Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why Water Imagery Matters in Hawthorne, Morrison, and Marshall

So we're heading out for Hawaii later today but I am so dissatisfied with my previous Hawthorne-Morrison posting I need to get this one off my chest before we leave and I begin my first-ever CitizenSE vacation.

Too long ago I suggested that Pearl's playing in the sea-side pool with her phantom-like reflection toward the end of The Scarlet Letter had something to do with the most puzzling part of Beloved's stream-of-consciousness monologues near the end of Beloved. It's almost as if Morrison asked herself, what if Hawthorne's pool represented a boundary between the living and the dead? what if Pearl and her reflection had somehow been able to "join" each other? or what if it were really a phantom in the pool and not her reflection? what would have happened if Pearl were possessed by her reflection? And then she imagined Beloved as a vehicle for giving her answers to these questions.

Well, there's another pool in The Scarlet Letter, this one formed by a brook in the middle of the famous forest where Hester and Dimmesdale reunite after seven years apart. Check out the language in these passages, but whatever you do don't dismiss it as mere filler, suspense-building, foreshadowing, or pathetic fallacy. To help you along, I'll italicize key SL phrases and break the flow of the passage in order to note Beloved resonances and crossings after them. So let's visit this forest brook and keep an eye on Pearl and her reflection:

It was a little dell where they had seated themselves, with a leaf-strewn bank rising gently on either side, and a brook flowing through the midst, over a bed of fallen and drowned leaves.

connection to "what it is down there" from the end of Beloved? could these leaves symbolize those who died in the middle passage or in attempted escapes from slavery or in post-slavery lynchings and other racialized violence?

The trees impending over it had flung down great branches, from time to time, which choked up the current, and compelled it to form eddies and black depths at some points; while, in its swifter and livelier passages, there appeared a channel-way of pebbles, and brown, sparkling sand.

think of the collar around the woman's neck in the middle passage scenes from the monologue for the choking up part; for the second, think of the compulsion to repeat or the compulsion to testify often associated with the kinds of traumatic experience Morrison not only writes on but makes crucial to the form of the novel (consider what triggers various characters' flashbacks and how the order in which events are narrated itself follows a traumatic logic--and think of the course of the stream in The Scarlet Letter as something like the form of Beloved

Letting the eyes follow along the course of the stream, they could catch the reflected light from its water, at some short distance within the forest, but soon lost all traces of itamid the bewilderment of tree-trunks and underbrush,

a line seemingly modified at the very end of Beloved....

and here and there a huge rock, covered over with gray lichens. All these giant trees and boulders seemed intent on making a mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing, perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool.

what does this stream connect to, Morrison might have asked--what is its source and destination? and just what do those trees symbolize? what might they be trying to block or hide? and what tales might the stream tell?

Continually, indeed, as it stole onward, the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintances and events of sombre hue.

Denver? the crawling-already baby? both?

"O brook! O foolish and tiresome little brook!" cried Pearl, after listening awhile to its talk. "Why art thou so sad? Pick up a spirit, and do not be all the time sighing and murmuring!"

But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime among the forest-trees, had gone through so solemn an experience that it could not help talking about it, and seemed to have nothing else to say.

The child went singing away, following up the current of the brook, and striving to mingle a more lightsome cadence with its melancholy voice. But the little stream would not be comforted, and still kept telling its unintelligible secret of some very mournful mystery that had happened

trauma and testimony key in Beloved--what traumatized the brook? is it like the voices Stamp Paid hears outside 124? what secret and mystery might Morrison pondered in the writing of Beloved....

--or making a prophetic lamentation about something that was yet to happen--within the verge of the dismal forest....

Just where she had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. The image, so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself.

Almost a metaphor for being possessed by your own reflection, isn't it?

It was strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them through the dim medium of the forest-gloom; herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another child,--another and the same,--with likewise its ray of golden light. Hester felt herself, in some indistinct and tantalizing manner, estranged from Pearl; as if the child, in her lonely ramble through the forest, had strayed out of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to return to it.

There was both truth and error in the impression; the child and mother were estranged, but through Hester's fault, not Pearl's. Since the latter rambled from her side, another inmate had been admitted within the circle of the mother's feelings, and so modified them all, that Pearl, the returning wanderer, could not find her wonted place, and hardly knew where she was

sounds to me like Denver's and the baby ghost's reaction to Paul D's initial presence in 124....

"I have a strange fancy," observed the sensitive minister, "that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again."

ah ha! didn't I call it at the beginning of this post? and I didn't even remember this passage until I typed it in!

...alone as she was in her childish and unreasonable wrath, it seemed as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and encouragement. Seen in the brook, once more, was the shadowy wraith of Pearl's image, crowned and girdled with flowers, but stamping its foot, wildly gesticulating, and, in the midst of it all, still pointing its small forefinger at Hester's bosom!

again, we have "voices of 124"/"unspeakable thoughts, unspoken" connections, as well as the idea that Beloved was more than just a single person....

...And the melancholy brook would add this other tale to the mystery with which its little heart was already overburdened, and whereof it still kept up a murmuring babble, with not a whit more cheerfulness of tone than for ages heretofore

as if the tale of Beloved's death is part of a much-longer and much-larger mysterious, traumatizing history....


As long as I've got quotation fever, let me end by quoting from some related passages from Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, which I think also influenced Morrison's coded allusions to the middle passage in Beloved:

It was the Atlantic this side of the island, a wild-eyed, marauding sea the color of slate, deep, full of dangerous currents, lined with row upon row of barrier reefs, and with a sound like that of the combined voices of the drowned raised in a loud unceasing lament--all those, the nine million and more it is said, who in their exnforced exile, their Diaspora, had gone down between this point and the homeland lying out of sight to the east. This sea mourned them. Aggrieved, outraged, unappeased, it hurled itself upon each of the reefs in turn and then upon the shingle beach, sending up the spume in an angry froth which the wind took and drove in like smoke over the land. Great boulders that had roared down from Westminster centuries ago stood scattered in the surf; these, sculpted into fantastical shapes by the wind and water, might have been gravestones placed there to commemorate those millions of the drowned. on this desolate coast, before this perpetually aggrieved sea which...continued to grieve and rage over the ancient wrong it could neither forget nor forgive.

...they seemed to be puzzling over the sea in front of them which was so different from the mild Caribbean on their side of the island. Their wondering faces raised, they appeared to be asking the reason for its angry unceasing lament. What, whom did it mourn? Why did it continue the wake all this time, shamelessly filling the air with the indecent wailing of a hired mute? Who were its dead? Despairing of finding an answer they would turn away eventually and, leaving the young people romping in the surf, make their way slowly back to the village in time for the car race along the main road.

If you liked these passages from Marshall's novel, you might want to check out another passage I quoted on my other blog to honor the end of Le Blogue Berube. When I get back from my conference and blog vacation, I'll continue with the Hawthorne-Morrison thing, this time finally following through on the issue of specter evidence in "Young Goodman Brown" and Beloved!

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