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In an essay entitled “Writing, Race, and the Difference it Makes,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discusses the way in which over the course of history, a binary has existed between whiteness and writing, blackness and silence. Summarizing this tradition, he writes, “Human beings wrote books. Beautiful books were reflections of sublime genius. Sublime genius was the province of the European…Blacks, and other people of color, could not ‘write'” (56). Attacking a tradition of European writers including Kant, Hegel, and Bacon, Gates outlines the way in which whites asserted their superiority through writing, and maintained that superiority through the suppression of black voices or “pens.” For example, a 1740 South Carolina Statute made black literary mastery unlawful, thereby preventing blacks from developing the tools to break out of the inherent hierarchy (58).
In the final pages of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when Sethe pleads, “I made the ink, Paul D. He couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (271) she alludes to a larger theme of the novel, and one with which Gates is extremely concerned – the relationship of writing to the institution of slavery. The ink to which she refers is the product of her labors as a slave; it is the substance that Schoolteacher takes from her in order to write a white supremacist discourse and perpetuate slavery. Acts of writing or inscription in the novel, as is true in much of literature, represent assertions of agency. Conversely, the inability to write symbolizes a loss of agency, as does becoming the object of inscription. By writing Beloved, Morrison gives voice not only to the murdered infant, but also to Sethe’s lost ink, attempting to ventriloquize the slave woman and provide a way for contemporary readers to confront the issue of slavery. Revisiting a time when whites controlled the power of inscription under the institution of slavery, Morrison first presents a series of images that dramatize the suppression of black agency through inscription – Sethe’s ink, and the scar on her back – and then presents another series of images that attempt to counteract that inscription. By asserting her own black, female identity on the white pages of the novel, Morrison nullifies the process of white inscription that took place during slavery. Just as the ghost Beloved haunts 124 and the novel as a whole, the novel itself haunts contemporary society, demonstrating an alternative to the tradition of white inscription.
I must mention here that Paul D’s recollections of having the bit in his mouth vividly and effectively symbolize the assertion of white agency through the silencing of black voice, as does Sethe’s recollection of having bitten her tongue while being whipped. However, the treatment of speech and voice is beyond the limits of this paper, so I shall for the present deal solely with the occurrences of writing in the novel.
The first of two central images of suppression is Schoolteacher’s act of stealing the ink. The ink, like a child, is the product of Sethe’s labor. That ink represents her ability to control her destiny, to rise up against the association of blackness with silence and inferiority, and to do what Gates calls “write [herself] out of slavery” (66). Schoolteacher does not merely confiscate the ink; he exploits it to write history and perpetuate the white supremacist discourse of slavery. As Sethe laments at the end of the novel, “He couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (271). Paralleling the way in which white slave masters raped their slaves in order to perpetuate the commodity, Schoolteacher robs Sethe of the fruits of her labor – the ink in order to inscribe the discourse of slavery. While Sethe has the potential to write her own history, that potential is shattered in the robbing of her ink, and the white supremacist inscription that ensues.
Sethe’s scar is the other major symbol of “negative” inscription, and the multiple ways it is interpreted underscores its literariness. Sethe, although refusing to look at it, embraces Amy Denvers’ interpretation of it as a chokecherry tree, while the narrator describes it as the “decorative work of an ironsmith” (17). While the scar is not so obvious as to be in the shape of a letter, it is still a form of inscription, and the impulses to interpret it as a signifier suggest its discursive quality. By whipping her, the slave master permanently inscribes her, placing the mark of his white identity on her black skin. Like the stealing of her ink, the permanent scar on her back represents the way in which inscription, or the act of writing, is integral to the hierarchy of slavery and its perpetuation.
