the second novel in Morrison’s trilogy following Beloved, which also indicates a movement from Hell to Purgatory, allows readers to take note of parallels amongst the duology. Beloved, which takes place in the South and deals with the horrors of enslavement, can certainly be regarded as Hell, and Morrison’s decision to situate the characters of Jazz  in the North years after enslavement ended suggests a movement away from Hell and through Purgatory. For Violet and Joe, the City offered so much that living in Virginia––living in the South in general––didn’t. So when they finally decided to leave what was considered to be their Hell, they weren’t stopped, unlike Dante and Virgil who were questioned by Cato in Canto I about their “escape from the eternal prison.”

In Jazz, the characters are granted more fluidity throughout Manhattan every day, going from Lenox Ave to other parts of Manhattan. Alice Manfred, Dorcas’s aunt, lives in Harlem, but finds herself traveling down through Manhattan during the day to work in the garment district as a seamstress, and then back up home when the day is done. Joe also travels throughout Manhattan for two reasons: to sell his products, and to find Dorcas. In the various flashbacks that showcase Joe as a cosmetic salesman, he is very put together, kind enough that people let him into their homes, and can sell things without being pushy or overtly rude. However, toward the end of the novel Joe is described as more manic as he searches all over the island of Manhattan for Dorcas. As he makes his way through the City to the party, he is no longer the Joe Trace that readers are introduced to. Unlike these two characters, Violet doesn’t really travel through Manhattan; her work as a beautician does take her from household to household, but she usually does hair around Harlem. If we put their behaviors in terms of Purgatory, Violet is stagnant in the lower levels of Purgatory, where she grapples with the difference between the Violet she used to be, the one she is now, and the one she longs to be. Joe and Alice, on the other hand, move through Purgatory by their own rights but somehow seem to come back to their vices by the end of the day:  the former, his dalliances with Dorcas, and  the latter, her strict, watchful demeanor. By the end of the novel, Alice has moved out of the City—left Purgatory—in search of her own form of paradise in Springfield, while Joe and Violet stay in the City and watch it morph into what they imagine paradise to be. Jazz concludes with Violet and Joe making their way up and down the City from “125th Street and across Seventh Avenue…tak[ing] the train all the way to 42nd Street… [to] idle along 72nd Street,” without having to worry about their sins and content with their lives. This mirrors the end of Purgatorio, where Dante is entering the final kingdom: Paradise, and embarking on the last part of his journey. 

The journey and the cycles of nighttime and rest shift throughout Jazz from the beginning to the end of the narrative. By the end of the novel, Joe and Violet no longer rest at night, which indicates that they no longer are in Purgatory and have moved on, presumably to Paradise. This choice to neglect rest could be seen as an attempt to atone or repent for what happened to Dorcas and what happened between Dorcas and Joe. A lot of the sin happening in Jazz happened under the night sky, when the souls on Mount Purgatory could not work on purging themselves of their sin. In the same way, Joe and Dorcas would meet up “when the sun sinks” (Morrison 59).  Joe, when searching for Dorcas with his pistol in tow, was under the guide of the sun. However, when she had been shot and was dying, it was night. The sin was committed at night, but the consequences would be faced in the light of day. 

The very structure of the novel Jazz reflects the cycling up and down in the city and the day and night cycle, following a cycle of time that goes from the past, to the present, to predicting what will happen, and this cycle repeats several times throughout the novel. The structure also cycles through the characters and each of their stories, histories, and perspectives. Through the course of the novel, we see Violet’s personal and family past, Joe’s past (going back to his maybe-mother, Wild), and Alice and Dorcas’s past. Similarly, in Purgatorio, the narrator cycles back and forth between the present as Dante the Poet, who is retelling his journey as the Pilgrim. There also are sections of insight from several characters, which seem almost suspended in time. In the same way, the book starts by talking about the ‘incident’ between Joe and Dorcas, and what happens or will happen later: “ … and that’s how that scandalizing threesome on Lenox Avenue began. What turned out different was who shot whom” (Morrison 6).  It ends on this same note, a little unsure and a little incorrect, but at the same moment in the narrative as what was referenced in the first chapter. 

Like her recapitulation of Purgatorio through how the characters travel through the city and day and night cycles, Morrison also appears to portray versions of Dante the Poet’s characters with her characters in Jazz, illustrating the cyclical violence that Black women often face. In Canto XXX of Purgatorio, Dante the Pilgrim and his mentor and guide, Virgil, are traveling through Purgatory when they encounter Beatrice, who emerges as part of a grandiose procession on the top of Mount Purgatory. Dante the Pilgrim is struck by powerful emotions, as he loved Beatrice in his boyhood years. When he turns to tell Virgil of the “‘ancient flame,’” however, Virgil is nowhere to be found because he is unable to journey forward out of Purgatory with Dante the Pilgrim towards Paradise. Beatrice thus replaces Virgil as Dante the Pilgrim’s guide. Virgil’s absence engenders tears from Dante the Pilgrim and his sorrows are only augmented by Beatrice, who chastises him for straying to other women after she died. 

Joe, who was unfaithful to Violet by having an affair with Dorcas, is reminiscent of Dante the Pilgrim’s straying from Beatrice. Additionally, Joe is consistently characterized as weeping “‘all day and all night,’” about his murder of Dorcas, which is similar to Dante the Pilgrim’s crying (Morrison 205). Dorcas, because she is murdered by Joe, cannot move forward with her life, like how Virgil is stuck in Purgatory and cannot move forward with Dante the Pilgrim. Felice is akin to Beatrice because she enters into Joe and Violet’s life once Dorcas dies, as Beatrice enters Dante the Pilgrim’s life once Virgil disappears. The book narrator notes that Felice, Joe, and Violet look like the “mirror image” of Dorcas, Joe, and Violet (Morrison 221).

