Am I Atlas Or The Firmament?

A firmament is a material force, the touching of the sky, or, in Morrison and Dante’s works, the heavens to the ground below. This is, naturally, a terrifying concept for me. As a nineteen year old college student, it seems that we are consistently denied a place in building and forming the firmament. Politicians tell us we are too young to make decisions and speak out. We as students are seen as children incapable of acting with dignity, but still are expected to be productive adults to the system we are within. Frankly, I’m quite sick of this particular both/and pushed upon myself and my peers. For a tangible future where the sky will not rest on someone’s shoulders alone, like Atlas in Greek mythology, we must turn to one another for collaboration, for strength in numbers and the diverse ideas each person holds. Morrison proposes time and time again in her works that a collaborative both/and, where those with diverse ideas are allowed to speak and be heard in difficult conversations, is the best form of this. Her examination of justice in particular epitomizes the need to look outside of our own ideas.

In my time in this class, I have come to fully appreciate the value of collaborative work. Frankly, at the beginning of the semester, I was petrified by the idea of a group essay. I envisioned a process in which we would all argue about every word, appointing one person as a scribe and moving tediously through each section. However, this was not the case. I was relieved to find we had a more standard approach of dividing work, while also then bringing in a peer review process that enabled more views to be shared. My first essay with my first group didn’t go very smoothly, however.. For example, I thought it was important for our Beloved piece to write a detailed piece on Dante’s ideas of punishment in contextualization of his own guilt. Rather than making a case for this as Morrison’s baseline for her judgment of this system, I wrote another, focusing on the idea of punishment. However, while in retrospect I can see how this was better for the paper itself, I wish that the group as a whole had allowed for more conversations.  I am not innocent in this, as I also advocated for cutting certain parts to cut down the paper. We cut several sections of this paper rather than critically examining people’s ideas, such as shortening the piece on the contemporary criminal justice system. Therefore, it can both be beneficial to engage in these critical group assignments, and acknowledging that it isn’t always the ideal solution. In this, I learned to ask for what I need in order to flourish with projects like this. When Professor McCoy asked for honest feedback on the group work, I answered rather guilty that I thought it might be beneficial for me to see how other groups worked with one another and gain a broader understanding on the project. With this new advancement, I found that I was able to flourish within another group. I believe that the key to making sure these projects can work is carefully selecting people who will work well together. Of course this also requires trial and error, and I discovered that I work better in a more discussion based group. 

Within the text of Morrison’s trilogy itself, the idea of the both/and is emblematic of the themes of the work. For example, one topic we touched on briefly in class and much more in small group discussions is the idea of justice. Most people, in the padlet responses and onward, were firm in their definitions of justice, myself included. For Beloved, many believed that Paul D should have not been allowed to just get away with his sexual relationship with Beloved. But what is the alternative? This is the conundrum we were confronted with as readers in the case of Joe Trace. While we like to believe we could serve as judge, jury, and perhaps executioner in these cases, we are inherently shaped by our own internal biases. While we can struggle and insist upon justice being delivered in these works, it is clear that no form of it would have been possible. Looking back, Professor McCoy was attempting to hint at this with the feedback from our first group project, where she wrote “I am inviting each and every one of you to put a pin in this line, and leave it where you can remember to find it when we get to Paradise: ‘Morrison seems to suggest that there is no such thing as Divine Justice, and this idea is just that: a literary device”. Morrison is the master of the both/and, particularly in literary criticism. While we as readers may yearn for justice, or ask ourselves why, justice simply cannot be fairly distributed and served. The so-called justice system today is incredibly corrupt and biased against minorities, particularly people of color. Everyone’s responses to the idea of justice within the initial padlet called for either ostracization or imprisonment of Joe Trace. However, the context the majority of us failed to take into account initially is that Joe Trace is a Black man in 1920s Manhattan. An officially condoned enforcement of justice would inherently harm him. Who can say that the police, perceiving a Black man who murdered a young white-passing girl, wouldn’t simply murder him upon finding him? Where would this leave Violet, a Black woman whose only source of income is sporadic hairdressing sessions? It is made clear within Jazz itself that the community will not support Violet, both for her husband’s actions and her manic attack of Dorcas’ body. If Joe was arrested, she would have no financial or social support from her community. This is the same issue with the banishment option. If Joe leaves town, he either has to bring his grieving wife with him, trapping her further within a social setting where no one, not even Alice, will offer her relief from his company, or leave her behind. Neither can live without some form of support, whether it be from each other, their family, or society. Either way, this does not bring justice to Dorcas or Violet. The both/and has never been clearer; Joe simultaneously deserves to be brought to justice, but a fair punishment is impossible. Morrison’s examination of justice exhibits her control of the both/and within her writing itself.

