Toni Morrison’s trilogy—Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1997)—comprises decades’ worth of collaboration between Morrison’s own interests and influences, as well as with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, from which Morrison extracted linguistic and thematic inspiration. Simultaneously scrupulous and emotionally-driven as a writer, Morrison crafted the characters of her “trilogy” as reflections of realistic and intricate human reactions, but also to act as representations of the ways in which emotional collaboration can both help and hinder interpersonal relationships. Morrison possesses an unparalleled ability to capture the unspoken ugliness within all people—their tendency to sin through violence, betrayal, ignorance and beyond—alongside the uniquely human capacity for all-encompassing emotional connection; the trilogy posits that the latter phenomenon most often causes the former—love producing hate. Reading Morrison’s novels has, therefore, made me think more deeply about the limits of emotional communication, but also about writing as a necessity. While I often opt for a text-driven approach to literary analysis, Morrison’s novels live and breathe as a result of her dedication to collaboration between both herself and the authors that inspire her. Drawing from her works themselves, those which they reference, and Morrison’s forewords and interviews which illuminate her exploratory writing process, I’ve gained insight into how fiction often makes for the most profound impression of reality.
In a New York Times interview conducted after the publication of Beloved, Morrison remarked of the writing process: “Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.” Ironically, in order to craft profound observations about the most intense emotions—lust, rage, grief, anguish, and joy alike—Morrison had to prevent her own emotions from mingling with those of her characters. True, too, is that effectively communicating often involves temporarily displacing your own emotions in order to understand those of someone else. But this phenomenon is not foolproof, and thwarting one’s own emotional experiences in favor of others’ can occur to a fault; Beloved’s central character, Sethe, focuses so much on the emotions of her loved ones that she fails to address her own hurt until the novel’s close, after already enduring a lifetime of violence and loss. Reflecting on her “rebellious brain”—her tendency to fall into emotional disarray, only to prematurely rip herself from it—Sethe thinks: “Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept” (Morrison 83)? She becomes swarmed in painful memories, only to force herself from these feelings to attend to more practical matters: “I don’t want to know or have to remember that. I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age and sickness not to speak of love” (Morrison 83). Ironically, Sethe does not recognize that the driving force for her distractions is actually an overgrowth of love.
Inversely, Joe Trace, one of the central characters of Jazz, allows his misguided love and lust to absorb him beyond preoccupation. Like Sethe, he commits an atrocity against a child out of excessive love. But Joe, unlike Sethe, did not do the “right” thing; in Morrison’s words: “‘It was absolutely the right thing to do, but [Sethe] had no right to do it.’” Joe murders Dorcas, his young lover whom he expresses an exorbitant amount of love for, but engages with her and ultimately kills her as a result of his inability to effectively communicate his emotional distress with his wife Violet, whom he once loved just as intensely. Joe’s perceived love for Dorcas is all-consuming, obsessive, and aggressive: “Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it… And I made up my mind to follow you too. That’s something I know how to do from way back. Maybe I didn’t tell you that part about me. My gift in the woods that even he looked up to and he was the best that ever was” (Morrison 135).
When Dante first enters his journey down, down, up, and around through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, he finds himself deep within the woods: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Inferno I: 1-3). Although Dante is in his own “midlife,” both as the character of Dante the Pilgrim and at the time of writing The Divine Comedy, he indicates that his journey takes place within “our” life; the divergence from a path of righteousness as a result of intense emotion—a dark wood—is not only typical, but perhaps even necessary to a human life. Like Morrison, Dante understands the universality of sin, evidenced by the subtle empathy in this precise language of the epic poem’s very first lines. Dante is particularly sympathetic to love-driven sin. He declares lust as the least heinous sin, and the residents of this first circle only find themselves here because of the wrongdoings they commit as an extension of their lust, not because of the lust itself. To love to the extent of feeling intense lust is not sinful; to commit violent acts on account of lust and refuse to repent for them is. Morrison seems to be in agreement with this sentiment, although her characters’ paths to repentance are often less straightforward, driven by outward societal forces that demand characters such as Sethe or Paul D to prioritize their survival over their active repentance. Having faced years of loss—grieving her children, Beloved, Baby Suggs, and her own personhood after being unwittingly born into a system of violence, Sethe is tired: “She is thinking: No. This little place by a window is what I want. And rest. There’s nothing to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe, assuming he even knows how” (Morrison 321). Sethe’s inability to repent is not out of carelessness or even selfishness, but out of unwitting exhaustion.
Similarly, Joe Trace shovels his enormous grief upon Violet who, unbeknownst to him, suffers from quiet griefs of her own. Joe’s messy, lustful love for Dorcas emerges as a result of his expectations of what his wife should be, as all wives were expected to be at the turn of the century—obedient, ever-loving, and dependent. When Violet becomes silent, Joe loses his unending well of womanly love: “Long before Joe stood in the drugstore watching a girl buy candy, Violet had stumbled into a crack or two… [she] is still as well as silent. Over time her silences annoy her husband, then puzzle him and finally depress him. He is married to a woman who speaks mainly to her birds. One of whom answers back: ‘I love you’” (Morrison 23-24). Joe’s extended reaction to his wife’s plight—his infidelity, murder, anger, and disillusion—amounts to a series of deplorable actions. He is not, however, a wholly deplorable person, nor is anyone. Indeed, Joe is the glaring image of forced repentance: “In the spring of 1926, on a rainy afternoon, anybody passing through the alley next to a certain apartment house on Lenox might have looked up and seen, not a child but a grown man’s face crying along with the glass pane” (Morrison 118). This performance is not yet sufficient to earn him a spot in “purgatory,” but it does demonstrate his open vulnerability as a consequence of his own sinful actions. And those actions, while extreme, are not entirely unreasonable; when Joe pursues and eventually betrays Dorcas, he does so out of loneliness: pitiful, unwavering, undoubtedly human loneliness. To cite Beloved: “[There] is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place” (Morrison 323). Just as love can breed hateful behaviors, so too can a lack of it.