Morrison, however, flips the original narrative presented by Dante the Poet with these three characters, by having Felice rebuke Dorcas instead of Joe. When she visits Violet and Joe, Felice tells the couple that Dorcas ‘“let herself die’” (Morrison 209). After she was shot by Joe, Dorcas refused to be taken to the emergency room or let anyone call the police, according to Felice. Felice emphasizes to Joe that Dorcas was manipulative and cold. Felice’s attempt to seemingly absolve Joe from at least some of his guilt and her anger towards Dorcas is a sharp contrast to Beatrice’s anger and admonishment towards Dante the Pilgrim in Purgatorio. Morrison’s decision to have Felice upbraid Dorcas instead of Joe underscores the victimization that Black women faced and continue to face in America. Dorcas has been killed by her lover and her own best friend is unable to give her sympathy. Dante the Pilgrim is forced to confront his sins thanks to Beatrice, but Joe gets to be consoled by Felice. In addition, the narrator commenting about the Felice springing into Dorcas’s place among  Joe and Violet is evocative of the cycle of the reed springing up in place of a reed that has just been plucked in Canto I of Purgatorio. This further emphasizes the cyclical nature of Black women being victimized and not receiving justice. In this way, the characters’ interactions and cyclical traveling throughout the City reimagines the cycles in Dante the Poet’s Purgatorio, demonstrating the repetitive struggles that Black people, especially Black women, face. 

A necessary part of any recapitulation of Dante’s Purgatorio is leaving behind a companion or guide. There is so much leaving behind in Jazz – Dorcas is left behind when Joe and Violet find their paradise, Alice is left behind by Dorcas as she grows up and starts rebelling against Alice’s teachings, and the narrator of the novel is left behind when we, the readers, finish and put down the novel. This book, in a way, leaves the reader behind in our absolute want for some sort of justice for Dorcas. She is killed in cold blood, and she is blamed and condemned and missed, but she is not avenged; she does not get the justice that we readers feel she deserves. This is all too reminiscent of the treatment of violence against women of color in America and around the world.

Morrison’s depiction of cyclical violence towards Black women and representation of justice in a more fluid way than Dante the Poet represents Purgatorio challenges us as readers and students, helping us to further our progress in our college education and the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for a Baccalaureate Education (GLOBE). We apply the “Critical Thinking” GLOBE outcome by examining the complexities of justice and sin in the real world. When thinking about what sin is and what is necessary to receive justice for a sin committed, we practice critically analyzing important and age-old human ideas. We also work on the “Global Awareness and Engagement” learning outcome by thinking about how Black women are historically marginalized and exposed to violence, which reveals power relations within American society. In tackling these issues and working towards the GLOBE outcomes, we have the opportunity to take what we have learned and use it to strive for a more equitable and just world for all. 

In making the book itself the narrator of this novel, Morrison makes us as readers really think about who has the power in the writing and the reading of a novel. Of course, the author has some power in how their book is read, but truly, it’s the readers who build the realities of what is happening in the narrative. In Jazz, however, there’s another player: the book itself, separate from who composed it or who is reading it. It makes us realize that the physical book has a bigger impact on the story than we as readers usually give it credit for. This mirrors the cyclical violence, silencing, and lack of justice that women of color struggle with and fight against almost universally. In this book’s lack of justice, Jazz makes us critically think about the stories we aren’t seeing and the justice that doesn’t get dispensed. 

A Sinner’s Guide Through Hell

Authors: Hailey Cullen, Madolley Donzo, Genesis Flores, Laryssa Olsen, Meghan Havens, Shauna Blochwitz, Kyra Drannbauer, and Isabelle Covert

On their journey through Hell in Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil encounter the Eighth Circle of Hell, the Malbolge, which consists of ten ditches or bolgia “ . . . cut out of stone the color of iron ore, / just like the circling cliff that walls it in” as described in Canto XVIII, lines 1-9. Dante the Poet describes the Malbolge in Cantos XVIII-XXX. The travelers cross each bolgia by crossing a bridge made out of rock. In each bolgia, they encounter sinners who are receiving punishments corresponding to their sins. As with the sinners in the other Circles of Hell, the sinners are subjected to contrapasso, meaning that the punishment meted out to the sinners in Hell matches their crimes. This idea is explicitly mentioned in Canto XVII of the Malbolge with Bertran de Born, whose head is cut off as his punishment for his cutting “the bonds of those so joined” between Absalom and David in lines 133-142.

In the fifth bolgia, grafters, or corrupt politicians, are forever bobbing in boiling tar, sometimes pushed in and under by the Malebranche devils. The imagery surrounding this bolgia is very distinct, with the sinners’ heads going under and coming up, as in line 46 of Canto XXI: “that sinner plunged, then floated up stretched out.” Dante the Pilgrim recalls first seeing the devils and Virgil protecting him: “my guide, shouting to me: “Watch out, watch out!” / took hold of me and drew me to his side.” As Dante and Virgil descend into the sixth bolgia, which punishes hypocrites by covering them in golden cloaks lined with lead to weigh them down, Virgil acts as a helpful and protective guide for Dante as their escape from the angry Malebranche continues. Dante comments in Canto XXIII lines 37 through 39, “My guide instinctively caught hold of me/ like a mother waking to some warning sound/ who sees the rising flames are getting close/ and grabs her son and runs—she does not wait.” Virgil leads Dante through Hell, discovering the sins of humankind in the afterlife.