The earlier portion of this piece was the easiest, as I struggle with self reflection most of the time. I tend to lean more towards condemnation on skills I must continue working on rather than those I’ve learned throughout the semester and my life. To complete this, I turned back to and reread the Reflecting Writing resource given. I learn best when analyzing people’s written feedback, so I went back through the comment history of the Jazz/Purgatory collaboration. As expected, my immediate reaction was to be apologetically mortified in response to constructive criticism. I find that this sensation is muted, however, when it is in writing. Somehow it feels less defensive if someone simply suggests something in text rather than having to look at someone. This is, admittedly, not the healthiest coping skill for my writing progress, but I’m working on it. For example, with the Paradise/Paradiso piece, when I was out for the day, I was worried I was falling behind. So when we came back the following Friday, I asked what in the sections I’d already written could be improved on and how I could further help. Asking for someone to proofread my piece is horrifying, but ultimately makes my writing more cohesive and comprehensible. I don’t have to work by myself, holding the firmament up by myself. I am also now more comfortable giving feedback. For our Jazz essay, we initially had a section that suggested that Joe Trace purposely set out with the intention to purge Dorcas’ sin from his body by murdering her. Upon rereading the book, however, I realized that Joe didn’t obviously set out to kill Dorcas, but rather to get her back as an affair partner. Following this revelation, I nervously pointed this out in the comment section of the paper. To my surprise, this was immediately accepted by the others once they reread the pertinent sections, and they even thanked me for noticing this. 

The both/and epitomized by Morrison’s writing has finally become clear to me with these projects. While I still am apprehensive about giving and receiving feedback, I recognize that this is necessary to actually improve. If everyone was too focused on their own insecurities with their writing, then we wouldn’t be able to help point out areas of improvement for others. No one can stand alone in any process, let alone with writing. Morrison, in showcasing the value of not relying entirely on one piece or another, whether it be ideas of justice or in writing, is a valuable resource for examining our own internal biases and anxieties. When we allow for other people to share their thoughts on the world at large and our own work, we can become part of the firmament. The sky does not stand alone, but rather we all must hold it up together, gradually melding into it. Once we accept that we cannot hold it alone, we can join the others there, becoming the firmament itself.

The Evil Ditches: On the Dynamic of Punishment in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

By Mar Leeman, Dylan Walawender, Taylor Bramhall, Kya Primm, Joe Morgan, Olive Niccoli, Jenna Brace, and Sheridan Morgan
Dr. Beth McCoy
24 February 2023

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the readers follow the current and previous inhabitants of house 124, as the novel switches between the past and the present. Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live in torment with the ghost of Sethe’s past – her infant daughter, referred to as Beloved, who was killed by her mother to protect her from what she considered a worse fate. The ghostly Beloved is banished by Sethe’s old acquaintance, Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men,” but she returns in the flesh (Morrison 7). Prior to living at 124, Sethe and Paul D were enslaved; the plantation from which Sethe and Paul D escaped, Sweet Home, is originally run by Mr.Garner. Following his death, a much crueler man known as schoolteacher takes over, leading to Paul D’s imprisonment, which serves to emphasize Morrison’s examination of the contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno.

One of the most complex circles in Dante’s Inferno is the Eighth Circle – the start of lower Hell and entry into the domain of fraud. This circle is named “Malebolge,” meaning “evil ditches” or “evil trenches,” which features an architectural and urban built environment (contrasting the circle of violence’s natural environment.) The tortured souls trapped in this circle “committed ten different varieties of fraudulent sin” (Inferno 18 – Digital Dante) and Malebolge is subdivided into ten “evil trenches” that house different variations of fraudulent sinners. Significantly, the second holds flatterers, punished by being suffocated in a ditch coated in excrement, and the filth, holding those who made a living out of fraud or trickery, are punished by being “submerged in the boiling pitch with which the bolgia is filled” (AHC). These three bolgias are key components of Morrison’s Beloved – specifically in the imprisonment of Paul D. 

