Wednesday, December 27, 2006

IT II: The Beloved Remix

My imaginary readers (hey, let's be optimistic on this sunny but not that warm late December Thursday in Chiba) will no doubt recall last week's not-quite-Intertextual Thursday post linking The Scarlet Letter and Beloved, in which I listed a bunch of SL quotes and hinted at how I think Morrison was making use of them in B. Well, given how little time I have to blog this morning, I'll just throw a few B quotes at you and offer a few sketchy comments. Maybe by next Thursday I'll be ready for a real intertextual post!

Last week, I suggested that Morrison was magically realizing Hawthorne's gothic and romantic tropes and figures, not to mention re-racializing some contexts Hawthorne had effectively de-racialized. Consider, as one example, the different views of the ghost that is haunting 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, for much of the Reconstruction years. Is this house, "palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut," haunted by a ghost that is "too little to understand," as Sethe puts it? Or is Denver right that "Maybe she don't want to understand"? Is Paul D's properly Puritan question upon entering Sethe's house for the first time in 1873 and walking "straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood"--"Good god.... What kind of evil you got in here?"--to the point, in its unknowing evocation of the legendarily "lurid gleam" said to be cast by the scarlet letter? Or is Sethe's response--"It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through," verified in part by Paul D's acknowledgment, "She was right. It was sad. Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry"--more on target? Or is Denver's countercharge, that the ghost is "Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked," more than adolescent projection of her own feelings onto the ghost? When Paul D exorcises the ghost, does she return in the body of a young woman known only as Beloved? The novel exists, in part, to raise questions like these, even if, Hawthorne-like, Morrison refuses to give definite answers in it.

But to return to Denver, as another example, it's worth noting that she has a Pearl-like awareness of the subtexts of her and her mother's isolation from the free black community of Cincinnati, even if, like Pearl, she lacks the knowledge of their causes. Not long after Paul D enters 124, Denver cries out:

"I can't no more. I can't no more."

"Can't what? What can't you?"

"I can't live here. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I can't live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don't like me. Girls don't either."

"Honey, honey."

"What's she talking 'bout nobody speaks to you?" asked Paul D.

"It's the house. People don't--"

"It's not! It's not the house. It's us! And it's you!"


Denver's outburst is reminiscent of Pearl's demand that Hester put the scarlet letter back on in the famous forest scene of SL, with Denver's longing for "a sign of spite from the baby ghost" the counterpart of Pearl's demand. Yet Paul D's response initiates an extended parallel between him and the Hester of the forest scene. He suggests, "Maybe you all ought to move"--unknowingly echoing Sethe's earlier suggestion to her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, whose reply, "What'd be the point?... Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief," is somewhat reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter's narrator's hints at the haunting nature of sin and guilt--but Sethe's response to Paul D is more like the Hester at the beginning and end of the novel:

No moving. No leaving. It's all right the way it is.... I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running--from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth. I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something, Paul D Garner: it cost too much! Do you hear me? It cost too much Now sit down and eat with us or leave us be.

Yet despite her resolve not to be moved, Sethe is running in a certain Dimmesdale-like sense--from her haunting memories of slavery, her escape from it, and after.

As for the rest, she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. Unfortunately her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field, running practically, to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap from her legs. Nothing else would be in her mind.... The smething. The plash of the water, the sight of her shows and stocking awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet ome rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her--remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.

Sethe's literally "terrible memory," as the narrator puts it, is linked to her belief that "the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay," as the narrator also puts it: "The 'better life' she believed that she and Denver were living was simply not that other one." Thus, Paul D's staying with Sethe and Denver, in an odd way, puts Hester in the role of Dimmesdale, striving to avoid repeating a traumatic past, and Paul D in the role of Hester in the forest scene in SL:

Sethe, if I'm here with you, with Denver, you can go anywhere you want. Jump, if you want to, 'cause I'll catch you, girl. I'll catch you 'fore you fall. Go as far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles. Make sure you get back out.... We can make a life, girl. A life.

It's one of Beloved's dark ironies that Sethe ends the novel like Baby Suggs and Arthur Dimmesdale before her, in danger of failing to heed Hester's advice to Dimmesdale: "Preach! Write! Act! Do any thing, save to lie down and die!"

Without jumping that far ahead, let me simply close this post by noting that Sethe and Paul D's reunion, after 18 years apart, is not unlike Hester's and Dimmesdale's meeting after a separation of 7 years. I'll put the two conversations side-by-side, so to speak, and let you draw the conclusions:

He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet letter.

"Hester! Hester Prynne!" said he. "Is it thou? Art thou in life?"

"Even so!" she answered. "In such life as has been mine these seven years past!"

As if to punish her further for her terrible memory, sitting on the porch, not forty feet away, was Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men. And although she could never mistake his face for another's, she said, "Is that you?"

"What's left."

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