AnnaMarie Prati

The Project

In this paper Annamaria analyzes an image which recurs and develops complex layers of meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved. The assignment asked her to use one of three deconstructive approaches we had studied in Modern Writers. This was her chance to show both what she had learned about the techniques of deconstructive analysis and what she herself thought about this approach to literary analysis. The result is an extremely sophisticated piece of writing, one that required both meta-analysis and detailed knowledge of the text.

from her nomination....

"Annamaria did college-level thinking in her essay and this excited my admiration. She wrote so persuasively and engagingly that I was drawn in by her argument and enjoyed the feeling of intellectual stimulation it provided.."

Vicky Greenbaum, English Teacher

Annamarie Prati '08
Is Transcendence The Road To Truth?

Annamaria Prati
Modern Writers In Literature
Fall 2007
pdf version


Is Transcendence The Road To Truth?

It is most convenient and comforting for human beings to fall back on society’s constructed truth about reality. Convenient because it saves us from having to construct our own perception of reality, and then having to defend our view from the piercing gazes of the majority. Comforting because once we have convinced ourselves of the substance of the constructed truth, we feel that we can depend on something. However, this truth sometimes becomes an oversimplification of reality, and actually blinds us from seeing the true reality. In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison deconstructs many of these constructions in order to expose truth. One such subject of deconstruction is the relationship between transcendence and images of nature. Before reading Beloved, I had always thought of nature as images of transcendence or primality. My perception interpreted primality as a kind of transcendence by breaking away from the conventions of civilization, creating a hierarchy between civil and primal. However, Toni Morrison displaces my interpretation of stereotypical nature images, calling into question my view of nature as transcendental. Nature in Beloved is multidimensional, sometimes playing the transcendental role that I had always perceived, and sometimes playing an impersonal role that is instrumental in many horrifying actions. By analyzing the different facets of nature, Morrison deconstructs the meaning of nature in various ways.

By calling into question the permanence of transcendence, Morrison deconstructs the nature of transcendence. My original perception of transcendence through nature is offered in certain situations throughout this novel, though the permanence of these transcendences seems to be dubious. Denver’s emerald closet offers an alternative world for her, as she is “closed off from the hurt of the world” (35). Denver’s transcendence within the house is marked by her ability to play in the “emerald light," which implies life through the emerald and truth from the light – two qualities characteristic of my view of transcendence. But as soon as Denver leaves her emerald closet, she must once again face the “hurt of the word” without the support of nature. Of course one could argue that Denver’s strength at the end of the novel derives from her transcendental experiences in her emerald closet, but I am not so sure. Another instance is when Sethe travels through “thick woods” to find her freedom, the supposed ultimate transcendence. Yet when she reaches this transcendental place, she kills her baby and destroys her transcendence, as seen when she thinks “’[t]he better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one” (51). Baby Suggs seems to have found transcendence in her Clearing preaching, where she taught the ex-slaves to “love your heart. For this is the prize” (104), since “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine” (103). But this transcendence is annulled when Baby Suggs “proved herself a liar” (104) by mentally breaking down after Sethe killed Beloved. Her resignation conversation with Stamp Paid takes place in an environment where “[t]he odor of burning leaves was brilliant” (209), connecting to Sethe’s memory of the smell of burning flesh when her mother was lynched. This connection back to slavery suggests retrogression rather than transcendence. The note that the leaves are “red” (209), the color of blood, strengthens the slavery ties. Even the transcendental qualities of the Clearing seem to be questioned when Sethe is strangled while meditating in the Clearing. The only exception to this pattern of questionable transcendence is Paul D.’s following the “tree flowers” (132) to his freedom. Although he faced some hardships with Sethe, he clearly has reached transcendence by the end when he tells Sethe, “We need some kind of tomorrow” (320). By allowing one character to transcend through nature, Morrison seems to hint that such a feat is possible, yet she has displaced my belief that such transcendence is a common occurrence.