The novel Beloved explores one of these humankind sins through man’s experience of enslavement, and of the human vices that result from the effects of those horrors. Each character struggles with trauma resulting from their enslavement, which appears in different ways. Morrison, in her novel Beloved, uses and manipulates the archetype of a Virgilian guide, which originates with Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” in ways that show that different people and characters have different ideal guides, and that the ideal guide can change as a character’s situation changes. For Paul D’s character, his circumstances place him in prison, where he utilizes a guide as he faces further horrors in his imprisonment.

Paul D’s arrival to prison began with a murder. After Sixo’s murder at the hands of schoolteacher, after the previous losses of Paul D’s best friends and family, and after Paul D was sold to another man, Brandywine, Paul D attempted to murder his new master. As a result, he was sent to prison where he, and 45 other men, experienced brutality at the hand of their captors. Paul D and the others designated their foreman as Hi Man, the “lead chain” who would come to serve a Virgilian role throughout the grueling duration of their enslavement; “With a sledge hammer in his hands and Hi Man’s lead, the men got through” (Morrison 127). With a guide established in Hi Man, as their designated savior-figure, the men were able to recognize their strength as a group which would lead to their eventual escape.

The opportunity for escape first came in the form of the rain, which turned the ground into pliable mud that allowed them to slip underneath the bars. The internal strength to take their opportunity came from each other, from Hi Man down, as they communicated with each other through the tug of the chain, “Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery” (Morrison 130). Under the bars, and into the night, through the escape they could rely only on each other. Hi Man remained their faithful guide across Georgia, leading them to the Cherokee, who broke their chains, and gave them the ability to restore some semblance of their ordinary lives, “Hi Man wanted to join them; others wanted to join him. Some wanted to leave; some to stay on. Weeks later Paul D was the only Buffalo man left-without a plan” (Morrison 132). Hi Man and the bond the men formed among themselves brought the men out of enslavement, out of their own hell, and allowed them to embark on their own journeys of self-discovery and freedom.

The Paul D imprisonment chapter is evocative of Dante and Virgil’s time in the Malbolge. When Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim enter the bolgia, they see “two files of sinners,” which is reminiscent of the prisoners in Georgia, chained up in a single file line, and being forced to dig ditches. Ditches make an appearance in Inferno since each group of sinners is placed into different ditches based on what Dante would considered their deserved punishment. This ties into Dante’s idea of contrapasso because, in Beloved, the white guards believe that the Black men deserve their imprisonment for the crimes they committed against their slave owners, however, the similarities of these beliefs change. Morrison’s novel is rooted in the sense that enslavement and Paul D’s imprisonment weren’t something that the characters who experienced it deserved, but one that is happening to them; without their consent. As the rain rages on while the men are being forced to work, the guards lock them away in holes, which is representative of the sinners who were stuffed into holes shaped like baptismal fonts with their feet burning. Though the prisoners aren’t on fire, they do find themselves stuck in a hole, awaiting whatever fate befalls them. When the ditches begin to flood, the prisoners are able to escape without a trace due to the heavy rain. In another section of Malebolge, Dante watches the sinners “without an escort, [moving] along, one behind the other, like minor friars bent upon a journey,” which is distinctive of how Morrison explains the escape of the prisoners. They tug on their chains, following Hi Man out of the hole to freedom, one behind the other, and continue on in a single-file line until they reach the Cherokee people.

Aside from the many similarities between Paul D’s imprisonment and Dante’s cantos on Malebolge, Morrison also manages to recapitulate Inferno by mirroring her characters after those Dante the Poet used in Inferno; she uses the traits and characteristics of his characters to create more realistic and complicated characters of her own. When looking at Beloved, it is common to want to assign one of the characters as Virgil; someone who may guide the characters throughout the entirety of the novel just as Dante the Pilgrim’s guide leads him through the layers of Hell. However, as the pasts of Morrison’s characters get revealed, one realizes that there isn’t a singular Virgil. The characters in Beloved––Paul D and Sethe––all have different guides throughout the novel who help them through different aspects of their lives. In the Paul D imprisonment chapter, Paul D is guided by Hi Man, the Cherokee people, and the flowers he follows towards freedom in the North. When Sethe decides to escape from her enslavement, she relies on Amy to guide her through the night and help her give birth in the boat.

Not only does Morrison’s usage of a Virgil character differ from Inferno, but also the characters’ interactions with their Virgilian guide drastically varies from how Virgil and Dante interact on their journey through Hell. Since Sethe initially wasn’t expecting to gain help or support from someone on her journey to freedom, she was very wary of Amy, especially since Amy was a white woman. Through the night, Sethe’s uneasiness abates, allowing her to be more appreciative of Amy, even going as far as naming her newborn daughter after this guide. Through their time together, Amy and Sethe never divert from the path, whereas, Paul D seems to constantly stop following the flowers as a guide. He is a traveler at heart, and he knows (without really knowing) that they are taking him to 124––to Sethe––so he finds himself stepping off the path every now and then, but eventually he gets where he needs to be. Most of Morrison’s main characters seem to rely heavily on their guides, whereas, in Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim doesn’t think he relies on Virgil. Though he follows Virgil through the layers of Hell, Dante is under the impression that he’s the one in charge. Virgil also doesn’t have a moralistic ground as Dante’s guide, allowing Dante to stay rooted in his beliefs of contrapasso; treating the souls however he wishes and forcing them to retell their stories so he can write them down.

