Facets of Love in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

For both Morrison and Dante, nakedness is vulnerability. Unbeknownst to Sethe, these early moments in her renewed relationship with Paul D, wherein she longs for a space dedicated to comfort, are actually her first steps into the punishing journey through Hell. For Dante, these punishments amount to a slew of incomprehensible horrors, from maggots to boiling blood:
“These wretches, who had never truly lived, / went naked, and were stung and stung
again / by the hornets and the wasps that circled them // and made their faces run with
blood in streaks; / their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to / and disgusting maggots
collected in the pus” (Inferno III: 62-67)

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

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

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

Essun and Fissured Identity

I. Introduction
Having read the entire Broken Earth trilogy, I’ve sometimes found myself frustrated at my constant preference and subsequent deference to its first installment, The Fifth Season. I first read The Fifth Season in the second semester of my sophomore year and studied it in isolation with no previous knowledge of N.K. Jemisin, her other works, or the trilogy, and no real intention to read beyond the first required book. But when searching for more English courses to take over the winter, Jemisin’s name alongside the lofty themes of “Justice” and “Love” intrigued me. I was eager to explore The Fifth Season and its younger siblings beyond a quick, sweeping read, and to see where Damaya, Syenite, Essun, and, of course, all of them turn out. This fact seems trivial now — that the three perspectives were really one all along, unified under the collective mindset of an older Essun; but the ingenious spectacle of this narrative decision, one that subverts expectations regarding character, perspective, and fantastical tropes, never evaded me. And though I do feel a bit naive or shallow-minded for having such an urge to return to the basics of a trilogy that quite literally explores the Earth’s depths, this is, after all, a self-reflective project, and my reflections always seem to lead back to Essun. My thoughts on the trilogy began with The Fifth Season, but they do not end with it (although I maintain that the novel does works just fine as a standalone given its excellent craft), and I will thus rely on this foundational text to explore aspects of identity, namely — what it means to identify as a black woman, how trauma creates identity fissures, and how perspective and identity are deeply-intertwined.

II. Essun the Epicenter
One fundamental question that seems worth addressing is why Essun? She is the trilogy’s de facto protagonist, but that isn’t necessarily why her story seems so fundamental to me. To start, Essun reflects the long-held mantra that the personal is political. In a 2015 blog post, Jemisin reflected upon a dream that eventually birthed the entire trilogy: I had a dream of a woman doing a Badass Power Walk towards me, with a mountain floating along behind her. I knew she was about my age — early forties, that is — and I could see that she wore dredlocs as I do, but it was very clear in the dream that she was not me.” Though I do not intend to assert that Jemisin crafted an entire trilogy fraught with ideas about expansive issues, namely justice and love, solely because she dreamt of a woman who looks just like her, I do think there is value in shared experiences, especially among marginalized identities. Jemisin frequently discusses the noxious effects of simply existing as a black woman in the workplace, in literary circles, online, and even as a fictional character. She feared — nay, knew — that readers would generally not take kindly to Essun: “in a society drenched in historical bigotries, a character who is brown-skinned and dredlocked and described as physically imposing and who is too old and ‘flabby’ to be sexually interesting to a lot of readers,” Jemisin reflected in a post on her blog written in 2015, “…I expected people to hate Essun.” To remedy this, she broke Essun into three — Essun herself, Damaya, and Syenite. In Jemisin’s words, “I suspected readers would find it easier to relate to an innocent child in a horrific situation, and a snarky, frustrated young woman journeying across a strange land with an irritating companion… even though these were literally the same person as Essun.” Employing and ultimately subverting standards of science fiction and fantasy, Jemisin pulls the ultimate rug out from under readers, who, necessarily existing within “a society drenched in historical bigotries” were not ready to simply like Essun — the abrasive, brash, disaster-prone, and yet ultimately sympathetic crux of the entire trilogy.
And for better or for worse, Essun is the crux — the epicenter. Jemisin’s authorial choices frequently mirror geological events which are, I suppose, my collective choice of “geological event” within this reflection. I found it difficult to pick just one aspect of the sweeping trilogy and its many magic and Earth-wielders, but Jemisin’s craft (particularly with Essun) is a geological hand in itself. Through Essun, Jemisin cleaves one identity into three and, as I will argue, perhaps even more. She subsequently classifies these identities — sometimes with overt geological references, sometimes not — into distinct, yet unified pieces of one unexpected heroine.