There are further examples of human interaction with nature that cause me to question my original perception. It is easily agreed upon that slavery is the point where humanity is at its most primal. But Toni Morrison suggests that this kind of primality does not offer itself to transcendence, a divergence from my original perception. White people believed that “under every dark skin was a jungle," a jungle that was not “brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place," but a “jungle whitefolks planted in them” (234). This jungle “grew….until it invaded the whites who made it” (234). This passage uses nature imagery to suggest several things about the intersection between the slave and white worlds. The ability to grow is an important component of the path to transcendence, a trait that transcendence shares with the jungle. But in the case of the jungle of slavery, growing is not a mode of transcendence, as the jungle is so primal that it infects all those around it and hinders the individual’s ability to transcend. This passage is from the musings of Stamp Paid, a black man, which implies no prejudice against the black race as it is from a black’s perception. He, and therefore Morrison, defies the conventional focus that everyone has the capacity to be civil and displaces the view with the focus on how everyone has the capacity to be primal, as everyone had a jungle inside of them. I imagine the world of transcendence as lacking the evil primality of the world, so the focus on every human’s primal side suggests that transcendence is not attainable. The jungle of slavery kills off the natural jungle inside, as seen when it differentiates between “the jungle blacks brought with them” and the “whitefolks’ jungle” that was “planted in them” (234-235). The death of the natural jungle within suggests that the black people’s original identity has been conquered, so that transcending to become your true identity is no longer possible. The jungle of slavery is not a hindrance only to the black slaves however. Because everyone has a jungle inside of them, and the jungle of slavery “spreads” and “invades” inside everyone’s personal jungle, the difference between black people and white people is blurred, and the constructed hierarchy between the two dismantled. The jungle has become an equalizing agent, a potentially transcendental concept. But because the jungle is equalizing by bringing black and white people alike down to their most primal level, the transcendental quality of this equalization is questionable.

This is not to say that Morrison has completely denied the very existence of transcendence in nature imagery. She instead seems to offer a more "Realistic” definition of transcendence through nature. This kind of transcendence would seem to occur in the movement from one sphere to another, but after this passage the transcender falls back to the relative norm of the new world. This pattern is visible in the examples cited above, as well as in other instances throughout the novel that do not show traces of the more traditional view of transcendence. One such instance is Beloved’s entrance into the 124 world. Beloved's entrance included her “walk[ing] out of the water” (60) of the creek that ran behind the house, illustrating the crossing between two worlds. It is clear the one world is that of 124, but what the other world is exactly depends on an individual’s opinion. It could be the underworld, and the creek the river Styx from classical mythology; this interpretation would be enhanced by Beloved’s resting on a “stump” (60), which is a dead tree. The other world could be the mother’s womb, and the water representing the birthing fluids; the word choices surrounding her description, such as “new” (61) and “baby” (62), would support this particular interpretation. The fact that later in the novel we learn that Denver was transcended from the womb to the real world on a river, which also happened to be the boundary between the slave world and the world of freedom, also resonates well with this interpretation. These two interpretations would both support Beloved’s identity as Sethe’s dead child, but both would require a Romantic leap of faith by the reader to fully believe. A Realist would argue that she is the escaped rape victim, and that Beloved has merely transcended the world from a kind of slavery to freedom. By offering multiple possible interpretations of Beloved's identity, with the only clear image being that she transcended the boundary between worlds as signified with the water, Morrison masterfully questions both the definition of transcendence and the nature of reality.

Morrison further deconstructs the concept of transcendence by suggesting that sometimes one does not necessarily have to physically transcend in order to spiritually transcend, thus displacing the individual in the realm of transcendence. She implies that transcendence is possible, though difficult, through one’s offspring when she analyses the “bluefern [sic] growing in the hollows along the riverbank” (99). The “spores” have separated from the plant and are floating on the river, showing that a creation – such as an idea or a child – is crossing the boundary between sheltered childhood and transcended adulthood. Yet the rarity of this kind of transcendence is also shown when she states that “for a moment it is easy to believe each one….will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself” (99). But when this transcendence is achieved, both the original “bluefern” and the “spore” are able to benefit from this transcendence. Clearly in the case of the “bluefern," its own original spore had to be an example of the rare transcendence in order to exist. But when distinguishing between physical transcendence and spiritual transcendence, it is not necessary for the parent to have first transcended itself for its protégé to transcend. This phenomenon is apparent when applied to the slaves. Sixo, a slave at Sweet Home, clearly has not physically transcended the slave world, even as the white people try to burn him to death for acting crazy and trying to escape. However, Sixo’s slave-wife “got away with his blossoming seed” (270), causing him to sing and laugh and cry out “Seven-O!” (267). Sixo plays with words to pun his own name, showing that even though he is sure to die as a slave, his child will live and carry his blood in the transcendental world of freedom. Knowledge of this spiritual transcendence undermines the physical boundaries slavery has imposed on Sixo’s freedom, allowing him to transcend the slave world.