Paul D, specifically, changes in his experiences with guides in Beloved, from his time at the prison to the end of the novel. Paul D heavily relies on Hi Man as a guide both inside the prison and during the escape. Inside the prison, Paul D and all the prisoners rely on Hi Man in a literal sense because they follow his verbal signals to start and stop working but also in an emotional sense as his consistency helps them get through the torture they endure at the prison. In their escape, Paul D and the other prisoners are led by Hi Man towards salvation. As his story continues and his situation changes, however, Paul D begins to rely less on guides like Hi Man, and becomes a guide himself. He acts as a guide towards Sethe when he first arrives at 124, providing her support and the promise of a new, happier life together. His role as a guide for Sethe culminates, though, in his return to 124, when he helps Sethe move forward from her horrific past of killing Beloved by reminder her that she is her own “‘best thing.’” By showing that Paul D both needs a guide and can be a guide in Beloved, Morrison manipulates the Virgilian guide archetype. She shows that unlike in Inferno, where Virgil is indisputably the guide figure and Dante the Pilgrim is the follower, the characters of Beloved  can be interchangeably guides and followers. In doing so, Morrison creates a more complex and realistic portrayal of human beings, especially for human beings who have experienced something as evil as enslavement. 

In Beloved, we see conversations about characters and morality/ideology/belief in the ideas of Virgilian guides and of Contrapasso. Guides and mentors are something that everyone has in common. Anyone can tell you someone that influenced them, helped them, or guided them at some point in their life. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim finds the ultimate, true guide in Virgil, who is obviously someone who Dante the poet found really influential. However, Morrison brings in the idea that no guide can be true or perfect, because people’s needs and wants in a guide changes as they do. Morrison embodies this by giving each character several guides that are different depending on where the character is in their life and journey.

Showing that no guide in Beloved is perfect leads to one of the main themes in both Beloved and Inferno, which is what it means to be a good person. Dante’s solution to this is Contrapasso, where all people are punished in Hell in ways that are equal to and reflect their sins, so they have earned that punishment with their actions. Morrison seems to be really aware of this ideology as she thinks through Beloved and the specific challenges that  her characters face. Obviously, the hell that was enslavement was not earned by anyone who was enslaved; however, this may not be Morrison’s main conversation with contrapasso, as she said in her interview with Mervyn Rothstein that this book is not about enslavement. A lot of the conversation seems to be revolving around the events that led to Paul D’s imprisonment and the events that transpired when Sethe killed her daughter. Paul D is sent to prison for attempting to kill his enslaver, which, in itself, is a justifiable action. His punishment for this, the prison in Alfred, Georgia, is cruel and barbaric, and is not at all justified by his “crime.” Sethe’s action in trying to kill her daughter and attempting to kill her other children is best moralized by Morrison’s statement in this interview: “It was absolutely the right thing to do… but she had no right to do it.” While the actions that Paul D and Sethe did are, by definition, similar, the contexts and situations could not have been more different. Sethe felt, and continues to feel, justified in her actions, but the “punishment” she faces in the violent ghost of the baby and the parasitic physical presence of Beloved that almost kills her is not in any way equal to what she does. This question of morality, sin, and punishment is one that tends to haunt us as people, as we move through life, and Morrison seems to be assuring her readers that their “punishments” may not be in any way connected to or reflecting the ways in which they have sinned.

Just like the characters in Beloved, we, as students, will experience different forms of guides in English 431 as we grow and change throughout the course. We have Dr. McCoy as a guide for navigating the intricate concepts with Morrison’s work and, for many of us, encountering Dante for the first time. We also have our peers to guide us as we work collaboratively, showing each other new ways to interpret the texts and reexamine our original thinking. But, analogous to Paul D switching from needing a guide during his time in prison to becoming a guide for Sethe at the end of the novel, we can take on the role of guide ourselves in this course. We can guide each other by giving feedback, inspiring/encouraging each other, and managing conflict if/when it arises, which are all behaviors that help to develop the competencies for career readiness that NACE states college graduates should strive for when entering the workforce. We can also guide ourselves by keeping ourselves on task, communicating clearly, and reflecting on our own strengths/weaknesses, more behaviors suggested by NACE. In this way, we can take the idea of guides as depicted in Beloved in relation to Dante’s Inferno, and develop lifelong skills that will help us tackle what we learn in English 431 and what we encounter in the workforce and beyond.

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.

Fissures, Fractures, and Cracks: Physical and Metaphorical Implications in The Broken Earth Trilogy

