Thursday, February 01, 2007

But What About the Black Ribbon in Beloved?

Before getting further into Morrison's characterization of Baby Suggs and her relations with both Young Goodman Brown and Dimmesdale, it's worth fleshing out her portrait of Stamp Paid still further. For the red ribbon he finds in the Licking River is exhausting not only because of the racialized violence of slavery and Reconstruction, but because it also serves as a reminder of another ribbon, a black ribbon, that has a much more personal meaning to him. Reading this ribbon leads to the recognition that Morrison is linking Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in Beloved.

Stamp Paid tells Paul D at the very end of Book 2, "'Let me tell you how I got my name.... They called me Joshua,' he said. 'I renamed myself,' he said, 'and I'm going to tell you why I did it,' and he told him about Vashti." Flash back 50 pages to get the outline of the story:

Born Joshua, he renamed himself when he handed over his wife to his master's son. Handed her over in the sense that he did not kill anybody, thereby himself, because his wife demanded he stay alive. Otherwise, she reasoned, where and to whom could she return when the boy was through? With that gift, he decided that he didn't owe anybody anything. Whatever his obligations were, that act paid them off. He thought it would make him rambunctious, renegade--a drunkard even, the debtlessness, and in a way it did. But there was nothing to do with it.... It didn't seem much of a way to live and it brought him no satisfaction. So he extended this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery. Beaten runaways? He ferried them and rendered them paid for; gave them their own bill of sale, so to speak. "You paid it; now life owes you."

But of course Stamp Paid spends all of Book 2 feeling he owes Sethe, Denver, and Paul D something. His attempt to repay his debt was rebuffed for most of Book 2, but it is not at its end--and the story he tells Paul D is his currency:

"I never touched her all that time. Not once. Almost a year. We was planting when it started and picking when it stopped. Seemed longer. I should have killed him. She said no, but I should have. I didn't have the patience that I got now, but I figured maybe somebody else didn't have much patience either--his own wife. Took it in my head to see if she was taking it any better than I was. Vashti and me was in the fields together in the day and every now and then she be gone all night. I never touched her and damn me if I spoke three words to her a day. I took any chance I had to get near the great house to see her, the young master's wife. Nothing but a boy. Seventeen, twenty maybe."

After he does eventually convey his message to her (which I'd quote if I had time), he tells Paul D,

"She got rosy then and I knowed she knowed. He give Vashti that to wear. A cameo on a black ribbon. She used to put it on every time she went to him.... I thought it would give me more satisfaction than it did. I also thought she might stop it, but it went right on. Till one morning Vashti came in and sat by the window. A Sunday. We worked our own patches on Sunday. She sat by the window looking out of it. 'I'm back,' she said. 'I'm back, Josh.' I looked at the back of her neck. She had a real small neck. I decided to break it. You know, like a twig--just snap it. I been low but that was as low as I ever got."

The resonances with The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown" are multiple: Joshua is at once Chillingworth and Goodman Brown, faced with an instance of adultery closer to the writings of Harriet Jacobs than Nathaniel Hawthorne. Morrison's Vashti here makes the all-too-human choice not to resist, unlike Frances E.W. Harper's Vashti, the Queen of Persia, who gives up her crown "And left the palace of the King,/ Proud of her spotless name--/ A woman who could bend to grief,/ But would not bow to shame." Harper's focus on Vashti rather than Esther could be read in multiple ways, particularly in light of dialogues among Jewish traditions--as an implicit critique of Esther, as an acknowledgement that one's social positioning plays a large role in shaping avenues for resistance and their costs, or as an explicit critique of the king. Her earlier poem, "The Contrast," harshly criqitues the sexual double standard where "They scorned her for her sinning,/ Spoke harshly of her fall" while "None scorned him for his sinning,/ Few saw it through his gold;/ His crimes were only foibles,/ And these were gently told."

But Intertextual Thursday is almost over, so I'll return to the significance of Morrison's decision to tell Stamp Paid's side of the story and its relation to "Young Goodman Brown" on Saturday.

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