Morrison displaces the Realism of the slave world with a constructed Romantic ideal of a beautiful nature to illustrate a possible temporary transcendence. Sweet Home embodies this concept, as it was the slave plantation where Sethe and the Sweet Home men lived. The sharp contrast of the ugliness of slavery displaces the beauty of nature in the reader's world. This ugliness calls into question another assumption by society that hell is an ugly place, as Sweet Home’s natural beauty caused Sethe to “wonder if hell was a pretty place too….hidden in lacy groves” (7). By questioning society’s traditional perceptions, Morrison shows that these assumptions are constructed by our society and by no means constitute a guaranteed reality. Morrison shows the possibility of a perception quite different from my slavery-focused view by showing Sethe’s memory “remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys” (7). This also suggests that as a society we are inclined toward the more Romantic interpretation of our reality, as Sethe doesn’t remember the “boys” who were slaves possibly lynched on the trees but instead remembers the “most beautiful sycamores in the world” (7). This unconscious insistence on remembering the trees in order to forget painful memories carries forward to Sethe’s remembering her sons, as she “saw them sometimes in beautiful trees, their little legs barely visible in the leaves” (47). The slaves also attempted to humanize the trees as a method of transcendence, as seen through Paul D.’s relationship with Brother. Paul D., using Brother as a model, defines trees as “inviting," “things you could trust” and things you could “talk to” (25). But what if the inviting branches of the tree are also inviting sites for lynching? The branches that lynched humans could be the same branches where slave women “h[u]ng babies in the trees – so [they] could see them out of harm’s ways while [they] worked in the fields” (188). The same trees that Paul D. had perceived as trusting witnessed Sixo’s death without any emotion. The air is sweet with the smell of the “things honeybees love” (266) while Sixo and Paul D. are tied to a tree. The sweetness and beauty of the surrounding environment contrast starkly with the cruelty of Sixo’s treatment. In contrast, the trees sometimes solidified boundaries, as when “a forest sprang up between” (194) Sethe and Paul D. Yet much like before when the boundaries between deadly and inviting were blurred, the solidified boundary serves to undermine the relationship between the two humans and their relationship with nature. The impersonal nature of nature does not allow the humane and Romantic constructed identities imposed upon it to withstand, and in reality nature can be just as cruel and heartless as it is inviting.

Nature’s beauty is used as a constructed Romantic cover for the ugliness of the Realism of the world, allowing individuals to undermine the hurt of slave life and reach transcendence. This need to Romanticize the surroundings is seen when Sethe “had to bring a fistful of salsify into Mrs. Garner’s kitchen every day just to…take the ugly out of it” (27). The “ugly” refers to slavery, and is on the other side of the spectrum of the beautiful “yellow flowers” (27). By bringing nature into the realm of slavery, Sethe was able to blur the boundary between the “ugliness” of slavery and the beauty of her surroundings, and through this romanticization made her slavery seem bearable. The lumberyard is also romanticized with planted roses to “take the sin out of slicing trees for a living” (57). It is interesting to note that these plants were planted by humans, showing the human effort to displace the Realism of the world with a Romantic interpretation. The roses “crawled all over the stake-and-post fence that separated the lumberyard from the open field next to it” (57), showing that the artificial fence boundary between civility and primality is blurred by the act of planting the roses. Even as the roses died, their smell became overpoweringly “loud” (57), suggesting that the constructed Romantic cover continues to triumph over the ugly Realism until the very end.