In N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, the use of ‘cracks’ or ‘rifts’ in the Earth, in people, and between people seems to relate heavily to the concepts of power, justice, and love that are prevalent in the trilogy. This is seen in many instances throughout the novels. The geological definition of ‘fissure,’ according to the United States Geological Survey is “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of cracks and rifts in this novel is going to include fissures and fractures as well, as they are used semi-interchangeably. Fissures, fractures, and cracks are such common phenomena, both in the trilogy and in our world. This desensitization can have several effects: first, it may cause us to forget how serious and devastating these fissures and rifts can be, and secondly, it may blind us to positive effects of these phenomena. In The Broken Earth Trilogy, cracks, rifts, and fractures are used to show the strength of power, justice and love in many different ways and situations.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a fissure or crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and metaphorical, that kept him and his people yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girth of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet”. We now know this man to be Alabaster, and are somewhat aware of the massive amounts of trauma and abuse he has faced at the hands of the Fulcrum. Talking about this event to Essun, he says “I was careful to wipe out the Fulcrum when I tore Yumenes apart.” The Fulcrum, where so many Orogenic children were abused and enslaved and killed, destroyed by a man who had been through it. This is justice being served to an unjust system and an unjust people, by a man who has borne the brunt of that injustice for his whole life. We also see justice at play with Hoa’s testimony of what happened to Syl Anagist and how the Seasons started. In order to get justice for themselves and all of the people they saw at the Briar Patch, the Tuners unknowingly committed a great injustice against the Earth itself. “In the next instant, the power struck the broken stone, failed to reflect, and began to chew its way through the moon. Even with this to mitigate the blow, the force of impact was devastating in itself. More than enough to slam the Moon out of orbit.” The path to justice is never clear, exemplified by these two events. Alabaster killed an extreme number of people, including other Orogenes; the Tuners, in getting their justice, made life worse for every other person on the planet. No matter how justified someone is in their actions, there is always a chance, however slim, that they are wrong or they are going about it wrong. There is no way to confidently say if Alabaster or the Tuners did the best thing possible; all we know is that they were searching for justice. We can never know what could have been if people made different choices. Justice is never clear-cut and hardly ever easy, but it is something we must keep searching for and striving toward. 

The Orogenes of The Broken Earth Trilogy seem to have a lot in common with the Earth itself. They are both immensely powerful beings that have been oppressed and treated badly by those with more power than them. And each of them has the possibility of cracking. This is seen in Hoa’s testimony of the Shattering: “One hundred years after Father Earth’s child was stolen from him, twenty-seven obelisks did burn down to the planet’s core, leaving fiery wounds all over its skin.” While these weren’t the same type of cracks discussed in the USGS glossary, they were wounds nevertheless. This attack was meant to clear humanity off of the Earth for good, but since it didn’t work, the Earth continued trying with the Seasons. The cracks between tectonic plates allow for shifting, which cause all kinds of seismic activity. This propensity for cracking is shared between the Earth and the Orogenes. After the attack on Meov, Syenite thinks, “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” The emotional pressure is too much, and Syenite made a decision that would stay with her even as she shed that identity and became Essun. Essun remains prone to cracking under this type of pressure, especially when it involves Orogenic children. When the woman in Castrima attacks the little girl, “A fist that you’ve seen  the imprint of Jija’s fist, a bruise with four parallel marks, on Uche’s belly and face a fist that that that no.” Essun turns the drunk woman into something like stone. In these instances, cracks are a function of power and as a response to power. It is institutional power and physical power, constantly at odds.

In this entire trilogy, it is easy to see how rifts are used as a function of love. Even the fissure that Alabaster created seems to have been done out of a mixture of love and anger, because there is no telling how many children he had lost to the Guardians or to node stations, and there’s also the story he related of the guardian killing his mentor, whom he loved. In this trilogy, love, loss, and anger seem to be intrinsically connected. However, we can also see the function of metaphorical and emotional rifts or fractures as relating to love. One of the largest rifts in the trilogy is that between Essun and her daughter. One place where we may find an origin point for this rift is when Essun is training Nassun and breaks her hand, as Schaffa did to her as a child. In this act of fracturing bones, we can see the fracture beginning to turn into a rift between them. This rift seems to grow throughout the trilogy as Nassun is taken away from her home by her father. There is also a rift between Nassun and her father, beginning at the point where he learns that she is an Orogene. This is a rift that both father and daughter try to overcome; Jija by trying to find a way to remove Nassun’s Orogeny and Nassun trying to convince her father that she is still just a little girl. This rift ends with Jija’s death at the hands of his daughter, when he tried to stab her, and the rift is recognized: “The stabbing is an outcome of an impossible choice he demanded of her: to be either his daughter or an Orogene.” For Jija, the rift between Orogene and daughter was too wide for him to be able to accept. However, the rift between Nassun and her mother ends with at least some kind of reconciliation. Despite there never being an explicit make-up between them, the rift is healed when Essun gives her life so that Nassun will live. Nassun, then, realizes the amount of love she has for her mother and mourns her death. The rifts between Nassun and each of her parents shows different outcomes that rifts, cracks, and fissures can have. The rift found in Þingvellir National Park in Iceland causes the island to grow as fast as two centimeters a year. This rift seems to be fairly representative of the love between Nassun and Essun: the rift only made it grow. However, the rift between Nassun and Jija seems to be more akin to the Dead Sea Rift, which is theorized to have created  massive earthquakes in ancient times that destroyed cities, were deemed acts of God, and were even recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. Even as we think about the destruction that can be caused by rifts, we can’t discount those stories of rifts being methods of creation. Love and the rifts that can form between loved ones are the same way: they can either cause that love to grow, or shatter it.

Throughout The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, rifts, cracks, fissures, and fractures, which can all be used semi-interchangeably, are used to show the concepts of justice, power, and love. We can see rifts used as an example of great power, as a response to injustice and to try to achieve justice, and as inevitable events that have several possible outcomes. Rifts are a phenomena that are present during all different kinds of seismic events, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. This might explain their prevalence in NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, or maybe it’s because of the almost endless metaphorical uses for rifts, fractures, cracks, or fissures. For whatever reason Jemisin decided to use fissures, the effects were powerful in the discussion of power, justice, and love that continues throughout the novels.

Cracked Foundations and Changing Systems: The Mount Pinatubo Eruption

By: Cheyanne C., Hannah F., Isabelle C., Marlee F., Mia D., Peyton W., Sarah P.