To contextualize the imprisonment chapter, it is important to note how Morrison builds from previous moments where Sethe and Paul D allude to their past traumas. Paul D confesses to Sethe that as her milk was stolen from her, her husband, Halle, had watched. Paul D likewise reveals that he could not speak at the time since he had an iron bit in his mouth, feeling inferior to a rooster. Even as this sharing of vulnerability brings them closer together, Paul D alludes to the “tobacco tin” in his chest, referring to the past he wants to keep hidden (Morrison 83). Morrison uses this image as a throughline in the imprisonment chapter to shape Paul D’s character. 

After being sold to a man named Brandywine, Paul D attempted to kill this new master and failed. He was then incarcerated with forty-five other men, who were forced to live in wooden boxes set down in ditches. Eighty-six days passed, and a torrent of rain halted their work. Eventually, the trenches filled with mud and water, becoming dangerous; but the forty-six men escaped and reached a tribe of sick Cherokee people. Paul D was the last to leave the camp, fleeing north to Delaware. The chapter concludes with a recurrence back to this tobacco tin in Paul D’s chest, the image of his hidden trauma, where “nothing in this world could pry it open” (Morrison 145). In Paul D’s imprisonment chapter, Morrison parallels the imagery of Canto XVIII and reverses the rationale behind the punishments administered in the Malebolge. In Inferno, Dante implies you are justly punished for the sins you committed in life, while in Beloved, Morrison demonstrates that enslaved people are subjected to an undeserved, yet similar torture. Through Paul D’s imprisonment, Morrison exposes the institution of whiteness as they use their power to unjustly punish those they deem as inferior. 

Morrison’s use of imagery, similar to that found in Dante’s Malebolge, is striking when reading the two works comparatively. In Beloved, the three feet of open trench in front of the gates that form the entrance to each cell, the two-foot-wide space that remains for the prisoners, covered with two feet of dirt over the scrap lumber that serves as its ceiling, is eerily reminiscent of a coffin in a grave (Morrison 125). Dante’s description of the sinners in the first bolgia as “crammed into the depths of the first ditch” is a fitting parallel, and it seems that Morrison is making a connection here to the “new suffering souls, new means of torture; and new torturers” that Dante finds there (Inferno, XVIII:22-24). Additionally, the three white guards who walk along the trench abusing the prisoners call to mind the “horned devils with enormous whips / lashing the backs of the shades with cruel delight” (Inferno, XVIII:35-36). As these trenches fill with water after nine days of rain, the decision is made to leave the prisoners locked in their wooden graves where they have no choice but to relieve themselves within the tiny confines of their cell, their feces and urine mixing with the same mud they eventually must submerge themselves in to reach freedom. Dante may as well have been standing above them, rather than the flatterers in the second bolgia, when he says, “from where I stood I saw / souls in the ditch plunged into excrement / that might well have been flushed from our latrines” (Inferno, XVIII:112-114). With this parallel relationship intact, we can see the ways in which morality and punishment operate in Inferno.  

Within Dante’s Inferno, the moral concept of sin and punishment is an integral theme. It is impossible to understand Inferno without understanding that Dante was coming from a society that grappled heavily with the concept of sin and subsequent punishment within the afterlife. Why, then, is Malebolge designed this way, to provoke this particular brand of suffering? Dante’s Inferno relies on his own self-condemnation and punishment for sins he has already committed, trying to walk through Hell with a guide. Morrison turns this idea on its head in Beloved, with no guide available to her characters in this instance. She uses Dante’s examination of punishment as her baseline in Beloved on power and punishment. How can this system be fair when it directly opposes the idea of a contrapasso? Morrison seems to suggest that there is no such thing as Divine Justice, and this idea is just that: a literary device. Dante’s entire journey, led by Virgil so far, is in an attempt to keep him from eternal damnation and lead him into Heaven; in contrast, Paul D is thrown into his own Hell through no sins of his own. But are any of the sinners truly guilty? Or are they simply subject to a punishment for which they have no recourse, no way to explain, or ask forgiveness? Much like the men who run the prison in Beloved, the demons take perverse pleasure in torturing those who have less power, as Dante demonstrates: “With a hundred prongs or more they pricked him, shrieking” (Inferno, XXI: 54). This also calls into question an important idea in Morrison’s works as a whole; who has the power to inflict pain and punishment upon others?

