Saturday, December 30, 2006

How Pearl and Beloved Show Why Water Imagery Matters

Well, as predicted, I missed last Saturday. Today I hope to have time to get into some passages from The Scarlet Letter that I overlooked for a long time, but which I now believe hold one key to understanding the prose poem that is Beloved's monologue in Toni Morrison's Beloved. So for those (imaginary) readers looking forward to a post on heraldry in Hawthorne's works and its relation to race, I'll try to devote a Close Reading Tuesday to that topic. [Update: mission accomplished].And for those (hypothetical) readers interested in what a real Intertextual Thursday post would look like, I'll try to oblige with a post that goes beyond noting parallels between characters and plot elements in The Scarlet Letter and Beloved to actually consider what follows from them [Update: mission only somewhat and tangentially accomplished, but not on Hawthorne and Morrison].

Today, though, let's start, as I like to do with brainstorming-type writing, with a quotation--or rather, a set of quotations, the first two from The Scarlet Letter and the last from Beloved.

Hester bade little Pearl run down to the margin of the water, and play with the shells and tangled seaweed, until she should have talked awhile with yonder gatherer of herbs. So the child flew away like a bird, and, making bare her small white feet, went pattering along the moist margin of the sea. Here and there, she came to a full stop, and peeped curiously into a pool, left by the retiring tide as a mirror for Pearl to see her face in. Forth peeped at her, out of the pool, with dark, glistening curls around her head, and an elf-smile in her eyes, the image of a little maid, whom Pearl, having no other playmate, invited to take her hand and run a race with her. But the visionary little maid, on her part, beckoned likewise, as if to say,--"This is a better place! Come thou into the pool!" And Pearl, stepping in, mid-leg deep, beheld her own white feet at the bottom; while, out of a still lower depth, came the gleam of a kind of fragmentary smile, floating to and fro in the agitated water.

At first, as already told, she had flirted fancifully with her own image in a pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, and--as it declined to venture--seeking a passage for herself into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky. Soon finding, however, that either she or the image was unreal, she turned elsewhere for better pastime.

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear as though nobody ever walked there.

By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.


As this trio of quotations should hint to you, I'm going to try to draw some connections between Pearl and Beloved in this post--specifically between Pearl's reflection and the mystery of who Beloved is and where she came from. For I believe that Hawthorne's representation of Pearl influenced Morrison's characterization of Beloved as well as Denver.

Recall that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter repeatedly emphasizes Hester's dressing Pearl in an outfit that makes her seem to be "the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!" Like the scarlet letter, Pearl is represented as fiery and vengeful. When the Puritan children, taking time away from their usual pastimes of "playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft," decide to torment Hester and Pearl (in one of the [unintentionally?] funniest lines in the novel, one says, "Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!"), Pearl's response, "after frowning, stamping her foot, and shaking her hand with a variety of threatening gestures," is to suddenly "rush at the knot of her enemies, and put them all to flight." The narrator notes then that "She resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence,--the scarlet fever, or some such half-fledged angel of judgment,--whose mission was to punish the sins of the rising generation."

For Ella in Beloved, Beloved too is a symbol of sin and retribution:

When Ella heard 124 was occupied by something-or-other beating up on Sethe, it infuriated her and gave her another opportunity to measure what could very well be the devil himself against "the lowest yet." There was also something very personal in her fury. Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. Sethe's crime was staggering and her pride outstripped even that; but she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving on in the house, unleashed and sassy.

But Pearl and Beloved are much more than the symbols others make of them. Some (including Sethe and Denver) believe Beloved to be Sethe's daughter "in another form," the baby ghost that was haunting 124 before Paul D's arrival "endowed with life." (Although Denver tells Paul D, "At times, I think she was--more.") Paul D is tempted to believe Stamp Paid's supposition that Beloved may be a girl who was "locked up in a house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone.... Folks say he had her in there since she was a pup." But Paul D isn't satisfied with this theory. In conversation with Stamp Paid, he says, "She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I'm supposed to remember." And upon his return to 124 he realizes that "Something is missing.... Something larger than the people who lived there. Something more than Beloved or the red light. He can't put his finger on it, but it seems, for a moment, that just beyond his knowing is the glare of an outside thing that embraces while it accuses." So just who or what is Beloved? Where does she comes from? What does she want?

One way to begin answering these questions is to note that unlike Pearl in the previous SL passage, Beloved doesn't rush at her enemies, but instead feels herself to be abandoned when others do so. When the former abolitionist Edward Bodwin arrives at 124 as Ella is leading an attempted exorcism, Sethe mistakes him for Schoolteacher and tries to attack him and Denver runs after her to stop her, as we find out from the free indirect discourse that marks Beloved's last appearance (in the flesh) in the novel:

Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone. Again. Then Denver, running too. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. And above them all, rising from his place with a whip in his hand, the man without skin, looking. He is looking at her.

For Beloved, this is the last straw; her own confused (and confusing) account of her life (lives?) focuses obsessively on losing Sethe--or the women she confuses with Sethe:

Three times I lost her: once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke; once when she went into the sea instead of smiling at me; once under the bridge when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile. She whispered to me, chewed me, and swam away. Now I have found her in this house. She smiles at me and it is my own face smiling. I will not lose her again. She is mine.