Chronicling the Mount Pinatubo Eruption: From Myth to Magma Flow

The major Pinatubo eruption occurred on June 15th, 1991. But as early as March of 1991, there were signs that the mountain was waking up. A series of earthquakes shook the area over a period of several months, alerting the locals that Mount Pinatubo might become active for the first time in living memory. These frequent, low-magnitude earthquakes continued until the second of April of the same year, when there was an explosion on the north side of the mountain that opened up steam vents and a fissure, emitting sulfur fumes. The next day, locals led scientists from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to the site of the explosion. The scientists brought five seismic monitors and, realizing what the activity could mean, called the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program for help monitoring the situation. On April 23rd, the USGS team arrived and set up a home base with PHIVOLCS using seismic and volcanic tracking and predicting technology. Over the next few weeks, the team determined that Mount Pinatubo was capable of a very large eruption, but they couldn’t tell if or when the volcano would erupt, or how big the possible eruption would be. By late May of the same year, seismic activity was fluctuating daily and more and more craters were appearing at the base of the mountain. It was still nearly impossible to tell when it would erupt, but they were able to map the areas of the island that would be hit by a worst-case scenario eruption (which unfortunately ended up being very close to what actually happened). At this point, they still couldn’t officially recommend evacuation because the team wasn’t sure when the volcano would erupt. 

In early June, the activity really started to ramp up. On the sixth of June, a swarm of low magnitude earthquakes accompanied the inflationary tilt, or puffing up, of the volcano, along with a continuous low-level ash eruption. A few days later, the first magma approached the surface of the volcano; on June ninth, the evacuation orders began, ordering 25,000 people to evacuate. Clark U.S. Air Base evacuated 14,000 “non-essential personnel” and their families due to the impending threats of growing lava dome, higher level ash eruption, and a worrying amount and magnitude of seismic activity. The first big eruption occurred on June 12th—Philippine Independence Day—at 8:51 a.m. The ash from this eruption went around 12 miles into the air. At this point, officials evacuated everyone in a dangerous range, for a total of about 60,000 people evacuated. After this eruption, seismic activity ramped up again and it was clear the volcano wasn’t stopping there. From the 12th to the 15th, there were three more massive vertical eruptions and 13 smaller ones, which produced pyroclastic flows down the slopes of the mountain. The team of scientists didn’t leave until the 15th, when the stop-and-go eruptions turned into one continuous eruption, that sent golf-ball sized pieces of pumice down over the Air Base, and lahars formed the ash and lava mixing with the rain from Typhoon Yunya, carrying boulders down the side of the mountain. That eruption led to the collapse of the peak into a caldera, which the scientists could feel from where they spent the night, 28 miles away.

The Range of Bacobaco’s Wrath

Most directly, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo affected the island of Luzon, where the volcano resides. As Live Science recalls, as Pinatubo erupted, the Philippines was already facing a natural disaster in the form of Typhoon Yunya, also known as Typhoon Diding. It is also remembered, in the context of how so many people were able to evacuate before disaster, that there were reoccurring earthquakes striking the mountainside which concerned residents and prompted Filipino scientists to contact the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program to examine the tremors more closely. Thankfully, with these warning signs taken into careful consideration, many lives were saved as scientists  and officials called for evacuations, though the land surrounding Mount Pinatubo was ravaged. USGS documents that pyroclastic flows of lava seeped and exploded from the volcano, filling the surrounding valley, which polluted streams and destroyed crop fields. Even worse was the half-inch layer of ash, which Live Science reports covered 4,660 miles (7,500 square kilometers), but then spread further across the island and beyond the country of the Philippines because of Typhoon Yunya. It’s also explained that the ash falling from the sky mixed with the rains, creating lahars, a concrete-like mud, that collapsed roofs as far as nine miles (15 kilometers) away from the volcanic site, and USGS goes on to say that winds from the typhoon brought ash all across the South China Sea, affecting places as far as Cambodia. The initial effects of the eruption was not the end though, as there were earthquakes that followed and monsoons “eroded the thick pyroclastic deposits, recurring mudflows buried towns and farm fields, destroyed roads and bridges, and displaced more than 100,000 people,” as well as caused hundreds of deaths in addition to the original death toll.

Beyond the Philippines, USGS records that the ash cloud inoculated the stratosphere with nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide, which cooled the global temperature by nearly an entire degree fahrenheit (half a degree celsius), causing weather patterns across the globe to shift and the effects of climate change to subside for a period of time.

Exploring Myth and Environmental Impact

Though the effects of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991 can be seen in modern times, there is a much older history of the mountain among the Aeta people of the Philippines. They believe that there is a god–Apo Mallori–who lives on the mountain and is the source of their sustenance. Some of the Aeta elders believe that Apo Mallori is angry at illegal loggers who have stripped the mountainside of its trees and also at the Philippine National Oil Co., who has allowed drilling into the heart of the mountain. For them, Apo Mallori is punishing humanity for its injustices by raining ash over the land. In this ideology, humans are the prime agents for the seismic events that unfolded in 1991. One villager, Victorio Villa, told reporters in an interview in June of 1991, “‘It is our firm belief that had the lowlanders not disturbed our volcano, it would not have erupted.’” Jemisin plays with this ideology in The Broken Earth Trilogy, using seismic catastrophism as a response to injustice by writing, “So where they should have seen a living being, they saw only another thing to exploit. Where they should have asked, or left alone, they raped.” In this trilogy, Father Earth is angry at humanity for being destructive and for the loss of his child, the moon. This triggers seismic events like earthquakes and volcanoes, the cause of the Seasons in this world. Myths, stories, and traditions are an integral part of people’s ways of life and are important parts of humanity. To understand Mount Pinatubo’s history in this way is to understand humanity’s role in the destruction of the earth. The language used by the Aeta humanizes the earth, just as Jemisin’s depiction of characters that utilize the earth for their powers and those that are formed from it, humanizes the earth. Both the history of the mountain as told by the Aeta elders and the beliefs held by the villagers living on the mountainside after the eruption lays blame with humans. No matter the cause, the effects of this eruption were very real.