Morrison includes the element of a lead chain in the imprisonment chapter by saying “and the lead chain gave it everything he had” (Morrison 127). A lead chain is what large animal owners use to move and control the animals, and by using a lead chain Morrison is relegating the prisoners to animals. This may have been influenced by Dante’s treatment of the sinners, as he also strips away the identity of the prisoners, noting how they appear as “misbegotten souls, whose faces you could not see before” (Inferno, XVII:76-77). Whereas those in the Malebolge are stuck, never atoning for their sins despite enduring eternal punishment, Morrison twists this concept on its head, bringing her characters out of their Hell and allowing them the sweet taste of freedom. Although freedom is the ideal dream for the prisoners, it comes with a cost. In the present day of Beloved, he is forced to enact the sins that correspond with the punishment he endured. For example, one of the most prominently featured sins committed by Paul D was flattery. In Inferno, the punishment for flattery is being covered in feces, which is eerily reminiscent of Paul D’s escape from prison through the mud. Shortly after his arrival at 124, he begins a sexual relationship with Sethe that is colored by his desire for her from their past at Sweet Home. While the dalliance between the two contains traces of flattery, it is the later fornication between Paul D and Beloved that takes this concept over the edge. “If he trembled like Lot’s wife and felt some womanish need to see the nature of the sin behind him,” is what Paul D thinks once Beloved begins to approach him in a sexual manner (Morrison 137). By comparing him to Lot’s wife, Morrison is implying that Paul D is aware that what he is about to do is a sin, but he physically cannot help himself. It is in his nature to be so tempted by the past that it destroys his future, just as the aforementioned biblical figure did not leave her past in the past and ended up suffering, by turning into a pillar of salt.

 Unlike Dante, who championed a strict code of morals, Paul D begs for “sympathy, perhaps, for cursing the cursed,” suggesting that his sinning is not his fault, but a result of his circumstances (Morrison 137). This argument from Paul D encapsulates the reversal that Morrison is making. While Dante argued that the way one lives their life leads to the punishment they receive, Morrison heralds the belief that when one is punished, they are then shaped by those conditions and must learn to live with the weight of that torture; the moral system of Inferno does not exist in Beloved, and the system of whiteness producing enslavement and incarceration produces undeserving punishment. 

Though not quite the same, the prison system within the United States today is a new eighth circle of Hell for black men and women, with incarceration rates for black Americans exceeding the rate-by-population of white Americans. Brutality runs rampant amongst prison guards, the aggressors. In an article written by Andrea Jacobs in 2004, she describes a harsh institution of brutal treatment at the hands of prison guards: “Corrections officers at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut subjected Ronald Nussle to an unprovoked and unjustified beating” (Jacobs 279). She continues on to describe his treatment in detail, which reminds one of the treatment of enslaved people almost 200 years ago. This serves as a cruel reminder that Paul D’s experience with imprisonment in Morrison’s fictional tale held true long ago and that the vestiges of slavery run rampant within American society today, particularly in the unjust justice system. For example, the 13th Amendment is widely known as that which rightfully ended slavery. However, this isn’t exactly true. It prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (U.S. Const. amend. 13, § 1.). In other words, prisoners can be lawfully exploited for unpaid labor in the United States. This is even more significant when considering that 38.5 percent of inmates are Black due to the over-policing of marginalized communities (BOP Statistics: Inmate Race). Therefore, those subject to these conditions are overwhelmingly those who already face historic and modern maltreatment.

