Collaboration is a process meant to bring together different individuals for the purpose of producing work that transcends the abilities of one, singular person. That being said, many collaborations can fail to do this, the process being a double-edged sword. Where a positive, successful collaboration can allow each individual to shine, giving them the opportunity to highlight the thing they do best when propped up by the best of someone else, a negative collaboration will relegate some, if not most, collaborators to the shadows. When Morrison introduces new characters in each book of her trilogy, there is always someone who is caught in the throes of toxic collaboration. In Beloved, there is Denver; In Jazz, Felice; In Paradise, Mavis. At the start of each of their journeys, every one of these women are forced to silence their voices and quietly long for a peaceful existence that appears constantly out of reach. While these women embarked on their own quests of self-discovery, I went through my own metamorphosis, learning to thrive alongside them. I embraced the tenacity of Denver, the persistence of Mavis, and the independence of Felice. Most of all, I saw myself in the way Morrison brought these characters into the light as they learned to assert themselves and embrace the concept of positive collaboration, eventually using these tools to confront the wider world with their hearts on their sleeves.
The first of the characters the reader encounters is Denver. Denver is the daughter of Sethe, and is the only one of her children to not have died or abandoned her. Prior to the present day of Beloved, Sethe entered a self-imposed exile as punishment for killing the baby Beloved. Since Sethe is in exile, Denver is as well, leaving this quiet girl in a stifling environment where she cannot learn the power of collaboration. For so much of her life, she has been stuck with only her mother for company, and while she sticks by her out of a sense of love and duty, there is no room for fresh perspectives to blossom. This is how I thought my first collaboration would go: me, following a group blindly, voice snuffed out in favor of those who had multiple semesters to forge relationships with each other. Additionally, once someone hits their mid-twenties, “the brain’s plasticity solidifies… this can mean it’s tougher to learn new skills” (Virtanen 2022). As a recently turned twenty-year old, this means that my capacity to break out of a toxic mindset and learn to collaborate is on the clock; in other words, if I do not rectify my mistakes now, like Denver, I will be cemented in the firmament as one who perpetuates a toxic collaborative mindset. It is at this moment that Dante can be turned to, shedding a light on the fate of both Denver and myself. In the early Cantos of the Divine Comedy, Dante and his guide Virgil prepare to cross the River Acheron, truly kicking off the pilgrim’s voyage from the depths of Hell to the doorways of Paradise. As Dante looks on the impending journey with fear, Virgil says, “… they want to cross the river, they are eager; it is Divine Justice that spurs them on, turning the fear they have into desire” (Canto III, lines 124-126). The main idea of this quote is that in order to overcome the toxicity of one’s mindset, they must desire change more than they fear it. In fact, wading through a river of pain and coming out on the other side can go as far as being rejuvenating. This is certainly true for Denver, who braves the outside world for the first time since she shut herself in for the sake of saving her family. Now, I must turn that question inwards: is my desire to participate in a positive collaboration stronger than my self-doubt? It should be said that stepping out of one’s comfort zone is the most daunting aspect of collaboration, but as demonstrated by Denver, sometimes it is necessary to achieve one’s goals. After all, knowing when to speak up and exercise one’s own judgment is just as important as sitting back and listening. In the end, Denver comes to the conclusion that she needed to leave the toxic collaborative cycle within her household for her own sake. By doing this, Denver has taken charge over her own destiny and sense of self, armed with the knowledge of how to put herself out into the world and find the pieces to create a positive collective in the future. Through her, I can learn to do the same.
While Denver gets the opportunity to choose positive collaboration for herself, others such as Felice are forced to learn via life’s circumstances. I certainly know what this is like, having to adjust my personal concepts of collaboration as I’ve progressed through time. If there is one thing I have come to know, it is that flexibility is key; that is why I can relate to Felice, who represents another facet of a toxic collaboration: complacency. When Morrison introduces Felice, it is in the context of a grieving best friend. Initially, this is par for the course, however as the plot moves along, it is revealed that Dorcas had the tendency to steamroll Felice. Whereas in Beloved, all characters played a role in the collaboration, regardless of how healthy it was, in Jazz, Dorcas is in the driver’s seat, and it is not until her death when Felice’s true feelings become known. This makes sense, as Felice was a lonely girl, and when one is lonely they tend to gobble up any scraps of relationship they can get, as it is better than solitude. While Felice had suspicions about the true colors of Dorcas for a while, she chose to remain compliant in favor of maintaining the short term remedy of companionship. There is something to be said about someone who realizes when it is time to leave a toxic collaboration and is resigned to loneliness, however I, like most humans in this situation, am a masochist. Caught in an unbalanced friendship until the day of Dorcas’ death, Felice felt nothing but anger. Dorcas never took her ideas, thoughts, and opinions seriously, so why should she care that she died? One might say she got what she deserved. By holding onto this anger, Felice bottled up her emotions, effectively closing herself off to the possibility of rediscovering the joys of collaboration in the future. It is not until her final conversation with Joe, where he encourages her to forge her own path, that she regains direction that she previously lost. Collaboration is all about the balance between taking center stage and fading into the background. Felice has been in the background for too long, and now that she has met the likes of Joe and Violet, who will not ignore her strengths, she finally has the chance to shine. As Felice begins a new chapter focused on her own wants and needs, Dante can be turned to once again. While Felice is an independent figure, Dante says “the other three, who see more deeply, will instruct her sight.” (Canto XXXI, lines 109-110). Even though Felice deserves to focus on herself, going through life without anyone to lean on can be a burden. As this quote reminds the audience, it is important to recognize that through collaboration, we achieve self-betterment through seeing another’s point of view. It can be hard to change if you deliberately surround yourself with people who will stifle your voice. I, like Felice, have learned the hard way that it is necessary to find those that will prop you up. Without that mutual respect between collaborators, it is impossible for any meaningful collaboration to take place.