The effects of Pinatubo continued to impact the people and environment in the  surrounding areas 25 years after the initial eruption. The Aeta people lived on the highlands of the island Luzon in the Philippines and approximately 20,000 of these Indigenous people were displaced during the evacuation process. During this horrible process, the Aeta people tried to hold onto their livelihood. Many chose to bring pets, while others arranged to be married to their partners prior to leaving behind what they knew as home. These people had been living on the slopes of Pinatubo for centuries and had grown their community to a population of 60,000 before the eruption.

Displacement refers to the forced moving of people from their home country because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. This being said, displacement is more complicated than just being physically removed from an area, especially when the Indigenous people relied on the vegetation surrounding the volcano to survive and build tradition with their youth. Because the state of their environment directly correlates to the state of their community, the Aeta people are still living in resettlement camps until they can return to their home. To this day, the fields encompassing Pinatubo are still unable to produce crops for the Aeta people and this also impacts the traditions that they have developed over the years. There are no means of farming left available for the Indigenous people to grow food and other materials necessary for survival, so harvesting traditions cannot be passed on to the younger generations when they come of age. Ecotourism efforts have attempted to restore some Indigenous practices, but this often leads to the shifting of focus onto satisfying foreign tourists instead of the well-being of the Aeta people, proving it ineffective for this community. Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education [inclusive of both staff and guests].”

Some of the people who once resided in the lowlands were able to return home, but doing so forced them to continue facing danger due to lahars burning settlements and covering rice paddies and sugar-cane fields. The eruption also had a multitude of financial consequences for the people of Pinatubo including $700 million in damage, $100 million of the damage cost being to the 16 aircraft flying over Pinatubo at the time of the eruption, and $250 million in property with the rest of damage costs from agriculture, forestry, and land destruction.

Art Emerging from Tragedy

Like with many tragedies that happen on Earth, whether natural or anthropogenic, humans tend to create art to memorialize these events. In Angeles, Pampanga, a museum has been created to teach and reflect on the volcanic eruption that occurred. It was opened to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pinatubo and highlight the events before, during, and after the eruption. There are many murals for visitors to view, not only showing the timeline but also the negative impacts of the ash that spewed from the volcano. One of the most stunning, nonetheless tragic, pieces of art is titled ‘Lumud” (Drown). Its creator, Arnel Garcia, depicts a Filipino family buried in ash with their personal belongings. Their faces, which are incredibly lifelike, depict a wide range of emotions. Some seem to be calm and accepting, while others seem to be scared and distraught. Garcia shows us that not all Filipinos reacted to the tragedy in the same way. Although this museum is very much a “chilling reminder” of the eruption, it has been very beneficial to the Filipino community. The tourism industry in and around Pinatubo has increased, as people have traveled to visit the museum and to see the aftermath. Along with the museum, tourists enjoy appreciating the lake, Lake Pinatubo, that was created due to the eruption. 

Lumud by Arnel Garcia

Following the eruption, in 1991 and the years that followed, the sunsets became extremely pigmented and breathtakingly beautiful. The colorful sunsets were produced by the sun’s rays cutting through the sulfuric acid cloud, altered by the thickest layers. People within the Philippines sat on the beaches to view and appreciate the beauty around them. The eruption caused hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which did create incredible sunsets, but also contributed to climate change. This cloud accelerated the destruction of the ozone layer and lowered temperatures on Earth.

Sunset from a beach in the Philippines

The Broken Earth of Pinatubo

When thinking about why this matters, it makes sense to reflect on Jemisin’s underlying motivations and why the messages threaded throughout The Broken Earth trilogy matter. We connect the ways in which the destruction of something, whether it be the environment or a societal system, is a tragic event; it is also an opportunity for change. It redirects a society towards new discoveries and a greater understanding of the world we inhabit. In other words, failing foundations need to break in order to catalyze the growth of a system. “And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two” (Jemisin). Furthering the idea that allows us to find hope within failure, destruction and change. Jemisin’s storyline reflects a foundation built on racial and ecological injustice, modeling a system with which we are all way too familiar. Our conversation is important because maybe some things break because there is a need for it to be rebuilt with a better understanding.

In regards to our seismic event, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, this applies to the way in which this event modified the way we approach and learn from volcanic hazards. It also alerts us as readers about the impacts of climate change and how necessary changes within society are, which connects to previous learning in this course, particularly our conversation with Dr. Reitz. If we do not begin to react to climate change now, we may end up relying on a poor solution in the future. Both the characters in the novels and us as humans have come to the conclusion that we are responsible for much of the destruction that happens around us. In local myth, the Mount Pinatubo eruption has been viewed as human-caused and allegedly occurred due to the exploitation of the surrounding area. Humans have also been found responsible for causing climate change: “The eruption helped scientists definitively declare that human emissions of greenhouse gasses are to blame for at least the past 60–70 years of warming” (Wendel & Kumar). Essentially, The Broken Earth trilogy ends within the realm of the same realization, who is at fault for all the turmoil: The humans who built the foundation in the first place. Even as old foundations crumble, we must remember them in order to build better ones in the future. As occurred in Jemisin’s novels, the loss of knowledge of what happened in Syl Anagist led the people of the Stillness to repeat the sins of their ancestors, in oppressing and enslaving a group of people, and led to their continual punishment at the hands of the Earth. We must always remember the cracks in the foundations we are rebuilding, so we’re sure we are making it better and stronger than before. As Jemisin questions throughout her trilogy, “How can we prepare for the future if we won’t acknowledge the past?”