 Today, Black Americans have freedoms that Paul D, and other enslaved people were denied, but tales of horror seep out of U.S. private and public prisons, bringing us back down to the eighth circle. Dante describes the horrors of Malebolge and its own prison guards consisting of cruel devils, while Morrison draws a similar comparison in describing how the guards would shove and hit prisoners with the butt of their rifles (Inferno XVIII, Morrison 127). Looping back to unfair treatment within American prisons today and the idea of the eighth circle of Hell and the “cruel delight” of Hell’s own guards, it seems as though Morrison’s Hell outlined within Beloved never truly ended.

It is important to note that while Morrison wrote Beloved almost a quarter of a century ago, her concepts and meanings still apply to our own world. Dante’s Inferno, written six centuries before our own, also holds true in today’s society. As Morrison seems to demonstrate in drawing from Dante’s Inferno to craft Paul D’s imprisonment, by reversing the moral dynamic of contrapasso as seen in the Malebolge, there is an emphasis on the undeserved cruelty of incarceration, and enslavement, on the cruelty of white supremacy and dehumanization of Black people, and on the fictive quality of a moral system associated with constructs like punishment to prop up institutions of power.


AHC. (n.d.). Inferno. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from 

Federal Bureau of Prisons. (2023, February 18). BOP Statistics: Inmate Race.

Inferno 18 – Digital Dante. (n.d.). 

Jacobs, A. (2004). Prison power corrupts absolutely: exploring the phenomenon of prison guard brutality and the need to develop a system of accountability. California Western Law Review, 41(1), 277-302.

Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf.

US Constitution, Amendment 13.

Leeman Thresholds Essay ENGL 431

Throughout the past three weeks of class, I’ve become intrigued with a number of themes and interpretations on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Right now, in accordance with the class structure, I’ve been focusing on Dante Aligeri’s Divine Comedy and seeing how Morrison, in the twentieth century, drew from these texts and used them as inspiration for her characters in the trilogy that begins with Beloved. I suspect these comparisons will become clearer as the semester goes on and we move forward with the rest of the novels, but for now, I find myself lost in the woods, so to speak, with interpreting this story inside this set context. I know that this prompt and course interpretations are meant to be more open ended, but I like to set strict guidelines for myself in writing. I’m a person who requires a plan, and this is, admittedly, throwing me for a bit of a loop. Morrison’s work necessitates careful examination and study, and every day I dig deeper, but I’m still struggling a bit with mapping Dante characters and major themes of the Divine Comedy onto Beloved. There are a few major ones I’ve noticed at this point, but I feel its prudent to remind any reader that this analysis is already necessarily in the preliminary stages. The mapping of Dante and Morrison’s trilogies onto one another has just embarked beyond its threshold.

For this paper, I chose to focus on the idea of exile and the pain that this causes. Dante, in Inferno and beyond, moves through worlds where he does not belong as of yet. At the end of Inferno, he remarks “through a small round opening ahead of us/I saw the lovely things the heavens hold,/and we came out to see once more the stars” (Inferno, Canto 32). This maps, albeit loosely (a caveat that applies to most comparisons here), onto Paul D’s internal thoughts when he hears Sethe talking about love while enslaved versus in freedom. He feels, rather than thinks, “so you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own” (Morrison 191). All of Morrison’s characters in Beloved are inherently in exile. Forced from their families and their lives, Sethe and Baby Suggs, in an attempt to regain what they have both lost, settle at 124 to build themselves back up once more. Baby Suggs, after her son Halle purchases her freedom, is ‘taken in’ by the Bodwins, white people connected to the Gardeners who claim that they detest slavery. Yet they require her to perform domestic labor for them in exchange for renting 124. She is not truly free, even if she is no longer considered enslaved. She has been taken from one bad situation to another, knowing that they are different but neither good nor truly allowing for her own independence.