Like Joe, the Convent women (Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, Pallas, and Connie) of Paradise are lonely. And like Sethe, they are lonely because the outside world damned them as such. Simultaneously excluded from the town of Ruby and persecuted by its men, the women’s “Paradise” is a forced one: “[Mavis] had been aware for months of the sourness between the Convent and the town and she might have anticipated the truckload of men prowling the mist. But she was thinking of other things: tattooed sailors and children bathing in emerald water” (Morrison 49). Paradise, similar to Paradiso, is the culmination of love-driven action; whereas the other two novels hinge largely upon the isolated actions of a few individuals (even if they act within a larger system), Paradise is a pelago of action and reaction. Each woman arrives and eventually remains at the Convent after fleeing from a troubled situation, and these situations are never black-and-white or right-and-wrong. Mavis, for example, leaves her children in a hot car, dazed after years of enduring an abusive relationship and the lofty expectations of wife and motherhood: “She searched the darkness for a sign, trying to feel, smell his mood in advance. But he was a blank, just the way he had been at supper the evening of the newspaper interview. The perfect meat loaf (not too loose, not too tight–two eggs made the difference) must have pleased him […] When he pulled her nightgown up, he threw it over her face, and she let that mercy be. She had misjudged. Again. He was going to do this first and then the rest” (Morrison 25-26).
Like Mavis, the actions of the other Convent women are often catalyzed by the lust, or the perceived “love,” of trusted men around them—Mavis later calls these sexual rituals “required torture” (Morrison 171). Connie’s decision-making, for example, is tethered to her desire to be desired: “She climbed in, and for some reason—a feminine desire to scold or annihilation twenty-four hours of desperation; to pretend, at least, that the suffering he had caused required an apology, an explanation to win her forgiveness—some instinct like that preserved her and she did not let her hand slip into his crotch as it wanted to” (Morrison 235). Ultimately, despite the ceaseless pain and isolation, the Convent women reach Paradise not by avoiding their own capacity to sin and be sinned against, but by accepting such grievances as a part of the human experience—one that begins with a painful thicket, and drifts into a pelago: “When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come… Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in Paradise” (Morrison 318). This language mirrors Dante’s: “And even as he, who, with distressful breath, / Forth issued from the sea upon the shore, / Turns to the water perilous and gazes; // So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward, / Turn itself back to re-behold the pass / Which never yet a living person left” (Inferno I: 22-27). Cliché as it may seem, Morrison’s work (including her allusions to Dante), suggest a dynamism (a “both/and,” if you will) to all of human life. In her vision, no person is solely evil, but they are never solely good, either. And, even upon crossing the threshold into forgiveness and thus freedom, one must always turn back to the water perilous and gaze.
Such an ability to portray the coinciding violence and emotional intensity present within all people surely did not come easily. In the foreword to Paradise, Morrison acknowledges the hurdles of not only her own writing process, but of accruing the multitude of skills required to first read, then to write, and then, with luck, to becoming a “good” writer. Speaking of her grandfather with the same keen empathy she offers to each and every one of her characters, she reflects: “Nevertheless, my grandfather’s sister was successful because against all odds, he did become literate. The next question was how would he use that skill? What was there for him to read? […] Reading and script writing were prized in my family not only for information and pleasure but also as a defiant political act since historically so much effort had been used to keep us from learning” (Morrison xii). Through this story, Morrison acknowledges the layers upon layers of skill involved in producing a successful sentence, let alone a successful book, and in being an occasional reader, let alone an active one. Like human relations, reading and writing are inherently political. Book bans still control what young people are allowed to read, based not on their personal interests or character, but on the places they happen to live in; the Writers’ Guild of America is currently on strike for receiving inhumane wages, despite having contributed to the country’s popular culture cornerstones and thus its very identity; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, children who do not learn to read by the fourth grade are much more likely to end up in situations of incarceration or poverty. Given the seemingly doom-ridden state of all forms of literature and literacy, simply to read is to be defiant; to have empathy for others—both those on the page and those in our own lives—is to be defiant. I am admittedly uncertain of which shore I’d like to arrive on when I graduate in just over a year. But as someone who is no stranger to upsetting emotions and unfortunate circumstances, Morrison’s novels encourage acceptance, and encourage me to continue doing what I feel matters most. I cannot change what others have done to me; I cannot change what I have done to others. I can feel hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and everything in between, but I cannot change the past. What I do know is that I love to read and to write, in whatever capacity that may be. I know that if I continue to read empathetic works from writers both new and old, I will continue to change; if I continue to write about what matters to me and use my words with precision and care, I will make at least one other human being feel something, and I will become more equipped to understand other people’s complex feelings. In my view, love (cruel and messy as it may be) and the stories it inspires are beyond necessary, especially in the face of life’s unabating and unfair precarity. In the words of Dante, “I saw all things bound in a single book by love / of which creation is the scattered leaves: // how substance, accident, and their relation / were fused in such a way that what I now / describe is but a glimmer of that Light” (Paradise XXXIII: 86-90).