Cracking as a Function of Justice in The Fifth Season

In N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, the use of ‘cracks’ in the Earth’s surface or otherwise seem to directly relate to justice and power. This is seen in many instances throughout the novel. First, if we direct our attention to the USGS volcano glossary, to the entry for the word “fissure.” This defines a fissure as “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of ‘cracks’ in this novel is going to include fissures or fractures. In the same glossary entry, there is a photo of a fissure in Kilauea, Hawai’i.

In the Verge article we read, focusing on the same eruption, there are many photos and videos from Twitter of fissures in the ground and in roads, showing the differences in magnitude that fissures can have, from fissure eruptions to what appear to be just cracks in the road.

In The Fifth Season, these cracks are used to show justice (which may not be easily identified as a good thing), but also as a visible example of the harm that unequal power dynamics can bring about.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and hypothetical, that kept him yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girl of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet.” This is an example of a man claiming justice for himself and his peers, and taking it into his own hands. However, this act of justice will take a huge number of lives as suggested later in the novel. Very few of these people will be innocent, many being complicit in the structural abuse of the group of people to which that man belongs, and many will have actively perpetrated that abuse. Despite that structural power that has kept the man and his peers from freeing themselves before, this man holds within him a power that very few others do, and which very few others could match. This situation holds within it two very different unequal power dynamics, each one which puts a different group or person in a higher position. This is power and justice at work.

The crack in the earth is also timed as such that it almost seems like retribution for Essun’s loss as well. After her discovery of her son’s body and when she is getting ready to leave, she stops in her doorway and she can “sess that there are no open earth vents nearby-which means this is coming from up north, where the wound is, that great suppurating rip from coast to coast that you know is there even though the travelers along the Imperial Road have only brought rumors of it so far.” It seems as if this is the same crack that is spoken of in the prologue. Knowing that Essun is also an orogene, the fissure across the continent is a response to the same injustice that has plagued her entire life. As Essun is attempting to leave her comm so that she can find Jija and her daughter, the people around her seem to realize what is happening and what she is. A man attempts to shoot her with a crossbow, even though the town’s leader is escorting her out, and the attempt at her life makes her very emotional and reactive. “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you…. And then the valley floor splits open. The initial jolt of this is violent enough to knock everyone standing to the ground and sway every house in Tirimo.” This is retribution for her son, for the culture that made her son’s fate possible, and for all the related injustices up until Karra tried to kill her. Essun is able to create a rift in the earth and crack the town’s water supply in minutes, which would effectively mean the end of the town in the coming weeks. She obviously wields a great deal of power in being able to do this, but she is greatly outnumbered by hateful people who have a great deal of structural power. It is a very similar situation with similar power dynamics to the man in the prologue and the society which surrounds him. An important piece of the dynamic which we get in this situation and don’t in the one in the prologue is Rask. Rask shows Essun sympathy and gives her a chance to escape with her life, showing her kindness that it is clear that most in the community would not afford her. Yet, because he exists within this community and is within the proximity of those who very obviously wronged her, he is killed along with the rest of them. Rask gives this situation a bit more nuance, because he was obviously trying to do right by Essun and give her freedom and her life; he was working against what, societally, stills are supposed to be and do and how they are supposed to treat orogenes, he still get caught in Essun’s torus and is killed. This makes the idea of this justice a little more cloudy from a moral and ethical standpoint – it isn’t black and white.

In the context of geological cracks, the naming of a character who is with Damaya in school ‘Crack’ doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. This seems to be part of a series of events that liken the earth to an orogene in more than one way, throughout the novel. “Damaya wonders: Is Crack’s control really a problem? Or is it simply that her tormentors have done their best to make her crack?” The concept of tormentors causing cracks in one that is revisited in chapter 20, page 379. This is the story of Father Earth.

 “According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life. In fact, as the lorists tell it, once upon a time Earth did everything he could to facilitate the strange emergence of life on his surface…. Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth….it was the orogenes who did something the earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child…. Whatever the words mean, the lorists and ‘mests agree on what happened after the orogenes commuted their great sin: Father Earth’s surface cracked like an eggshell.”

The violence of life on earth is what caused the earth’s crust to break and move so much. The very existence of the Seasons and the constant movement of the earth’s crust is, in a way, retribution for Earth’s “only child.” This also seemingly may have some consequence in what happens, constantly, to the children of the orogenes. They are taken, they are abused, they are killed. In a horrible way, the fate of the orogenes seems to be a kind of justice for Father Earth. The word ‘crack’ in relation to this also occurs when the Guardians find Alabaster and Syenite on Meov. “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” In order to save her only child, Syenite must kill him. The use of the word ‘crack’ here seems very purposeful, in relating all of these emotional events to the story of Father Earth.

The use of ‘cracks,’ geological and otherwise in The Fifth Season is representative of justice and of power, in direct relation to the Earth and orogeny.