This semester, we will be diving into three works by Toni Morrison, Beloved, Paradise, and Jazz. I’ve never read any of Morrison’s work, so such a focused look into a completely new author is an exciting chance to learn for me. At the same time, the coming semester presents me with some apprehension from multiple sources. We are connecting many of the themes in Morrison’s work to the writing of Dante, another author which I have never read. While it is exciting to explore new works, that much new material in such a high level class does bring a level of concern that I may not be able to keep up with the reading or with the comprehension of the rest of the class. In addition, I have recently been grappling with a feeling of “otherness” in my English classes this semester stemming from my STEM major and my focus on different studies. While we study the idea of thresholds in the writing of Dante and Morrison, these worries leave me, ironically, at two of my own thresholds to consider as we move into the spring semester.
The first threshold to consider is that of understanding. Now that we have read some of Morrison and Dante, I have the beginnings of an understanding of why the two might be grouped and studied together. The themes present in Dante’s Inferno are starting to pop up in Morrison’s Beloved, and they interact in increasingly interesting ways. Dante’s idea of Hell in Inferno centers largely around the idea of contrapasso, that sinners’ punishments are fitting for their sins. Since Sethe killed her child, that sin would put her in one of the circles of Hell, most likely Caina, in which sinners are held under frozen water with only their heads sticking out. Despite her sin, after reading most of Beloved I would venture to say that Sethe does not deserve this kind of punishment, since the circumstances of her life before and after the supposed sin show her to be a good person put in a bad situation. Dante would seem to disagree, since the sinners in Hell refuse, or are unable to, answer Dante the Pilgrim when he asks for their stories and are condemned to Hell without concern for the context under which their sins were committed. If my interpretation of Sethe’s life is in line with what Morrison intended, I am interested to see how or if this apparent disagreement between Dante and Morrison over what sinners deserve is resolved. Not knowing anything about either author at the beginning of the semester, I feel like I am moving towards a greater understanding of the two authors and how they overlap, but I acknowledge that I still have a lot to learn and a lot of material to read. This leaves me in a state of both understanding and not understanding at the same time, an idea that struck me as ironically fitting due to our focus on different kinds of thresholds in our readings this semester. I have no doubt that a semester worth of reading and good-faith conversation with my classmates will push me through this threshold and lead me to a greater understanding and appreciation of both authors.
I am much less certain of overcoming my second threshold. As a biochemistry major, I have felt more noticeably out of place in my English classes this semester than in previous semesters. After thinking on the feeling, it makes perfect sense. I had recently remarked to a friend that my chemistry classes had become much smaller and more competitive as we moved into junior year, since the only students left in chemistry classes this advanced are upper-level chemistry and biochemistry majors that really care about and love the subject. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that I feel out of place in my two four hundred level English classes. My classmates are largely English or English education majors who have decided to dedicate their college education to a subject that they really care about. This is not to say that I do not care as much as my classmates do, but I have realized that they have dedicated a much more significant part of their lives to the subjects we are studying than I have, in exactly the same way I have dedicated more time to chemistry than they have. That dedication showed in the first few days of my English classes, in which my peers were much more ready to tackle difficult readings and discussions of interpretations that had not even occurred to me yet. While I was a little discouraged that I was lagging behind my peers in some discussions, knowing that my peers are expected to have developed their reading skills more than I have is a comforting thought that provides me the motivation to catch up with my peers’ comprehension of the texts we are reading. My minor in English leaves me at my second threshold; both in and out of the English program. While I’m currently enrolled in two high-level English classes, I am now aware of the difference between me and my English major peers and how that is starting to manifest in the classroom. This semester, one of my goals for this class, as well as Professor Rutkowski’s Herman Melville class, will be to push myself to the level of my peers and share some of the dedication and the extent of the love that they have for English literature.
As we move past the threshold and into the class itself, I am challenging myself to take these difficulties as a challenge more than an obstacle. It is true that I feel behind my peers in comprehension and skill, but that gives me a framework to center my improvement around. I have never read the two authors we are focused on this semester, but new authors give me an opportunity to both expand my literature lexicon and catch up with my peers in my reading and analysis. The thresholds I find myself in currently provide a fitting link to the class curriculum and an impetus to grow beyond my previous education and attitudes, a prospect that excites me as much as it does intimidate me.