With the placement of these images of “negative” inscription, Morrison sets about balancing them with more “positive” images of inscription, accompanied by the assertion of black agency. The first of these images is Sethe’s infanticide, which serves to counter Schoolteacher’s act of stealing her ink. Interestingly, Sethe’s child and Morrison’s work have the same name. That is, there is a deliberate conflation of Sethe’s and Morrison’s “offspring.” Sethe’s ink, Sethe’s child, and Morrison’s novel are all products of labor. But whereas Schoolteacher claims the product of Sethe’s labor (the ink) and uses it to write history, Sethe claims the product of her own labor (her child) by murdering it. Through the infanticide, Sethe controls the fate of her offspring, just as Morrison controls the fate of her characters. By killing her child, Sethe makes up for the ink that has been stolen from her, essentially writing her own discourse. Ironically, that discourse is written at the cost of a human life.
In addition, Sethe’s infanticide is made possible only by Morrison’s literal act of writing the novel. Her infanticide is a kind of writing in that it is an assertion of her agency, despite her status as an enslaved black woman. Morrison’s act of writing literally allows the events of the novel to take place, but it also asserts her own identity as a free black woman on the white pages of the book. Thus, the inscription of the book is presented as a way to counter the previous acts of racial inscription that have taken place in the past.
This idea of inscription as retribution for past offenses is underscored by three key ideas or images that appear in the novel: the inscription of Beloved’s gravestone, the appearance of Beloved’s skin, and the location of the word “Beloved” on the very last page. In the first few pages of the novel, Sethe recalls how Beloved’s headstone was engraved. Morrison writes:
…there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes and I’ll do it for free…Ten minutes for seven letters. (4-5)
The image of “unchiseled headstones” evokes the idea of blank pages, and the act of engraving closely parallels Morrison’s act of inscribing the novel. However, the engraving of the word “Beloved” on the headstone occurs as the result of a sacrifice – here, Sethe must give up her body to pay for the engraving. Placed at the beginning of the novel, this symbolizes a problematic inscription; the engraving itself represents an assertion of black agency through writing, yet the act is performed only as the result of sacrifice.
The description of Sethe with her “knees wide open” foreshadows the “birth” of Beloved into the novel, and her appearance helps counteract the first series of inscriptions (the scar on Sethe’s back and the stealing of her ink). Specifically, it is the appearance of Beloved’s skin when she arrives at 124 that serves this purpose. In the first few paragraphs describing her, the narrator comments that “her feet were like hands, soft and new” (52) and that “her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair…” (51). Beloved’s soft, new, and nearly flawless skin resembles the “unchiseled headstone” – both images have the quality of blankness, like surfaces that await inscription. Morrison’s description of Beloved’s skin is cleverly self-referential; it is like a blank canvas, marked by three vertical lines, and closely resembles the pages of Beloved that await Morrison’s inscription. The blankness of Beloved’s skin directly opposes Sethe’s scarred back, and that blankness welcomes writing – a more positive form of inscription than the kind that appears on her back. Again, Morrison’s act of inscribing Beloved (that is, writing both the character and the novel) serves to counteract the previous instances of racial inscription that have occurred in slavery. However, the lines of Beloved’s forehead suggest that inscription is still problematic, and that despite her good intentions, Morrison cannot simply heal the past through writing.
Finally, the placement of the word “Beloved” at the very end of the novel draws attention to the novel itself, and its presence as an example of an alternative form of inscription, meant to counter the binary that Gates identifies between whiteness and writing, blackness and silence. The location of the word “Beloved” as the last word of the final page suggests that Morrison has re-enacted the inscription of the headstone at the beginning of the novel; in other words, Beloved remains entombed in the book. However, I would argue that although Morrison does provide a series of inscriptions – the gravestone, Beloved’s skin, and the novel itself – as retribution for past transgressions – the stealing of Sethe’s ink, and her chokecherry tree scar – she does not mean to merely insert a black literary voice in the place of white discourse. In his essay, Gates writes, “Whereas I once thought it our most important gesture to master the canon of criticism, to imitate and apply it, I now believe that we must turn to the black tradition itself to arrive at theories of criticism indigenous to our literatures” (67). While he ostensibly writes about literary criticism, he evokes larger separatist notions regarding the formation of a distinctly black literary voice. And although Morrison directly addresses Gates’ notions of blackness and suppression, whiteness and writing, Morrison does not share Gates’ sentiments on reconciling this tradition.
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