The imagery in the last scene where the young woman Beloved is present in the novel--the hill of black people, the man without skin--references Beloved's second loss. But the passages where this scene is narrated--incoherently by Beloved--make it clear that it couldn't possibly be Sethe she lost then. Let's start with the relatively coherent summary and follow it up with the stream of consciousness version to see why this is so:

Sethe went into the sea. She went there. They did not push her. She went there. She was getting ready to smile at me and when she saw the dead people pushed into the sea she went also and left me there with no face or hers.

I cannot lose her again my dead man was in the way like the noisy clouds when he dies on my face I can see hers she is going to smile at me she is going to her sharp earrings are gone the men without skin are making loud noises they push my own man through they do not push the woman with my face through she goes in they do not push her she goes in the little hill is gone she was going to smile at me she was going to a hot thing

They are not crouching now we are they are floating on the water they break up the little hill and push it through I cannot find my pretty teeth I see the dark face that is going to smile at me it is my dark face that is going to smile at me the iron circle is around her neck she does not have sharp earrings in her ears or a round basket she goes in the water with my face

If you've seen Amistad, you may recall the scene where the woman on the slave ship commits suicide; if you've read Uncle Tom's Cabin, you may recall a similar attempted suicide on the Mississippi River (I can't recall now if Tom saved the woman or not). If you read Beloved's monologue in its entirety, you'll see that most of it is a fragmented narration of a similar scene from the middle passage. Beloved asks herself at the beginning of the monologue, "how can I say things that are pictures," although without a question mark (as the entire monologue is without punctuation), this comes off as much as a rhetorical question admitting defeat from the start as an open question that the rest of the monologue attempts to answer. But as I read it, this middle passage scene is the second of the three losses Beloved suffers. In fact, I think you can break the three scenes of Beloved's monologue down into eight parts, despite the difficulty presented by a narrator for whom "All of it is now it is always now":

1-2. Somewhere in Africa, where an infant girl is separated from her mother by a slave raiding party.

I see her take flowers away from leaves she puts them in a round basket the leaves are not for her she fills the basket she opens the grass I would help her but the clouds are in the way ... I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too ... In the beginning I coud see her I could not help her because the clouds were in the way in the beginning I could see her the shining in her ears ... Sethe is the one that picked flowers, yellow flowers in the place before the crouching. Took them away from their green leaves.... wanted to help her when she was picking the flowers, but the cloud of gunsmoke blinded me and I lost her. Three times I lost her; once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke....

3-5. On a slave ship during the middle passage, where a young girl witnesses the bodies of those who died en route pushed overboard by the slave traders and a woman who commits suicide by following them into the sea.

In the beginning the women are away from the men and the men are away from the women storms rock us and mix the men into the women and the women into the men that is when I begin to be on the back of the man for a long time I see only his neck and his wide shoulders above me I am small I love him because he has a song when he turned around to die I see the teeth he sang through ... there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead ... we are all trying to leave our bodies behind the man on my face has done it it is hard to make yourself die forever you sleep short and then return ... those able to die are in a pile I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I ave loved a hot thing the little hill of dead people a hot thing the men without skin push them through with poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears ... [see above middle passage quotes] ... All I want to know is why did she go in the water in the place where we crouched? Why did she do that when she was just about to smile at me? I wanted to join her in the sea but I could not move....

6-8. This is the most confusing one, but I believe that the teenage girl Stamp Paid talked about attempted suicide from a bridge and was possessed by the spirit of the baby ghost that had been haunting 124, who then returns to 124 in the flesh.

there is no one to want me to say me my name I wait on the bridge because she is under it there is night and there is day

again again night day night day I am waiting no iron circle is around my neck no boats go on this water no men without skin my dead man is not floating here his teeth are down there where the blue is and the grass so is the face I want the face that is going to smile at me it is going to in the day diamonds are in the water where she is and turtles in the night I hear chewing and swallowing and laughter it belongs to me she is the laugh I am the laugher I see her face which is mine it is the face that was going to smile at me in the place where we crouched now she is going to her face comes through the water a hot thing her face is mine she is not smiling she is chewing and swallowing I have to have my face I go in the grass opens she opens it I am in the water and she is coming there is no round basket no iron circle around her neck she goes up where the diamonds are I follow her we are in the diamonds which are her earrings now my face is coming I have to have it I am looking for the join I am loving my face so much my dark face is close to me I want to join she whispers to me she whispers I reach for her chewing and swallowing she touches me she knows I want to join she chews and swallows me I am gone now I am her face my own face has left me I see me swim away a hot thing I see the bottoms of my feet I am alone I want to be the two of us I want the join

I come out of blue water after the bottoms of my feet swim away from me I come up

....Three times I lost her: ...once under the bridge, when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile. She whispered to me, chewed me, and swam away....

Here's where the Pearl quotations that I began this post with help out the most, because they allow us to see that the passage from Beloved that I quoted at the beginning and end of this post deal with reflections, mirror images, and phantoms--and help us understand that the "I" in this scene sometimes refers to the baby ghost and sometimes to the traumatized young woman. But it's dinner time, so I'll have to continue this next Saturday!

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