Morrison deconstructs the meaning of Sethe’s scars by using the image of a tree, thereby blurring the opposition between a Romantic and a Realistic interpretation. Sethe’s back had been severely whipped when she was a slave, a very realistic event that does not on the surface seem to inspire any trace of Romanticism. Yet Sethe’s back is interpreted to seem like “a chokecherry tree” (93) by Amy Denver, a white person. A tree has the ability to grow, and thus the ability to transcend the evil of whence her scars came, which is a very Romantic concept. Because scar tissue can grow and also prevent Sethe from bleeding to death, her scar is both an image of her pain from a Realistic viewpoint and an image of life from a Romantic viewpoint. Sethe’s scar is a mark from her slave life, and comparing this mark to a tree also connects Sethe to her mother. Sethe’s mother had a mark on her rib to mark her as a slave from Africa, and Sethe’s mother was lynched, therefore killed on a tree. A chokecherry tree’s cherries are also too bitter to eat, suggesting that Sethe and slaves can never fully come to terms with their slave past. The tree imagery for her back was also dictated to her by a white woman; although Amy was not the stereotypical white southerner, she was white nevertheless, which questions whether the tree image can truly be an image of transcendence. This analysis also raises the question of whether Sethe can truly transcend her past if she cannot come to terms with it, the answer to which is up to an individual’s interpretation.

Morrison offers an alternative interpretation using Paul D.’s coined image of iron. He interpreted the scars as a “sculpture, like the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate for display” (21). In my analysis of the two interpretations, I find the iron to offer more substance for transcendence. Iron is very strong, which could imply Sethe’s and the collective slave community’s strength. Iron is a natural material that can only be beautiful after being molded by a sculptor, which invokes creation as a method of attaining agency and transcendence. Iron can also be melted down and recreated, which seems to offer hope of starting anew after a horrifying beginning. However, by offering an alternative interpretation to the scars, Morrison shows that in reality all of our interpretations are merely constructions. As Paul D. realizes, after both his and Sethe’s romanticized interpretations it remained simply a “revolting clump of scars” (25).

The images of iron and steel appear at other points in the novel as well, and some serve to undermine various oppositions. Coincidently, these images take the form of implements taken to cut down trees, so it is fitting that these images undermine other apparent dichotomies. One such instance appears when Paul D. lashes out at Sethe for getting upset over Halle’s reaction to her abuse, exclaiming, “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside” (81). This passage serves to blur the boundary between inner and outer selves, showing that the strongest emotions of the inner self cannot be controlled by the outer self. In Halle’s scenario, this inner self became the outer self, and he went crazy. Paul D. claims that males are not the stereotypical unshakeable “ax”-like figures that society assumes them to be. The ax is made of iron and wood, a combination of natural materials that is constructed by humans to kill a tree. This analysis seems to imply that humans cannot own themselves using artificial tools, but must face themselves on a psychological level. A similar message is relayed in Beloved’s slaughter with a “saw” (185), also an implement made by humans with wood and iron to kill trees. The connection that both these examples make between humans and trees being cut down resonates well with the concept analyzed earlier that everyone has a jungle inside. Perhaps this junction suggests that the path to owning oneself and facing oneself on the psychological level is through a connection with one's personal primality.

Once these various aspects of the more “traditional” view of transcendence through nature have been deconstructed, and the various pieces analyzed, they can then be placed back in a puzzle to show the supposedly enlightened truth of the whole of transcendence. I must admit that, having read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I have not changed my personal views of transcendence through nature, though I have attained a heightened awareness of possible viewpoints opposed to my own perception. Similarly, I don’t think that questioning the concept of transcendence through nature in a complex work of art will cause most people to question in turn their personal concepts of transcendence. Questioning something as fundamental to our existence as the nature of transcendence – the belief that there is reason for humans to hope, to strive, to improve themselves, because there is a goal of a better future – sets a chain reaction that leads us to question the nature of our reality. Our trust in reality is something that we perceive as one of the few things that are reliable in our world. Suggesting to us that this dependability may not even exist is uncomfortable and mind-boggling. So maybe I have not changed my view because I want to have that one dependable thing, and play it safe – maybe because it’s easier for me to comprehend. Besides, the concept that our reality could be a construction is in itself a construction. Either way, my beliefs could be artificial, so I might as well believe the more Romantic of the two.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.