The last character to be released from the clutches of a toxic collaboration was Mavis in Paradise. Much like Felice before her, Mavis was a passive participant in the collaborative process. Similar to Denver, she realized the harm of the collaborative cycle whilst she was entrenched in it. The thing that sets her apart from these two is that while the aforementioned girls were able to make amends with people who contributed to the unhealthy environment, Mavis realized that in order to flourish, she must remove herself from the situation entirely. Once again, this is extremely brave, as knowing when to remove oneself from a mentally debilitating situation is hard. I know firsthand that in a toxic collaboration, seeds of paranoia will be planted in your brain and continue to grow until you reach your breaking point. Mavis certainly reached this breaking point, knowingly remaining in her abusive marriage, the guilt of her past sins haunting her, ensuring that she would never break this cycle. Because of that, it is not until she reaches the Convent when she is able to reassess her life and approach to collaboration. Over the course of her time at the Convent, Mavis gradually lets go of her rigid nature and cautious approach to collaboration, letting loose and discovering who she really is. In the section Divine, following one of her many spats with Gigi, Mavis sits in the bathroom, thinking idly about her daily errands and arguments with the other girl. Through this moment of self-reflection, Mavis realizes she has grown so much, “that the old Mavis was dead” (Paradise 171). To quote a prominent figure from the twenty-first century who echoes this sentiment, “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now/ “Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!” (Swift 2017). Seeing as both these modern lyrics and Morrison’s sentiments from 1997 carry the same message, it shows how the idea of reinvention through collaboration is transcendent. It is one thing to know when one is caught in a toxic collaboration, but it is another thing to use that knowledge as motivation to become a better version of oneself. Mavis is able to do it, going from a passive participant to an outspoken contributor. In fact, the lesson Mavis learned is perhaps the most profound: collaboration can be as simple as surrounding oneself with people who will bring out the best in them. If these characters can do it, why can’t I?
As I learn from these characters, observing their trials and triumphs, I have to remember to look inward. I can relate to the independence, persistence, and tenacity of these characters all I want, but it is not until I apply these tools to my own collaborations that any meaningful work can be done. It does not matter if I see myself one way, in the shadows, if I do not actively work to bring that side of me into the light. I can confidently say that if I succeeded at nothing else in this class, I have succeeded at that. Self-doubt may be the most toxic inhibitor to collaboration of all. However, with each group collaboration, that inner voice was silenced. I know this essay will not be the most technically brilliant, nor will it contain revolutionary ideas that change how we perceive the texts covered in this class. This essay will not even be the one most littered with flowery metaphors. That is okay. I know who I am, and I know the writer I want to be. I am aware of what I bring to the table, and I know how those thoughts can help my fellow collaborators reach inside the well of creation to make an imperfect masterpiece. I have the power of my own self worth, and that knowledge is the most powerful tool of all.
Dante. “Canto III.” Inferno , edited by Mark Musa, Penguin Books/Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2003, pp. 89–96.
Dante. “Canto XXXI.” Purgatorio , edited by Mark Musa, Penguin Books/Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2003, pp. 330–342.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage Books, 1992.
Morrison, Toni. Paradise . Vintage Books , 1997.
Swift, Taylor. “Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do (Lyric Video).” YouTube, 24 Aug. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K0RzZGpyds.
Virtanen, Aurora. “The Magic of Brain Plasticity: Why It’s Never Too Late to Learn!” Growth Engineering, 23 Nov. 2022, https://www.growthengineering.co.uk/brain-plasticity/#:~:text=It’s%20strongly%20believed%20that%20once,tougher%20to%20learn%20new%20skills.