Nevertheless, she persists, carving out a life for herself in Cincinnati. She makes a reputation for herself, much like a preacher one might encounter in Paradiso, as a pillar of the community. Things start to feel dangerous, though, after she is given blackberries by Stamp Paid, an arguable candidate for Virgil’s counterpart. Stamp takes responsibility for the entire community, “[extending] this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery” in much the same way that Virgil cares for Dante, focusing on his charges with a single minded love and affection (Morrison 218). They both acknowledge that the journey for the protagonists will not be easy; “‘But you must journey down another road,’/he answered, when he saw me lost in tears,/ ‘if ever you hope to leave this wilderness’” (Inferno, Canto 1). Baby Suggs’ ideals and tentative peace begin to dissolve when Stamp Paid gives baby Denver 2 buckets of blackberries, and she prepares a feast; soon after, she notices the frostiness and even anger of those around her, noting that “her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess” (Morrison 163). But the last straw for her idyllic freedom comes, of course, when the schoolteacher and his posse come to attack and kidnap Sethe’s family, leading her to take the drastic but understandable act of protection her attempted murder is. Afterwards, “strangers and familiars were stopping by to hear how it went one more time, and suddenly Baby declared peace. She just up and quit” (Morrison 208). Her heart has shattered, and she, like Dante, experiences the words of Dante in Paradiso, “You shall leave everything you love most dearly:/this is the arrow that the bow of exile/shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste/of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know/how hard a path it is for one who goes/descending and ascending others’ stairs” (Paradiso, Canto 17).For instance, when Baby Suggs sees that baby Denver is still alive, grabbed from Sethe’s grip just before her death, she breaks down, making “a low sound in her throat as though she’d made a mistake, left the salt out of the bread” (Morrison 178).

Like Baby Suggs, Sethe originally has high hopes for 124, hopes that are seemingly confirmed when she arrives. Upon recollection, she describes her arrival off the wagon as the time when she finally feels that she can love her children with all her heart, her heart that is no longer taken from her and locked away. She remarks, “maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon- there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (Morrison 190-191). This optimism, of course, is crushed by the reality of their situation. Forced into a hellish situation, Sethe made an impossible choice, and has spent the time since her child’s death paying the price for it every moment of every day. Ostracized by both her community and her family, Sethe is left to linger in her sorrow for eighteen years; as Dante states, ““I did not die -I was not living either!/Try to imagine, if you can imagine,/me there, deprived of life and death at once” (Inferno, Canto 34, 25-27). How can her remaining children trust her? Her former friends now rebuke her for the killing of her child, and are careful to keep their distance, although they started to inch away before this.

Yet how could anyone condemn her? It is only when Paul D arrives that Sethe is confronted with the reality of someone who shares her past experience in the brutality of enslavement and simultaneously does not yet not know what she has done, what she would have done. Her life seemingly becomes idyllic, with her Beloved daughter returning. Beloved, however, only scares the community more. Denver, initially excited for her sister and only friend to return in a physical form, not merely as a companion in the river, reminding her, “‘don’t you remember we played together by the stream?’” (Morrison 89). But Beloved lives up to her name, particularly with Sethe, who begins neglecting Denver in favor of the baby that she lost and has seemingly been returned. Denver, separated from her self proclaimed purpose of protecting others and herself from Sethe, is lost and without purpose. In her exile, she feels without purpose, just as Dante feels when Virgil discovers him in the woods, fearing the she-wolf “that in her leanness/seemed racked with every kind of greediness” she sees hidden in Beloved (Inferno, Canto 1). Denver is the one character who makes it out of the ordeal relatively unscathed, and yet even she is traumatized by the supernatural horrors and greed that she has seen. Much like Dante, this journey is required for her to grow into the woman she becomes, but this baptism by fire is disheartening for readers of the Divine Comedy and Beloved alike.

My question therefore is, how can we move forward from here? Are we as readers “getting closer to the center/of the universe, where all weights must converge,/and I was shivering in the eternal chill” (Inferno, Canto 32). It is clear that there is more to come, both in the Divine Comedy and Morrison’s trilogy, but I am curious to see if parts of Inferno will come back into play in Morrison’s work, as well as looking back and seeing the parts of Purgatorio and Paradiso that we may have missed by virtue of simply not having the context to understand Morrison’s clever usage of Dantean principles and themes in her work. I am aware that we have not yet finished Inferno, so this may also impact my interpretation of this relationship in the future. Overall, as we stand at the threshold of both the class and the trilogies, I find myself thinking more than analyzing what can come next. The themes of exile and leading/being led through the darkness are already so prominent, but I wonder how much farther they can extend.