III. Fissures Galore
We are first introduced to Essun as, well, Essun, during a moment of intense stress through a second-person perspective: “You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember? The woman whose son is dead” (Jemisin 15). This first fissure through Essun — the hardened woman experiencing yet another trauma (though, to new readers, this is but the first) — represents, among many things, the stress of a broken familial unit as the death of Uche cracks the familiar familial foundation, one typically rooted in the strict real-world gender binary: protective father, caretaking mother, and children. When father turns from caretaker to murder, children from protected to dead and missing, and mother from caretaker to without anything to care for, these notions are entirely dismantled right off the bat, making for an instantly subversive identity through Essun. Furthermore, although Essun is the bearer of this horrid trauma, she is the more physically powerful party compared to her husband, a non-orogene. And although this aspect of her identity makes her more powerful in the purely physical sense, it also makes her powerless without this essential family unit, since orogenes are viewed under such negative societal connotations. More than just a source of rigidity, the typical familial unit was Essun’s protection from other aspects of her identity that put her in direct danger.
As for Damaya, this is Essun at her most vulnerable — in a state of girlhood, bombarded with the trauma of abandonment and the continued abuse of a male caretaker. As Syenite, Essun is a stubborn young woman, resistant to common notions of sexuality and fierce with ambition — the picture of a “Strong Female Character,” a trope Jemisin herself has had some gripes with. The latter two perspectives are the only instances in which readers gain insight into Essun’s actual thoughts; this may be a purposeful decision on Jemisin’s part — to strip her primary character of her own narrative voice, relying instead on Hoa throughout the entirety of the later two installments, and providing insight into her thoughts only when they exist firmly within the past. I think, though, that this decision may have been primarily narrative. After Jemisin successfully stirred and repaired the intentional fissures within Essun, she “hoped that by the time people twigged to the fact that they were all one woman, [she] could effectively “cash in” on the empathic capital built by the younger versions of Essun, and transfer it to the her,” she could then expand the world of the Stillness; this did not mean leaving Esssun behind, but it did mean leaving behind the voices of her past selves — though neither Damaya nor Syenite go forgotten throughout the remainder of the trilogy, thanks largely to the continued development of Schaffa and Alabaster.
As the subsequent novels garner new perspectives, I found myself missing the simplicity of three perspectives united under one woman. I thought that the initial narrative trick was deft beyond belief, although like any great plot twist, upon rereading The Fifth Season I saw it coming from the very first line. But still, there was something so intimate about exploring the psyche of one woman, and losing the familiar collective voice of the three Essuns took some getting used to. However, upon further reflection, I realized that these fissured perspectives never really went away, although they no longer appeared so overtly as Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Rather, Hoa’s perspective offered a new identity in itself — one that rarely gave insight into Essun’s thoughts, particularly on the matter of his budding and overwhelming love for her. When Essun ultimately becomes a Stone Eater, this amounts to a new fissure. Even Nassun herself — angry as she is, and rightfully so — acts as an Essun of sorts, equally powerful, stubborn, and, of course, directly descended from her mother. Though Essun loses her narrative agency, her foundation continues to crack as stressors become less personal and more global.

IV. Ground Swell
In his poem “Ground Swell,” a title which references the geological phenomenon of a “long-period group of waves created by a distant storm system over long distances,” poet Mark Jarman notes his consistent returning to his younger self as the subject of his poems: “Yes, I can write about a lot of things / Besides the summer that I turned sixteen. / But that’s my ground swell. I must start / Where things began to happen and I knew it.” Essun is Jemisin’s ground swell. As the trilogy extends beyond Essun and her younger selves, the stakes grow higher by the page. Questions of morality, just treatment, and civic responsibility grow massive to the point of becoming overwhelming — but each of these sweeping questions started with one woman conjured by a dream. As I tore through the Broken Earth trilogy, I often missed the unity of three perspectives woven into one woman. But I recognize that the broader questions at hand — ideas which made me think of the political implications of living among nature, the responsibility of the group to care about the individual, etc. — would not be possible without an epicenter that eventually cracked into many, many different identities. Finally, I do not wish to suggest that trauma is in any way a positive thing. Although the stress and trauma Essun endures through every stage of her identity are crucial in exploring many of the trilogy’s themes, it goes without saying that she, like any other human being, should not have to go through any bit of what she did and that she did go through terrible events of neglect, abuse, and discrimination because of outward, unjust social forces.

However, it would be naive to instead assert that trauma does nothing. The photo I’ve attached shows an ancient geological fissure that ultimately healed itself over many, many years; like trauma to the Earth, the trauma that people endure and the subsequent changes in their identity are not necessarily “for the better,” but they can lead to change and, ultimately, renewal.